The Raw Foods Conundrum

Posted on November 12, 2010


Proponents of Raw Food Diets and Raw Vegan Diets are often so passionate about the benefits they experience that it may be difficult to resist a wholesale conversion to the Raw side of the Force! They may promise everything from the outright curing of chronic illness, to boundless energy, to a Lama-like spiritual attunement! No question, many people experience profound benefits, but what about those who don’t? Are they just doing it wrong?

In the time tested disciplines of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, a dietary preponderance of Raw Foods, is thought of as being harmful except in the hottest of weather, or for the correction of excessive Fire/Yang/Pitta energies in the body. The possible problem with inappropriately timed or excess of Raw Foods is that the Cold and often Damp energies of these foods quench “digestive fire”, our physiologic capacity to assimilate nutrients, and literally need to be cooked by the body to access the nutrition they contain. During hot weather or in a “Hot” energied person, this is easily achieved. In a person with a Cooler, more Yin (Kapha, or Vata) disease pattern or constitution, too many Raw Foods can cause all kinds of trouble.

Contrary to fairly recent western thinking, light cooking actually releases nutrition to the body, and requires less work for the digestive tract. The concern about loss of nutrients is areaction to extreme cooking and processing of whole food used in industrial food manufacturing techniques developed over the last century such as canning, or the creation of modern non-foods such as white bread or process cheese. Light cooking generally does not destroy nutrients, but more often liberates them for better assimilation by the body. With some foods and herbs, much longer cooking is essential, making certain nutrients more available, or causing desirable chemical transformations to occur.

In all sound nutritional theories there is clear discernment between what one consumes and what one actually assimilates. Why are some who eat what is considered a healthy diet often still undernourished or illness prone? In a person with a Cooler constitution, a raw diet in the winter an induce a variety of symptoms including most commonly; general body pain and coldness, kidney/low back pain, diarrhea or sluggish digestion, pallor, fatigue, “brain fog”, edema, weight gain, depression, menstrual irregularities, loss of libido, and low immunity. Those who remain on a raw food diet long-term under these circumstances often develop more serious symptoms such as anorexia, neurosis, obsessive behavior, anxiety, malnourishment, anemia, emaciation or difficulty losing weight, chronic bowel disorders, frequent diarrhea or constipation, reduced bone density, chronic pain, and other problems. It is ironic, in addition, that many of these people often feel a need to indulge in tobacco, excessive caffeine and sugars (including fruit), simply to feel briefly energized or to stay warm.

What’s all the raw food mania about then? In a cultural framework it comes as a backlash to the over-cooked, over processed, nutritionally barren, fast-food Western diet devised in the last century. The raw approach can actually be a wonderful temporary and therapeutic diet for those who are ill or becoming ill due to the clearly deleterious typical western diet. The typical western diet is also very heating and congesting and the raw diet will, in the short-term, balance this.

As a result, many modern western natural medicine modalities have become obsessed, and many are based entirely upon, “cleansing and detoxification” using raw foods and “Cold”, eliminating, herbs and therapies. For many however, prolonged use of this approach is a risky obsession.

There are also many people who appear to thrive on an all-Raw diet. Why?
A person with a Warmer, more Yang, or Pitta constitution will often do very well on a Raw-Vegan diet. (for best results adding in a little fish, cooked grains, and bone stock during the coldest weather.)
Most of the popular Raw food promoters on the internet and in the media are people with Firey constitutions living in hot climates, making this diet perfect for them. But is it right for you?

The following factors contribute to an individual’s ability to thrive on a raw diet: Living in a warmer climate, having a warmer innate constitution, paying strict attention to warmer food energies as defined by traditional health systems within the raw food diet context, and particular non-cooking food preparation techniques such as fermentation which essentially “cooks” the food without heat and makes the nutrition more available.

In geographies with strongly expressed seasons (like Canada), tradional wisdom does prescribe a Raw food season: The hottest season is the “cleansing” dietary phase in the year, the diet includes a preponderance of fruit and vegetables, and a reduction of starches and animal products. This is also when these foods happen to flourish. This thinking is also agreed upon by the Macrobiotic and “eat local” movements which are also strongly validated by the evolutionary paradigm; eat what grows!

For our ancestors, eating seasonally came naturally. People today, however, are inundated with an overwhelming variety of fresh foods throughout the year. While this has some advantages, it has also eliminated our natural tendency to eat seasonally and sensibly. Awareness of one’s innate constitution, basic “food energies” (a food’s general effect on the body), and using the seasons as a guide, will invariably have a broad positive impact on health. In addition, many people find that this awareness gives them the power to respond to and change how they are feeling by simply choosing the right meal.

I work one-on-one with my clients to determine their innate constitution and make the best food choices for their type, the season, and for particular health issues. Let you food be your medicine.

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