Like our primitive ancestors and contemporaries, we eat plenty of raw food. Our breakfast (as well as our snacks throughout the day) consists of raw fruit. With most meals we eat a variety of leafy greens and raw vegetables (the jungle version of having a salad before your meal).
We do not follow or advocate an exclusively raw diet. While the raw-food people have some very good points, Evolution ultimately proves them wrong.
Eating plenty of raw food is a key to good health. Everyone knows: cooking destroys vitamins. But that is not all. Cooking certain foods can create a variety of toxins (including carcinogens), which is often left out when talking about the health benefits of plants. Yes, the raw plant contains various vitamins, minerals, proteins, sugars and other nutrients, but what will be left after you cook it?
Cooking is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it renders otherwise inedible or even poisonous plants tender and delicious, and acts like a pre-digestive process, making certain foods (like meat) softer and easier to digest. It sterilizes foods that might otherwise contain harmful bacteria and kills parasites.
Without cooking, our diet would look very different, and we would have large bellies like our distant ancestors homo erectus and h. habilis (and like other raw-eating large primates, notably gorillas). Cooking allows us to “outsource” part of the digestive process of breaking up molecules from our intestines into the cooking pot. We spend less time and energy digesting, so our body has spare energy to entertain our slightly larger brains (compared to h. habilis, and h. erectus; Neanderthals actually had bigger brains than us). Further, without cooking our jaws would be much more prominent, as is the case with other humans (like the Neanderthal or the aforementioned two fellows) or other large primates – we would spend a lot more time chewing to get the same amount of calories.
But cooking also reduces the nutritional value of some foods in terms of vitamins and certain trace elements. Further, it changes the taste, so that the food tastes “better” to us. Most people would agree that a cooked potato, a cooked pumpkin, cooked spinach, cooked brussel sprouts and cooked beans taste better. Cooking changes the chemical composition, and through the heating/boiling/roasting/grilling/baking existing molecules are changed and new ones created. Food becomes sweeter, softer, and easier to chew. Chewing softer food made our jaws shrink (while our teeth remained more or less the same size) and weakened our teeth (with more carbohydrates being converted into sugars before they reach the stomach), so that today dental problems like tooth decay and tooth displacement are a ubiquitous phenomenon.
With cooked food we change the taste of our food so that everything tastes good – whether we need it or not. We tend to overeat, which basically can’t happen on a raw diet, since the taste changes and becomes rather unpleasant when your body has enough. Regular overeating is directly connected with a large variety of health problems and might even be one of the leading causes of early death in our society.
In changing the taste, we trick one of our most underappreciated features: our instinct. As all other animals, humans have an instinct that aids them in selecting what foods their body needs. The instinct works through slightly changing our perception of taste so that the food we need tastes better to us. The most obvious example is a pineapple: eat a whole pineapple, and your mouth will burn like hell – this is because you didn’t listen to your instinct, which told you when your body had enough bromelain (an enzyme that aids in the digestion of protein) through making the taste slightly more acidic, and now the excess bromelain attacks the lining of your mouth and tongue.
All that being said, you can’t have a conversation about “raw vs cooked food” without talking about fire. It should be indisputable that humans are dependent on fire. Its warmth, its ability to detoxify foods and to scare away predators was what allowed us to settle down in climates ranging from the arctic to the desert and make ourselves at home there. If we would have continued to eat raw, we would have stayed a local curiosity – the naked ape – limited to Central Africa. You and I wouldn’t be where we are right now, nor would anybody else we know. What raw-fooders often seem to forget is that it would be utterly impossible for us to live in Asia, Europe, or America without using fire (or, like these days, other forms of warming energy), and that it is equally impossible to expect people to use fire for warmth but not for cooking.
Another erroneous thought of many proponents of an only-raw diet is that they rely on industrial civilization for much of their food: on airplanes, container ships, industrial agriculture and supermarkets – all of which are not and can never be sustainable. The only sustainable thing is to listen to your land – it will tell you what to eat.
We don’t eat only raw food, but we eat a big variety of raw vegetables and fruit every day, like all hunter-gatherer/horticultural societies today and in the past. Eating a 100% raw diet can be temporarily useful to fight diseases (instinctotherapy), but eating only raw food all the time is a rather questionable practice. Sure, some people are very healthy and active on this diet (for now), but that doesn’t change the fact that humans have cooked food for well over one million years, and our own species, homo sapiens, evolved together with cooked food from the very beginning on (about 300,000 years ago). We are adapted to cooking our food, as shown in our smaller jaws and bellies, and our slightly larger brains.
If people eat a raw diet for a few years and start claiming that this is the “one and only right way to eat”, we advise you to be careful. Only Evolution will show if this diet is really all that good after all (and the wheels of Evolution turn slow), so we will first see how their children and grandchildren are doing, and then wait for another 500 generations before we can claim that their diet is really superior. They will certainly start looking different than we do.
We are very critical of being too strict, whatever diet you eat. Always remember that food should make you healthy and happy. Don’t fall for cults that promise you enlightenment through abstinence. If people start using the same vocabulary as Christian missionaries or Hare Krishnas when talking about their diet (“If you Eat Raw/find Jesus/worship Krishna, you will feel light, worry-free, and a new kind of energy flowing through you…”), you can be sure it’s nothing more than their imagination.
Listen to your land, and it will tell you all that you need to know.