When Herbalists talk about Raw Foods, they’re referring to those that have not been cooked in any way. Most of us are quite familiar with the fresh garden salad, which is generally comprised entirely of raw vegetables but might include a dash of cooked foods, like a sprinkle of croutons or a hard boiled egg. Folks who follow a Raw Foods Diet take that concept a step further.
The Raw Foods Diet is geared toward eating all foods raw or untouched by heat. Folks on this diet tend toward a much stronger vegetarian bent but are not opposed to eating raw eggs, meat, or dairy. Some foods, like dried beans or breads, are unlikely to find any place at their table. The rationale behind the diet is rooted in a scientific understanding of how humans evolved. In very short and simple terms, the ideas is that when we were still a highly nomadic, hunter-gather species, we ate what we found as we found it. We had not yet mastered use of fire to cook our foods during this period of human development while at the same time we were developing the same digestive systems and processes we still have today. The conclusion is that we were built to eat all our foods raw successfully, and that cooking foods destroys some of their nutritional value. In addition, some types of cooking, like deep frying, may cause chemical changes that are actually toxic to the human body.
From a modern herbalist’s perspective, there may be a lot to argue with in the foundational thinking that supports this diet. Just because our distant ancestors had evolved to eat entirely raw foods doesn’t mean we stopped evolving our systems, for instance. Humans have been cooking foods and living long, healthy lives for an awful long time now. The microbiome we had before we began using fire to cook our foods is in all likelihood a whole lot different than the microbiome we live with today. Many of us are unlikely to have a microbiome that’s prepared to go entirely raw all the time…but some of us may still carry enough of our ancestor’s early microbial communities and genetics to rebuild and be quite successful on a Raw Foods Diet.
And that’s where the many questions about constitution arise to help us herbalists figure out how many raw foods, if any, are good for us at any given time in our lives. The answer when it comes to diet is just like the answer when it comes to herbs; it’s never an easy answer and it always requires a healthy dose of curiosity, observation, and experimentation before drawing any conclusions.
What do TCM and Ayurveda say about eating Raw Foods?
Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda tend to steer most folks away from raw foods even in smaller quantities. Both of these traditions ask us to consider the individual’s constitution and the current environmental factors when making food choices.
Raw foods are considered cooling. What this means is it takes a lot more energy to break them down and absorb their nutrients. In part, this refers to the physical temperature of raw foods. Because they’re not cooked, they’re starting off at room temperature or cooler, so you use your body’s heat to warm them as you eat and digest them. In part this refers to the process of breaking them down. Typically, it takes more pure muscle power to chew raw veggies and foods than it does to chew cooked foods. You can bypass this by making a smoothie or blending raw foods, but that won’t help you a lot with the third place where we use a lot of energy to digest our foods. It takes more and stronger stomach acid to digest foods that are raw, especially vegetables with hard cell walls. Even if you cooked a meal hours ago and it’s back to room temperature, the chemical changes you enacted are still present, which means you’ve made digesting that food a bit easier. When we cook foods, we warm them and break down their physical and chemical structures, making them easier to digest.
Who Should Eat Raw Foods: Constitution
Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine suggest you should consider two factors when deciding how many raw foods to eat. The first and perhaps most important factor is your constitution. If you tend toward a Fire or Wood type or Pitta constitution, you are likely to have a strong digestive fire. That means you can pretty much eat anything you like without repercussions. We’ve all known someone who, no matter what they ate, never seemed to be adversely affected by it, including super greasy pizza or loads of chili fries coupled with a big ol’ cheese burger. Usually, folks with a strong digestive fire can consume loads of fats with ease. For these kinds of strong digestive fires, raw foods can actually be a real benefit.
Folks who are not blessed with the fire of a Fire or Wood or Pitta type of digestive system but are generally robust, like Kapha or Earth and Water types, some raw foods may be okay. These folks tend toward a more cool nature, so the cooler aspects of raw foods may be or become problematic, but they also tend to have strong, healthy digestive systems and good immune systems. Raw foods, consumed wisely, can be beneficial, especially when they’re feeling heavy or weary, when depression or lack of energy sets in, and when they are young and bounce back from most anything quickly and easily.
Vata or Metal and Air types are the least favorable constitutions for consuming raw foods. They tend to have less fire in general, making them already at a disadvantage for warming raw foods enough to break them down and absorb nutrients. Often, folk with a digestive system of the Vata or Metal or Air type crave warm foods and warm environments in part because they have a hard time making enough body heat on their own. They’re already cool by nature, so adding foods that are cooling is likely to exacerbate that rather than support them. Still, a small amount of raw food taken at the right time of year or life may be okay.
When to Eat Raw Foods: Consider This
Environment and time of life or timing is the second factor Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine considers when looking at the question of whether or not to eat raw foods. When looking at timing, do so through the lens of your own constitution. That means, know which time of year is easiest for your body or resonates with and supports you and which time of year exacerbates the imbalances to which you may be prone. It also means recognize the phase of life you’re in and how the aging process supports or exacerbates those same imbalances.
Time of year makes a difference as does the area where you’re living. Summer in the desert is hot and dry. That type of environment is likely to exacerbate Pitta or Fire types of constitutions. Those folks will have a much harder time cooling off than their counterparts who live in the high altitudes of the Himalayas through the summer. The relatively cooler and more humid environment mountain-dwelling Pitta and Fire or Wood types experience through summer will offer them far more support than their desert-dwelling relations. Many books can outline how each season affects each constitution, but the environment in which you’re living makes a huge impact on how that season’s energy plays out for you personally. I find it a lot easier to look at season and environment through the lens of your constitution:
Pitta or Fire or Wood types are generally supported by mildly to strongly humid environments that are cooler in general. They are more likely to be energized by sunshine, so excessive sun exposure can exacerbate constitutional imbalances even in cooler, more humid environments.
Kapha or Earth or Water types are generally supported by warm to hot environments with moderate to low humidity. They are generally more likely to experience some level of seasonal depression in places where there is less sunshine at certain points in the year, such as the Northern or Southern hemispheres at 45 degrees or closer to the poles: Think Seattle, WA in the USA or Melbourne in Australia. So even in the high desert lower levels of winter sunshine may exacerbate constitutional imbalances.
Vata or Air and Metal types are generally supported by hot and humid environments. They generally do well with varying amounts of sunshine in part due to their innate ability to change and flow, but they do not do as well in cooler places. Higher elevations may exacerbate constitutional imbalances, particularly in those who favor the more airy side of this type of constitution while lower elevations are likely to be more supportive. Those living in a beachside villa on the Caribbean coast are likely to be better supported than their mountain-dwelling counterparts.
Eating for Life Phase
The phase or time of life you’re in has an impact on how well your body is likely to digest as well. Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine view youth as the Earth and Wood time of life. During this time, our bodies are focused on building and growing. No matter our constitution, we’re geared to digest well to absorb enough nutrients to do so. This phase lasts into our late teens or early twenties, roughly. All constitutional types are likely to tolerate some raw foods well throughout youth. Earth and Water types or Kapha types may be wise to limit raw foods through youth to help preserve their natural digestive fire and avoid excess weigh gain.
The longest phase of our lives is the Fire or Pitta phase of life. This is when we have the most energy overall. Our bodies have finished growing and all the energy we have learned to produce from our food and lifestyle is channeled into building our families, homes, careers, hobbies, and growing into ourselves. This is the time of life when raw foods may be well tolerated by Kapha or Earth types. Water types may do well with raw foods, too. Vata or Air and Metal types may do well with raw foods early in this phase of life, but as the years go by they are more likely to notice their digestive fire waning. For all types, when you begin to notice some of the foods you used to eat no longer sit well with you, that’s a sign it’s time to rethink your diet. It may be time to reconsider the wisdom in eating raw foods or consider dramatically reducing how much of them you consume. This is the time in life when we move from the surety of childhood and adolescence that allowed us to actually believe we would live forever into the middle passage when we begin to awaken to the changes we must make to preserve the health and vigor we have.
The last phase of our lives is the Vata or Metal or Water phase of life. This is the time when our bodies begin to slow down. We’re no longer supported by the natural heat and energy of the Pitta or Fire phase in life. Instead, we must rely on our inner fire to carry us through our elder years. It begins sometime after menopause for most women and is generally marked by increased signs of aging, like color changes in hair and increased facial wrinkles or aging spots on the hands. Along with it, we often notice our digestion just isn’t what it once was. Perhaps, we have made adjustments through our middle years that make it easier to navigate the beginning of this phase in life, but even then we are likely to notice we need to eat much less than before and we may need to be more careful about how much and when and what we eat. During this phase of life, even the robust fire of the Pitta and Fire types may be excessively challenged by raw foods. Certainly, Vata or Air and Metal types of digestion are likely to fare poorly with even a few raw foods, as this time of life exacerbates their already lower digestive fire.
What About if You Need to Cleanse Toxins?
Raw Foods tend to help us cleanse our bodies of toxins and inflammation, so long as we have the strength to break them down and absorb them. This is part of why Pitta or Fire types can do so well on a fully Raw Foods Diet. They have strong digestive fire and a strong tendency to turn that fire into an inflammatory response when it’s not being used well. For them, a Raw Foods Diet can help naturally reduce the body’s inflammatory response, cleanse built-up toxins in the form of inflammation, and keep their fires well fed. They may need to consider adding supportive foods like Fermented Foods, particularly as they age or are on a Raw Foods Diet for a longer duration, but eating a fully raw diet may offer support they are sorely needing.
For the rest of us who may not have such a strong digestive fire, Raw Foods taken seasonally and while we’re in generally good health can be beneficial. Modern herbalists talk about doing a spring and a fall cleanse, during which raw foods in the form of smoothies are often suggested. When you consider timing and constitution, you can adjust that idea to better fit how your body will handle raw foods. Taken late in summer, a short Raw Foods Diet-style cleanse can help clear any of the excesses you may have gathered through your summer’s experiences. At this time, assuming you live in an environment that’s hot in late summer, the Raw Food you consume will also help your system dissipate excess heat by using it to warm your foods for digestion. This works well if you’re in fairly robust health overall.
In the spring, most of us are better served by a short fast and cleanse that looks a lot more like a Recovery diet. Kapha or Earth or Water types may do well to consider some fresh spring greens as a significant part of this cleanse, as the lightness and bitterness or sharpness of these foods will help them lighten their energies and get their natural sluggishness moving at a faster clip. Wood or Fire or Pitta types may do well to add some raw foods at this point, too, assuming they have had a healthy winter that has not diminished their natural fire. If the winter was rough on them, they may be wise to aim instead to focus on adding more sour and bitter foods to their diet to help boost their liver and kidney functions and thus better clear out anything that has built-up in their systems. Air, Metal, and Vata types are best off avoiding raw foods until summer’s heat will offer them the added support they need, even if they feel a need to cleanse. Instead, adding some vigorous exercise to their daily routine can help get lymph moving and build more heat in their systems. I any case, lots of raw foods may be more detrimental to Vata or Metal or Air types than helpful.
Cautions Around Cleansing
Folk who are not in robust health or are weakened for any reason would be wise to limit this type of cleansing until they have recovered their strength. Phyllis D. Light gave a terrific talk about recuperating naturally after illness that applies to those of us who are not necessarily recovering from a specific illness but instead are generally weakened and need to rebuild our strength. I recommend listening to what she has to say and incorporating some or all of it into your strategy for rebuilding your natural well-being. It would also be wise to consider working with a nutritionist, naturopath, experienced herbalist, Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, Ayurvedic physician, or other experts to chart your course back to thriving.