Raw foodism: the (un)natural diet

I have always been fascinated with people’s obsessions with strict, unusual diets. Who can forget the Atkins craze, and more recently for Americans, the Dukan diet? At the opposite end of the spectrum are vegetarianism and veganism. So when my Intro to Biological Anthropology professor, Dr. Jeremy DeSilva, mentioned raw foodism in lecture, my ears perked up. He had renewed my interest in the diet and inspired me to write this post.

Proponents of raw foodism like to boast of its health benefits. There are in fact a few advantages to consuming raw foods over cooked foods. Raw foods contain living enzymes and have significantly decreased heterocyclic amine (HCAs) levels, chemicals found in burnt food and a probable cancer causing agent. People also claim to feel more energized and experience significant weight-loss after adopting such a diet.

Many individuals also believe that eating a purely raw diet is natural for humans; that humans spent their hunter-gatherer days consuming uncooked vegetables and meats. False. In fact, what helped modern Homo sapiens evolve from Homo erectus was their ability to cook their food.

Humans have a much greater brain to gut ratio compared to what's expected for an animal our size

According to the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis, put forth by L. Aiello, the human brain only grew to contemporary proportions after human gut sizes decreased. You see, the brain is a metabolically expensive organ, consuming 22 times the amount of energy as skeletal muscle of equivalent mass. In order for it to grow from pre-human cranial capacities of 450 cubic centimeters to H. sapien proportions of 1200 cc, the gut was sacrificed. Cows have two stomachs for a reason: in order to properly digest the plant material they ingest, they must invest a lot of energy and body mass into converting grass into useful molecules.

Where do we differ from cows? I guess in a lot of aspects, but most importantly for this argument, in our diets. Humans can eat meat, which is high in energy and easier to digest than grains. However, the consumption of raw meat and vegetables was in and of itself was not enough to bring about the changes necessary for H. erectus to become H. sapien. Cooking became the real game changer by doing half of the gut’s job in breaking down food. Having high-energy, “pre-digested” foodstuffs allowed H. erectus to lose the extensive digestive systems and instead devote energy to developing larger brains. From this change came forth H. sapien, modern humans. Therefore, cooking one’s food played an essential role in the original human condition.

That is not to say that raw foodism is bad because it goes against this cultural feat. What was once true of humans 150,000 years ago does not necessarily hold true today. It is important to consider the resources available to people in 2011, which in some places include enough provisional variety and supplements to allow individuals to adopt such a lifestyle. I do not mean to suggest a correct or incorrect way of approaching food based on prehistoric tendencies. My point in writing this post was to inspire a new perspective on cooking and share some interesting facts about the importance of this practice.

H. erectus cooking drawing taken from:http://www.thelostogle.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/homo_erectus1.gif
graph taken from: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0100-84551997000100023&script=sci_arttext

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