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Idealism vs. Realism in Raw Foods

by Tom Billings
Copyright © 1997 by Thomas E. Billings. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.

Idealism vs. Realism: A Comparison

The raw-foods movement is split into a number of factions, and it seems that no one agrees with anyone else. Some raw-fooders are very idealistic--to the point of extreme dogmatism, while others are very pragmatic and open. The purpose of this article is to contrast and clarify two different approaches to raw (vegan) diets that one might encounter: idealists versus realists.

Based on long experience in the raw movement, it is my observation and opinion that many of the problems of the raw movement have their roots in excessive idealism. A little bit of idealism in raw foods can be good--one can argue that those who try the diet on spiritual or environmental grounds are engaging in idealistic behavior. However, an excess of idealism can lead to a number of problems, some of which are serious.

Let us therefore examine idealism and realism in the context of raw-food diets, on an issue-by-issue basis (below). The material below labeled "I," for Idealistic, represents a summary and synthesis of views one frequently encounters in the movement. The material below labeled "R," for Realistic, is a snapshot of my own views, which are in an ongoing process of growth. I have written this so that others can see the current discussion within the raw movement in a clearer light. (Please note that I am not the only realist; there are many realists in the raw movement.)

Views Of Nature

I: Nature is simple, nature's laws are simplistic, and nature is perfect.

R: Nature is a highly complex system; it is a system of tradeoffs. Our knowledge of nature's laws is limited. Nature is not perfect--some animals wage war against each other, they sometimes kill each other during mating, and there are many other natural events considered imperfect. (Note: nature is not interested in anyone's dogma: nature simply IS.)

I: Nature is your friend, nature wants to help you.

R: Actually, nature is impersonal. One can personalize nature in positive or negative ways, both equally valid. Positive: nature wants to help you, via your birth. Negative: nature wants to help you die, via diseases, predation, starvation, natural disasters. Observe that wild animals rarely die of old age; does their "friend" nature want to help them live to a ripe old age?

I: A raw, vegan diet is the natural diet for humans.

R: Humans are natural omnivores, per: (1) comparative anatomy analysis, (2) evidence of ape diets, (3) the fossil record, (4) every hunter-gatherer society ever known on this planet. Note that, despite the above, there are sufficient, powerful, spiritual and ethical reasons to be a vegetarian.

I: All animals of one species have the same diet, and so should humans!

R: Within a given species, diets can and will vary per habitat and territory. If a food is not present in the habitat or territory, the animal cannot eat it. This is also true of that intelligent, highly adaptable species--humans. Witness the wide variation in diet among hunter-gatherer societies, and across nations and cultures.

Intelligent adaptation is the key to survival of our species. Omnivorous humans can eat a broad range of foods, and survive in habitats where a frugivore/vegan could not--e.g., the Arctic, Tibet. It should be noted that it is due to our omnivorous adaptation skills that we survived as a species, and we are alive now, so we can debate the fine points of diet.

Theory of Diet

I: Cooked food is poison.

R: Humans may have evolved the genetic ability to handle some cooked food--the evidence is inconclusive at present. However, some foods are easier to digest when raw, others when cooked (e.g., starch foods like potatoes). Simple logic suggests one should eat foods that are agreeable to you, in the form that is easiest to digest. Some raw foods should be avoided: raw rhubarb, kidney beans; many cooked foods should be avoided: fried foods, heavily salted foods, broiled foods, etc. Diet is not so trivial that it can be reduced to inaccurate, simplistic slogans.

I: A 100% raw, vegan diet is the best diet for everyone.

R: Actual experience with 100% raw vegan diets shows that they may assist healing and health in the short run, but can be problematic in the long run. Long-term 100% raw vegans are very rare, as very few people manage to stay on the diet long-term. There's a lesson here, if you are open to receive it. Note that vegan diets that are less than 100% raw, say 75-90% raw, are more common and are often less problematic than 100% raw.

I: A raw diet can cure any/all diseases, and bestow perfect health.

R: Wild animals die of disease, despite eating a raw, natural diet. So too, human rawists can and do get sick. A raw foods diet does not guarantee excellent health: there are no guarantees in life. Perfect health cannot even be defined; ask anyone who makes such a claim to give an objective, comprehensive definition of perfect health.

I: If a raw diet doesn't work for you, it's your fault, because the diet is natural and perfect!

R: There are no perfect diets; we live in an imperfect world. If you have made a reasonable, sincere effort at a raw diet, and it doesn't work for you, then common sense suggests that you should change diets. The diet must serve you, not the other way around!

I: A 100% raw diet is very special, in every way!

R: Consider the glorious 100% raw-food diet, and its profound effects on your life. Study this sublime health system, at length. Then, ask yourself this question: in its deepest essence, what really, truly, is this supreme health system of a 100% raw diet?

Answer: It's just lunch! (and other meals as well...)

Seriously, the most sensible way to view raw diets is to regard them as potential tools for good health. Like any other tool, they can be helpful if used correctly, and may be harmful if used incorrectly.

I: A 100% raw (vegan) diet is the goal to work towards.

R: Good health, not 100% raw, is the goal to work towards. Good health and a 100% raw (vegan) diet aren't necessarily the same, a lesson that some rawists learn the hard way. Don't obsess on a specific % of raw in your diet. Instead, find the diet, the % of raw, that works for you, in that it supports good health for you. (Note: some people who adopt raw specifically for healing may need to follow a nearly 100% raw diet for some time, as part of their healing program.)


I: Common motivations (negative) here include fear of mucus, fear/hate of cooked foods and those who consume them, fear of protein foods, and obsessive fear of aging or illness. Many idealists also have positive motivations as well.

R: You should have (only) positive motivations: enhance health, healing, spirituality, environment, and so on. The realist avoids negative motivations. Motivations driven by fear/hate can lead, in the long run, to serious mental or emotional problems (e.g., obsessive fear can turn the diet into an eating disorder similar to anorexia nervosa).

I: Idealistic expectations: cure of all illness, total immunity from disease, greatly enhanced health, extended lifespan; in effect: the "promised land."

R: Realistic expectations: raw food diets are famous for their health enhancement and healing effects. However, one must try and see for oneself, as results are not guaranteed.

I: Any problems you experience are due to detox ("you're not pure enough"). Ignore the problem, redouble your efforts to comply with the ideal diet, and the problem will go away. (Important: see ** below.)

R: Raw-fooders can and do get sick. Problems should be addressed promptly. For serious/acute conditions, one should consult a health professional for advice (and possible treatment), as soon as possible. Dietary changes, which are not in line with the idealistic diet, may be necessary. Don't sacrifice your health on the altar of rawist dogma!

**Danger: the idealist position above is potentially harmful to your health.

I: Dietary dogma is VERY important in life; it is part of your self-identity. Among idealists, guilt and low self-esteem may occur if one cannot follow the perfect diet. Also, egoism, pride, and feelings of superiority may occur when one manages to perform the discipline required for the perfect diet. (Perfectionism)

R: Diet and dietary dogma are not very important. A realist is not upset when he or she backslides, nor does he/she develop a big ego when the diet is followed successfully for a long time. Making perfectionism a part of your dietary dogma is a very bad idea. If you allow perfectionism to be dominant, then the raw foods diet can, figuratively, eat you (when it should be the other way around).

I: Idealists may get very upset if you criticize their perfect diets, as it is such a big part of their self-identity.

R: If you don't like my diet, that's fine. I hope you find one that you like and that works for you.

I: Idealists frequently look at diet in binary terms: cooked vs. raw, vegan vs. non-vegan, with raw/vegan = good, cooked/non-vegan = bad.

R: Realists recognize that a binary model does not yield an accurate view of food/diet. Instead of a black/white (cooked/raw) classification, food is figuratively seen in different shades of gray. Each food, whether cooked or raw, vegan or non-vegan, has properties, and the effects of that food may range from very good to neutral to very bad, depending on the type of food, and your condition. Some relevant questions regarding food are: can you digest the food?, how do you react to it--positive, neutral, or negative?, and so on.

Summary Evaluation

I: Simplistic, inaccurate view of nature and/or false versions of nature's laws.

R: Accurate view of nature; respects that we don't fully understand the real laws of nature.

I: Raw vegan diets are perfect; follow the diet, and you too can be perfect, just like us idealists!

R: There are no perfect diets. Idealists are not perfect. Instead, their idealism blinds them and they often cannot see the diet (or themselves) as they really are.

I: Idealists are in denial of reality, and in denial of nature.

R: A realist accepts reality, nature, and life--as they are, without the blinders of dogma or idealism.


It is worth mentioning that idealism and realism are not a binary classification of raw-fooders, as one can simultaneously hold some idealist and some realist views.

The Effects of Excessive Idealism
In Raw-Food Diets

An earlier version of the preceding section was published on Internet in August of 1997. That article generated a number of replies that praised idealism in a general context. In those replies, idealism was romanticized and depicted as being a major factor in the advance of human societies. There is certainly some truth to those claims. We all are realists in some ways, idealists in others. That's life, or as the realist would say, that's reality.

However, idealism has a darker side. While one can say that Buddha, Christ, and Da Vinci were idealists, one can also say that Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, and Stalin were idealists as well--idealists of a very different kind. The question then becomes, what is the balance of idealism and realism that is best for each person?

As mentioned earlier, it is my view that many of the problems of the raw movement have their roots in excessive idealism. Let's now consider some of the damage that excessive idealism can cause, in the context of raw-food (vegan) diets, as follows.

The Potential Effects of Increased Realism
In Raw-Food Diets

I am convinced that increasing the level of realism in raw (vegan) diets, and decreasing the level of idealism, will alleviate some of the above problems, as follows.

So, before praising idealism and dismissing realism, consider their applications and effects in raw-food diets. I hope that you will agree with me: that the raw movement needs MORE realism and LESS idealism.


Many years ago, when I was getting into raw foods, I was very naive and idealistic. I learned--the hard way (see my bio for the unfortunate details)--that idealism is not a good approach. I encourage others to try rawism, but to do so in a realistic way, and to avoid the traps of dogma and idealism. The long-term outcome of your "raw experiment" may depend on which approach you choose, and your attitude.

Also, I should address the situation that some raw-fooders will cling to idealism, despite its serious flaws, because it appears to be more positive, and gives them (false) hope. If someone came to you with a pill, and said that it was natural, and that if you took the pill it would cure all diseases, grant perfect health, and lengthen your lifespan, then you would dismiss that person as a charlatan, a fraud, a snake-oil peddler. Why then do you believe it when someone tries to "sell" you a diet with the same false claims? Let's ignore those in the raw movement who are afflicted with excessive idealism (and who are in denial of reality), and approach raw foods with our eyes open, with full acceptance of reality.

Finally, it is not my objective here to insult or attack non-zealous idealists. You have the right to run your life as you see fit. I am only asking you to open your eyes, and see the risks of excessive idealism when it is incorporated into diet. The combination of a highly restricted diet and excessive idealism can be hazardous to your health.

I wish you good health, and good luck with your diet!

--Tom Billings

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