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.

Comments? Love to hear them!

Rebuilding the fire…

Rebuilding the fire…

I am consistently impressed with the benefits of dietary changes in my patients. Yesterday I had news of a former patient that came to me with IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), who was also taking two potent immuno-suppressants called remicade and 6-mercaptopurine. I taught her how digestion is like a fire, and how she could use diet to support and enhance its function. I put her on a Paleolithic diet and gave a few simple remedies to balance digestive and immune symptoms. Three years later I hear she is doing very well, and can even eat “regular” food. As I was telling a patient today, eating is a strategy, and how close you walk the line is up to you – but there is a line, and we all need to learn where it is for each of us. And then when things go wrong – as they inevitably do – the essential thing to know is how rebuild that fire.

The basic method to establish the digestive fire is the use of soups and stews, and one traditional culinary variation on this theme is Mulligatawny soup. The term mulligatawny is derived from the Tamil word ‘milagutanni’, ‘milagu’ referring to pepper and ‘tanni’ referring to water. Mulligatawny soup is used to enhance digestion and clear phlegm (kapha), and only a stock that has had the fat skimmed from it should be used. Heavy, greasy foods are typically contraindicated in weak digestion.

Ingredients
2 cups soup stock
1 tsp cumin seed
1/2 tsp black mustard seed
1 tsp coriander seed powder
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp salt
Chopped fresh cilantro or green onion to taste

Directions
Put stock in a pot and warm until hot. In a separate pan, dry roast the cumin and black mustard seed at medium heat until the mustard begins to pop. Add in the coriander, pepper, turmeric and salt, and roast for another 30 seconds. Add this mixture into the soup, and garnish with cilantro or green onion.

This soup can also be used as a base for more complex recipes. Add a little cooked rice, roasted urad dhal or finely shredded chicken to enhance strength and build energy once digestion improves.

Tree of Life: Western Hemlock

Tree of Life: Western Hemlock

Among the more common trees of my area is the Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), a large conifer in the Pine family (Pinaceae).  It thrives in the cool, wet weather of the Pacific Northwest, its range extending from Oregon north into Alaska. Western Hemlock is a shade tolerant tree that is often found mixed with Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata).  It is easily distinguishable by its irregular, feathery needles that are smaller and softer than Douglas Fir needles, with a blunt tip.  Looking at the trunk, young trees have a smooth, brownish-red colored bark, whereas older specimens become greyish-brown, with deep furrows, but not as thick, coarse and reddish colored like Douglas Fir – and not papery like Western Red Cedar. Locally, we have a closely related species that grows at higher elevations called Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), and the the difference between them is subtle: Mountain Hemlock has larger, open cones, whereas the cones on Western Hemlock are smaller, and more closed in appearance.

Western Hemlock is a tree of significant economic importance to the Canadian economy. Although it isn’t as strong as Douglas Fir, nor rot-resistant like Red Cedar, Western Hemlock still finds use as a building material and as a pulpwood for paper. For the First Nations peoples Western Hemlock was an important plant, more often used to make tools and cooking implements rather than as a building material.  According to Pojar and McKinnon, the wood is fairly dense and heavy, and yet relatively easy to work with, making it useful to carve spoons, bowls, roasting spits, fish hooks and spearshafts. The tannin-rich bark yields a reddish dye, and this was used as a stain to treat wood and as a dye to color wool and other textiles.


Looking at Western Hemlock, it is certainly seems to me to be the most feminine of the three species. One of the ways you can identify the tree from a distance is to look for its drooping tip, which seems to suggest a certain demure, yielding quality. Likewise, the tree’s love of the shade and moisture, as well we the feathery appearance of the boughs is another suggestion that Western Hemlock expresses a feminine, yin quality. It is perhaps no surprise that Western Hemlock was an important woman’s herb in the local Coastal Salish tradition. For example, boughs were often used to make special huts to house that the women gathered in during menstruation. Among the Kwakwaka’wakw people of Vancouver Island, female warriors asking a boon of the god Sisiutl used Western Hemlock in their head-dress during ceremonial dances. Sisiutl is the two-headed serpent mentioned in all the Coastal First Nations mythology: an untamed deity of the earth, representing like the Indian goddess Kali, the wild darkness of nature from which all life begins. It is no surprise then that as a tree of power, it is the most prolific tree here on the west coast, with the highest growth rate of any other local conifer. On a successional level, Western Hemlock represents a maturing forest that is rich in organic material, forming a thick, forest canopy under which very few things can grow.  Its darkness is all encompassing.

One of Western Hemlock’s uses was a food, once again, representing the tree’s intimate association with the feminine quality of nourishment. Similar to herbs like Slippery Elm bark, Western Hemlock has a starchy, sweet inner bark that can be a significant source of food energy. The bark from the branches and trunks of younger trees can be easily peeled off, and the inner bark scraped with a knife. Coastal peoples including the Nisga’a and Gitksan steamed the inner bark and then pounded it into a paste to make cakes, often flavored with berries, and eaten with fish grease. In the spring, the sour tasting leaf buds are eaten as a spring tonic, and to balance the appetite.  They are naturally rich in vitamin C, and can be eaten fresh or brewed as a tea. Western Hemlock of course is also an important medicine among the coastal First Nations peoples. Like many conifers, the sap or pitch is medicinal, used as a poultice to heal wounds and burns, as well as mixed with fat to form an aromatic salve that is useful as a chest rub for colds, to massage sore muscles, and to protect against sunburn. The bark is a strong astringent, traditionally used for problems such as internal hemorrhage and bleeding, used in tuberculosis, fever, and as a wash for skin sores and rashes. With a multitude of uses, in industry and as a food and medicine, Western Hemlock truly lives up to the meaning of its scientific name Tsuga, derived from the Japanese words for tree (tsu) mother (ga): the mother of trees.


For more information on the traditional uses for this plant, search for Tsuga heterophylla at the Native American Ethnobotany Database.