I was in Belgium in 2008 when I first heard about the macrobiotic diet. Macrobiotic means “big life.” The diet itself has a few basic rules, but the important ones are that foods should be minimally processed, grown locally, and seasonal. That sounds like a good idea. We hear that all the time. Do we ever think about why?
We want to have more nutritious food (not processed), support local business (local), and reduce food miles (better for the environment). Not bad reasons at all. But we’re missing the most important reason: balance.
When I first encountered all those vegan macrobiotic hippies, I was totally put off. “You’re so yang, Maria. I wish I were as yang as you are.” Or, “I can’t eat yin foods, because I am too yin in nature.”
“Okaaay, crazy,” I thought.
By the end of my stay at the farm, I was a believer. But I can’t talk about yin and yang to my fellows. They won’t take it seriously. For those of you who are interested, read on.
Yin-yang is a Chinese philosophical concept that explains how seemingly contrary forces (polar opposites) are in fact completely interconnected. “Too much yin, and you get yang,” and visa versa. Yin and yang are commonly attached to dichotomies: female-male, dark-light, expansion-contraction, evil-good (a Western idea). Yin and yang are also complimentary opposites within a greater whole. A thing is neither yin, nor yang. Rather, it has yin and yang properties which can only be determined by a comparison.
In macrobiotics, yang qualities are considered compact, dense, heavy, and hot; yin qualities are considered expansive, light, cold, and dark.
Take a carrot as an example. A carrot is neither yin nor yang by itself. The orange, dense, hard part that grows under the ground is considered yang compared to the leafy, expansive, light-seeking green tops. While the carrot is neither yin nor yang as a whole, it can be considered more or less yin or yang when compared to something else, such as a nut, which is very hard, compact, and energy dense (hence, more yang).
So when that hippie decked out in purple robes kept calling me yang, she was saying I was more yang than she was–I was well-muscled and energetic. However, when I compared myself to my co-worker, Chris, a small, lean, wiry, and ridiculously strong (pound for pound) guy, I was relatively yin (with my ultimately female composition, not to mention expansive beer belly at the time).
When thinking about food as our nourishment, we must think about the balance we are trying to achieve. A yin person who is weak, pale, expansive (in other words, fat), and lacking energy would not want yin foods to dominate his diet (foods with the highest quality of yin are sugary foods). A very yang person who is angry, red, and hypertensive would want to avoid eating too many yang foods (like too much meat). Time and time again, we have heard that vegetarians are calmer than meat eaters, and some people get nightmares after eating red meat; these are yin and yang properties of food translating into you. You are what you eat.
In the summer, the weather is hot. People tend to enjoy abundant watery fruits and vegetables and are not as hungry, as ample sunlight lends them so much energy. Amazing that nature provides the yin things we want to help balance us out in our yang environment. In the winter, when the weather is cold, dark, and more yin, foods available are more yang: nuts, squashes, tough leafy greens. Cultures have learned to prepare winter dishes (energy-dense, warm, yang meals) to combat the effects of the yin winter months. It’s all about balance.
Nature provides what we need, when we need it (eat seasonally, and stop importing foods from different climates). You just have to know where to find it. Modern life has so distorted the natural order of things that it is no wonder we’re suffering from such poor health, not to mention vitamin deficiencies because we eat so much de-natured processed food that has been stripped of its micro-nutrients (stop eating processed food)
Why local? We are products of our environment. Food is the product of the environment in which it grows. For example, herbs that grow high on mountain tops tend to be tougher and more bitter; it’s because they have to deal with harsh cold and winds at higher altitudes. They have to be tough, or they will die. These properties are conferred to the person who eats them. Just as you should eat local honey to alleviate allergies you might have to local pollen, you should eat the foods of your region to be best suited to that region.
Call it what you want. Yin-yang, macro, wishy-washy hippie stuff. I call it balance: local, seasonal, and minimally processed.