Ayurveda Raw Food
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.