Busting some myths about raw-food veganism…

Busting some myths about raw-food veganism…

In 15 years of clinical practice I have seen dietary trends rise and fall, but one trend that I have seen steadily increase is raw-food veganism. Too often I see folks like this in my practice, who based on an ethical choice informed more by aesthetics, dogma and inference, have ended up doing real harm to their bodies. So in the interest of public health I am out to bust some myths around raw food veganism, in favor of an awareness that is more informed and nuanced. Quotes and research pulled from my new book, Food As Medicine.

Humans evolved eating raw food.

“Compared to our primate cousins, humans have a much smaller gut and yet characteristically larger brains (i.e. a higher encephalization quotient). Research suggests that cooking enhanced the efficiency of nutrient absorption, allowing for the evolution of a much smaller absorptive surface and hence smaller digestive tract, while at the same time boosting the energy intake required for the characteristically larger and more complex human brain.” p. 108

Carmody RN, Wrangham RW. 2009. The energetic significance of cooking. J Hum Evol. 57(4):379-91

Humans evolved as vegetarians.

“Researchers at the University of Colorado suggest that whenever possible our early ancestors preferred animal foods as their primary source of nutrition, comprising between 45-65% of their total energy intake, supplementing the remaining percentage with plant foods.” p. 93

Cordain L, Miller JB, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SHA, Speth JD. 2000. Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 71:682–92

Raw foods contains enzymes necessary for digestion.

“If it were true that these enzymes were necessary for digestion it would stand to reason that the body would not need to produce its own enzymes, when in reality the body produces up to five liters (1.3 gallons) of digestive juices on a daily basis. Like all proteins, enzymes are denatured and digested in the gut into their constituent peptide fragments, rendering them devoid of any significant enzymatic activity.” p 107

Raw food has a higher nutrient content than cooked food.

“While cooking does reduce the nutrient content in some foods, it dramatically enhances nutrient bioavailability, offsetting any loss in nutrients by reducing the energy required for digestion and assimilation. According to anthropologists humans have been cooking food for more than a million years, and in the process have undergone both anatomical and physiological changes that reflect our reliance upon it.” p. 108

Wrangham R, Conklin-Brittain N. 2003. Cooking as a biological trait. Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 136(1):35-46.

Cooking destroys the healthy bacteria such as Lactobacilli.

“Unless the raw food has been fermented to allow these ‘friendly’ bacteria to out-compete other microbes however, raw food may also contain pathogenic bacteria such as Campylobacter, Clostridium, Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Other potential pathogens in raw food include pathogenic viruses (e.g. norovirus, enterovirus, hepatitis A virus), pathogenic fungi (Aspergillus, Fusarium) and parasites (Giardia lamblia, Entamoeba histolytica) that can cause both acute and chronic illness. In contradistinction to the claim that raw food is healthy, there are an estimated 76 million food-borne illnesses each year in the United States, accounting for 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, all from eating raw or improperly cooked food.” p. 108

Mead PS, Slutsker L, Dietz V, McCaig LF, Bresee JS, Shapiro C, Griffin PM, Tauxe RV. 1999. Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerg Infect Dis. 5(5):607-25

The vegan diet is higher in nutrients than non-vegetarian foods.

“While it is very true that a vegan diet is abundant in healthy foods such as vegetables and fruits, without rigorous supplementation it is also deficient in key nutrients including protein, omega-3 fats, cholesterol, iron, calcium, iodine, vitamin D3 and vitamin B-12. Among proteins, the vegan diet is deficient in important amino acids such as carnosine, a dipeptide found in muscle tissue that has been shown to suppress many of the biochemical changes that accompany aging, diabetes and neurodegenerative disorders.” p. 106

Li D. 2011. Chemistry behind Vegetarianism. J Agric Food Chem. [Epub ahead of print]
Craig WJ. 2009. Health effects of vegan diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 89(5):1627S-1633S.
Hipkiss AR. 2006. Would carnosine or a carnivorous diet help suppress aging and associated pathologies? Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1067:369-74

Science has proven that the raw vegan diet is healthier.

“Research backs up the assertion that a long-term vegan diet impairs health, promoting weight loss, premenstrual syndrome and infertility, impaired bone density, bone fracture, dental problems, and immunodeficiency. A vegan diet is especially problematic and even dangerous in pregnant or lactating mothers as well as young children, increasing the risk of anemia, neurological disorders and developmental delay.” p. 106

Koebnick C, Strassner C, Hoffmann I, Leitzmann C. 1999. Consequences of a Long-Term Raw Food Diet on Body Weight and Menstruation: Results of a Questionnaire Survey. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism. 43:69-79
Ambroszkiewicz J, Klemarczyk W, Gajewska J, Chelchowska M, Franek E, Laskowska-Klita T. 2010. The influence of vegan diet on bone mineral density and biochemical bone turnover markers. Pediatr Endocrinol Diabetes Metab. 16(3):201-204
Krivosíková Z, Krajcovicová-Kudlácková M, Spustová V, Stefíková K, Valachovicová M, Blazícek P, Nemcová T. 2010. The association between high plasma homocysteine levels and lower bone mineral density in Slovak women: the impact of vegetarian diet. Eur J Nutr. 49(3):147-53
Appleby P, Roddam A, Allen N, Key T. 2007. Comparative fracture risk in vegetarians and nonvegetarians in EPIC-Oxford. Eur J Clin Nutr. 61(12):1400-6
Laffranchi L, Zotti F, Bonetti S, Dalessandri D, Fontana P. 2010. Oral implications of the vegan diet: observational study. Minerva Stomatol. 59(11-12):583-91
Labay y Matías MV, Matamoros Florí N, Aguiló Regla A, Tomás Cardús L, Galiana Ferré C, Gómez Rivas B, Reynes Muntaner J. 1984. Strict vegetarian diet, malnutrition, immunodeficiency and infection. An Esp Pediatr. 20(1):69-71
Baatenburg de Jong R, Bekhof J, Roorda R, Zwart P. 2005. Severe nutritional vitamin deficiency in a breast-fed infant of a vegan mother. Eur J Pediatr. 164(4):259-60
Mariani A, Chalies S, Jeziorski E, Ludwig C, Lalande M, Rodière M. 2009. Consequences of exclusive breast-feeding in vegan mother newborn: case report Arch Pediatr. 16(11):1461-3

Still want to be a vegetarian?

Learn from the Indians, who have been doing it for thousands of years. While my recommendations with regard to diet are purely pragmatic, I understand why some people still want to be a vegetarian. “Although vegetarianism has become increasingly mainstream in the West I am consistently surprised how few have researched the components of an Indian vegetarian diet, which would otherwise seem to be a pre-requisite. Apart from a diet necessarily rich in grains, pulses, nuts and seeds to supply the proteins and fats that are otherwise missing from a meat-free diet, the hallmark of Indian vegetarianism is the regular consumption milk and milk products. The importance of consuming dairy is clearly seen in the Hindu’s veneration of the cow, which serves not only as an allegory of spiritual love, but provides a source of nutrients that are otherwise difficult to get in a vegetable based diet. Employing a variety of dairy-based foods including boiled milk (p. 173), yogurt (p. 174), panir and ghee (p. 194) not only provides for a density of fats and proteins unmatched by any vegetable-based food, it also provides vital nutrients such as essential fatty acids, calcium, potassium, magnesium and cholesterol that are difficult to get from a strict vegetable-based diet. Beyond the ubiquitous presence of dairy the other feature commonly found in Indian cuisine is the diverse abundance of herbs and spices that not only enhance digestion to increase nutrient bioavailability, but contributes essential minerals and antioxidants that support health. My recommendation for all who want to become vegetarian is to learn to cook Indian food, and the different ways to prepare dairy products, legumes and grains, and how to use herbs and spices. It doesn’t mean that Indian food needs to be eaten exclusively, but that the strategies used to prepare and enhance the food are employed in a similar manner.” p. 104

Weaver CM. 2009. Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet? Point. Am J Clin Nutr. 89(5):1634S-1637S Tapsell LC, Hemphill I, Cobiac L, Patch CS, Sullivan DR, Fenech M, Roodenrys S, Keogh JB, Clifton PM, Williams PG, Fazio VA, Inge KE. 2006. Health benefits of herbs and spices: the past, the present, the future. Med J Aust. 185(4 Suppl):S4-24.

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  1. Awesome article – many of my university yoga students are attempting to follow vegetarian or vegan diets; some are of Indian descent but most are not. This post will make a wonderful addition to what is primarily a phys ed class (but I also go over a proper diet based on Ayurvedic principles..)

    Have you considered writing an article for the Weston A Price Foundation quarterly journal?

  2. First of all you make the assumption that everyone who eats raw food or is a vegan are eating the same food. There are many ways to be a vegan just as their are many ways to be a meat eater. If someone is eating McDonalds all the time and are unhealthy I could say that eating a meat based diet is unhealthy, you get my point. By suggesting that if one wants to become a vegetarian they consume copious amounts of dairy doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Cows milk or for that matter the milk from any other mammal other than our own mother past the stage of weaning is completly unnecessary. We don’t have the ability to digest lactose past the weaning stage, that’s kind of a sign. Check out this chart comparing carnivores, herbivores, omniovores and humans.http://glutenfreevegan.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/chart.jpg We live in a much different world than our paleolithic ancestors. They ate whatever they could to survive. We have the luxury to choose what is best for us now. I find it interesting that you say we’ve been cooking our food for more than a million years even though archeologists estimate that humans have been on the Earth for about 200,000 years. Why do most people (pychopaths not included) feel bad when they see an animal being killed, tortured, or suffereing? Why is it that when people actually see what is being done to animals before they get to the supermarket or your plate a lot of them choose to not eat them any longer? With 7 billion people on the planet raising aninals for food is very cruel and inhumane, destructive to the environment taking huge amounts of land, water and resources. 58 billion animals are killed each year for food. Something is wrong with that. I say that if you wouldn’t kill an animal yourself you shouldn’t be getting someone else to do it for you. Most people would find it strange to eat their dog. But why, pigs have been shown to be more intelligent than dogs. Why call one a pet and another dinner. Think about it.

  3. >>>First of all you make the assumption that everyone who eats raw food or is a vegan are eating the same food. There are many ways to be a vegan just as their are many ways to be a meat eater.

    I am not making any assumptions – there is simply no empirical evidence that even the most well-designed vegan diet is a sustainable diet, especially when we have a multigenerational perspective. The diet can’t be a diet that’s just good for skinny yoga people – it has to be a diet that feeds pregnant and lactating women. It has to be a diet that feeds children and their developing nervous system.

    >>>If someone is eating McDonalds all the time and are unhealthy I could say that eating a meat based diet is unhealthy, you get my point.

    No – that is an argument by analogy, not an actual argument. We are not talking about a McDonald’s diet, about which I am sure you and will agree. We are discussing the raw vegan diet.

    >>>By suggesting that if one wants to become a vegetarian they consume copious amounts of dairy doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Cows milk or for that matter the milk from any other mammal other than our own mother past the stage of weaning is completly unnecessary. We don’t have the ability to digest lactose past the weaning stage, that’s kind of a sign.

    It makes lots of sense when we consider that the ONLY vegetarian culture on the planet are very much dairy-based. Spend any time in rural India and this will become abundantly clear. And despite what you say, humans DO have the capacity to produce lactase in adulthood. Not all populations have this ability, but people of European, Indian and African descent do. That is fact.

    >>>Check out this chart comparing carnivores, herbivores, omniovores and humans.http://glutenfreevegan.files.wordpress.com/2008/05/chart.jpg We live in a much different world than our paleolithic ancestors.

    Do you really expect me to take that chart seriously? First, it isn’t referenced, so one has to take it on face value that the person who compiled this chart knows what they are talking about. Are they an archeologist, a primatologist, or some kind of biologist, or are they just someone surfing the internet cherry picking whatever they like to imagine is true? And then when I look at the table, what am I to make of the delineation between “omnivore” and “human”? Humans ARE omnivores. And so are many species of insects, fish and birds, not to mention mammals like pigs and bears. Can one generalize about what an omnivore is? No, it is irrelevant. Thus the chart is thus irrelevant, because it creates a false paradigm of comparison. Humans evolved eating and cooking meat. There is ample evidence there if you honestly care to look. And we have been eating meat as a species for all of our evolution except for Hindu dietary practices in India that probably aren’t more than 2000 years old, and now of course, this most recent experiment in raw food veganism. Look – I don’t have an axe to grind or a philosophy to protect. My analyses are based on empirical evidence, clinical experience, human evolution and scientific research. Yours are backed up by a table with typos that is totally unreferenced.

    >>>I find it interesting that you say we’ve been cooking our food for more than a million years even though archeologists estimate that humans have been on the Earth for about 200,000 years.

    What is human? Homo sapiens sapiens? The modern human? Yes, its been about 200,000 years since we left Africa, but our genome has not changed significantly since Homo erectus, the upright walking human that dates back to well over a million years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_erectus

    >>>Why do most people (pychopaths not included) feel bad when they see an animal being killed, tortured, or suffereing?

    Are you saying that butchers are psychopaths? I have friend that butchers her own chickens – is she a psychopath too? Do you see the problem with your reasoning? If we don’t accept your perspective, then we’re all psychopaths. But it sounds to me more like paranoia on your end. Humans in all cultures since the beginning of time have butchered animals. They did it, I grant you, with a much different mindset than is done today. In sanitizing the act of butchery, we have actually made the problem much worse, and incredible injustice has been done to living beings, not food animals, but entire eco-systems. Even the Hindu version of the 10 Commandments called the Manu Smriti (Laws of Manu) state that meat is an acceptable dietary item, as long as the act is done with reverence and respect. I believe that most traditional cultures all over the world maintain this same dignified respect for the animal.

    >>>With 7 billion people on the planet raising aninals for food is very cruel and inhumane, destructive to the environment taking huge amounts of land, water and resources. 58 billion animals are killed each year for food. Something is wrong with that. I say that if you wouldn’t kill an animal yourself you shouldn’t be getting someone else to do it for you. Most people would find it strange to eat their dog. But why, pigs have been shown to be more intelligent than dogs. Why call one a pet and another dinner. Think about it.

    I have thought about all this – but I haven’t come to the same conclusions as you. Former vegan, farmer and now author of the new book called “Meat: A Benign Extravagance” easily deconstructs your argument, demonstrating that eating meat can be part of sustainable food production. But that’s ok, we can have a different perspective. But it doesn’t mean that you are right – all of your arguments are an emotional appeal. I hear the goodness in your heart, but it is not going to change the nature of reality. Humans evolved eating meat. A raw vegan diet isn’t sustainable. Want to be a vegetarian? Do. Your. Research. Or, just read my book ;-)

  4. Hi Sandra – I don’t think I have ever seen a copy of the Journal…

  5. Surely I’m not a psychopath. I like to know what my meat ate before I and my family eat it. I have this beautiful, stubborn, pushy, little bull that I got at 9 days old. His name is T-Bone. I feed him 3 times each day, soon to be 2 times a day as he is now eating grass. He has a task to do in 12 months and once he has done his task a couple of times (around age 2) he will be eating grass one second and “BANG”, dead the next. How can that be a problem?

    I would much rather have a pet that I eat, than a poor animal that has had to get rounded up and loaded onto a truck. Then it has to endure a scary ride to the saleyards, only to be unloaded and auctioned. The auction is a very noisy time. Then loaded into a truck again and taken to the abattoir with the smell of death. The guys loading and unloading are not always that gentle. The poor animal has not been fed since the beginning of the journey maybe 2 days or more in total. It’s tough going that way.

    The lack of stress and the fact that the carcase will be hung for 5 to 7 days, before being cut up, will make for the best tasting meat ever. The only nasty bugs will be the bugs that one animal has on him. Compare that to being killed one day after spending 2 days in stress and hung overnight before being cut up. Only one animal needs to have E. coli or something like this to spread to dozens of others (no cleaning of knives between each carcase). Nothing to do with an unbalanced mind here. I’m happy to take responsibility for a death that is stress free, clean and quick. It is not a “pleasant” task and it only happens once every two years.

    I can well understand those who don’t have the guts to do it themselves, becoming vegetarians (but not vegans) because they don’t like the processing system for meat. The organic meat processing system does do it better (well at least tries to).

    The comment by Chris “we don’t have the ability to digest lactose after weaning” shows a lack of knowledge. Only maybe 10% lose the lactase enzyme so the “evidence” is again skewed.

    Just an aside, I ate dog in a restaurant in Timor, it was good! (I didn’t know at the time I ate it or I may not have).