[An edited version of this article appeared in the April, 2007 issue of LA Yoga and Ayurveda Magazine.]
If you’re thinking this must be a highly controversial topic, you’re right. On the one hand we have raw food enthusiasts recommending a natural diet of all raw food for everyone. This is based on the fact that raw food is high in nutrients, enzymes, and Prana (life energy). On the other hand, many Ayurvedic sources, including the Charak Samhita, recommend a diet of primarily cooked foods. This is because cooking increases the element of fire (agni), which is essential in the assimilation of nutrients and their transformation into the bodily tissues.
So how do we reconcile these two opposing views? Is one correct and the other wrong? Which should we follow to create and then maintain ideal health? If Ayurveda is the complete system it claims to be, we should be able to apply its principles to any diet or life philosophy and gain valuable insight in maximizing its benefits and in creating balance.
Many of us, including myself, have experienced the benefits of raw food and juices, including: increased energy, clarity of mind, enthusiasm, radiant complexion, and weight loss, just to mention a few. There are certainly many documented cases of individuals overcoming serious health issues, some life threatening, thru adherence to a raw food regime. Regardless of our philosophical leanings, we can’t deny or dismiss such dramatic findings.
On the other hand, how do we account for individuals who have had less than favorable results by eating primarily raw uncooked foods?
Adverse symptoms may include abdominal bloating, gas, constipation, insomnia, etc. In practice, I have observed more than a few long time raw food enthusiasts develop imbalances and even serious conditions, such as: jaundice, liver dysfunction, emaciation, and neurological disturbances.
My recommendation for those who chose to follow a raw food diet is to apply some of the ancient Ayurvedic wisdom to help avoid potential problems and help you stay well. Ayurveda recognizes our unique individual differences. There is not just one dietary approach that would be ideal for everyone. In order to correctly determine our optimal requirements we need to examine many factors. We have to take into account the individuals constitution (Prakruti), the nature of their imbalance and symptoms (Vikruti), the seasonal and climatic influences, stage of life, occupation, etc.
My favorite example is: Are we looking at a healthy 25 year old Pitta individual living in Hawaii in the summer, working as a yoga teacher, or a 60 year old Vata individual, with a Vata imbalance living in Alaska in the winter, working outdoors as a construction worker? Obviously, even without an understanding of Ayurveda, common sense would dictate that these individuals would require significantly different diets to maintain homeostasis, balance, and optimal health.
In general, those of a Pitta, or Pitta/Kapha Constitution, without a significant Vata imbalance can do very well on some raw food in their diet, especially in the late Spring and Summer Seasons. In fact, most if not all of the main raw food advocates do have Pitta dominant in their constitution. The element of Fire in their constitutions allows them to do well with a cooling diet. But if someone has a severe vata imbalance, characterized by: excessive worry and anxiety, sense of being overwhelmed, light-headed, spaced-out and not grounded, dryness, abdominal gas, bloating, or constipation, they may need a diet of nourishing, warm, moist, easily digestible cooked food as part of their healing journey.
One of the primary reasons given for consuming food in its natural raw state is that it is high in Prana. Prana is usually defined as Life Energy, or Vital Life Force, but if we research further, we find it is that and much more. The Prasna Upanishad provides us greater insight as to the nature of this elusive substance. It states that whatever exists in the universe, animate or inanimate is dependent upon Prana. Within the body, Prana manifests as the five forms of Vata: prana, udana, samana, vyana, and apana. Within the environment, but external to our bodies, we find Prana consists of three qualities: Soma (the cooling lunar influence), Agni (the heating Solar influence), and Marut, the subtle vibrational influence from the space and air elements. It is these qualities, and not the doshas themselves (vata, pitta, and kapha), that exist within food. It is widely held that cooking food destroys Prana, and transforms â€œlive foodâ€ into “dead food”. But, if Agni (fire) is one of the qualities of Prana, we perhaps need to rethink this perspective.
I would suggest that overly cooking food would diminish Prana. This is due to the high Agni burning and thus reducing Soma. Also, cooking in a microwave oven, where the food molecules are rapidly and violently exploding into one another, creating friction, heat, and many damaging free radicals, should be avoided. Cooking slowly, with fire (wood is the ideal, although gas is much more convenient), is the Ayurvedic recommendation for maximizing the assimilation of nutrients in our foods, allowing those nutrients to be transformed into healthy tissue.
So, does that mean that cooking is the only means of allowing Agni to help in the transformation of food into tissue, and what about raw juices?
Raw juices, both fruit and vegetable provide the best of what raw food has to offer. They begin with real food, which is abundant in a vast array of nutrients: proteins, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, not to mention who knows how many yet undiscovered nutrients nature has abundantly provided us. The real issue is in assimilating these nutrients so that they can provide the optimum nutritional benefit to all the tissues of the body. The outer layer of fruit and vegetable molecules is comprised largely of cellulose. Since we lack the enzyme, cellulase, that breaks down cellulose, we must either cook, juice, or chew until the food is liquefied.
Without cooking, the fire element is reduced, and this has the potential to create imbalances due to the overly cold, dry, light, or even heavy qualities found within raw foods. So how can we minimize these effects and still maximize our ability to create and maintain optimal health?
By using these simple Ayurvedic principles, any diet can be made more balancing:
Avoid cold food and liquids. Allow refrigerated items to return to room temperature before consuming.
Sipping hot water with meals, and in between meals, can help provide warmth to the physiology. The addition of a small piece of fresh ginger root (about ½ inch piece) to hot water will help considerably to increase agni (the fire element), and improve digestion and assimilation of nutrients.
Using a food blender, or processor, and consuming food in a liquid form will decrease dryness.
Adding fresh lime or lemon juice to foods also increases agni due to its sour taste.
Using organic extra-virgin olive oil on salads and other dry foods will help diminish their vata provoking quality and provide necessary fatty acids to the diet.
In addition, insuring each meal contains all six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent, will further add not only to the nutritional value of what you’re eating, but will create a greater sense of wellbeing, satisfaction, and balance.