Raw Food Diets – The Ayurvedic Perspective
By Claudia Ward, MA, LAc, Dipl Ac
There is much confusion as to what is the healthiest diet for us to consume–a predominantly raw food diet or a cooked-food diet? On the one hand we have raw food enthusiasts recommending a natural diet of 100% raw food. This is based on the fact that raw food is high in nutrients, enzymes, and prana (life energy). Some raw foodists can get quite fanatical about their philosophy that cooked food equals “dead food” which has lost most of its nutrients. Others have their Chinese or Ayurvedic doctor recommend mostly cooked foods and see a lot of their health issues disappear on such a diet. Now who is right and who is wrong?
I myself have experienced the benefits of raw foods and especially juicing, which manifest in increased energy, clarity of mind, radiant complexion, and weight loss, just to mention a few. There are certainly many documented cases of individuals overcoming serious health issues, some life threatening, through adherence to a raw food regime. And of course I have to agree, that some types of cooked food are not very good for you when consumed over a long period of time – fried foods, heavily salted food, over-cooked vegetables, microwaved food, etc.
However, everyone is different, and diet must be individualized. There is no one single diet that is “best” for everyone. Some people will do best on raw, others on macrobiotic diets. Also, a 100% raw food diet can be problematic – even though a good healing diet, it can create problems in the long run.
Below are the symptoms and problems associated with a long-term strict raw food or vegan diet:
- a general lack of vitality
- low body temperature (always cold)
- a weak digestive system with a loss of digestive strength
- food cravings
- stalled weight loss due to low metabolism
- amenorrhea (menstrual cycles cease), even in young women
- loss of libido
- hair loss and nail problems
- dental erosion
- insomnia and neurological problems
Obviously, the modern Western diet sickens us with its overload of meat, salt, bad fats, white sugar, white flour, and its deficiency of living foods.
There is no question that cooking deactivates some vital nutrients, including enzymes, but cooking also makes digestion less stressful. Many people with poor digestion don’t handle raw foods or beans very well, which is in part why macrobiotic diets may have worked for some people recovering from various maladies. The higher proportion of nutrients in raw food is useless if the food can’t be digested, absorbed and assimilated. Cooking contracts vegetable foods, concentrating more nutrients with less bulk. Bitter greens like spinach and kale are generally more edible when cooked, because cooking also eliminates the oxalic acid, which interferes with calcium absorption.
Cooking significantly improves the digestibility/bioavailability of starchy foods such as potatoes and yams, squashes, grains, and legumes. Legumes need to be soaked and cooked thoroughly, otherwise they contain enzyme blockers, that inhibit protein and carbohydrate metabolism. They also contain lectins, phytic acid and saponins that are deactivated by cooking. Lectins play a role in certain auto-immune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory diseases. Green beans always need to be cooked until soft otherwise they are toxic! Raw beans are poisonous because they contain prussic acid, which is de-activated only by cooking. Beta-carotene absorption can be as low as 1-2% from raw vegetables such as carrots. Mild heating, such as steaming, appears to improve the extractability of beta-carotene from vegetables, and also its bioavailability. Mineral losses from cooking are insignificant.
Lycopene in tomatoes has been hypothesized to be responsible for reducing the risk of some cancers and heart disease. The cooking of tomatoes with olive oil is a characteristic combination in the Mediterranean diet. Previous studies have shown that the absorption of lycopene is greater from cooked tomatoes.
The Ayurvedic Perspective:
There is not just one dietary approach that would be ideal for everyone. In order to correctly determine our optimal requirements we need to examine many factors. We have to take into account the individuals constitution (prakruti), the nature of their imbalance and symptoms (vikruti), the seasonal and climatic influences, stage of life, occupation, etc.
In general, those of a pitta, or pitta/kapha constitution, can do very well on some raw food in their diet, especially in the late spring and summer. But if someone has a severe vata imbalance, characterized by insomnia, excessive worry and anxiety, sense of being overwhelmed, spaceyness, dryness, gas, bloating, constipation, or amenorrhea, they may need nourishing, warm, moist, easily digestible cooked food as part of their healing journey.
Someone with a kapha imbalance can easily develop sinus problems, asthma, or allergies on a raw food diet.
My recommendation for those who chose to follow a raw food diet is to apply some of the ancient Ayurvedic wisdom to help avoid potential problems and help you stay well. Ayurveda recognizes our unique individual differences.
Balancing a Raw Food Diet With Ayurveda:
By using these simple Ayurvedic principles, any diet can be made more balancing:
- Daily warm oil massage (using unrefined, organic sesame oil), Ayurvedic-style, can be very helpful.
- Herbs with a calming action, including the commonly available chamomile tea. (Many other herbs are available, see an Ayurvedic health practitioner for recommendations.)
- Some raw-foodies report that running, cycling, swimming, or other aerobic exercise elevates their body temperature and also improves their digestion and the quality of sleep.
- Spices: ginger, cayenne, black pepper, cumin, coriander, fennel, etc. will improve digestion and metabolism. Pungent greens, like mustard, watercress, arugula, are alternatives to pungent spices.
- Tonic herbs: the Ayurvedic herbal blend triphala, strengthens the entire digestive system, and is extremely beneficial for the colon.
- Avoid cold food and liquids. Allow refrigerated items to return to room temperature before consuming.
- Sipping hot water with meals, and in between meals, can help provide warmth to the body. The addition of a small piece of fresh ginger root (about 1⁄2 inch piece) to hot water will help considerably to increase agni (the digestive fire) and improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients. Adding fresh ginger or a little bit of flax seed oil or olive oil to a vegetable juice will increase the nutrient absorption, increase agni and not aggravate vata as much.
- Using a food blender, or consuming vegetable juices will decrease dryness.
- Adding fresh lime or lemon juice to foods also increases agni due to its sour taste.
- Using organic extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil or flax seed oil on salads and other dry foods will help diminish their vata provoking quality and provide necessary fatty acids to the diet.
- Chewing a thin slice of ginger sprinkled with salt before a meal will get the digestive juices flowing.
- Chewing fennel seeds after a meal will prevent gas or bloating.
- Relaxing for at least 10 minutes after a meal without getting up and rushing immediately will promote digestion and counteract fatigue after eating.
When it comes to deciding what foods to eat use common sense, eat according to your constitution, eat mostly cooked foods when the weather is cold, when it is foggy or in the evenings. Salads are best eaten at lunchtime (when the digestive fire is strongest), in summer, or when the weather is hot.
I am always amazed when I go back to Europe, how healthy and grounded my friends are, even though their diet is not really 100% nutritionally correct (lots of wine, bread, pastries). How is that possible? I think the answer is that they sit down with their friends or families and take time in preparing and enjoying their meals. Here in California a lot of people are just sipping some green protein shake and hurry off to their yoga class. Now when you lovingly prepare your food, and really look forward to eating it, and enjoy every bite, guess what happens? All the digestive juices are flowing at the right time and the body will extract all the nutrients it needs. Food that is gulped down quickly, just because one thinks it is healthy, but is not really enjoyed will actually be harmful to your health!! It does not get digested well and wreaks havoc throughout your system.
So take time in preparing fresh meals, enjoy your food in good company and relax after eating! Happiness is the best digestive aid!