In the last week, I’ve heard of two people (family members of friends) say they have cured their cancer through the macrobiotic diet. While I understand the power food can have (we are, as they say, what we eat), this seemed far-fetched. I do not want to undermine the individuals who this cancer-curing diet works for, I would simply like to explore the evidence, for and against, this type of treatment. In terms of food sustainability, this post looks to link how our food choices may affect not only our health and the environment, but the greater question of our health in the lens of terminal illness.
First, I will outline what the macrobiotic diet and lifestyle entail. Then I will look at quantitative evidence, and finally at qualitative evidence. I’ll end by trying to tie the two together and make sense of the two views.
According to an initial Google search, the Kushi Institute (a .org institute) is one of the top resources for macrobiotic diets. According to Kushi, macrobiotics is a combination of traditional wisdom and modern knowledge. The recommendations for those living in temperate climates are to eat the following:
40-60% by weight whole cereal grains (organically grown)
–brown rice, barley, millet, oats, corn, rye, wheat, buckwheat (small proportion can be noodles or pasta, un-yeasted whole grain bread and other partially processed whole cereal grains)
20-30% by weight Vegetables (local and organic)
-cooked (lightly steamed or boiled, sautéed with some unrefined, cold pressed oil, small portion as salad and very small volume as pickles)
-green cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, pumpkin, watercress, parsley, bok choy, dandelion, mustard greens, daikon greens, scallions, onions, radish, turnips, burdock, carrots, winter squash (occasional use 2-3 times a week à cucumber, celery, lettuce, herbs such as dill and chives) (not recommended à potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, spinach, beets, zucchini)
5-10% by weight Sea Vegetables and Legume
-azuki beans, chickpeas, lentils (occasionally tofu, tempeh, natto)
-sea vegetables such as nori, wakame, kombu, hiziki, arama, dulse, and agar-agar (vitamins and minerals)
-miso, tamari, soy sauce, sea salt
-white meat fish, fruit 2-3 times a week à more temperate fruits, non-tropical
-lightly roasted seeds and nuts occasionally
-rice syrup, barley malt, amazake, mirin as sweeteners
-brown rice vinegar for sour taste
-gomashio, seaweed powder, umeboshi plums, tekka, pickles and sauerkraut, miso, tamari or soy sauce
-naturally processed sea salt
-unrefined sesame or corn oil
Foods to Eliminate
-meat, animal fat, eggs, poultry, dairy, refined sugars, chocolate, vanilla, molasses, honey, tropical or semi-tropical fruit, fruit juice, soda, coffee, colored tea, mint tea, artificially colored preserved, sprayed, or chemically treated foods, refined polished grains, flours, and canned, frozen and irradiated foods, hot spices, alcohol
The macrobiotic diet also recommends certain lifestyle choices for positive health impacts:
-slow down when you eat
-eat when you’re hungry
-avoid long showers or baths
-use natural/non-toxic cosmetics and natural toothpaste
-wear cotton for all undergarments (avoid synthetic or wool on your skin)
-walk in the sunshine every day, exercise regularly
-cook food with a gas or wood stove
-use earthenware, cast iron, or stainless steel cookware rather than aluminum or Teflon coated
-minimize computers and TV
At first glance, this diet seems.. bland, but healthy. It is similar to a vegan diet, with drastically more limits in almost all food categories. There are also some interesting suggestions: yes to squash, no to its similar counterpart, zucchini. Further, the guidelines for local, organic, not artificially colored, preserved, sprayed or chemically treated are not specific enough, in my mind, to dictate a strict diet. While there are ambiguities, the diet and lifestyle changes also seem relatively reasonable, or at least doable if it can cure cancer. It does make sense to eat lots of vegetables and slow down when you eat. Additionally, this diet could also be costly, while there are limited animal products, seaweed and local vegetables are not inexpensive. Price could be a limiting factor of the macrobiotic diet for some individuals. It is also inconvenient, something that would steer many people away.
Where did the macrobiotic diet originate?
According to Victoria Rezash from the Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, the macrobiotic diet was first introduced in 18th century Germany. In the mid-1960’s, it was popularized as a cure for cancer by a Japanese prophet, philosopher, and lecturer, George Ohsawa. He believed the diet could rebalance yin and yang and prevent illness, give renewed energy, and improve memory. Ohsawa said, “No illness is more simple to cure than cancer through a return to the most elementary and natural eating and drinking diet”
Unfortunately, Ohsawa’s strict macrobiotic regime ended in a recommendation to only eat brown rice and water. This resulted in severe complications and even death from malnutrition for many who followed the diet. Following Ohsawa’s theories on macrobiotics, the Council on Foods and Nutrition denounced the diet.
In the 1980’s Kushi published a book outlining a less strict diet complemented with many first-hand accounts of how the diet cured their cancer. The diet above is Kushi’s recommended macrobiotic diet.
Source: The Macrobiotic Diet emphasizes a rebalancing of yin and yang to improve health and wellness.
It’s easy to write off food choices as negligible compared to the power of cancer. Interestingly though, in some surveys of practitioners who practice complementary and alternative medicine, 84% recommended some type of nutritional therapy to their patients. As we know, food can cause or solve many problems. Particularly, before modern medicine, conventional doctors often turned to food first instead of turning to surgery and pharmaceuticals to help treat patients as they do today. 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates, said: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” I believe there is truth to this, whether our food choices can cure cancer though, I’m not sure.
Unfortunately for the food cure argument, a study by Anticancer Research in the National Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment analyzed 13 different cancer diets and the clinical effects of their use. They found no clinical evidence supporting any of the diets. In some cases, they even found the diets to be harmful due to malnutrition. Many other studies mirror these results.
Source: Doctors and scientists have not found conclusive evidence that the Macrobiotic diet can help cure cancer.
Here’s the tricky part. While there are many studies which do not find a statistically significant correlation between macrobiotics and recovery from cancer, there are many testimonials of people who believe the diet saved their lives. Many people say their cancer reemerges when they stray from the diet and shortly after they are back on the diet, the cancer subsides. I understand we cannot trust all internet testimonials, but I am also intrigued after hearing about from two people whom I know claim to be alive due to diet. This begs the question, what do we do when scientific studies cannot answer medical questions? How does food actually affect our lives, and even our ability to cure disease?
Source: Many people claim eating meals like this one, primarily grains and vegetable has cured them of their cancer.
I am a big advocate of science, I look to well-done studies for answers– I don’t blatantly disagree with well-supported science. At the beginning of this research, I hoped to find some quantitative evidence that macrobiotic diets had at least some influence on cancer. After only finding a series of stories, I wonder if this is more than a few odd cases. Do we simply not know, or not have enough evidence to prove a diet based approach can help cure cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, cancer can be caused by Smoking and Tobacco, Diet and Physical Activity, Sun and other Types of Radiation, or Viruses and Other Infections. This broad list shows us what things might affect our risk for cancer, not what directly causes cancer. There is no known single cause of cancer which makes it more challenging to treat than other diseases which may come from a pathogen (aside from HPV which can induce cancer). Personally, I think the mystery of what causes cancer is almost as interesting as the grossly intense methods of treatment for cancer. I have watched people shrink and be withered away by cancer treatments which seem to push them closer to dying, often from the intense treatment, not the cancer directly. This type of conventional treatment, while it does cure people’s cancer sometimes, is terrifyingly invasive, lengthy, and painful. While I love the science, I am intrigued by the effect something as simple yet critical as food has on treatment. Unfortunately, there is lack of scientific evidence that the macrobiotic diet can cure cancer. My modern and western brain doesn’t think eating more seaweed and whole grains can cure cancer, but after hearing from previous doctors who suffered from cancer and now live happily on seaweed and whole grains, I wonder what we are missing in the hunt for the cure to cancer, and on a greater scale, how large the effects of diet are on our bodies.