food has the power to heal or make us sick; to keep us healthy
or accelerate our decline. The importance of food in health
and healing cannot be overemphasized.
However, unlike modern nutrition, in which foods are analyzed
according to their biochemical effects, the macrobiotic view
is based on an understanding of food as energy. Rather than
being analytical and partial, the macrobiotic approach is
dynamic and whole.
In macrobiotics, we approach food on two levels.
In the first, more fundamental level, we apply the principle
of yin and yang to balance our daily diet as a whole. Yin
and yang help us understand food in terms of energy. Balancing
the expanding and contracting energies in our diet is the
basis of health and healing. In the second, or symptomatic
level, we use food to offset or balance a particular condition
A key to health and healing lies in our ability
to understand food in terms of yin and yang and energy, and
to apply that understanding to the structure and function
of the human body. For that purpose, we need to view the body
in terms of yin and yang. The inner regions of the body, including
the bones, blood, and internal organs, are more yang or contracted,
while the peripheral regions, including the skin and hair,
are more yin or expanded. The front of the body is generally
softer and more expanded (yin), while the back is hard and
compact (yang). The upper body is generally more yin, while
the lower body has stronger yang energy.
On the whole, the right side of the body is
strongly charged with yin, upward energy, while the left side
is strongly charged by downward, yang energy. The movement
of upward and downward energy in the body is reflected in
the structure of the large intestine, and in the function
of the brain. The large intestine moves upward on the right
side of the body, and downward on the left. The right hemisphere
of the brain generates more yin, aesthetic or artistic images,
while the left is the source of more yang, analytical and
rational abilities. Using these basic classifications, we
can begin to make specific correlations between the energy
of food and the energy of the body.
Day to day, the atmosphere cycles back and
forth between upward and downward, or yin and yang energy.
Morning is the time when upward energy prevails. Evening and
night are the times when downward energy is strongest. In
order to maintain optimal health and well-being, we need to
orient our lives in harmony with the movement of energy. In
other words, we need to wake up in the morning and be active
during the day, and need to get adequate sleep at night. If
we go against the movement of atmospheric energy, for example,
by sleeping during the day and being active at night, we risk
losing our health.
On the most fundamental level, health and healing
operate on the same principle. The organs on the right side
of the body, including the liver and gallbladder, are strongly
charged by yin, upward energy. Those on the left, including
the pancreas and spleen, receive a stronger charge of yang,
downward energy. Do foods with more expansive energies benefit
the pancreas and spleen, or those with more contractive energies?
Similarly, what types of foods benefit the liver and gallbladder?
As we can see from the daily cycle, we need to go with the
movement of energy. Thus, foods that match the energy of a
particular organ are the most appropriate.
Symptomatic healing works in the opposite way.
Symptoms can be caused by extremes of either yin or yang.
In order to neutralize or offset a particular symptom, we
use foods that have the a quality of energy that is opposite
to that of the symptom. If the symptom is caused by too much
yang, we supply the body with yin. When a symptom is caused
by excess yin, we need to supply yang.
Constipation offers an example of this principle.
Constipation can result from either an excess of yin or yang
in the diet. Yang constipation is caused by the repeated intake
of meat, cheese, eggs, chicken, and other forms of animal
food, and an insufficient intake of grains, vegetables, and
other plant foods containing fiber. It occurs when the intestines
become overly tight and contracted. To relieve that symptom,
we use foods with an opposite, or more yin energy, such as
kanten, lightly steamed greens, grated raw daikon, or vegetables
that have been lightly sauteed in oil.
Yin constipation occurs when the intestines
become loose, weak, and stagnant because of too much sugar,
chocolate, alcohol, spices, ice cream, or soft drinks. To
restore the intestines to a more normal, contracted state,
a slightly more yang preparation, such as ume-sho-kuzu, would
Five Energies in Health and Healing
As we saw above, the liver and gallbladder
are nourished by yin, expanding energy; the pancreas and spleen,
by yang, contracting energy. Therefore, according to the principles
stated above, if we wish to strengthen the liver and gallbladder,
we choose foods that have a slightly more yin, or expansive
quality of energy. If we wish to strengthen the pancreas and
spleen, foods with slightly more yang energy would be appropriate.
Although whole grains are generally the most
balanced among foods, each variety has a slightly different
quality of energy. Corn, for example, grows in the summer,
and is soft, sweet, and juicy. It has a more yin quality of
energy. Buckwheat, on the other hand, grows in cold, northern
regions and is very hard and dry. It rapidly absorbs water,
and has strong yang energy. Rice has a different quality of
energy than barley; millet is different than wheat. Short
grain rice is very different than long grain rice. Among the
whole grains, therefore, which one is best for the liver and
gallbladder, and which one most benefits the pancreas and
Traditional philosopher-healers referred to
the upward energy that nourishes the liver and gallbladder
as tree energy. The name tree energy implies growth in an
upward direction, as well as movement that branches outward.
Among the grains, barley has a light, expansive quality and
is classified under the tree energy category. Adding it to
brown rice produces a lighter, fluffier, and less glutinous
dish. The energy of barley is compatible to that of the liver
and gallbladder. Hato mugi, or pearl barley, a species of
wild barley originally grown in China, is especially charged
with upward energy. Both regular and pearl barley can be eaten
several times per week, in soup or with brown rice. Barley
tea supplies the body with light, upward energy and can be
used as a regular beverage.
Spleen, and Stomach
The spleen and pancreas are charged by an opposite
quality of energy that traditional philosopher-healers referred
to as soil energy. The name soil conveys the image of more
compact, downward energy. Millet, a compact grain with a hard
outer shell, is a product of soil energy and can be eaten
on a regular basis to strengthen the pancreas and spleen.
It is helpful in aiding recovery from blood sugar disorders,
including diabetes and hypoglycemia. Millet can be cooked
with brown rice or used to make delicious millet soup. The
stomach is located toward the left side of the body, and is
energetically compatible with the pancreas and spleen. Millet
is also useful in strengthening the stomach.
Let us now see how the principles of energy
balance apply to the selection of whole grains for the other
and Small Intestine
Compared to the liver and spleen, the heart
has a more dynamic, active quality of energy. The heart is
located higher in the body (more yin), and is positioned at
the heart chakra, a very highly charged region in the center
of the chest. Traditional healers referred to such active
movement as fire energy. The small intestine is compatible
with the heart, and is charged with active energy. At the
center of the small intestine is the highly charged region
known as the hara chakra, the primary source of life energy
for the entire lower body. Among the grains, corn, a more
yin product of summer, is charged with fire energy. It is
energetically compatible with the heart and small intestine.
It can be eaten fresh in season or used in such traditional
dishes as polenta. Whole corn meal or grits can be used as
and Large Intestine
Compared to the heart, the large intestine
has more condensed, yang energy. It is located in the lower
body, where downward energy is stronger, and although it is
large, it is compressed into a small space. The lungs are
energetically compatible with the large intestine, and contain
many air sacs and blood vessels compressed into a tight space.
Traditional healers named this condensed stage metal energy.
They considered it to be more yang or condensed than the downward,
soil energy that charges the pancreas and spleen. Brown rice,
especially pressure-cooked short grain rice, has strong condensed
energy that corresponds to the metal stage. It can be used
as a main daily grain to strengthen and vitalize these organs.
The kidneys lie in the middle of the body;
with one on the right and the other on the left side of the
body. Traditional healers felt that the energy that nourishes
the kidneys is like water, floating between yin and yang,
up and down, although on the whole, downward energy is slightly
more predominant. Appropriately enough, they referred to this
stage as water energy. Beans, which are more yang or contracted
than most vegetables, and more yin or expanded than most grains,
are a manifestation of floating, or water energy. They strengthen
and nourish the kidneys, and their related organ, the bladder.
Smaller beans such as azuki and black soybeans have more concentrated
energy and are especially beneficial. Beans and bean products
can be eaten as a regular part of the diet.
These five stages of energy are actually part
of a a continuous cycle. Energy constantly cycles back and
forth from yin to yang, moving through the more yin stages
tree and fire, and then through the more yang stages soil,
metal, and water. The cycle repeats every day and from season
to season. Our bodies are comprised of a complex mix of energies
that reflect each of these stages, and to maintain optimal
health, we need adequate variety in our daily diet.
The five energies can guide our selection of
vegetables and other supplementary foods, as well as our choice
of cooking methods. In general, leafy greens are charged with
strong upward or actively expanding energy (tree and fire),
while round vegetables, such as squash, onions, and cabbage
are strongly charged with soil energy. Roots such as carrots,
burdock, and daikon have even stronger yang energy (metal),
while sea vegetables represent floating or water energy.
In cooking, we change the quality of our foods,
by making their energies more yin or more yang. Methods such
as quick steaming, blanching (quick boiling), and sauteing
accelerate upward (tree) and active (fire) energy, while slow
boiling, such as that used in making nishime, condenses the
energy in food and corresponds to the soil stage. Pressure
cooking is a more yang method of cooking that corresponds
to metal energy, while soup corresponds to water energy. Once
again, we need a wide variety of vegetables and cooking methods
in order to provide the body with a wide range of energies.
Whole grains and other foods in the macrobiotic
diet work on both the symptomatic and fundamental levels.
On the fundamental level, a food such as hato mugi, or pearl
barley, supplies the liver and gallbladder with the upward
energy necessary for smooth functioning. At the same time,
because of its expansive nature, pearl barley acts symptomatically
in dissolving more yang, hardened deposits of animal fat and
protein, including cysts and tumors caused by the repeated
consumption of animal food. Pearl barley tea, for example,
is used in Oriental medicine as a beverage to dissolve moles,
warts, and other skin growths resulting from excess animal
Food is our best medicine. Balancing the energy
of food provides the foundation for achieving good health.
Without the foundation of daily diet, our approach is symptomatic
and limited. Understanding food as energy lies at the heart
of macrobiotic healing.