Plant-Based Diet Pioneer Michio Kushi Dies At 88

Written by Emi Boscamp

Michio Kushi, the Japanese scholar who popularized the plant-based diet in the United States, has died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 88, reports The New York Times.

In the 1960s, Kushi and his first wife Aveline, who passed away in 2001, founded Erewhon, a brand of natural foods that eventually became its own store, offering staples of the macrobiotic diet — which emphasizes whole grains and local produce over highly processed foods — like brown rice, miso, tofu, and tamari soy sauce.

Then, in the 1970s, Kushi, Aveline, and their students founded the East-West Journal and the East-West Foundation "for macrobiotic research and cross-cultural understanding" and the Kushi Institute, a 600-acre macrobiotic education center in Becket, Massachusetts.

"He was in the vanguard of the natural foods movement," said Alex Jack, general manager of the Kushi Institute. "He 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 once told the Boston Globe how he was first inspired by the teachings of one of his teachers in Japan, George Ohsawa, who said he cured himself of tuberculosis as a teenager using the "yin-yang concepts of a balanced, whole-foods diet, exercise, simple living, and being in touch with nature, society, and oneself." Ohsawa also believed that, according to history, meat-eating people were involved in many more wars than vegetable- and grain-eating people.

Kushi described his epiphany while observing passersby in Times Square:

Some is fat, some is skinny, some is blond, some is dark. And I suddenly understood humanity. Human nature is made by two factors. One is environment — natural environment and social environment. Second is what we take. We take of course oxygen and sunshine, but also food we choose every day by our own freedom. If we choose different food and different cooking, a different nature come out. So I could understand at that time why Ohsawa was saying diet is an important factor for world peace.

The Kushi Institute, which is still active, promotes macrobiotics as a path toward "greater personal freedom, health, happiness and peace" and the prevention of cancer, among other medical conditions.

Since Kushi's death — along with Aveline's and their daughter's — was caused by cancer, the very thing he targeted with his diet, it begs the question: How could this have happened?

His son, Haruo Kushi, an epidemiologist, told the Times, "I've actually done cancer research, and it's clear that many different things contribute to cancer, and there's a lot we don't understand. But everybody dies of something, and 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."

Mr. Kushi is survived by his second wife, four sons, a brother, 14 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and all of us, the people he educated. He sowed the seeds of the health-food movement in America. He changed the way we eat — and therefore function.

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