It's hard to say quite what it will take for a man to change his diet but, more often than not, it comes down to a gun to the head from a po-faced doctor or a desirable woman. Many guys are from the 'eat what's in front of you' school of practicality. Some of us use food as simple fuel, stuffing down sandwiches at the desk, inhaling carbs for exercise and devouring slabs of meat to build muscle. Sometimes in a group, men act restrained and politely offer food around even if they're dying to scoff more down. The women, meanwhile, feed tidbits to each other so they can feel less guilty about hovering over the sweet tray; call it safe bingeing by numbers.
Still, some people just don't know how to strike the right balance between bingeing and fasting. I used to be one of those people. I would think nothing of heavy bingeing for a couple of days on alcohol, pizza delivery and salty snacks, followed by healthy stir fries and salads for the rest of the week. The odd motion apart, it seemed to work pretty well, until I keeled over with stomach cramps in 2005 and began to suspect I had been living too hard. A few days later, I was back in a London hospital, recovering from amoebic dysentery.
But after an initial course of metronidizol, the symptoms returned every few months when I was run down-a combination of fever, cramps and commonly powerful loo breaks. I tried gut doctors, colonic hosing, tropical medicine clinics and homeopathic remedies. What I refused to do was relent on a party lifestyle; five years later, I still had a stomach as sensitive as a bloodhound's nostril. I was not suffering alone, though. I have a brother with a gut infection, a brother-in-law on steroids with colitis and diabetes, and a cousin who has had part of his large intestine removed. We're all slim, active men in our thirties who think we eat balanced diets but we're still not healthy.
The average British diet of 40 per cent fat and 20 per cent sugar is causing a diabetes time bomb and when four in ten cancer cases can be avoided by better diet, the time has come to listen to modern macrobiotics. This is not about the latest hot diet trend; it's more a fundamental way of living, a set of rules that is not too hard for a man to follow if he's looking for a road to improvement. Coming to mean 'living your life as long and healthily as possible', the philosophy-formalised from Japanese society by Georges Ohsawa in the 1920s-is concerned with the body's health and well being, leaving you slim and energetic.
Essentially, it avoids processed food and additives, sniffs at meat, dairy, sugar and wheat and targets fruit and vegetables in season. It also restricts fundamental crutches like caffeine, alcohol and cocaine. This may all sound as appetising as a death sentence, except of course, it's quite the opposite. The Japanese diet of miso, whole grains, vegetables, soy and seaweed, adopted by macrobiotics, is the healthiest on the planet.
The nation has the lowest rates of cardiovascular disease and stomach disorders. I can't say I was too keen to emulate a culture that embraces sea slugs and hara kiri though, of late, it seems to be western society that is intent on slitting its own gut. For the last 30 years, macrobiotics has been adopted by vegans and food radicals in unsympathetic fashion. It's been bland, hard to source and prepare, not to mention antisocial: effectively, a diet for obsessive ballerinas and Hollywood pogo sticks. But Ken Prange, a naturopath who studied under Michio Kushi, the maestro of modern macrobiotics, says it should never be dogmatic.
"It's not strict or unyielding. Everything in moderation is okay, particularly to start with," he says. Ken, now a lean 52, discovered macrobiotics at 17 when he was suffering from leukemia. He knows the change in diet saved his life. He says it also works well for colon, prostate and breast cancer. Some cancer patients have even turned to macrobiotics instead of chemotherapy and radiation and it has been seen to reverse diabetes as well. It can alleviate fatigue, transform energy levels and bring about marked improvement in complexion, concentration and stamina. It really is "soul food", as Ken says. "There are so many benefits that there's no need to preach about it any more. The results speak for themselves."
This is the philosophy of UK's first macrobiotic spa, located on a Scottish estate called Penninghame near the coast in Dumfries & Galloway. Recently, the spa launched a course that teaches people how to cook and live by modern macrobiotics. I signed up and took my laid back girlfriend, who has always been more inclined to pop a fag in her mouth rather than a flageolet bean. We were greeted by the entrepreneur owner Marie Butler who showed us around the estate with views of the river Dee. Later, at dinner with her husband and co-owner Ray, who showed us pictures of himself looking like an overweight gangster pre-macrobiotics, we learnt that hard city living and food allergies led them to discover this lifestyle.
Over a six-course dinner cooked by top Italian macrobiotic chef Angela Agrati-Prange, we were dazzled by a mushroom risotto, tangy shoyu sauce and crispy tempura to liven up the bland tofu and agar chocolate mousse. It was a head turner, and as Marie said, "we want to show people the food can be tasty and fun." But I was more eager to see the health benefits. I have a few issues with virtual reality food. I don't want to be hoodwinked by 'chicken' tofu or the scarlet pimpernel of protein, seitan, which can appear as a beefsteak, veal schnitzel or rashers of bacon. Tofu on sourdough with seitan bacon will always be a step too far. But this is not a problem.
Marie said, "There's so much more awareness now. You can't encourage people into a healthy lifestyle by making too many rules. You take on board what you can." It seems no surprise that such a genial mantra has already seen Penninghame visited by top chefs, actors and businessmen. What's more, M.E and Type II diabetes have been cured within a week's stay.
In a series of lectures and cookery lessons Ken and Angela advocated sourcing fresh local produce according to the season, using salt early in cooking to preempt the sweetness of vegetables, and chewing your food to aid digestion. Angela added, "The point is not being vegetarian, it's eating what your body needs to be healthy." In short, there's nothing more un-macrobiotic than wolfing down a Gaucho steak sandwich on the tube at rush hour, every day.
Digesting high stress foods such as pork, white flour and red meat uses so much energy that it can turn us into soporific slugs. Moreover, 80 per cent of us are lactose intolerant or cannot process cow's milk easily. In small doses our bodies can cope. But sesame seeds have ten times the levels of calcium anyway. After a week I felt so good I was stir fry crazy and my stomach felt like a Buddhist shrine.
It's taken some sourcing through health shops, but the Internet now makes it easy to get Japanese seaweed delivered to your door. Eat organic meat and grow your own vegetables. Snacks are tricky; it's not easy to nibble nuts and seeds instead of crisps and chocolate. In most cities, you can now eat 'macro' at sushi restaurants.
Dinner parties and restaurants are also fine as long as it's not every night. Madonna described it well when she said "it just means getting the most from your food." For me, this means never completely giving up chianti, lamb fillet or a wedge of cheese. So I'm only living semibiotically, but I still feel twice as good.