Friday we gave a raw foodism proponent, Raw Chef Dan, the opportunity to explain the philosophy. Dan’s a busy guy and he was up front about the fact that he couldn’t get into an ongoing debate but could share a bit about the philosophy. So the purpose of the feature on Friday was simply to present an introduction to the whole premise of raw food before I assessed the lifestyle. I initially planned to cover raw foodism in a follow-up Primal Health post this week, but I’ll go ahead and address it today since we’ve got a hot plate on our hands with this topic. (Guess that means homeopathy is on the burner for Wednesday’s Primal Health…I think you’ll find this to be an interesting week at MDA.) To be blunt, my assessment isn’t pretty. But I do want to be clear that this isn’t about one guy. Dan’s obviously got strong opinions and you can probably guess that I’d disagree with them, but I want to steer the conversation to the raw food philosophy in general. Let’s investigate.
Raw foodism shouldn’t be dismissed as merely another trend (no California jokes, people). It’s become insanely popular and, as you’ll note from the Friday post, has passionately devoted adherents. Raw food proponents toss around terms like “living” and “consciousness” and the diet has a distinct spiritual overtone (some might say religious). The raw food diet is perhaps one of the most difficult diets to follow – even more so than veganism and perhaps even more specific than the macrobiotic diet – and requires an enormous amount of effort and time. Still, if a diet is going to awaken your soul, I suppose the effort required is worth it.
The raw food diet entails the following: raw, obviously; typically vegan although not necessarily so; absolutely no processed, refined, treated, altered or preserved foods of any sort. Beyond that it gets more complex, as raw foodists explore which particular foods and food combinations are crucial for their particular systems and health characteristics. It gets a little too woo for me. But the basic gist of the raw food diet is that foods, in their organic, natural, uncooked state, are “alive” and full of nutritional density to which traditionally prepared – cooked – foods simply can’t compare. Moreover, raw foods are full of important enzymes, which are believed to be the fundamental wellspring of ideal human health. Our modern problems of obesity, depression, diabetes, arthritis, sexual dysfunction, anxiety and nearly every other disorder, syndrome and malady can be attributed to the dead food we eat.
I don’t disagree that subsisting on raw vegetables, nuts, fruits and seeds is a better idea than living on fries and burgers. We should all make fresh – or frozen – vegetables the base, in terms of bulk, of our diets. Americans are sorely lacking in sufficient vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, and they’re also eating far too many garbage calories. Produce consumption certainly takes care of those issues. But nutritional benefits of produce, nuts and seeds aside, this is where the raw foodists and I part ways – and it’s where the gorillas and humans likely parted ways, too. In fact, one compelling theory in mammalian evolution – specifically, the great apes – holds that our human scavenging of any meat we could get our incisors on is likely why gorillas are gorillas and humans became humans. In particular, our ancestors went for the fattiest tissues they could find (brains, organs, liver…getting hungry yet?). We’re clearly evolved as omnivores and we do need a lot of protein. Based on my understanding of evolution and nutrition, I don’t espouse veganism or vegetarianism, although I’ve got both lifestyles going on under my very own roof, so I’m not telling you it’s my way or the highway, either.
Raw foodists are not necessarily vegans or even vegetarians, of course, although many shy away from “too much” protein under the misinformed belief that our bodies cannot digest “too much” (whatever that is). That said, some eat raw fish and others even go for raw beef. That’s important, because sufficient protein is absolutely a concern here. Fermentation is another part of the raw foodism umbrella (and we discussed fermentation with another radical foodster, Sandor Katz, last week). But let’s get back to the raw thing: what on earth makes raw better? How is some food “living” and nutrient dense by virtue of its temperature, while other food is “dead” and therefore poison? Another blogger posted a brutal assessment of raw food in response to Friday’s post, and I couldn’t have said it better. Go read her piece when you’re done here if you’re interested in this issue.
Fact: You cannot be deficient in enzymes (unless you have a rare genetic condition). You don’t need enzymes from food. Your body has its own digestive enzymes or builds specific enzymes within cells to catalyze biochemical reactions. No amount of living or dead food is going to change that. Don’t fall for enzyme therapy, “curative” enzyme supplements (unless they are digestive enzymes), and diets that focus on enzymes. Some of those juicer infomercials focus on “enzyme benefits” and they drive me nuts (I’ve ranted about this, of course).
Fact: By the time it gets to you, all food is dead. The fresher the better so as to obtain more vitamins, minerals and nutrients, but it’s not “living”. If you want to eat raw vegetables and fruits and nuts to obtain more nutrition, I’m all for that. But there’s nothing spiritual about it, and subsisting on raw food to the exclusion of some cooked foods could ultimately be unhealthy.
Fact: You do need protein, and lots of it. I suggest shooting for at least 20 grams at every meal, totaling at least 100 grams daily.
Fact: Cooking probably helped shape our evolution. Humans have benefited from the nutrition in cooked food for well over 250,000 years and it’s not a bad thing. Many nutrients that are important to the body – various carotenoids, for example – are often only released when the food is cooked. Over-cooking will reduce the amount of vitamins, but hopefully you don’t do that anyway, because soggy or dried-out food tastes bad. (Our tongues are surprisingly intelligent indicators.)
Fact: Humans clearly evolved eating a variety of meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, fruits, greens, shoots, stems, peppers, roots, tubers and even flowers. While it’s possible (and recommended, given how hard you’re going to have to work to get enough protein) to eat a great variety of foods on the raw food diet, there’s simply no great nutritional advantage and no scientific merit to going raw.
Fact: Many plants – especially grains and seeds that contain lectins – do not “want” to be eaten. Technically, all living things, plant matter included, have evolved particular defensive mechanisms – from chemicals to spikes and thorns to toxins – to stand a better chance at survival. Many perfectly nutritious foods do require cooking to remove poisons or become edible. So the belief that our modern diet is replete with chemicals and toxins – while often accurate – does not negate the fact that raw, “natural” foods can also contain their own chemicals and even toxins.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.