One question people often ask me when I’m lecturing about Food as Medicine is, “Is eating a raw foods diet healthy?”
There isn’t a simple answer to this question because what is good for one person’s mind-body physiology will not always be beneficial for someone else. On the one hand, I’ve seen many patients benefit from consuming a diet of raw foods and juiced vegetables. Some of the health benefits they experienced included increased energy levels, mental clarity, weight loss, decreased inflammation, and improved complexion. There are also multiple reports of a raw food diet leading to improvement from chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
It’s not surprising that many people feel better when they shift away from a Western diet with a lot of cooked, heavily processed foods and few vegetables and fruits. However, I’ve also seen a number of people suffer adverse effects from eating primarily raw, uncooked foods, including gas, bloating, constipation, insomnia, dry skin, decreased vitality, feeling cold, and low libido. When they’ve shifted to a more balanced, Ayurvedic diet, their symptoms disappeared.
Nurturing Our Digestive Fire and Health
From an Ayurvedic perspective, our health is determined not only by the foods that we eat but our ability to digest and metabolize those foods. This digestive capacity is referred to as Agni. Ayurveda regards raw foods as being cold, dry, light, rough, and Rajasic—a Sanskrit term that can be translated as activating or enervating. Consuming foods with these qualities can strain our digestive fire and decrease our digestive capacity, particularly in someone who has weak digestion to start with. This can lead to poor absorption of nutrients, lack of nourishment to our tissues, imbalances in our body, and, ultimately, illness or disease.
Ayurveda generally recommends cooked foods to strengthen the digestive power of Agni, decrease digestive stress, and optimize nutrient absorption. Some raw foods are used, but the amounts are much less than in a predominantly raw food diet.
Proponents of raw food diets argue that cooking food destroys nutrients and vital enzymes. However, research shows that the plant enzymes found in raw foods are digested and broken down by our own enzymes and therefore do not contribute to our digestive function and nutrition. In addition, the minerals and vitamins in some fruits and vegetables are actually lessbioavailable when we eat them raw. For example, the beneficial carotenoids from carrots and lycopene from tomatoes are significantly higher when cooked. Lightly steaming, sautéing, and simmering foods at a low temperature can make foods easier to digest. In fact, some foods contain anti-nutrients that actually block nutrient absorption and many of those can also be mitigated by the aforementioned food preparation methods. Keep in mind, however, that overcooking foods can reduce their nutrient content and Prana, a Sanskrit term that means vital life-force energy.
An Individualized Approach to Eating Well
In Ayurveda, when determining the optimal diet, we have to take into account an individual’s digestive capacity, mind-body constitution (Prakruti dosha), current imbalances and symptoms (Vikruti), season and climate, and stage of life. For instance, consider the case of an older adult with a predominantly Vata constitution who lives in a dry climate in the winter and has low energy and osteoporosis. For this individual, Ayurveda would prescribe a nourishing diet of easily digested, warm, cooked foods. In contrast, an active, younger adult with a Pitta constitution, living in a humid climate in the summer and experiencing rashes would most likely do well with a diet that includes many fresh salads, vegetable juices, and raw vegetables.
A patient came to me recently after being advised by a well-meaning health practitioner to consume each morning a blended smoothie made from kale, romaine, pear, and soaked nuts or seeds—all of which are bitter or astringent tastes that increase Vata dosha—along with some water. She diligently did so for four days and despite drinking 100 ounces of fluid daily, ended up in the emergency room with a bowel impaction. What the practitioner didn’t account for was that she lacked the digestive capacity to handle this particular combination of raw foods. For her, a diet of steamed and sautéed vegetables were consumed easily and she was able to gradually rebuild her digestive strength.
Another patient who was Pitta by nature with strong digestion, lost 20 pounds, decreased his serum cholesterol, and eliminated aches and pains by consuming two green juices daily, in addition to eating a more Mediterranean-style diet.
In short, not all raw foods are bad and not all cooked foods are bad. Some people are able to tolerate foods that others cannot. After more than 20 years researching food and nutrition, I have found that there’s no “right” diet that benefits all people. In order to determine if a raw foods diet is right for you, take into account your general ability to digest, your dosha type, and your current health situation. How does your body react to the foods that you are currently consuming? It may help for you to keep a daily food journal and note how you feel after eating different kinds of foods. Keep in mind that sometimes you won’t immediately feel the effects of eating a certain kind of food until the next day. Pay attention and you will begin to notice patterns. These clues, and the wisdom of Ayurveda, can help you find the best diet for you.
Raw Foods and Your Dosha
Ayurvedic Tips to Enhance Digestion
- Avoid cold food and liquids.
- Sip hot water with meals. Drink the majority of your water between meals.
- Include fresh ginger root, lime or lemon juice, and small amounts of fermented foods to increase Agni.
- Include all six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent—in every meal to ensure balance.
- Eat mindfully, taking your time to enjoy your food.
- Eat according to your primary constitution: Vata, Pitta, or Kapha.
- Align yourself with the rhythms of nature. Eat mostly warm, cooked foods when the weather is cool and the qualities of Vata are increased. Salads and other raw foods are best eaten when the weather is hot and at lunchtime, when Agni is strongest.
- Incorporate healthy fats and cold-pressed organic oils such as extra-virgin olive oil to balance Vata when consuming salads and dried foods.
- Soak and sprout nuts and seeds to unlock nutrients and increase their digestibility.
- Juice raw vegetables to decrease the element of dryness and reduce the digestive demands on your body. I don’t recommend juicing more than one piece of fruit daily as this leads to increased blood sugar levels.
- Include spices that enhance digestion and reduce gas and bloating, such as coriander, cumin, and fennel.
- Practice Pranayama (yogic breathing) techniques to increase your digestive fire. Bhastrika or bellows breath is a simple yogic breathing practice that will help energize you as well as enhance your digestive power.
- Practice yoga poses that massage the abdominal organs, such as gentle twists, reclined knee-to-chest pose, downward dog, and cat-cow pose.