At age 51, Madonna still has a fantastic physique, and she has Chef Mayumi Nishimura to thank in part for that.

Macrobiotics, a diet and lifestyle regimen aimed at longer, healthier living, has enjoyed a boom in recent years due to some high-profile celebrity fans. Along with Madonna, actors Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow are among those thought to be keen on the diet, whose basic principles include eating whole grains, locally-grown organic vegetables, natural seasonings and food without artificial additives.

Nishimura is undoubtedly a leader of the macrobiotic lifestyle, having served as Madonna’s private chef for seven years through the end of 2007. She even lived with the singer’s family in London and accompanied her on wordwide tours.

Now back home in Japan, 53-year-old Nishimura hopes to promote a more relaxed, contemporary style of macrobiotic cooking that she calls “petit-macro.” Nishimura’s style sticks to natural seasonings and a largely vegetarian diet, allowing for more flexibility in people’s food choices.

Nuts and berries of macrobiotics

The word macrobiotics comes from Greek, meaning “long life.” It was coined in the 1950s by Japanese philosopher Yukikazu Sakurazawa (1893-1966), who was known in the West as George Ohsawa. He drew from traditional Japanese and Asian cultures to create his own philosophy of health, which included eating a diet mainly consisting of unmilled, whole-grain rice and vegetables.

His students, Michio Kushi and his wife, Aveline, helped spread the concept more widely in the West. After emigrating to the United States following World War II, Kushi opened the Kushi Institute in Boston in 1978 to promote macrobiotic philosophy and practices.

Today, the standard macrobiotic diet advocates a daily intake of whole grains, organic and locally grown vegetables, beans and sea vegetables such as nori, kombu and wakame. Optionally, fruits, seeds and nuts can be included. Refined foods — such as white rice or white sugar — and artificial additives should be avoided. Macrobiotic teachings also include chewing foods slowly to ease digestion and assimilate nutrients.

Organic vegetables and some ingredients used in the macrobiotic diet, such as brown rice and sea salt, can be found in regular supermarkets, but others, such as organic wholewheat flour and naturally fermented soy sauce are hard to find. In addition, organic foodstuffs are also generally more expensive than regular foods.

“Macrobiotics is not about dos and don’ts, but about trying to have a balanced diet using a variety of ingredients,” Nishimura said during a recent interview in Tokyo, while preparing an appetizing platter of vegetable burritos using slices of avocado and carrot, and lentils seasoned with sea salt and a maple syrup-balsamic vinegar mixture.

“As long as you base your diet on the whole grain, vegetables and no refined foods or artificial additives, the rest is free; choices are really up to you.”

In her new English-language book, “Mayumi’s Kitchen,” which was released by Kodansha International earlier this month, Nishimura shares a variety of recipes that defy the dull, stoic images of macrobiotics that she said are often confused with traditional Japanese cuisine.

“Some people say macrobiotics is the same as eating Japanese food,” she said. “It’s not. I think there should be an Italian-style macrobiotic diet in Italy and British-style macrobiotics in Britain. The most important thing is that each country (and region) has a traditional diet specific to the country or the region. . . . How did the ancient people eat back then? You should study how and what kind of food people in your region used to eat.”

On differences between macrobiotics and traditional Japanese food, Nishimura, who long studied and worked in the United States under macrobotics pioneer Michio Kushi, says that the shoyu (soy sauce) used in macrobiotic cooking is naturally fermented with no artificial additives, while shoyu used for everyday Japanese cooking is often made from fermented wheat or has its fermenting process accelerated by artificial additives.

A Western-style presentation is also something Nishimura came up with while working for Madonna. For example, her “spiral rice pasta with salad and soy meat” looks almost identical to chicken pasta salad.

She even has a recipe for chocolate brownies, which she divulges in the book “proved incredibly popular with Madonna’s backup dancers.” Nishimura’s brownies use unbleached white flour or barley flour, and maple sugar instead of white sugar in line with the macrobiotic principles of avoiding refined foods.

While proponents of the diet say it helps to prevent and cure illnesses, including cancer, academic research so far does not support such claims. The American Cancer Society, a nonprofit health organization, states on its Web site that, “A diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is associated with general health benefits and lower risk for several diseases, and a macrobiotic diet, by virtue of its main components, can also achieve these benefits. However, macrobiotic diets can lead to poor nutrition if not properly planned.”

Nishimura stresses that followers should not get worked up over rules, and that they can enjoy meat occasionally.

“You can even try macrobiotics only on weekends, as a starter,” she says. “If you continue that for a year, I’m sure you will get some results.”

Healty shopping

While not widespread in shops, the nacrobiotic diet’s ingredients are available online:

Lima Shigashi-Kitazawa (Shibuya): www.lima.co.jp/limatenpo-index.html

Anew: www.anew.co.jp/stores/

Shio-no-michi Club (online): www.shionomichi.com/kaimono.html

Seisyoku Society (online): www.macrobiotic.gr.jp/macro_shop/

Warabe Mura (Gifu/online): www.warabe.co.jp/english2.html

Tengu (online): jbayles.netfirms.com/shop/nfoscomm/catalog/index.php

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