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Sensing the Yin & Yang of Food

No place is more central to our acts of celebration than the dining room table. As you look forward to the sanctity and promised revelry of the upcoming holidays, allow yourself to fully embrace – guilt free – the delicious food, friendship, and seasonal cheer. Alongside your regular spiritual beliefs, engage your inner epicurean. Why? Because that’s the macrobiotic way! If that seems surprising, let me share my awakening.

About 18 months ago, my wife and I were invited on a health-and-wellness cruise, sailing through the western Caribbean aboard the luxury cruise ship Costa Fortuna. As far as I could tell, between Key West, Cayman Islands, Honduras, and Cozumel, the only question mark would be the food: macrobiotics. I figured the spectacular scenery would make up for the bland short-grain brown rice, but as it turned out, the food was great — wonderful, healthy ingredients, helped along by expert hands working the steamers and sauté pans. Give collard greens, lotus root, or a slab of fermented tofu to someone who knows what he’s doing, and wonderful things can and will happen.

After a week of eating well, drinking fine Italian wines, relaxing, and listening to some of the world’s top macrobiotic practitioners and nutritionists, my wife and I came away thinking, “We can do this!” We can eat better for the sake of our health, the earth, and the dignity of animals raised in corporate-farm nightmares, all by adapting a more mindful approach to shopping and expanding our cooking repertoire to include Asian and Indian ideas. At nearly age 50, such a decision would certainly impact our health in the second half of our lives.

The macrobiotic mind-set impressed me in other ways. I was completely surprised to hear the word “balance” tossed around so freely on the ship. Don’t let your diet or attitude toward food become a pain in the ass, we kept hearing. Eat in a way that assures you’ll always love food, and good things will happen.

I was also surprised that macrobiotic aficionados do not shake a list of bad or forbidden foods in your face. Yes, there are items that are discouraged, or to be eaten infrequently and in small amounts, but the stay-balanced mantra is partially about not allowing eaters to obsess about less-than-healthy foods that tend to be high in cholesterol, saturated fat, sugar, additives — the foods we are trying to avoid anyway.

Learning Yin from Yang

We learned that the macrobiotic precepts of yin and yang foods have been practiced for thousands of years, both East and West, by Taoists, Hindus, Greeks, and Jews, who recognized that all forces in the universe were governed by continuous patterns of expansion and contraction, light and dark, life and death, and innumerable additional examples of oppositional forces and change. The human body manifests these patterns, from the life cycles of cells, to the pumping exchanges of blood and oxygen in the heart and lungs, to our stomach, intestines and colon with their expand ‘here-it-comes’ / contract ‘there-it-goes’ activity. Endless movement. Continual change. One force is dependent on another force to complete the cycle. The yin side of things is expansive, centrifugal, light; the yang is constricting, centripetal, dense. Through this lens, everything can be viewed in yin or yang terms. All of our bodily functions have phases that adhere to yin and yang principles.

Macrobiotic practitioners, with thousands of years of observational research to draw from, believe all plants and foods can be classified as yin or yang, based on their predominant energy (e.g., dense or soft, moist or dry). By understanding these individual qualities and the effect they have on our bodies, the food we eat enables us to adapt to our local climate and environment. We experience this instinctively in cold or warm weather, when certain foods appeal to us more or less — choosing salads and lighter dishes that require less cooking in summer, for example. Furthermore, the foods grown locally in the temperate zones known to most of North America are balanced nutritionally for the climate; whole grains, vegetables, beans, leeks, fruit — all eaten as close to their whole state as possible — will enhance our immune systems and prepare us for whatever comes our way, physically and otherwise.

Cooking techniques also matter significantly to macrobiotic cooks. The standard Western methods of deep-frying, sautéing in oil, broiling, and even stir-frying are mostly replaced with pressure-cooking, boiling, steaming, baking (in winter), and pickling. Aggressive flavors and spices give way to uncomplicated, balanced meals that use a variety of seasonings and cooking techniques.

Lessons in Sensitivity

Over the past several months, macrobiotics has opened my eyes to a new kind of mindful eating, not just the mindful eating of slowing down and chewing food, as we might learn from meditation teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, but awareness of the energies of foods and how they are combined. I understand that macrobiotics, foremost, is sensitivity training. In other words, I’m now letting my body take me to school, to tell me what it does and doesn’t want, instead of the other way around. If a wedge of my beloved Camembert or a bowl of ice cream causes my stomach to feel uncomfortably distended, I know something’s amiss with dairy. If one piece of good chocolate is cool but three get me edgy, excessive amounts of sugar are to blame. I know the consequences if I choose to go that path again.

Advanced-level macrobiotics practices include the concept of complementary foods. Yin always wants to be balanced by yang, and our bodies desire both. Ideally, our daily plates of food will contain yin foods alongside yang, or yin-heavy meals balanced by yang-heavy meals every day. In fact, it’s a game we’ve been playing all along, because our bodies naturally crave things like stir-fried leafy greens (yin) to eat with a grilled fillet of yellow snapper (yang).

Macrobiotic chef and cookbook author Jessica Porter writes:

Everything has a charge, either more yin or more yang, and therefore, every single element that you introduce into your cooking shifts the energy somehow . . . Pull a vegetable from the fridge, and get out a whole grain. Checking out the vegetable first, note its yinness or yangness. Now begin to make a judgment about which force dominates the other; is it more contracted than expanded, more hard than soft, more rigid than flowing? Which force would you say predominates in the vegetable? Which force is it ‘governed’ by? Now look at the grain, and notice its qualities: Is it more yin or more yang? Next, compare the vegetable and the grain: in terms of expansion and contraction, it is clear that the grain is more contracted, dry, and compact (yang) and that the vegetable is more expanded and moist (yin). The differences between the two foods make them a very dynamic pair of antagonistic, complementary opposites. Together, they produce a wonderful electricity that the body really grooves on.

Wisdom from Cravings

Grains, beans, and certain root vegetables like carrots, parsnip, daikon, and such tend to the yang side of things, while squash, cabbage, and cucumber, on up to leafy greens, sea vegetables, and fruit tend heavily yin. A quick study of their physical qualities is enough to get a sense of their energies. Eating an overabundance of relatively healthy food that leans toward the yang side of things can cause cravings for yin foods, and vice versa. Many long-time macrobiotic practitioners point to periods of their lives when they overdid it on salty foods, like pickled vegetables (yang), and the associated craving for sugary desserts, alcohol, and other yin-leaning items. Unfortunately, the typical Western or modern diet is rampant with extreme foods that serve to yo-yo us around, shoving us back and forth and up and down at the whim of yin’s and yang’s powerful forces. Think about what you crave when you eat a burger or steak (strongly yang); it’s probably something alcoholic or sweet (strongly yin). Grains, greens, beans, and vegetables, being so wonderfully balanced in yin and yang tendencies, leave us feeling balanced and satiated.

So, yes, onboard ship we ate lots of brown rice, oats, millet, barley, tempeh, adzuki beans, kale, sea vegetables, and other staples of macrobiotics. What didn’t we eat? Dairy, red meat, poultry, eggs, processed wheat, and processed sugar. These foods are strongly discouraged in macrobiotic land — but no, they are not forbidden. You won’t find a banned list or a good-and-bad list of foods in any macrobiotic guide, because the notion of balance implies that all foods can be countered on the yin and yang levels. If you sense food attractions or repulsions, you’re cognizant of the yin and yang forces coursing through you at all times. If you pay attention to what your body is telling you — how certain foods make you feel, physically, emotionally, spiritually — trust me, you’ll start making changes in what you eat. As Jessica Porter likes to say, “You’re already macrobiotic. You just don’t know it.”

Pecking Order for Yang

Venturing a bit deeper into macrobiotic theories of energy in food reveals some interesting and controversial ideas. Take chicken, for example; in macrobiotic terms, chicken is more yang than red meat due to the intense, nervous, pecking personalities of live chickens. And chicken eggs, which contain a whole chicken, are vastly more powerful, energetically — a three- or four-egg omelet packs quite a wallop. The point is that chickens, and especially eggs, are very difficult to counteract in a balanced diet. Cow’s milk in any form is also considered a troublemaker. You’d be hard-pressed to find a macrobiotic text that advises eating anything more than a small amount of cheese or yogurt (because they’re fermented and a bit easier to digest), let alone milk, cream, butter, etc., due to the excessive levels of saturated fat and cholesterol found in such foods.

Another quirky albeit reasonable tenet of macrobiotics is to chew like there’s no tomorrow, especially with grains and vegetables. One hundred chews per bite are recommended, which gives enzymes in saliva plenty of time to turn complex carbohydrates into a glucose-rich solution before sending it down the gastrointestinal tract, where more enzymes take over. I’ve never made it to a hundred chews, but the thought does slow me down.

For those so inclined, even a cursory investigation will reveal an overwhelming yet fascinating amount of macrobiotic lore in books, newsletters, Web sites, and the like. Take acidity and alkalinity, for example. The idea is that overly acidic blood (caused by animal fat, cheese, and other extreme foods) demineralizes the body, causes inflammation, and weakens the immune system, among other problems. Ideally, a slightly alkaline condition is maintained through diet, mindful eating habits, cooking with natural heat sources, getting light to moderate exercise, and living a natural, uncluttered environment.

To be sure, I’m not a model practitioner yet and probably won’t ever earn awards for my macrobiotic disciplines. But over the last 18 months I have changed the way I feel about food, nutritionally, ecologically, and sympathetically. For all its quirks, macrobiotics encompasses a long-standing body of evidence, collected by sensitive souls, that details the effects food has on the human body.