Healing Crohn's Naturally With Macrobiotic
A Macrobiotic Chef's Digestive Healing Journey
Can a macrobiotic diet really help relieve the symptoms of ulcerative colitis? Chef Marisa Marinelli thinks so.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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If someone had told Marisa Marinelli, now 31, that she would become a macrobiotic chef when she grew up, she never would have believed it. Yet today, Marinelli is not only a macrobiotic chef, but she's also the author of a wildly popular blog, Cooking Macro the Italiano Way.
“I was a dancer and performer, and never once did I show an interest in cooking,” she says. “I had never eaten any vegetable but broccoli and was fond of cheese, meat, and pasta. You’re talking to a girl who didn’t even know how to boil rice, let alone know what the word ‘blanching’ meant.”
But that was then. Now she follows a macrobiotic diet – with a strong focus on whole grains, cereals, and cooked vegetables – and steers clear of processed or refined foods and most animal products.
Becoming a Macrobiotic Chef
The road to her unlikely profession began when Marinelli was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 19, after two years of severe abdominal pain. She was in and out of the hospital for weeks at a time, and her surgeons thought they would need to remove her colon because her symptoms were so severe.
Ulcerative colitis is an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the colon. Symptoms include cramping, persistent diarrhea, and bloody stools, according to the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA).
“I spent my 20th and 21st birthdays in the hospital,” Marinelli says. Nothing seemed to make her feel better so she started researching different diets. All paths seemed to lead to a macrobiotic one. A friend with ulcerative colitis gave her a book called Controlling Crohn’s Disease the Natural Way, and she "read the book, cover to cover, in two days,” she recalls.
Soon after that, she signed up for a course in macrobiotic living at the Kushi Institute, a macrobiotic education center in Becket, Mass. “This program completely changed my life,” she says.
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Benefits of a Macrobiotic Diet
There's no recommended diet that will work well for everyone with ulcerative colitis, and there's no evidence that eating habits increase the chances of developing the condition, according to the CCFA. Even so, Marinelli says she started to notice improvements after she began following a macrobiotic diet.
“Eventually things started happening – good things,” she says. “Within 10 days, my symptoms just stopped. And after one month of really committing, my energy in the morning increased."
Now, 10 years later, “I’m doing very well," she says. "I still have my colon, and my last colonoscopy showed no symptoms of colitis."
Marinelli has also joined the staff at the Kushi Institute, offering private cooking lessons as well as classes to people interested in learning more about a macrobiotic diet. Traditionally macrobiotic diets are largely vegetarian, but Marinelli does eat fish and “some meat when appropriate," she says.
Some of her favorite macrobiotic recipes include root vegetable ginger soup, white codfish cooked in bok choy greens and onions, sweet potatoes with cinnamon, and boiled millet topped with roasted sesame gomasio (a type of seasoned salt). “I love millet, squash, and porridge," she says. “Don’t be afraid to add oil to your creations. Olive or coconut oils are staple healers in a macrobiotic diet."
Eric Sieden, the director of food and nutrition at the Plainview and Syosset hospitals in the North Shore-LIJ Health System on Long Island, N.Y., notes that it’s important to work with a nutritionist before making any major changes to your diet.
“Macrobiotic diets can be extremely heart healthy because they are high in fiber and low in saturated or animal fats, but they can lack many nutrients from dairy and meat,” he says. Working with a nutritionist can help ensure that you get the potential benefits of macrobiotic eating and minimize possible risks.
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