Paleo Diet: Should Our Food Be Raw?

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A Big Fat Steak

Everywhere you look, there are people talking about the possible benefits of raw food diets…..primarily raw vegan. I’m not going to go into detail here, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re reading articles on this site, you already know many reasons why a vegan diet of any kind (raw or not), is not optimal for health and physical performance. But what about the Paleo Template? Should our food be raw too?

Tony Federico, my friend and owner of the FED (Fitness in an Evolutionary Direction) blog, posted an excellent article on the question of raw food, entitled “Primal Chefs – Making The Case For A Cooked Ancestral Diet”. Obviously I’m not going to quote the entire article here, because it is several thousand words long, and I know Tony would love for you to go on over and read the whole thing on his blog.

Here are some highlights….

Introduction – Making the Case for Cooking

Despite the fact that there is not a single human society that has ever subsisted on an all-raw food diet (based on either animal or vegetable foods) the idea that raw is “natural” persists. While such a diet may be possible in the context of our modern food system, the practicality and survivability of “raw” in our ancestral environment (where food scarcity and a high energetic expenditure was required to forage and hunt) is questionable. Looking at the Wikipedia.com entry for “Raw Veganism” one can see how even in the days of supermarkets and abundant food, the definition of “raw” is still stretched considerably:

“Raw veganism is a diet that combines the concepts of veganism and raw foodism. It excludes all food of animal origin, as well as food cooked at a temperature above 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit). A raw vegan diet includes raw vegetables and fruits, nuts and nut pastes, grain and legume sprouts, seeds, plant oils, sea vegetables, herbs, and fresh juices.” (emphasis mine)

In such a diet the majority of calories may come from foods that are considered “raw”, but are nonetheless processed by modern technology. It is unlikely that our prehistoric ancestors would

have had the stone-age equivalent of blenders for making nut butters, presses for extracting vegetable oils, and low-heat ovens and dehydrators for “heating” (don’t say cooking!) their food.

Another inconvenient fact is that “raw” dietary staples such as sprouted grains and legumes were unavailable during the vast Pleistocene epoch from which modern humans arose. Domesticated cereal grasses and legumes only appeared 10,000 years ago with the dawn of the agricultural revolution, making their regular consumption prior to that point sporadic, and seasonal, at best.

What then, is the alternative?”

Great intro Tony! Way to set the stage!

It is my belief that cooked food, particularly starchy tubers and animal flesh, is what dominated the ancestral human dietary. In the following sections, I will set out to back up this statement by:

  • Drawing the connection between “form” and “function” (namely, that our anatomy reflects evolutionary pressures and can therefore be used to identify what those pressures were).
  • Presenting evidence that suggests that the great apes are our closest living relatives, and as such, they provide the best examples for us to begin our anatomical comparison.
  • Describing what is known about great ape anatomy and how it differs from that of modern humans.
  • Looking to early hominid fossil evidence to see what we can infer about the evolutionary steps and that resulted in our current form.

Presenting a practical summary of the implications surrounding an ancestral diet of cooked foods.”

Part 1 – Form Follows Function”

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form forever follows function. This is the law.”

- Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered

In his 1896 essay on the design of the then novel “office building”, Louis Sullivan rightly observed that, in the natural world, forms such as the wings of birds, human hands, or the fins of fishes, are a product of the function they perform. This function may be readily apparent; a lion’s claws are curved and sharp so that it may better grasp prey, or more obscure, a moth’s tongue may be a particular length so that it can feed on a specific type of orchid, but the underlying truth to this premise remains.”

Part 2 – Well I’ll Be a Great Ape’s Cousin”

“Comparing the degree of similarity between species allows us to infer their relative evolutionary closeness and relation. At present, the most reliable metric we have available for assessing the relatedness of species (and by inference how much time has passed since the two species were in fact one species) is gene sequencing. While we can plainly see that humans are more closely related to apes than birds, analyzing simple morphological similarities (i.e. physical traits) can only take us so far. However, even with molecular evidence, drawing absolute conclusions about evolutionary relationships is difficult.”

“As philosopher David Hume said in his 1772 essay An Enquiry Concering Human Understanding, “From causes which appear similar we expect similar effects.” In other words, we would expect that were humans adapted to diets and lifestyles similar to that of their great ape cousins, they would look and act more like them. As this is clearly not the case, we will need to explore these “causes” and “effects” more thoroughly.”

Part 3 – Monkey See Human Eat?”

“…while the heart, kidneys, and liver are the size that would be expected, our brains are much larger and our guts are much smaller. This energetic trade-off (large brains for small guts) indicates that human evolution diverged from that of our ape cousins by way of a significant change in our diets. This change would have simultaneously lessened the demand for a robust digestive apparatus capable of processing large amounts of plant foods while also providing enough energy to feed our growing brain. The “Man the Hunter” hypothesis is typically cited as the reason for this shift, but can an increase in animal foods alone explain the dramatic differences observed between modern humans and apes?”

Part 4 – Digging for Bones”

“Appearing around 1.8 million years ago, Homo erectus (the general designation for both the Asian H. Erectus and African H. Ergaster which were contemporaries of each other and either of which may have been the direct ancestor to modern humans) is the first human ancestor who may have had controlled use of fire (possibly “harvested” first from wild fires, and later struck from natural sources of flint) as well as a “hunter gatherer” social structure.

On one hand, use of fire would have made sleeping on the ground safe as all animals (excepting for humans) have an instinctual fear of fire. It would have also provided warmth and allowed for an expansion into less temperate climates. The emergence of hunter-gatherer social groups was also made possible by using fire to cook food as the commitment to a day of hunting would be impossible if a day’s worth of calories could not be consumed after returning to camp at night. As with modern hunter-gatherers, cooking also allows for gathering to provide for a baseline level of food resources as hunting expeditions are often unsuccessful.

Homo Erectus would have also enjoyed increased access to food resources conferred by cooking. Specifically, reproductive and survival benefits would have been derived from increased food quality (decreased energetic cost for digestion by as much as 5-15% and increased surface area for the action of digestive enzymes) and decreased exposure to food toxins and microorganisms destroyed by fire.”

Part 5 – Dinner Time!

“…it indicates that foods best suited for cooking, gathered starchy roots and tubers as well as hunted animals likely formed the centerpiece of the ancestral diet. But, the proportion of starch to flesh is seems largely irrelevant. This point is illustrated by Katharine Milton in “Hunter-gatherer diets—a different perspective“:

“Data on modern-day hunter-gatherers as well as hunter-gatherer-agriculturalists who consumed traditional diets indicate that such societies are largely free of diseases of civilization regardless of whether a high percentage of dietary energy is supplied by wild animal foods (eg, in Canadian Eskimos), wild plant foods (eg, in the !Kung), or domesticated plant foods taken primarily from a single cultivar (eg, in the Yanomamo).”

Third, it reveals a path to weigh management that doesn’t involve counting calories. While a raw vegan diet is not one that I would recommend, increasing the proportion of raw foods in ones diet relative to cooked foods (ideally also well sourced and nutritionally sound) would predictably decrease the amount of usable calories thus facilitating weight loss efforts.

Finally, it tells us that the ritual of the community or family meal, is primary to our well being. If our ancestral lineage progressed like that of the chimpanzee, we would eat in solitude but that is not the case for us. In fact, numerous studies have supported this notion by showing that a shared family meal can lead to

Conclusion – Man the Cook

In the midst of a nutritional environment that is dominated by highly processed food products (to call them simply “food” would be unwise) it is understandable that many people initially react by moving too far in the opposite direction. Over the course of my own journey, I too have been tempted by the obvious appeal of naturalism, to the notion that what is good and right is the untouched and unspoiled products of mother earth. But, this is a romantic notion that does not reflect the likely truth of our origins. Rather than rejecting cooking, we would do well to embrace it. Let your cooking be an act of communion with your ancestors, with the earth, and with the animals and plants that are sacrificed in the preparation of your food.

In short, cook well, eat well, and be well.”

A very thought-provoking article by Tony. I agree that the majority of the food we eat is definitely better cooked. Many vegetables like starchy tubers are basically inedible in the raw form. Some vegetables have toxins that are ingested when eaten raw, but mostly inactivated when well cooked. Even our beloved broccoli is known for its goitrogenic content that is lessened by thorough cooking.

On the other hand of the scale, according to the Weston A Price Foundation, many ancient and current hunter-gatherer civilizations consumed/consume a significant amount of their animal protein (including fish) in the raw form. There is evidence that raw meat contains more B Vitamins, and more digestive enzymes than cooked meat, that enables easier breakdown and absorption of the nutrients.

I tend to eat my steak while at the “still moo’ing” level of doneness, and I can see potential benefits to consuming raw meats, and raw dairy products, but vegetables are more advantageous when thoroughly cooked in my opinion. Starchy tubers like white potatoes, and sweet potatoes etc, tend to have a lower toxin load, because they exist below ground where they are relatively safe from marauding animals that want to eat them, but they will cause nasty digestive issues if us humans try to eat them raw. Have you ever tried to eat raw potato? It’s not a pleasant experience.

So in answer to the “Should Our Food Be Raw?” question, I have to say that I think Tony is right. Cook your veg in the manner you prefer, cook some of your meats….especially any industrial CAFO meat that you may eat, BUT try to eat your local, high-quality grass-fed or pastured meats as close to raw as you possibly can, to ensure the highest availability of vitamins, and enzymes.

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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

For more information please visit: www.undergroundnutritionist.com

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4 Responses to Paleo Diet: Should Our Food Be Raw?

  1. Natalie Rothgarden April 17, 2012 at 7:50 am

    Great post. I’m a big advocate for eating mostly raw food. I think that everyone is different, and what works for someone might not work for others, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think some ways of eating are better than others. To me, eating mostly raw foods isn’t even a diet like how it is usually described. It’s more of a lifestyle. It changed many different aspects of my life and I know others can experience the same benefits. I have my own raw food review blog at http://www.rawfoodland.com. Check it out if you’re interested in going raw. I hope this helps.

  2. Natalie Rothgarden April 17, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Great post. I’m a big advocate for eating mostly raw food. I think that everyone is different, and what works for someone might not work for others, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think some ways of eating are better than others. To me, eating mostly raw foods isn’t even a diet like how it is usually described. It’s more of a lifestyle. It changed many different aspects of my life and I know others can experience the same benefits. I have my own raw food review blog at rawfoodland.com. Check it out if you’re interested in going raw. I hope this helps.

  3. charles grashow April 17, 2012 at 7:57 am

    I eat my meat raw – ground beef, lamb or goat – purchase it locally at the farm BUT I cook all my veggies – chinese bone broth veggie soup

  4. Tony Federico April 18, 2012 at 8:47 am

    Thanks for the review Barry! I do think that there is a precedent for raw meat and animal products. Offal like liver, kidney, and intestine were often eaten raw. The Inuit and other arctic peoples would also eat raw blubber or rotten fish (not spoiled by pathogenic bacteria, but rotten in the way that cheese is to milk). Raw fish is also eaten (sushi, ceviche, etc.) and raw cured meats are found all over the world (prosciutto, pemmican, etc.) The caveat for all of these, however, is tenderness.

    Salting, pounding, pickling, or cooking are all employed to make the food soft and digestible by denaturing proteins and breaking down connective tissue (either mechanically or chemically). In other words, humans use cooking, along with other technological and cultural innovations, to externalize the process of digestion so as to achieve a high quality diet that can be easily eaten, this, perhaps more-so than the single factor of cooking, is the take home message.