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Eat for immunity—go traditional

To help you better understand three of the oldest traditions in food—Macrobiotics, Ayurveda and Chinese medicine—and how to market to their followers, three experts have shared with The Natural Foods Merchandiser a little about how each tradition affects immunity through diet.

Hilary Oliver

April 24, 2008

5 Min Read
Eat for immunity—go traditional

Perhaps your staff has finally mastered the art of helping customers with their Atkins or raw-food diets. Your salespeople adapt as fad diets come and go, learning to guide shoppers to the best products, and to merchandise them attractively.

But three of the oldest traditions in food might still be mysterious to your staff. Macrobiotics, Ayurveda and Chinese medicine all view food as one of the key factors to well-being, and are traditions that your customers are turning to for treating health conditions and building their overall immunity and life expectancy.

The type of diets these lifestyles support can be a boon to retailers, letting them highlight items they might not normally feature, while helping shoppers build their best possible immune health. But an undereducated staff can stunt growth in these areas. To help you better understand these traditions and how to market to their followers, three experts have shared with The Natural Foods Merchandiser a little about how each tradition affects immunity through diet.


Often when people think of a macrobiotic diet, they picture people chewing plain brown rice excessively, wasting away on a minimalist vegetarian diet, says David Briscoe, macrobiotic teacher and counselor and founder of Macrobiotics America in Oroville, Calif. But that's not a very accurate picture, he says.

The macrobiotic movement, closely related to Asian medicine, relates immunity to blood quality, since blood is the basis of cells, tissues and organs. According to a macrobiotic philosophy of food, every food has qualities of yin and yang, which must be in harmony with the body's qualities in order to be balanced, producing balanced, healthy blood and thus healthy tissues, organs and systems. Briscoe uses a seesaw example, saying macrobiotics is about finding the balance in the middle, avoiding extremes. A diet can be balanced by making complex carbohydrates the focus, instead of animal proteins, Briscoe says. "Whole grains and fresh vegetables are the center factor for the macrobiotic diet."

The need for these foods might seem obvious because of public awareness efforts from groups like the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society. But Briscoe says people simply don't know how to use whole grains and fresh vegetables well. "People need to know how to select and prepare them and make them part of their healthy eating."

That's where retailers can pick up the ball. Providing recipes and knowledge about how to turn raw whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice into tasty, enjoyable meals makes it easier for customers to apply macrobiotic principles without getting bored—and can boost sales of your bulk grains.

"When people know how to prepare them, then grains start disappearing instead of languishing on the shelf," Briscoe says, pointing out that retailers have many more macrobiotic-friendly foods than they realize.

"I'm always looking to educate retailers about macrobiotic foods," Briscoe says, "I can tell [when] nobody on staff can really educate them on the use of macrobiotics." He recommends Pocket Guide to Macrobiotics by Carl Ferré (Crossing Press, 1997) for familiarizing staff with the basic concepts of the movement.

Chinese medicine

Traditional Chinese medicine has a different idea of building the immune system than the Western concept of simply increasing the white blood-cell count. Chinese medical practitioner Jason Blalack, based in Boulder, Colo., says it's about defensive qi, pronounced "chee." Defensive qi, which can protect against external influences such as pathogens, can be weakened by certain deficiencies or accumulations within the body, which are often treatable through diet.

Blalack explains that because each condition and body type is individual, Chinese medicine cannot easily be summed up in generalities. "But when it comes down to it," he says, "eat a whole foods diet."

Most of the time, Blalack says, the challenge with his patients is getting them to do what they already know is right—eating a properly balanced diet. But for most people, lack of convenient, nutritious food is a problem, he says. That's where naturals retailers come in. Blalack loves eating from the hot bar at his local natural foods store, and says having good recipes and premade dishes can go a long way in helping customers build their immunity. Providing simple, grab-and-go meals based on whole foods without additives or preservatives is a way to attract busy folks who know they need a more natural and nutritious diet but don't always have time to cook their own whole foods.

"Your immune system is directly related to inflammation and stress levels," Blalack says. He adds that eating foods loaded with preservatives and non-natural ingredients causes these levels to increase and weaken immunity.


According to Ayurveda, possibly the oldest medicinal system on the planet, the root of good health is in digestion and relates directly to diet. A very personalized practice, Ayurveda focuses on balancing the different elements—air, ether, fire, water, earth—and six different tastes for each individual, because each person has a different constitution. The goal is a personal balance of the elements to stay ahead in the immunity game.

Jennifer Workman, a Boulder, Colo.-based nutritionist who focuses on Ayurveda, explains that just as each person is born with a different constitution, or dosha, and a different immunity level, or ojas, foods have differing amounts of prana, or life force. The key to building a strong immune system, she says, is finding out what deficiencies a person might have and balancing those deficiencies in the diet with the six tastes and qualities of food. Often, she says, this is a logical progression from finding the root of food cravings and fulfilling those in the healthiest way.

Because Ayurveda is such an individualized practice, it is not easy for retailers to market directly toward those who practice it. But Workman says natural foods retailers play a key role in the lifestyle because organic, natural and cruelty-free foods are central in the Ayurvedic tradition. "It's about consciousness and compassion," she says, "for yourself, for the animals and for the planet."

Workman helps her clients on a practical level by taking them on shopping trips to a local Wild Oats Natural Marketplace store. In return, the store offers her clients gift certificates to encourage business. The best ways for retailers to reach out to an Ayurvedic clientele, Workman says, is by pursuing relationships with local Ayurvedic practitioners, creating a referral system and having an in-store expert in Ayurveda. If your store is not big enough to hire an Ayurvedic consultant, having a practitioner give a presentation to your staff can help better prepare employees for helping customers who follow Ayurveda.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 22, 26

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