Aren’t raw foods better for you? This is the one question I am guaranteed to be asked when I bring up the topic of Chinese dietary therapy to a new patient. The issues surrounding this seemingly complex topic are actually very simple and clear.
To lay the foundation for this discussion, it is important to understand that it is a statement of fact in Chinese medicine that too much cold injures the Spleen. Through warm metabolic transformation, the Spleen cooks ingested food and drink and extracts from it the “clear essence” which is converted into Qi and Blood. Biologically, chyme (liquefied, partially digested food mass) does not exit the stomach until it is heated above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We are warm blooded, and any ingested substance must be heated before it can be digested and absorbed.
Food or drink which is cold takes more energy to digest. Cold can refer to either the temperature of the food, or to its nature. A cold beverage or a bowl of ice cream is cold in temperature. Chinese medicine teaches that cold temperature food and drink should rarely, if ever, be ingested. Even in hot weather, the extra energy required to heat the food results in a rise of body temperature, even though the short term effect is to produce a sensation of coolness. Certain dietary systems usurp this principle to teach that since it takes more energy to digest cold beverages, and therefore since more calories are used up, that this helps with the process of weight loss. However, the regular ingestion of cold temperature food or drink damages both digestion and metabolism, leading to eventual problems such as indigestion, reflux, and weight gain.
Celery is cold in nature. Many foods which are eaten raw, including fruits and vegetables, have a cooling effect on the body due to their inherently cool or cold nature. Likewise, cayenne pepper has a hot nature, even though its temperature may not be hot. Warming the temperature of raw foods through cooking helps to moderate their cold or cooling nature, and makes them easier to digest. Both raw and cold or cooling nature foods can be used as part of one’s normal diet, as well as part of a specific medicinal diet. This will be discussed further below.
Any factor which damages the digestive process can lead to the formation of Dampness, which is an accumulation of turbid, undigested matter. Dampness causes obstruction and transforms Heat (things which sit around in a warm environment brew and create Heat), leading to the Chinese disease mechanism of Damp Heat. It is logical to ask, wouldn’t cold foods help this condition? The answer is no. Cold temperature foods weaken the digestion, leading to the creation of even more Dampness and Heat. Cool and cold nature foods can be used to address the Damp Heat, but in moderation and with consideration to the entire picture of one’s physiology. In reality, most Americans suffer from a significant amount of Damp Heat due to poor diet and poor digestion. Cold food and drink, both in temperature and nature, are simply going to aggravate this.
Back to the question of raw versus cooked. I find that people often react strongly to this discussion, despite the fact that most people hardly ever eat raw foods anyway. They just think they do. Occasional salads and fruits are all that most people ever eat. This is because they can be readily obtained and quickly consumed, are low in calories, sweet, and fill the need for eating without actually ingesting anything of substance. I believe we live in a culture and a time when eating disorders are rampant. Not just the obvious cases of bulemia or anorexia. I mean the average person, running around and not nourishing themselves because they do not want to take the time and do not want to gain weight. For this person, it is not as if adding cooked foods is going to have a negative impact on their health. They are just reacting to an unconscious assumption and belief they have acquired about food.
There is little nutrition to be had from the average salad. Furthermore, the concept of raw foods has very little to do with salads anyway. There is an entire world of foods which can be prepared and eaten in a raw, natural state. Done properly, with consideration to seasonality and individual constitution, these foods can be a healthful addition to one’s diet. Sprouts and products made from sprouts would be an example of this. What about juices? Fruit juices are too sugary, and should generally be avoided (especially for children, the ones who are subjected to them the most). Vegetable juices, made fresh with a juicer, can again be a useful addition to the diet. But living on raw juices is not going to work, or be healthful, for most people. The more concentrated a food, the harder it is to digest, and the more Dampness it is going to create. What about fiber? All vegetable matter has fiber. It is a complete misconception to think that only fruits and salads have fiber.
I believe that small amounts of raw foods in the diet are important and necessary. But the majority of one’s diet should consist of warm, cooked foods, with the largest percentage coming from vegetable sources. Not overcooked, just cooked to activate the nutrients and make them digestible. In time, as one’s digestion becomes stronger, more raw foods can be added to the diet. Those most likely to want to eat fruits and salads – people with weight issues – are going to suffer the most from them. The real issue for all of this, is the tendency in the West to focus on the substance which is external to us, and to ignore our own internal environment. If one understands the process of digestion and metabolism, as well as one’s own individual makeup, then it is very easy to assess the appropriateness of cold, raw, cooked, or any other types of food.