I think it’s necessary to start this essay by stating, for the record, that this article does not intend to criticize any person whom, after doing his own research, has decided that the raw food diet is right for him. This piece of writing is about why I decided that the raw food diet was not right for me. This is not an attack on any person’s beliefs or lifestyle. It is my aim to offer a look at my conclusions after spending about 6 months researching and seriously considering the raw food diet. My experience has been that the majority of information available on the Internet regarding raw foodism is slanted toward the pros of raw foods, and I believe that, by providing what I found to be the cons of raw foods thought, there will be a better balance of information available to the seeker of opinion and information about this diet. I hope that others who may be considering a raw food only diet will find this article useful and worthy of thought.
About Me and Why I Was Considering A Raw Food Diet
I am an organic farmer and I have been a vegan for about 20 years. I did not make this decision because of the many promises of perfect health that are often touted as the benefits of a vegan diet – rather, I created a new way of eating for myself for solely ethical reasons. It’s a good thing I didn’t get into this way of eating for the health of it; despite spending two decades eating only organic, home cooked, whole foods vegan meals, I am one of the least healthy people I know.
Environmental pollution and mystery aggressors have left me with a legacy of inflammatory diseases, the most devastating of which has been Crohn’s Disease. Doctors consider my diet exemplary and my poor health a baffling mystery. My own conclusion is that a combination of genetics and environmental factors tend to dictate a person’s health profile. We all know elders who eat bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning and are doing fantastically at the age of 85. And, as so-called ‘alternative’ diets have been practiced for many generations now, we are all also likely starting to realize that some of our most good-food-conscious friends may also be our sickest. I have communicated with countless people (predominantly women) who have tried every elimination diet, tried being vegan, gluten-free, raw…you name it, and they continue to suffer from a host of serious environmental illnesses. I also know vegetarians who are incredibly healthy, fit and thriving. My conclusion is that any diet, however exemplary it may seem, is no guarantee of good health.
As I’ve said, I decided to adopt a vegan diet for ethical reasons and have never regretted it, but when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease 2 years ago (after suffering years of unexplained abdominal pain) I began to question my diet. Was there something more I could be doing? Somehow, I came upon the mention of the raw foods diet in connection with Crohn’s Disease and the related condition, Ulcerative Colitis, and this led me buy a book called Self Healing Crohn’s and Colitis by David Klein. When you’re desperately ill, you are desperate, but as I read this book and supplemented this with hours of Internet research, my healthy powers of critical thought seemed to kick in for me, and while I’d love there to be a diet that would cure Crohn’s Disease or other conditions, I had to conclude that this isn’t it. It’s time to share my reasoning about this.
The Absence Of Data
Within reading the first few chapters of Self Healing Crohn’s and Colitis by David Klein, I began to feel a growing concern over the fact that opinions appeared to be being presented as facts, with no scientific or other research data to back them up. I found this same concerning situation on many of the raw foods websites I visited during my research.
Some books are presented from an opinion standpoint. For example, an author might write, “I believe I feel healthier when I spend at least half an hour in the sunshine every day.” That’s an expression of opinion and belief. This is very different than saying, “The Earth is a sphere and here are the photos taken from space to prove this.” That’s a statement of fact, backed up with fact.
My take on the majority of information presented in David Klein’s book and on the majority of the raw foodism sites I visited was that opinion was being presented as fact without any type of concrete proof. While I consider science to be highly fallible at times, I do depend on research and sound reasoning to verify statements and absence of this in an arena where claims of healing and health are being made is something which concerns me deeply.
I encountered repeat claims that human beings were designed to live on fruit, that fruit contains the same proportions of nutrients as human milk, that cooking foods makes them deadly…many claims, but scant citations or research or proof. Several of the arguments in favor or raw foods deserve, I believe, especially critical assessment.
Man’s Natural Diet
I was puzzled to discover what I considered to be a truly faulty premise upon which the whole raw foods belief system appears to be based. There appears to be a romanticized, vague and golden image of a golden age of early man in which humans ate their perfect natural diet…the inference from this being that they enjoyed perfect health because of this.
It is my understanding that anatomically modern humans first appear in the fossil record in Africa about 195,000 years ago. Researchers quote the life span of early man as being something between 20-40 years…hardly a peak example of human longevity. Granted, a potentially dangerous environment and lack of modern medicines to fight disease doubtless contributed to early man’s relatively short life expectancy…but according to what I read in Self Healing Crohn’s and Colitis, disease is a myth.
David Klein appears to claim that the symptoms of disease are simply our body trying to heal itself from our assault on it in the form of cooked food or medicines. While I can see the logic and truth in the assertion that fevers, inflammations and the like are the biproducts of our body’s efforts to heal from disease, the whole fantasy of natural man eating some ideal diet falls apart when you ask yourself why early natural man, supposedly eating his perfect diet of raw fruit, was dying of diseases by the age of 40. It just doesn’t make sense.
All studies I have ever seen indicate that pre-fire, pre-tool human-type primates would have been omnivores, eating whatever they could manage to get their hands on be that fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, rodents, bugs…literally, whatever they could find and stomach. And, while human-type primates certainly ate raw food before finding fire, I could not find any credible references indicating that early man was a fruitarian – something frequently cited as some shining ideal of perfection raw foodists can strive to someday attain. Again, lack of citations and support in published works were very concerning to me.
Who is Natural Man?
Many primates use tools to access foods. Several different species of birds do the same – finding perfectly shaped sticks that they can poke into holes in order to retrieve grubs beyond the reach of their beaks. Porpoises carry sea sponges with them to assist them in foraging for meals. Does the use of tools mean that these creatures are eating in a manner unnatural to them, or do these skills and tools form a distinct characteristic that sets their species apart from others in a remarkable manner?
And what about man? Homo Erectus used both tools and fire and this species of human-type being predates our own species, Homo Sapiens, by about a million and a half years! How unnatural can something be to human creatures if beings of our relative kind have been doing it for something like two million years?
A central premise of raw foodism is that cooked foods are toxic and unnatural to us, but I found I could not follow this line of thinking when I considered that, in order to return to some previous mode of eating, we would have to go back beyond the origins of our own species – homo sapiens – in order to find models of ancient primates eating raw foods. I would assert that the use of tools, including fire, has been a characteristic of our people for as long as our people have existed, and that striving to abandon this history would involve ‘aping’ another type of creature.
It is also worth pointing out that while all raw foodists eschew the use of fire for processing food, a considerable industry is being developed to supply raw foodists with blenders, food processors and fancy vegetables slicers in order to aid them in making their meals palatable. These tools were, of course, wholly unknown to early man and yet again, the golden Eden-like ideal of perfect natural man seems to fall apart in the face of a diet which condemns the ancient use of fire while promoting the purchase of the latest in Cuisinart contraptions.
Environment and Survival
Polar bears have dense fur for living in icy climes and snails have built-in shelters wherever they go. Man has neither and just as man’s ability to occupy certain parts of the globe is dependent upon the acquisition of clothing and shelter – our ability to inhabit diverse regions of the planet has been historically dependent on our ability to make the most of the food supply we discovered or farmed there.
Whether you see major civilizations as a blessing or a curse to the Earth, there is no denying that every time man secured a food supply (particularly cultivated grain) population jumped and the mode of living we call civilization appeared. Our ability to make foods digestible by shelling them, pounding them, grinding them and cooking them is a unique skill that has been totally critical to the survival of our species. Even in the arid deserts of the Southwestern United States, Native Peoples (some of them, my ancestors) have been able to thrive for countless ages because of their ability to channel irrigation, dry farm, grind corn into meal and boil beans into a digestible state. This is the factual history of our inquisitive, imaginative species.
There are two issues I encountered frequently in my research of the raw food diet that I found troubling because of their apparent lack of wisdom in regards to both our historic experience as a species and our planet’s overwhelming need for the discovery of Earth-friendly living practices.
I encountered repeat mention of raw foodists experiencing physical coldness…sometimes a physical drop in body temperature. One story of a man attempting to live on raw fruit in Scandinavia and feeling freezing all of the time was especially poignant to me. If you study the historic cuisines of the coldest parts of the world, you will quickly begin to see that most cold climate peoples eat a great deal of fat in order to survive chilly weather. There are tribes in the northernmost parts of the American continents who eat tremendous quantities of pure animal fats and they have been eating this way for time beyond recall.
I would have to say that it seems like man has a good instinct inside to turn towards fat when he is cold. If we all lived in the tropics, perhaps this instinct would never assert itself, but only some of the people on the planet live in consistently warm climes where a diet of raw fruits and vegetables might not produce uncomfortable coldness. So, this was the first of the two things that troubled me about the realities of a planet where people live everywhere and need to eat foods that promote a vital body temperature.
Raw foodism does not necessarily mean a no-fat diet. It’s important to be clear about this. But what it does seem to advocate strongly is the acquisition of fats from fruits that are not available locally in most places. This is the second of my concerns. There is heavy promotion of coconuts and avocados in raw foods recipes, and unless you live in Thailand, Ecuador or some such place, the only way to subsist heavily on fatty tropical fruits is to have them flown to you, at great expense and at considerable cost to the environment. I found this to be a striking contradiction in a diet that is often styled as being ideally eco-friendly. Long distance shipping, when founded on fossil fuels, is not environmentally healthy and I began to feel that a person would need to move to South America to eat a raw local diet with adequate nutrients. Such a move would not be reasonable for most people.
I would assert that it goes against the laws of nature and the history of our species to adopt a diet which fails to maintain appropriate body temperatures in non-tropical climates and which may be largely dependent on having foods shipped in from afar. The Big Ag infrastructure could crumble at any time, and a raw foodist living in Norway might well find themselves in a life-or-death situation attempting to subsist on radishes and dill in the middle of a long winter. Try getting fresh local raw fruits and vegetables in New Jersey in January. Without Big Ag and international trade, you are out of luck, and a diet founded on the trade policies of multinational juggernauts may not be in alignment with a wish to live in peace with the world’s poor, upon reflection.
Our genius as a species, for good or ill, has been in our ability to adapt to nearly all environments and find the means of sustenance wherever we have gone. Homo Sapiens has survived for at least 200,000 years in this manner. I’m not sure it’s wise to make a big change in plans now.
South and Central America are the world’s food basket. In sum, the cuisines of numerous cultures are founded on the foods that were first cultivated in places like Peru and Mexico. Corn, Beans, Squash, Tomatoes, Potatoes, and countless other crops have become staples the world over, but they got their start in Indigenous hands on the American continents. Native Peoples took wild foods and cultivated them into new forms and this has been going on for millennia. I mention this here because it is very important to understand that the modern fruits and vegetables most people in the western world consume are wholly different than those which covered the earth when pre-tool, pre-fire man had his day.
I’m bringing this up because I feel it’s necessary to point out that modern raw foodists are not eating the raw fruits and vegetables of early human-type primates. Pre-homo-erectus cultures never ate a Fuji apple or a Nantes carrot or an ear of Silver Queen sweet corn. I believe it’s important to think about the reality that shooting for a pre-homo-erectus, pre-fire diet will ultimately be impossible, simply because evolution and agriculture have utterly changed the green face of the planet. So, again, I found myself encountering unattainable and romanticized ideals at the heart of the raw food diet. I needed to dig a little deeper.
Natural Hygiene – What is it?
After reading the first handful of pages of David Klein’s book about healing Crohn’s Disease, I began to ask myself who in the world T.C. Fry was. Quotes from this man make up a large portion of Klein’s book, and he is widely cited in the raw foods movement, but I’d never heard of him before. I also began wondering why David Klein’s name was appended with the title of Dr. The answer to both my questions lay in the topic of a set of beliefs called Natural Hygiene.
Natural Hygiene is believed to have been invented in the 1830s by graham cracker-inventor, Rev. Sylvester Graham. He gained a small following of people who were dubbed ‘grahamites’ and who, it seems, agreed with his advocacy of fasting, raw foods, no meat, some dairy and temperance. While many modern people might find Rev. Graham’s efforts to fight alcoholism admirable, fewer would be likely to agree with his extremist stances regarding vegetarianism as a means of controlling human sexuality. Natural Hygiene gradually fell out of favor when Rev. Graham died at the young age of 57, despite having promoted himself as a role model of good health.
About a hundred years later, Herbert M. Shelton resurrected the concept of Natural Hygiene and began publishing a magazine which ran for 40 years and in which Shelton propounded his theories of combining of raw foods for an ideal diet. T.C. Fry, another publisher of Natural Hygiene literature, began to be well-known in the 1970′s, and some attribute to him the popularity of raw foodism today.
I wanted to understand why David Klein (who is called Dr. because he is a Hygiene Doctor) found T.C. Fry to be so important that much of his book on healing Crohn’s Disease is devoted to the teachings of Fry. The more I read about T.C. Fry’s life, the more puzzled I became. Fry advocated a purely raw diet and earned his living by promoting himself and this diet as the ideal of perfect health. The truth is rather more complicated than this, and I found this article containing a series of interviews with people who knew T.C. Fry to be both alarming and illuminating. I can easily feel pity and sympathy for a fellow human who is so caught up in the search for health that he is binging and fasting, propounding the ‘truth’ of the Natural Hygiene raw diet one minute, and hiding in a closet eating junk food the next. He is only a human being. But, what is not honorable, in my opinion, was that Fry billed himself as a strict adherent to raw foods, when he wasn’t, and that, when his health began to fail, he hid this from the public and continued to advocate this diet as the cure for all ills.
T.C. Fry died in 1996 at the rather young age of 69 of a blood clot caused by a pulmonary embolism. He was overweight, had a heart condition and very bad teeth. He was not in good health when he died, and when his followers discovered this, many were disillusioned. Further disillusionment came when his followers learned that he had gone to South America for medical treatments for his health problems, despite the fact that proponents of Natural Hygiene insist that disease is a myth and that all sicknesses go away if the person rests and eats raw foods. I don’t delight in speaking poorly of a man who is deceased, but the bottom line of my research on T.C. Fry’s life and work as a nutrition reformer was that he seemed untrustworthy.
And, having established that conclusion, I’m afraid that David Klein’s whole book, as well as any raw foodism literature I encountered on the web citing T.C. Fry, began to take on a very untrustworthy aura. I don’t understand the appeal of founding a set of personal beliefs on the credos of individuals who are pulling the wool over the eyes of sincere and sick people who are looking for help. Advocating a diet as the secret to health while you are secretly seeking medical treatments and getting sicker every day is dishonest and a tremendous disservice to your fellow man. Frankly, I think it’s a shame that people would continue to cite T.C. Fry as a font of wisdom or an exemplar of living a good life.
After careful thought, I had to conclude that Natural Hygiene was founded by a somewhat peculiar man and then championed by a man whose ethics are what I would consider crooked. I began to feel clearer in my mind, at this point, that these were not leaders I wished to follow.
Fundamentalism and Dogma
I’m a believer in faith. I have the greatest respect for individuals who inquire into matters of faith and follow their hearts when they find something that truly makes sense to them. To me, the glory of all religions, spiritual devotions and lifeways is in the questions. Someone who seeks knowledge is genuine. Fundamentalism, however, applied to any type of belief system, is the end of questions and, to me, is a dark road to travel.
Time and again, very decent people have sought answers, thought they have found them in a person or belief system, and stopped seeking. Cults arise when people stop asking questions and the cult leader is considered beyond questioning, beyond reproach, beyond doubt. These dead end scenarios leave the followers open to abuse and influence for bad, and these situations can only happen when people give up their rights to question what they see, hear and experience.
I am not calling raw foodism a cult, any more than I would call veganism, Judaism, Buddhism or Christianity a cult. But, I am disturbed when people of any kind accept dogma without question. When someone comes to you claiming that Jesus is the Savior of mankind, you should really question this. When someone comes to you and says that our goal in life should be to detach from suffering, you should think deeply about this. When someone comes to you and tells you that all ill health stems from not getting enough rest and eating cooked foods, you should seriously question the validity of such a statement. Does it seem right to you? Does it match with what you know of spiritual things, human history, ethical behavior and the search for truth? What does your spirit feel about blanket statements like this? Do they feel like real solutions, or jumping off points for further inquiry?
My hope is that raw foodism looks like a question to you, instead of an answer. David Klein’s book lists testimonials from people who claim to have been cured of serious diseases by raw foods. He does not include the testimonials of people you will find elsewhere, explaining that they began to have symptoms of failure to thrive on a raw food diet. My chief problem here, in sum, is not that a raw foods diet may/may not be a good idea, but that many people are profiting by promoting raw foods as a cure to life-threatening diseases. It is the promotion and profit aspect of this that gave me the last piece of information I felt I needed to make up my mind about whether going raw was right for me.
I am sincerely glad if going on a raw foods diet has helped sick people, temporarily or in the long term, to feel better. David Klein explains that he was living on a diet of junk food before going raw, and I can certainly believe that this switch might have been exactly what he needed to start to resolve his symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis. It may be that any massive change over from a junk food diet to a more plant-based one (be that vegetarian, vegan, raw, or whole foods) would be enough to put a digestive disorder into remission, possibly even permanently. How wonderful for anyone who has known the agonies of chronic illness, to reach a day of wellness, whether they get there through diet, prayer, medicine or some other vehicle. But blanket statements, applied to all people…these, I found I could not swallow.
I mentioned that, to me, the glory is in the question. I am quite ready to concede here that my conclusions may be wrong. Perhaps miraculous healing was just on the other side of that raw banana for me, and I’ve made a foolish mistake deciding that a woman who has been vegan all her adult life is really already eating about as simply and healthily as any woman has, at any point in human history. I will continue to eat my vegan diet, rich in as many diverse raw and cooked fruits, veggies, legumes and grains as I can grow and find. I will make the most of the food source available to me, in the hopes that a healthy species and a healthy environment are to be found in diversity rather than restrictions.
Perhaps I’m wrong about this and will miss out on a cure for Crohn’s disease promised to me if I’ll only abandon the fire-using ways of all my ancestors. But, somehow, I don’t think so. I’ve really searched my heart about this, done my homework and decided that for me, the raw food diet holds no miracles and very few charms. My hope is that you will also seek answers, especially if you are ill, before making any tremendous changes. When you are sick, you’ve already been through a lot. Take it easy, and look before you leap.