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(Looking at the Science on Raw vs. Cooked Foods--continued, Part 3L)

Transcending magical thinking
about the properties of raw food

Initial improvements on raw food. Many people first coming to raw food appear to experience dramatic improvements, although most individuals eventually find they are not able to sustain their raw diet continuously for long periods of time. (We emphasize that this last point is important to keep in mind as a significant limitation of the potential of a total raw-food diet for long-term benefit.) In any event, the classical explanation for the positive results obtained is that raw diets are "cleaner"--that they got rid of the person's major source of intoxification.

Most beneficial effects of raw-food diets are likely attributable primarily to factors unrelated to whether the food is raw or not.

It may well be that detoxification is a factor in the improved health of those first switching to a raw-food diet (particularly for those who have been eating very highly processed diets previously; or who have been on long-term drug regimens). But keeping things in perspective, it is also very likely simply one factor among others, and it is not necessarily the case that an all-raw-food diet will contain significantly less toxins than a diet that is predominantly raw/partially cooked.

While it has been demonstrated earlier in this paper that cooked food (and more particularly, food cooked at high temperature) contains some harmful substances, raw foods, too, may contain a certain number of toxic substances. Measuring what differences there may be between the two is not something that can be easily calculated at present; but it is far more likely that numerous other factors are sufficient to explain the majority of the improvements attributed to raw food besides the fact it is uncooked.

By going raw, one is not simply ceasing to cook their food, but changing the amounts, types, and proportions of foods and nutrients in a profound way at the same time, which in and of itself is not necessarily dependent on going raw. A raw-food diet is just one way among others to achieve this. Some of the relevant factors here are:

Additional point: Redefinition of detrimental symptoms as "healthy" detox

While we do not wish to denigrate the real results people obtain from eating a raw-food diet, the subject of perceptual issues is worth discussing in relation to just how successful raw-food diets are over the long-term. We do not deny that people can experience dramatic results, at least in the beginning. However, at the same time, particularly over the long term, people often display the tendency and show strong signs of ignoring persistent, problematic symptoms on their diets by viewing them through rose-colored glasses as "continued detoxification."

The subtle influence of creeping fanaticism in biasing perception. Raw-food diets are among the most extreme ones, in the sense that they are not very accepted socially. Although not all raw-food eaters will admit it, a total raw-food diet is not an easy diet for most people to sustain. Few "reasonable" people will come overnight from hamburger and Coke to eating 100% raw, certified organic food, without having a high motivation to the point that an almost religious faith in the diet has taken place, sometimes to the point of reaching fanaticism or zealotry.

Nevertheless, we believe the itemized list of reasons above is sufficient to explain most cases of improvement on raw food. But leaving that aside here, it is worth mentioning that the stories one hears cannot simply be taken at face value without a certain amount of probing and cross-checking where possible.

When "bad" symptoms are seen as good things. The rationale behind a raw-food diet (and some other alternative diets) is somewhat unique in being able to consciously acknowledge symptoms that other people would call bad, yet at the same time blithely reinterpret them as good ("detoxification," etc.). In other words, symptoms and conditions that most who are on conventional (non-raw) diets would describe (or define) as "illness" are labeled as "detox" when they occur on a raw diet. Some raw-fooders have not been "ill" or "sick" for "years," but have frequent "detox episodes." This is a type of self-deception that is far too common in the raw community, and is also a form of denial of reality. Some of the raw "experts" actively encourage this denial, by using "detox" as the first line of defense when problems arise on the diets they promote.

The point here is that one needs to be skeptical and ask questions when trying to assess just how well someone (perhaps oneself) is doing on a raw-food diet. There are a number of potential signs and symptoms one can utilize in attempting to help gauge this. For more information on this topic elsewhere on the site, see The Psychology of Idealistic Diets, particularly the subsection on Symptoms of "Failure to Thrive" on Raw and/or Vegetarian Diets.

Effects of reintroducing some cooked
food after a long raw period

Are failures to digest "heavier" foods symptomatic of new sensitivity to "unfit food," or instead compromised digestive capacity?

Even after having read the many observations and arguments advanced in this paper, many raw-fooders who are experiencing problematic symptoms may still fear including any cooked foods in their diet again. Stories are legend in the raw-food community, particularly by fruitarians, of those who reintroduced cooked food such as baked potatoes or rice back into their diet (or even "heavier," sometimes-forbidden raw foods such as nuts) and experienced digestive difficulty, or the food passed through their intestinal tract very little-digested. Such results are interpreted by the most vocal raw-food advocates as evidence that a truly healthy body will not tolerate unfit food, and will reject it.

We would like to offer a much different explanation. As discussed briefly elsewhere on the site (see Does strict fruitarianism accelerate B-12 deficiency? partway down on the linked page) the reason may instead be digestion that has been seriously weakened by a prolonged period on a diet too high in fruits.

Long-term overconsumption of fruit may lead to sluggish bowel function. Ronald Cridland, M.D., a natural hygiene practitioner with lengthy experience caring for natural hygiene patients on raw-food diets, addressed this issue in a brief (question-and-answer) response published in the American Natural Hygiene Society's Health Science magazine ("Tired of Singing the Cooked-Food Blues" [Cridland 1998]):

There is a tendency for a person on a diet of all raw foods to overeat on fruits, causing a potentially harmful high-sugar diet, which tends to be deficient in vitamins and minerals. (...)

(...) Sugar is fairly stimulating and gives a false sense of high energy. I have seen many patients try to subsist on a high-fruit diet, and many feel quite well for about two years, despite some initial weight loss. But after that, they begin to experience low energy, immune problems, skin problems, and fatigue. Many of these patients are sleep-deprived. Because of the stimulating effect of a high-sugar diet, they mistakenly feel they can get by on much less sleep. Consequently, they experience the symptoms of sleep deprivation, which include fatigue, poor immune function, allergies, depression, and sluggish bowels.

High-fiber diet and stimulative effect of excessive sugar/fruit can mask exhaustion of bowel function. Cridland goes on in the above-quoted passage to explain that the problems 100%-raw vegans experience when reintroducing cooked foods into the diet are often the result of an accumulated fatigue that is, in effect, a sleep-deficit. Indeed, he suggests that reintroducing some cooked foods (and thereby eliminating excessive sugar) may help the individual to re-experience his or her normal energy level, as opposed to the stimulative effects of a high-sugar raw diet, which is ultimately exhausting and depleting. (Also it should be noted that many individuals eventually experience chronic, and/or frequent and intermittent, fatigue on long-term 100%-raw vegan regimes anyway, whether they reintroduce cooked foods or not.)

Cridland suggests that the high fiber content of a raw diet, in this context, can be a confounding factor (perceptually) that prevents recognition of the sluggish bowels that can eventually occur on long-time (high-sugar) raw diets. He suggests fasting to provide rest for the digestive system, and claims that ~2 years on a vegan diet, plus adequate sleep each night, will help the system to return to normal.

Of course, other individuals coming off of an all-raw-food diet, especially one that was not overly high in fruits, may have had the opposite problem: low energy all along from a diet predominating in low-calorie-dense foods. Such individuals often find that the extra calories they get from more dense cooked foods improve their energy and feeling of well-being in fairly short order.

Some people will claim, of course, that at least three, or maybe even five or six, raw generations are necessary to become truly healthy; and if you feel better when eating a diet that includes some cooked foods, it's because cooked foods are blocking the detoxification process. There is apparently no limit to denial! :-)

In summary

In the end, as with many other dietary issues, the question of raw vs. cooked foods comes down to idealism vs. realism. Which is more important: maintaining a philosophy--or maintaining your health? That's the bottom line.

--Jean-Louis Tu

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GO TO PART 1 - Is Cooked Food "Toxic"?

GO TO PART 2 - Does Cooked Food Contain Less Nutrition?

GO TO PART 3 - Discussion: 100% Raw vs. Predominantly Raw

Back to Research-Based Appraisals of Alternative Diet Lore

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