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Is Eating a Raw Diet Healthy?

Health + Wellness

The ancient healing system of Ayurveda is quite forthcoming in its recommendations and it has a definitive stance on food preparation: Food should almost never be eaten raw. This might surprise you, as many health aficionados who swear by raw diets also believe in the tradition of Ayurveda. If you love eating raw but want to follow the teachings of this ancient medicine, here's what you need to know to make an informed decision about whether or not to eat raw.

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The Case for Raw Food

First, let's go over the health benefits of eating raw. Proponents of raw diets maintain that uncooked foods contain more active enzymes, as they haven't been deactivated by the process of heat-based cooking. This is actually quite true: Heat does, in fact, destroy enzymes that may still be present in your produce while it is raw. Additionally, cooking can decrease the nutrient value of your foods.

However, these particular justifications for eating raw may be unfounded. According to Livescience, the enzymes you preserve by not cooking your food are likely lost to the digestive process anyway and are probably not that beneficial for good health.

"… plant enzymes, which raw dieters wish to preserve, are largely mashed up with other proteins and rendered useless by acids in the stomach. Not cooking them doesn't save them from this fate. Anyway, the plant enzymes were for the plants. They helped with the plants' growth and they are responsible for the wilting and decomposition of plants after they are harvested. They are not needed for human digestion."

The most beneficial aspect of a raw lifestyle is the fact that the person partaking in this eating style is probably eating a lot less processed food than the average modern human. As a population, we eat far too many processed foods. Raw diets are likely to include far more nutrient-rich veggies and fruits than non-raw diets—and for that reason, they tend to positively impact health.

Background on Ayurveda

Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years and it's a complex system of health and medicine. Here's a little background that will help inform your knowledge about Ayurveda's stance on raw foods.

First of all, Ayurveda is based on the idea that matter is comprised of three influences: soma (cooling, lunar energy), agni (warming, solar energy) and maruta (the element of air), according to Ayurindus. These energies are three qualities of prana or life force.

When discussing food and digestion, we're primarily concerned with agni. This warming force is directly responsible for digestion, which is thought to be a warming, heating force.

What Ayurveda Says About Raw Foods

Ayurveda recommends that all foods be warmed, at least to room temperature, in order to support agni (the heating element) and digestion. Eating raw foods—particularly cold, refrigerated ones—is thought to shock the system and make digestion difficult.

So, the official word in Ayurveda is to cook your food. Here's what Charaka Samhita, an ancient Sanskrit text on Ayurveda, has to say on the subject:

" … vegetables are generally heavy, sweet, drying, obstructive, difficult to digest and cold in potency. Therefore these need to be cooked or steamed prior to intake."

Additionally, it's no secret that digesting raw veggies can be tough. They're fibrous, after all, which can leave us feeling bloated and gassy, even if fiber is good for us. Ayurindus also notes that within Ayurvedic circles, side effects such as infertility, diarrhea, low body temperature, hair loss and insomnia have been observed in practitioners of raw diets.

The Role of Body Types

Of course, when it comes to diet, there's no one-size-fits-all. Some people absolutely love the way they feel on a completely raw diet, while others can't stand it. Even in Ayurveda, there's a very big concentration on different physical compositions. The three body types (or doshas) vata, pitta and kapha call for very different diets. Differences of age, climate and medical history are also taken into account.

For example, as the Chopra Center explains, a senior citizen with a vata body type living in a cold climate might do best on a fully cooked diet, while a younger adult with a pitta type living somewhere warm might actually benefit from the cooling effects of a raw diet.

In short, you have to find what works for you. But just because some health-minded people swear that raw eating is beneficial doesn't mean that it will work for everyone. If you want to maintain a clean, conscious diet but you find that raw foods just don't do it for you, there may be a perfectly valid reason why. Now you can use Ayurveda to back it up.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Care2.

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