Raw Diets: Half-Baked and Overcooked

There is a growing movement of idiots in our country, they’re called Raw Vegans and they must be stopped.

No, I’m kidding, they’re mostly just a danger to themselves anyway.

Actually, raw vegans aren’t much different from ordinary vegans except they like to kick it up a notch by refusing to eat anything cooked above 118 degrees F. That’s right, even steaming and boiling are out of the question. The rationale for this varies from site to site and book to book but as far as I can tell it pertains to a belief that valuable enzymes, vitamins and even ‘energy’ are destroyed in the process of cooking. There is also a concern that the cooking process produces dangerous chemicals. As a result the general philosophy is that all things should be ingested in as natural a state as possible.

Proponents of this diet, like general vegans, make numerous and even outlandish claims to its success. Everything from anti-aging effects to increased vigor and mental acuity are advertised and according to them, there don’t seem to be any pitfalls. They even have a couple of professionals in their cavalry in case they’re asked too many questions.

Unfortunately for them however, and their professionals, in the land of good science outliers are discarded or in the least, scrutinized very closely. So let’s deal with some of these claims that raw vegans so proudly make. Does cooking really destroy necessary enzymes and vitamins? Does it really cause the creation of dangerous chemicals? Are there truly health benefits to an all raw food diet? And are there really no setbacks? Let’s see what the great majority of nutritionists and relevant scientists have to say on these matters. And while we’re at it we’ll also deal with the moral and ethical claims vegans tendentiously make in the defense of their politicized noshings.

I want to begin with the most popular and arbitrary argument that these people make when promulgating their bad habits. This is the ‘what is most original is most natural’ argument. There is absolutely no logical or scientific foundation for this statement. Fire occurs in nature. Indeed, it is even essential for some species and ecosystems to thrive.

What scientific principle or logical principle underpins the claim that using fire or kinetic energy generally is unnatural in the preparation of food? Even were I to take this fallacious line of reasoning seriously it would only support the contrary since before our species even existed our evolutionary forebears had likely already discovered fire.

Homo sapiens arose from the ancestor Homo erectus, from whom there is reasonable evidence of fire use.  Neanderthals share this ancestor with modern humans and in their day they had definitely discovered the magic of cookery. So actually, when it comes to food preparation and partaking of animal product, cooking is most natural if we are to remain consistent with the claim ‘what is original is natural’.

Time to move on and talk about all that supposedly lost nutrients that cooking causes. Actually, as it turns out, the exact opposite is true. In fact many researchers on human evolution believe it is because of cooking that the human brain managed to grow to such gargantuan proportions. Cooking breaks down plant cell walls and other bio-barriers to digestion so that the body can extract even more calories from its meals, resulting in greater energy in less time from both plant and animal products. This was essential for human evolution and the development of our energy-hungry brains. This means that eating strictly raw foods requires that you waste time and energy incessantly devouring nutrient obstinate fibers much like Gorillas or Pandas which spend the vast majority of their days noshing.

The claim that dangerous chemicals are produced or that something is lost in cooking is true only to an extent. When dry cooking, such as over a barbecue, one is at risk of creating acrylamide which occurs when food is overcooked. Acrylamide is never produced while boiling or steaming and more nutrients are made available in vegetables through these methods than can be lost. Further, it is true that baking or roasting cereals and nuts reduces access to their proteins.

Aside from these two narrow examples, cooking breaks down nutrient-locking bonds and allows easy absorption, requiring your body to do less since the cooking does more. In fact, studies show that between raw veggies and their cooked counterparts, it is only from the latter that you will glean all the cancer preventing benefits. Moreover, your body will provide all the necessary enzymes required for digestion, it is simply untrue that raw vegetables come equipped with some extra set of digesting enzymes lost in the process of heat preparation.

All this being said raw food is certainly good for you. Fruit, avocado, nuts and cereals are best raw while high dry-heat cooking can lead to the production of the possibly carcinogenic acrylamide. Large portions of fiber assist in regular, healthy bowel processes and digestion but this scarcely means one should eat strictly raw. Boiling, steaming and non-browning cookery is the best way to extract the nutrients your body requires from many of its vegetable sources.

Strictly raw food diets can deprive you of essential nutrients and is associated with severe weight loss, poor dentition, hair loss, muscular deterioration, coronary heart disease, and fungal infections. When referring to an all raw food diet there can be no discussion of benefits because they are overwhelmingly nixed by its deficiencies. A largely raw food diet, however, could indeed be very healthy but not without cookery and animal proteins or supplementation.

As for the ethics of it all, a utilitarian argument is the best death-bringing salvo. Why is a chicken more entitled to our regard than a millennia old sequoia or the oxygen providing diatom?

In the end, like all extreme ideas, the full on raw diet is as half-baked as it is uninformed.


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