Should we eat 100% raw food?

A friend suggested that since I wanted to improve my health, I should try eating only raw food.  When she switched to a raw diet she said she felt fantastic, had so much energy…

During my eleven days of eating only raw food, I was wondering how long it might take until I started feeling great. It certainly hadn’t happened in the first three days. I looked on many, many sites for their “proof” that it works. Most sites cited a Swiss guy called Kouchakoff, a researcher who discovered, in the 1930s, that when we eat cooked food, a reaction occurs in our blood – the same reaction that occurs when our immune system mounts a reaction to a foreign invader. He noticed that when we eat raw food, no reaction occurred. Is it possible that we are not “meant” to eat cooked food? Could it be that our immune systems are exhausted from the constant “management” of cooked food, leaving us vulnerable to illnesses? The raw food sites concluded a definite YES to both these questions, and advocate a 100% raw vegan diet. I wanted to find Kouchakoff’s actual published paper, because I wanted to know whether the blood reaction, which he refers to as “leukocytosis”, occurs when we eat animal products such as honey, dairy, eggs and raw fish. Do we really have to be “raw vegan” or is that just an overlay added by these raw foodists who themselves are vegan?

I finally found and read his paper, titled “The Influence Of Cooking On The Blood Formula Of Man”. I was pleased to see that he specifically mentioned the animal products I was interested in and said that eating them raw did not cause leukocytosis. What surprised me, however, was his statement, “It has been proved possible to take, without altering the blood formula, every kind of foodstuff which is habitually eaten now, but only by following this rule, viz: that it must be taken along with raw products, according to a definite formula.” To my disappointment, the details he gave about the formula weren’t comprehensive enough for me to be able to work out how to follow it. Mulling on this overnight, I realised I felt a bit cheated. The raw foodists are citing this paper as their primary source of scientific proof that we should eat 100% raw food, while Kouchakoff himself only recommends that to avoid leukocytosis we eat the right raw foods with our cooked food . The other thing is that Kouchakoff says the “critical temperature” at which a food begins to cause leukocytosis is individual to each food, but starts at around 87 degrees celsius. The raw food community advocates heating nothing above 38 degrees (or thereabouts). The more I thought about it, the more I thought the raw food community’s claims could not possibly be considered “corroborated” by this paper.

I started searching again – was this paper only a portion of their scientific “proof”? Another name came up – Dr Howell. I had a look into his research and found that the temperature guide used by the raw food community must have been taken from him – he discovered that food heated above approx 40 degrees lost their living enzymes. But I also took his research with a grain of salt – firstly because he has created an enzyme supplement which everyone should take, so I felt his research was likely to be self-serving, (and I am deeply suspicious of supplements) and also because I couldn’t find any direct connection that he had established between the life of the enzymes in food, and our health and wellbeing, should we ingest only raw food. He suggested that if we eat cooked food, we should eat raw food first so that the enzymes will help us digest the cooked food. Again – hardly evidence that we should aim for 100% raw.

The raw food sites, along with citing Dr Howell and Kouchakoff, said that the proof was in the eating – go raw for 3 days, ten days, a month (each one has its own recommendation) and see for yourself how much better you feel. Well I didn’t feel better at all. None of these “proofs” hold up for me.

This post is really a continuation of my previous post – so if you haven’t already, read that first.

After mulling overnight on the massive discrepency between the raw food community’s “proof” and the actual paper it was based on, I thought, surely I’m not the only person who has noticed this. I searched more, and came up with an article by Jean-Louis Tu, a raw-foodist who had not only noticed the same thing, but had done a whole heap of further research into it. The stuff he said resonated with me, and matched my own findings. His findings included:

* That there are no traditional raw food cultures anywhere in the world. Even those cited by the raw food community only eat some raw food, not even a high proportion (eg the Eskimos). There were no tropical cultures where people lived almost entirely on fruit. In fact a danger with the raw food diet, he says, is an excessively high sugar load from eating so much fruit. The many traditional cultures who experience wonderful health in that they are not prone to degenerative diseases are still vulnerable to infectious diseases. They ate cooked food and they didn’t get cancer etc.  The use of fire, controlled by humans, seems to have begun at least 400,000 years ago, and for at least the last 40,000 years cooking has been widespread practice.

* There is a group of people who believe that if you eliminate all cooked food from your diet, you can eat purely from instinct – but if you have only a tiny bit of cooked food it throws you out of balance and makes you want more cooked food. The author provides two points of evidence against this philosophy – one that most “Instinctos” find they naturally eat more fruit and neglect their greens, so they have a number of dietry rules to ensure their diet is balanced. He also cites studies done on babies who are offered a range of raw and cooked food, and allowed to self-select. All babies chose for themselves a balanced diet even if it wasn’t balanced over a singe day. And they chose some cooked food as well as raw.

* He attributes the fantastic results many people experience after going raw as being due to a greater purity of diet, rather than the fact that the food isn’t cooked. For example:

  • The raw diet is relatively high in unsaturated fats compared to saturated fats, and generally eliminates all trans-fatty acids, which interfere with omega-3 absorption and is considered the most disease-promoting of all fats.
  • Since a raw diet consists predominantly of fruit and vegetables, eating this way fills your body with phytochemicals, antioxidants, fibre, and other vitamins and minerals which promote good health.
  • People on a raw diet generally eliminate all processed foods and associated refined products and chemical additives, which are known to be harmful to our bodies.  Also their presence in a diet crowds out more nutritious foods.
  • They also tend to eliminate potential “problem foods” – for example, since raw food is often equated with vegan, many people give up dairy and so benefit if they had a dairy-intolerance. Since grain is eliminated, anyone with gluten or other grain-related intolerance benefits.
  • Since 100% raw is so very difficult to maintain, in our culture, it needs a lot of focus and dedication. People who focus and dedicate themselves to this aspect of their health usually also make an effort, at the same time, to sleep well, exercise well, involve themselves in relaxation exercises like meditation and yoga. All these can contribute to the feeling of well-being.

* Some people experience a revolt after eating cooked food, having eating only raw for a long time, and interpret this as evidence that cooked food is a form of poison. The author suggests this may actually occur because the digestive system is weakened, especially after such a high consumption of fruit for a long time.

* Raw food diets, while they can have immense benefits in the beginning, for reasons outlined above, rarely work in the long term.  Ronald Cridland, a doctor with long experience of caring for patients on raw food diets reports about people on a high-fruit diet that “many feel quite well for about two years…but after that, they begin to experience low energy, immune problems, skin problems and fatigue.  Many of these patients are sleep deprived.”  Tu comments that the decline can be gradual and occur unnoticed, and by that time raw-foodists are generally so invested in their raw food lifestyle and doctrine that they don’t want to notice it.

* Symptoms and conditions that would otherwise be referred to as “illnesses” are often relabelled “detox” when on a raw-food diet, and raw-foodists who haven’t been “sick” for years still report frequent “detox episodes”. The point is to be skeptical when assessing how well you are doing on a raw diet.  Signs of failure to thrive include diarrhoea, absent or erratic menstruation, insomnia or unrestful sleep, low energy, lack of normal motivation, being hungry all the time, losing too much weight, loss of sex drive, more frequent colds, reactive nervous system, and in some extreme cases, rickets, congestive heart failure due to inadequte protein, and, more commonly vitamin B-12 deficiency. Even long termers find it very difficult to adhere to a 100% raw diet and so regularly backslide. Viktoras Kulvinskasof Hippocrates Institute – (which runs living-food health retreats) would give health talks and lifestyle consultations about the benefits of raw food, but reports privately battling bulimia – vomiting up raw food and binging on junk food.  He was so entrenched in the raw food business he couldn’t publicly admit his “failings” for a long time.

* The nutrient profile of a vegetarian raw-food diet that predominates in fruits is much improved by including some cooked vegetables and/or starches.  Beta-carotene in carrots, for example, is poorly absorbed when eaten raw, but when steamed absorption is improved.  Cooking fruit and vegetables reduces their vitamin content by about 10-25% (depending on the item and the cooking method) but it can also increase the bioavailability of some nutrients, so the nutrient-loss may be balanced.  Mineral loss does not appear to occur with cooking.

Please forgive me if I have made errors in summarising some of his findings – if you are interested in this topic, read his article for yourself.  Much of what I have written above is summarised from this page of the article.

Anyway, after reading this I am convinced that I don’t want to aim for 100% raw, that cooked food is NOT harmful to my health, and that to eliminate it altogether could be dangerous for my health. I do, however, plan to continue incorporating, say, 60% of raw food into my diet, without being a fascist about it.

Since coming to these conclusions, I have been back on the raw food forums, reading, and am rather shocked by the people who report “detox” symptoms such as their hair falling out, insomnia, cessation of their periods, and even a repulsion for raw foods. When they ask for help, others confess they too have experienced these symptoms after switching to a raw diet, but no-one, NO-ONE, suggests they should eat enough cooked food to eliminate these signs of ill-health, or that they should listen to their body and eat as much healthy cooked food as they feel is appropriate. One woman on a raw food forum described her pregnancy, saying that she went into “detox” if she ate more than 60% raw, and since she was concerned about how the detox might affect her baby, she persisted with 40% cooked food until after the birth. Sounds sensible to me, though I suspect it was not so much detox as her body letting her know what it needs.

I thought I’d finished my research into raw food, but something was still nagging at me. Dr Edward Howell claims that we need the enzymes in raw food to be able to digest properly. Is this true? I was doing a google search, thinking I should have a really good read, work out what assumptions he’s made and what studies he’s actually done, and then I found that good ol’ Jean-Louis Tu has done it for me. Here’s a brief summary of what he’s got to say on the topic. Please note that I haven’t cross-referenced his work this time to check it’s true – I feel a fairly high regard for his approach given the similarity of our independent appraisals of Kouchakoff’s studies.

Interestingly, the studies that Howell himself have cited are old – from the 1920s and 30s – there doesn’t seem to be any newer research validating his claims. His claims are, as far as I can discern, that in our lifetime we can only manufacture so many enzymes in our body for digesting food, and that we gradually deplete them as we use them up on the digestion of cooked food. If we eat raw food, Howell says, we digest it with its own enzymes instead of using up our limited supply – and the result is less ageing, less illness, and greater wellbeing. Howell doesn’t appear to be a scientific researcher – in fact much of his proof is claimed to be in a book which no-one has been able to find. He makes the assumption at the beginning of his book that enzymes contain the “life force”, and doesn’t even attempt any proof in this regard.

The main point that Jean-Louis Tu made, which struck me, is that researchers Tortora and Anagostakos [1981] found that when food reaches our stomach, the majority of enzymes in the food are destroyed. The food then passes into our small intestine, and it is here that 90% of the nutrients are absorbed, with the help of bile and pancreatic enzymes. So, it seems the enzymes present in the food we eat has a fairly small impact on its digestion.

Ok, now I think I’m finished on the topic of raw food. Please don’t interpret my comments on this blog to mean that I am against the eating of raw food – not at all. I believe it’s good for all of us to eat plenty of raw fruit and vegies, and nuts and seeds are probably far better for us in their raw state. I just don’t believe we should strive for 100% raw.

Since completing this research into raw food, I have finally found a diet that DOES improve my health. See Traditional Foods for a great, well balanced, satisfying diet that has resulted in fantastic all-round health for me.