Michio Kushi, Natural Foods Pioneer

Kushi Institute via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Kushi Institute via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / Kushi Institute via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the 1960s, many Americans ate a diet consisting primarily of white bread, meat, milk, eggs, and fast food. The natural foods movement of the 1960s and 1970s ushered in a new way of eating, and one of its pioneers was Michio Kushi, who introduced Americans to the macrobiotic diet.

With his wife Aveline Kushi, he founded health and wellness organizations such as the Kushi Institute, Erewhon Natural Foods, the East West Foundation, and One Peaceful World. Kushi gave lectures around the world, teaching people how to eat healthfully in order to prevent disease and, he said, achieve world peace.

Born in Japan in 1926, Kushi studied political science at Tokyo University. In his spare time, he learned about holistic nutrition from George Ohsawa, who is often credited as the founder of macrobiotics. Beginning in the 1930s, Ohsawa had written books explaining his view that eating natural foods such as whole grains and vegetables would contribute to health and world harmony. As a graduate student in Tokyo in 1945, having seeing the devastation caused by the bombing of Hiroshima, Kushi became interested in world peace himself. He contacted Norman Cousins, a U.S. journalist and peace advocate, who ended up sponsoring Kushi to come to New York for a conference of the United World Federalists (a non-profit organization whose goal is permanent world peace).

Kushi arrived in New York in 1949, where he also took political science classes at Columbia University. Because his English was rudimentary, he started out by reading English language books in the library, including books related to ideal governments and utopianism such as Erewhon: or, Over the Range by Samuel Butler. To support himself, Kushi worked as a translator, a bellhop, and then a vice president of a Japanese department store in the 1950s. While living in New York, Kushi also converted to the macrobiotic lifestyle. In 1954, he married his wife Aveline, a student of Ohsawa’s he met in New York, who had also studied at Columbia.

In the 1960s, Kushi and his wife moved to Massachusetts to educate people about natural foods. They gave lectures and cooking lessons on macrobiotics in their house, and Kushi advocated for a diet of whole grains, organic vegetables, and local produce. He also shunned dairy, meat, and processed foods. The approach caught on with adherents of the burgeoning natural foods movement, as well as the counterculture in general. Besides diet, Kushi taught the tenets of the macrobiotic lifestyle, encompassing exercise, healthy relationships, good communication with a close network of family and friends, and calmness.

Because foods such as tamari, miso, brown rice, and tofu were difficult to find in the 1960s, Kushi and his wife started Erewhon Trading Company (named for Butler's book) to sell these foods out of their house. Erewhon became so popular that Kushi opened retail stores and warehouses in Boston and Los Angeles. In the early 1970s in Boston, Kushi started the East-West Journal and the East-West Foundation to spread further awareness of macrobiotics. At its zenith, the East-West Journal had over 100,000 subscribers, who read about alternative health topics such as homeopathy, acupuncture, supplements, and chiropractic care.

KushiInstitute via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 1978, Kushi and his wife opened the Kushi Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts, to educate people about macrobiotics. Today, people still come to the institute, now located in the Berkshires, to attend seminars and conferences on the medicinal use of food. The Kushi Institute also participates in studying the macrobiotic diet’s effects on cancer, cholesterol, and disease.

Kushi wrote or co-wrote more than 100 books and pamphlets, including The Cancer Prevention Diet and The Macrobiotic Way. In these books, Kushi defined diseases as an imbalance of yin or yang, outlined his holistic health plan to treat illness with foods, and wrote about people who had reversed or recovered from cancer after adopting a macrobiotic diet. He advised that people should get vitamins from whole foods rather than supplements and chew all food 50 to 100 times before swallowing. (Studies have shown that sufficiently chewing food before swallowing does provide some benefits.)

Viewing disease as a byproduct of an unhealthy world, Kushi wanted people to get back to an unprocessed diet and simpler lifestyle. In 1987, he wrote the book One Peaceful World: Macrobiotic Resource Guide, a year after founding the One Peaceful World Society to spread information about his main goal: world peace. He also gave lectures on natural foods at the World Health Organization and the United Nations.

In 2014, Kushi died at 88 years old. Critics of macrobiotics pointed out the irony that Kushi, his wife, and his daughter all died of cancer. One of his sons, Phiya Kushi, said that his father’s busy travel and work schedule meant that he ignored his body’s physical limits and slipped in his macrobiotic diet. Another son, Haruo Kushi, an epidemiologist, argued “many different things contribute to cancer, and there's a lot we don't understand … we do know that macrobiotics drastically reduces cardiovascular problems, and if you take away heart issues, cancer is one of the big things that's left.”

The scientific community has not accepted all aspects of macrobiotics. Some critics have argued that a strict macrobiotic diet can cause dehydration and malnutrition. Others have criticized macrobiotic philosophy as a cult, pointing out that modern medicine disproves some of Kushi’s teachings, such as astrological diagnosis—analyzing someone’s birthplace and time to determine their health—and chakra vibrations. However, studies have shown that people who eat a plant-based diet have lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and heart disease than meat eaters.

Although organic, natural foods and Meatless Mondays seem to be ubiquitous today, they were outside the norm when Kushi began teaching. Katherine Ott, a curator at the Smithsonian (which has a collection of Kushi’s writings), says Kushi “brought so many new ideas and articulated so many things that people had never been exposed to. He was a catalyst and a teacher and a healer.” Alex Jack, the manager of the Kushi Institute, said that Kushi “was the pivot from an animal-based to a plant-based diet, and while that sounds very mainstream and normal now, it was heresy back when he started teaching it.”

Kushi’s work continues to influence the natural foods movement, and he has had celebrity fans such as Frank Zappa, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Gloria Swanson, and Gwyneth Paltrow. The founders of the natural foods company Kashi, which sells cereals and snacks made of whole grains, even named their company partly after Kushi.