Can this celebrity diet work for you?

GWYNETH does it. So does Madonna. But what is macrobiotic eating and can the rest of us, who have to shop for, prepare and cook our own food, follow the hot new diet - and have a life? NANCY MARTIN finds out.

GWYNETH does it. So does Madonna. But what is macrobiotic eating and can the rest of us, who have to shop for, prepare and cook our own food, follow the hot new diet - and have a life? NANCY MARTIN finds out.

IF you've read the gossip columns in the past year, you'll know that Madonna and Gwyneth follow a strict macrobiotic diet.

That means no meat, dairy products, sugar, black tea or carbonated drinks. Instead they stick to grains, brown rice and pasta, seasonal vegetables, beans, soy products, white fish, fruits, nuts and seeds cooked in as many different ways as possible.

There's no denying that the regime is obviously working for the celebrities. Glowing, healthy and slim, they look in the best shape of their lives.

But is it possible for people who don't have personal nutritionists and chefs to stick to such a rigorous eating plan? Is the diet really healthy or could its followers be missing out on essential nutrients? And are macrobiotic eaters destined to a life of packed lunches and no dinner invites?

East Anglian nutritionist Rachel Biggins gives the diet the thumbs up from a health point of view: “It does feel like you are being good to your body and nurturing it. I believe that any well thought out diet plan is usually health-giving as it focuses our attention on the quality of what we eat and how that affects our health.”

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The eating plan gets a top score in many measures of healthy eating: it's high in fibre, low in saturated fats, has high mineral and vitamin content and is rich in complex carbohydrates. Many people have claimed to have recovered from serious illnesses while following the regime.

Macrobiotic literally means 'long life' and its followers believe that by eating foods that are still alive up until the point at which they are cooked, you not only consume their nutrients but also their energies and healing power.

According to nutritionist Simon G Brown, author of Modern-day Macrobiotics: “Each food absorbs energy during its life and the type of energy the plant contains will then alter our own energy. For instance, leafy greens that grow up will encourage our energy to flow upward more strongly, helping to lift our spirits. To feel more settled we could eat root vegetables that grow down into the ground.”

The diet works by balancing several factors within your system, including blood sugar, sodium and mineral levels.

Sound complicated? Well, it doesn't have to be. According to Rachel Biggins, you only have to follow the diet for a short time to feel better and don't need to make a lifelong commitment to it. “I believe you can see a calming effect on people after just a week of eating macrobiotically,” she said.

“On a seven-day macrobiotic camp, where food is provided alongside educational and life-enhancing classes, I noticed that people who got irate at the start of the week because things did not happen with clockwork efficiency became obviously more relaxed and accepting by the end of the course.”

To feel the benefits, you could follow the diet for just one day a week to keep your digestive system in good working order, or try it for three months for more dramatic health improvements.

But does it work for everyone?

Madonna's man Guy Ritchie certainly doesn't think so. In a recent interview, he said: “Three years ago, when I was on a macrobiotic diet, I lost weight. You can eat as much as you like, but it's completely flavourless. Macrobiotic food makes sense but not necessarily all the time.”

Rachel also recognises its limitations. “Macrobiotics can be difficult to sustain without a lot of planning and cooking,” she said. “Also, in the light of present research on blood sugar management, it may be lacking in easily available protein for people who are slow metabolisers.

“Generally, however, I think that a simple, natural diet including high levels of grains, vegetables and vegetarian forms of protein and low levels of sugar and chemicals can only be a healthy thing.”

Even if you just want to try eating macrobiotically for a day, you can still reap the benefits. “As these foods are free from sugars, additives, spices, caffeine and stimulants that can provoke disturbed emotional feelings, you should feel calm, settled and at peace with yourself by the end of the day,” said Simon Brown.

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Have you tried macrobiotic food? Which diet worked for you? Write Your Letters, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP4 1AN or email eveningstarletters@eveningstar.co.uk.

Often considered to be less of a diet, more a way of life, the macrobiotic movement was founded more than a century ago by George Ohsawa, who recovered from tuberculosis of the lung and colon while eating whole, living unprocessed foods, grown locally and in season.

Macrobiotic literally means 'long life' and its followers believe that by eating foods that are still alive up until the point at which they are cooked, you not only consume their nutrients but also their energies and healing power.

The theory is that food absorbs energy throughout its life and when we consume it, it alters our own energy.

Japanese rice balls

Combines the goodness of the whole grains with the flavour of the sea vegetable.

Prepare in ten minutes

4 sheets nori sea vegetable, pre-toasted if possible

500g brown rice and whole grains

2 umeboshi plums (from health-

food stores)

1. Take the sheets of nori and, if they are not pre-toasted, drag them over a flame quickly until they become slightly translucent. Cut into quarters and lay

out on a dry board.

2. Wet your hands and pick up a handful of the rice and whole grain mixture to form a ball (wet your hands each time you do this to avoid rice sticking). Press about a quarter of an umeboshi plum into the whole grain mixture and seal the hole with more whole grains.

3. Lay the ball on to one sheet of nori and place another sheet on top. Shape so that the corners are between the corners of the lower sheet. Press the corners on to the sides of the ball. Finally, pick up the rice ball and squeeze so that all the nori sticks to the rice. Serve 2 rice balls per person on a bed of salad. Keeps for 1 day.

Sushi

Great food for when you're on the move.

Cooks in 15 minutes

250g sushi rice (leftover rice is ideal)

10 sheets of nori

1 tbsp tahini (sesame seed paste)

1 tbsp umeboshi paste (from health food stores)

1-2 tbsp sauerkraut

30g carrots, cut into long matchsticks

1 tsp wasabi powder

shoyu rice vinegar, to taste

pickled ginger slices

1. Cook the rice according to the packet instructions, then leave to one side to cool down.

2. Lay a sheet of nori, rough side up, on a sushi mat or flat surface. Dip a spatula into a jug of water and use it to spread some rice over the nori (do this each time you add more rice to stop the rice from sticking to the spatula).

3. Spread the rice with a little tahini, a tiny amount of umeboshi paste and a little sauerkraut. Lay a few carrot matchsticks down the centre and, using the mat as a guide, roll up

the sushi as if making a Swiss roll.

4. Use a wet knife to cut it into eight slices. Repeat as above with the remaining ingredients.

5. To make wasabi paste in which to dip the sushi, put the wasabi powder in a small dish and add a little water at a time. If you add too much water, you will need to add more wasabi. When you have a thick paste, divide it between the serving plates. Spoon a little shoyu on to each plate. Serve with a few slices of pickled ginger. Keeps for 1 day.

Lentil soup

A well-balanced soup that's a meal in itself.

Cooks in 20 minutes

1 cup green lentils

2 celery stalks, diced

1 medium carrot, diced

2 bay leaves

1 tsp sea salt

2 tbsp sunflower oil

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp cumin

5 fresh shiitake mushrooms, sliced

3 small spring onions, finely diced

4 lemon slices (to garnish)

1. Wash the lentils, then soak them overnight in 750 ml warm water.

The following day, bring them to

a boil in the same water and cook

for ten minutes.

2. Meanwhile, place the celery, carrot and lentils in a cast-iron pan. Add the bay leaves and 2 litres water. Cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to medium and cook for 15-20 minutes. Halfway through, add the salt.

3. Heat the oil, turmeric and cumin in a pan. Fry for 1-2 minutes. Add the mushrooms and scallions and sauté for 1 minute. Pour the mixture into the soup. Simmer for 2 minutes. Serve with a slice of lemon. Keeps for 2 days.

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