When I first started learning about complementary medicine, I was working as a masseuse in a naturopathic clinic. Naturopathy places a lot of emphasis on the benefits of getting back to nature: fresh air, exercise, drinking water and eating raw food are seen as basic to good health.
Nearly all new patients were put on a raw food diet, as a way to cleanse their systems and get away from bad eating habits. But it became clear, as I worked with these people, that it certainly didn’t suit everybody. And it wasn’t just the so-called ‘healing crisis’, or symptoms getting worse as the body detoxifies.
Some people lost weight, had more energy and felt renewed, but others had digestive problems, felt very tired, cold and weak, and got worse rather than better
Later, learning about traditional Chinese medicine, I discovered that raw food was generally seen as a bad thing, and that different types of diet are recommended depending on your constitution and your health problems. The Ayurvedic system in India takes a similar approach, and both these systems have been around a lot longer than naturopathy.
So what are we to believe?
The difference between raw and cooked is quite profound. Cooking things is like pre-digesting them; some of the work of breaking them down is done before the food reaches your stomach. It increases the range of foods you can eat, particularly carbohydrate-rich foods like tubers, roots and grains, so the amount of energy available is much greater.
Anthropologists now think that the huge increase in brain size that occurred in pre-humans, leading to the emergence of Homo sapiens around 40,000 years ago, is linked to the mastery of fire and its ability to transform foods by cooking. In other words, cooking is part of what makes us human
So what’s the answer? As usual, it’s horses for courses. Naturopathy was born out of reaction against the excesses of 19th century middle-class life: a terrible diet deficient in vitamins and over-dependent on fats and carbohydrates, and an indoor existence without enough vigorous outdoor exercise, without the sensory stimuli that a more primitive lifestyle would provide. A lot of those excesses are still with us today.
In some ways, it’s got worse
You have to look at your own constitution and health picture. If you’re overweight, and if your system tends to be too hot – resulting in problems like inflammation, heart trouble, skin eruptions and so on – then raw food will cool you down, help you lose weight and you will be likely to thrive.
If you’re thin, cold, have irritable bowel or other digestive troubles, then you probably won’t do so well. That’s a huge oversimplification, of course, but it’s a good place to start from. That, and listening to your own body and acting on what it tells you.