The Problem with the Raw Food Diet

The Problem with the Raw Food Diet

Many people (those without an in-depth understanding of diet and nutrition) have been sold the idea that somehow the raw food diet is the epitome of healthy eating. If veganism has been sold as a more ethical diet, raw foodists see themselves as carrying on the tradition of a more spiritual way of eating.  Where did this idea come from? The same place many of our alternative ideas of spirituality came from: The East.

In the sixties, counter culture heroes like Ram Dass, along with a variety of gurus, brought the East Indian concepts of spirituality over to a young populace eager for an alternative to the staid religions offered them by their society. Among the tenets of these Indian religions were the ideas of vegetarianism, and a mostly raw food diet (with some dairy).  And, according to Gabriel Cousins, author of Spiritual Nutrition, a raw food diet is the one most helpful for meditative and spiritual states. But it is most suited to living in an ashram, as it is not the type of diet suited to carrying us in a healthy state through being in the modern world. He gave some analogy that roughly states “it is easy to walk in front of a bus when your head is in the clouds” (or something like that).

And this is where we introduce the other Eastern cultures that also brought influences to the West: Asian.

The Macrobiotic Perspective

As my regular readers know, I come from the dietary/philosophical tenets of Macrobiotics, a natural movement based on the precepts of traditional Japanese zen Buddhism.  From this perspective, raw foods are generally too “yin”, and thus leave one ungrounded (and liable to walk in front of that bus). Cooking foods (as well as aging and fermenting) make them more “yang”, and skewing our diet in this direction keeps us in a balanced state in the world. (“Yin” is spiritual in nature, but the ultimate yin is dead, so…)

Now, the current resurgence of raw food diets primarily comes from health regimes developed in Southern California, or Hawaii. And from the Macrobiotic perspective, that is an okay diet for those who live in these hot climes. Raw foods, from this viewpoint, are ideal in a hot climate, but less suited to colder environments. (The basic principles of Macrobiotics include, eat what grows where you live, and when those foods are in season.). Yin foods are those considered “expansive” and yang foods “contractive”, and a balanced diet for humans is one that focuses more on the yang foods, and less on the yin foods. Very yin foods would be those high in sugars and potassium, like tropical fruits and potatoes, while very yang foods are those high in sodium, especially animal proteins.

This concept can be interpreted in Western scientific terms by considering the work of Dr. John Matsen, author of Eating Alive, which I discussed in Health Secrets: Volume 2.

Matsen points out that if we have made and stored vitamin D in our body during the summer months, the activation of this vitamin D in the colder months is based on the kidneys monitoring the blood for sodium and potassium levels. Foods grown in the summer, or in hot climates, are high in potassium, and foods grown and consumed in the colder months are higher in sodium.  Thus, if one eats bananas or oranges in the winter, the ensuing high potassium levels in the blood, fool the kidneys into thinking that it is still summer, and they will not activate the vitamin D we have stored in our body. (This is not an issue when we use a vitamin D supplement, since that form is already active.)

The Perspective of Chinese Medicine

While Japan gave us the principles of zen, we derived the spiritual concepts of Taoism from China, and at the same time Chinese medicine made inroads into Western culture.  From this perspective raw foods are “cooling” and “damp”, and can contribute to illness because so much of the Western diet is already full of such foods. Those cooling and damp foods, over represented in the Western diet, include primarily dairy foods and sugars. These foods, in excess, are linked to a variety of ailments, but especially candida yeast overgrowth, and cancerous conditions.

Moreover, for those with weak digestion, especially the elderly, cooking essentially pre-digests foods, allowing better digestion and nutrient absorption. It is worth bearing in mind that raw foods also transit the gut very fast, so often chronic problems with loose stools can be attributed to eating too much raw food.


I am forever telling those I consult with that they should avoid eating raw kale, something that has become a recent trend following the upsurge in raw food diets. The problem here is that kale, along with the other cruciferous vegetables (Brussel sprouts, turnips, radishes, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower) are goitrogens.  “Goitrogenic foods can affect thyroid function by inhibiting synthesis of thyroid hormones, resulting in enlargement of the gland (goiter).”   (Source)

Such foods can slow down the metabolism, so if one has a hard time keeping weight on, raw cruciferous foods may be of value, but for most people these foods should only be eaten raw on rare occasions.  What I usually suggest to those who put kale into their smoothies or salads, is to switch to parsley. Parsley is a superfood with a host of health benefits, will not suppress thyroid function, and is a way to get a chlorophyll-rich plant into the daily diet.

Support from Western Science

Let’s take a brief detour into the Western scientific perspective by examining one study into how diet might help those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This study analyzed a variety of other peer-reviewed scientific articles, examining how specific diets, or certain foods or nutritional supplements, might benefit those with RA. The three diets examined were defined as “Mediterranean diet, raw food, and anti-inflammatory diet”.

Their conclusion was as follows: “Studies that showed moderate strength evidence for positive effects on disease activity in RA included interventions with a Mediterranean diet, spices (ginger powder, cinnamon powder, saffron), antioxidants (quercetin and ubiquinone), and probiotics containing Lactobacillus Casei. Other diets or supplements had either no effects or low to very low strength of evidence.”   (Source)

So, here, the Mediterranean diet clearly trumped the raw diet.

Mediterranean Diet

Anyone following dietary trends is by now well aware that endless research has confirmed the Mediterranean diet to be the most healthful diet to follow, if one wishes to live a long (dementia-free) healthy life. (Certainly other diets, like the Okinawa diet, also have proven valid and valuable, but these diets, covered in this newsletter, all have much in common with the Mediterranean diet.)

According to the Harvard Health Blog, the “traditional Mediterranean diet is based on foods available in countries that border the Mediterranean Sea. The foundation for this healthy diet includes an abundance of plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes which are minimally processed, seasonally fresh, and grown locally, olive oil as the principal source of fat, cheese and yogurt, consumed daily in low to moderate amounts, fish and poultry, consumed in low to moderate amounts a few times a week, red meat, consumed infrequently and in small amounts, fresh fruit for dessert, with sweets containing added sugars or honey eaten only a few times each week, wine consumed in low to moderate amounts, usually with meals”.   (Source)

Now let’s have a quick look at the amount of raw food consumed within this diet.

Begin or end each meal with a salad. Choose crisp, dark greens and whatever vegetables are in season.” So we are consuming up to three raw salads, but as they are part of the meal, we can consider them to be “side” salads.

Poached or fresh fruit is best. Aim for three servings of fresh fruit a day.” Macrobiotics recommend stewed fruit for the winter, but even during the rest of the year, this raw fruit should be of a kind that grows where you live. So for us Canadians, apples, pears, berries, etc, are all fine, but still, eat more of them in the summer or fall, and less (or cooked versions) in the winter.

The high amount of legumes, vegetables, and grains included in this diet are obviously cooked, as are the fish and animal proteins.

The Harvard Blog goes on to suggest that one “consume a handful of raw nuts every day as a healthy replacement for processed snacks”. Here I would particularly disagree with the raw suggestion. Both nuts and seeds contain enzyme-inhibitors, which forbid them from activating until they are in wet soil, but these substances also inhibit our enzymes.

There are two approaches to solving this problem: the Macrobiotics prefer to roast seeds and nuts, which neutralizes these enzyme-inhibitors, and as a bonus, kills off any mold present (common in seeds and nuts, even if not obvious to the senses).  The Western natural health movement prefers to soak the nuts for 24 hrs, which activates the enzymes, and technically makes those foods more valuable than the roasted versions.


As with many things, the conclusion here is one us Westerners have yet to learn: more is not better. Just because some raw food is good, and even essential, that does not mean that a diet of exclusively raw food will be a superior diet.

The Chinese medicine approach is the wisest, as they look at the current health of an individual, and prescribe more or less raw or cooked foods, depending on how dry, heated, cool, or damp, a person’s constitution is. When we learn to listen to our bodies (and watch our bowels), we can develop a sense of when we need some raw food, or even a lot of raw food, and when we should focus more on cooked foods.

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