Skeptoid PodcastSkeptoid on Facebook   Skeptoid on Twitter   Skeptoid on Stitcher   iTunes   Google Play

Members Portal

Store

 

Get a Free Book

 

SKEPTOID BLOG:

I used to hang out at raw food potlucks... Little did they know, I was a spy for the evil skeptic army!

by Josh Weed

December 10, 2013

Share Tweet Reddit

Donate A few years ago, I began frequenting raw food potlucks just for the hell of it. I figured I had nothing to lose, and at the very least it would make an interesting case study. In the process, I tried some great food that everyone loved, some disgusting food that everyone pretended to love, and encountered some pretty strange beliefs.

I suspect that this story reflects larger trends in the raw foodist subculture. But keep in mind, it is just an anecdote - inevitably coloured by my own biases.


The Setting


If you're not familiar with the concept, a potluck is a gathering where everyone must contribute their own dish. The raw food potlucks I attended typically took place in a back room in a community or recreation centre. They differed from other potlucks in that everyone was required to bring their own plate of raw, vegan, preferably organic food. When I say "preferably", what I mean is that any non-organic items were sequestered off in one corner of the room, surrounded by signs that read, "NOT ORGANIC." By the end of the night, the main table of food would be absolutely demolished, while the non-organic table would be left relatively untouched — more for me!

The Characters


Once everyone had made their offering, they took a seat. After some idle chatter, someone would start repeating the mystical Sanskrit syllable, "om", at which point everyone would join hands and chime in. Due to dozens of slightly discordant unison notes being hummed in such a confined space, I can only compare the noise to some of the larger rock concerts I've performed at. Once it died down there would be a huge, messy outpouring of love and affection. If you don't like getting hugged by strangers, I wouldn't recommend going to a raw food potluck.

I've seldom seen a room full of more colorful and eccentric people. They came from all walks of life, but could reasonably be divided into three sub-groups:

THE FAD DIETER


The first, and by far most common, was the fad dieter: exploratory and non-committal. Unsatisfied with their appearance or general sense of well being, they were looking for a quick fix. It was very unlikely that they would commit, especially to such a strict diet; they were just dipping their toe in, and in a month or two would probably move on to something else.

THE PURITAN


The second was the puritan. They tended to be older and have an air of wisdom and elitism about them. Some of them had serious physical and mental illnesses, and were eschewing all medical treatment in favour of a strictly raw diet. Because most of them looked like they were on the brink of death, I found it was usually possible to single them out by appearance alone.

If I didn't know better, I would assume that their lifestyle was solely to blame for their sickly appearance. However, correlation does not imply causation. The truth is, many of these people had been experiencing life-long physical and mental health issues, and the raw food lifestyle was a desperate attempt to fix whatever was wrong with them, psychosomatic or not.

At any rate, their strictly regimented diet was making them feel like they had control over their health, and you can't argue with that, can you? Well, they were eschewing all medical treatment, so maybe you can. I wasn't going to be the person to argue with them about it though. They felt like they owed their life to their diet, and if I had challenged it, they probably would have bitten my head off (and then promptly spat it out because it's not vegan.)

THE HUCKSTER


Every night there was a presenter and a couple of vendors, each with their own questionable expertise and specific brand of woo to peddle. Water ionizers, bio-feedback devices, and lemonade diets all made an appearance. The vast majority of these people probably practiced what they preached, but I suspect that a couple of them were outright con artists, who recognized an easy market when they saw one.

The Ideology


VITALISM


Raw foodists are largely unaware of this, but most of the conclusions that they jump to are based philosophically on vitalism: the idea that there is an "essence", or "life force" that separates living things from dead things. It permeates their ideology.

COOKED FOOD IS EVIL/IMPURE/DEAD!


The potlucks that I attended were echo chambers for the belief that raw food is "alive", and that food that has been subjected to some arbitrarily defined temperature is "dead". There were differences of opinion when it came to some other things though — for example, I witnessed a heated row between two people over whether alkaline water is "alive" or "dead", and there was general disagreement over what exact temperature denatures food. But despite those minor differences, everyone agreed on one thing: cooking food = bad.

Naturally, the naturalistic fallacy plays a part. Raw foodists claim that cooked food is "unnatural" because humans only started cooking food recently, and that we suffer from all kinds of ailments as a result. In their mind, cooked food is a cause-all and raw food is a cure-all. Even if this line of reasoning wasn't logically bunk, its premise is false. Humans have been cooking food for at least 250, 000 years — and that's a conservative estimate.(1) More extreme estimates say that cooking began as long as 1.6 million years ago.(2) Either way, cooking has been around long enough to have had an indelible impact on our evolution.

Cooking was one of the first human technologies. It permanently transformed our lives, and for the better.(3) Thanks to cooking, many nutrients are made more bioavailable, and we can even render some foods that otherwise would be toxic edible, not to mention nutritious. Thus, I consider raw foodism to be a rudimentary form of technophobia. It may have even been one of the first instances of technophobia, but that is lost to history (probably because the humans who didn't embrace cooking were totally out-competed by those that did.)

Sometimes, raw foodists invent explanations for exactly why cooked food is supposed to be bad. My favourite is that our stomachs can't recognize the DNA of cooked food. Technically, they're not wrong on that count — our stomachs don't have built-in DNA scanners. What stomachs do is break things down into their basic components so that they can be utilized by the body. Cooking is just an added measure that speeds up that process.

PLANT ENZYMES


Additionally, raw foodists believe that regular consumption of raw plant enzymes is imperative for normal digestion.

There are plenty of compounds found in plants that can effect the normal functioning of your body after you eat them — phytoestrogen, for example — but plant enzymes aren't one of them. Even when it comes to highly concentrated, supplemental doses of plant enzymes such as bromelain and papain, the evidence simply isn't there.

For the following reasons, this claim has no plausibility either.
  1. There is no such thing as "enzyme deficiency", only diseases in which one or a few is absent or in short supply (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency is one of them, and it is treated with specially coated prescription enzymes derived from pig pancreas.)

  2. Plant enzymes are made up of proteins, and are therefore quickly broken down and inactivated by the protease in your stomach.

  3. The human body synthesizes the enzymes it needs for regulating biochemical reactions, and these enzymes are completely different from plant enzymes. Plant enzymes are used by plants, specifically for growth and ripening. Mammalian enzymes are encoded by mammalian genomes, which are separated from plant genomes, and therefore plant enzymes, by over a billion years of evolution. This is why exocrine pancreatic insufficiency in humans has to be treated with enzymes from a pig, not a parsnip or a pepper.

CLEANSING/DETOX


Cleansing is treated by raw foodists like some long-lost bodily function, forsaken by humanity after we sold our souls and started cooking food. They claim that toxic waste builds up in the body, specifically the gastrointestinal tract, and must be regularly flushed out through colonics, juice fasts, or ingesting herbal concoctions. They also claim that toxic builds-ups are to blame for virtually every ailment out there. A basic understanding of human anatomy puts that to rest.
  1. The human body is perfectly capable of expelling toxins. That's what your liver, kidneys, and urinary system is for.

  2. Mechanical obstructions in the gastrointestinal tract are extremely rare, because the epithelial cells that make up its lining are constantly being sloughed off and replaced. When they do occur, they are life-threatening medical emergencies. If you had one, you'd be reaching for the phone to call 9-11, not the juicer.

  3. The symptoms of such blockages are abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation (duh). They do not include the wide range of general symptoms that proponents of cleansing claim they do.(4)

Cleansing is really just another manifestation of the desire for purity. Raw foodists have no monopoly on that desire: countless belief systems have their own versions of ritual cleansing, meant to renew and maintain purity. However, those are mostly harmless, because they are symbolic in nature and don't try to make scientific claims. In alternative medicine, cleansing rituals go one step further. Not only are they based off of a misunderstanding of basic biology, but they often involve depriving yourself of nutrients, ingesting dangerously high doses of one thing, and/or mucking about in your colon. In a healthy person, all of these things are completely pointless and can have very real consequences.(5)

IN-GROUP/OUT-GROUP MENTALITY


The in-group/out-group mentality was a huge turn off, and I have no doubt that the cult — community I mean — would have better success attracting new followers if they toned it down.

One night, the presenter calmly informed us that we were higher up on the ladder of spiritual awareness then the general public. We then had a group discussion about how, as the elites of society, we had a responsibility to not come off too preachy. Were we elites because we were choosing to eat raw plant matter, or had the diet itself transformed us? I'm not sure, but it was pretty nauseating either way.

On another occasion, I was taking part in an activity that was designed to give everyone an opportunity to introduce themselves, when I inadvertently exposed myself as an outsider. The activity involved passing a vegetable around the room. When it reached you, you were supposed to caress it, smell it, tell people how it made you feel, and then introduce yourself. When it was passed to me, I stammered because I wasn't sure how exactly to form a psychic bond with a cucumber. In an attempt to diffuse the awkwardness of the situation, the host of the gathering asked me how long I had been "raw" for. Things were about to get a lot more awkward, because I told the truth: I wasn't "raw", and never had been. The silence in the room was palpable, and was eventually broken by a single, loaded, "oh." It was the same kind of reaction you could expect to receive by loudly proclaiming your atheism at Sunday mass.

Eventually, the startled host moved on to illustrate how intestinal polyps form when people don't poop often enough. "You know that feeling when you have to poop, and then suddenly you don't anymore? That's because your body just formed an intestinal polyp to contain it." She then explained how they could only be cured through cleansing and eating raw food. I refuse to waste precious moments of my life debunking that gem, especially when I could be using them to masticate a charred steak.

Their Evidence


They had a vast sea of anecdotes to draw from: arguments from personal experience, dubious online testimonials, even spiritual revelations. However, they did seem slightly uncomfortable with their lack of any solid evidence, and would routinely obfuscate that fact. Typically, they would attribute it to a lack of interest by the scientific community, but on more than a few occasions, they hinted towards a systematic conspiracy to suppress the truth.

THE APPEAL TO BELIEF


By far the most common piece of apologetics I've heard from raw foodists is, "but people swear by it!" This is extolled as if it somehow lends credibility to the lifestyle. It doesn't.

Anyone, regardless of their philosophy, should be cognizant of the fact that human beliefs have a very loose association with reality; people will literally swear by anything. If you're a monotheist, I can illustrate this to you by pointing out that the majority of people who have ever lived had polytheistic beliefs that you consider false.

Yes, the raw food community has no shortage of dogmatism, but that isn't exactly something to brag about. One of the functions of dogmatism is to satisfy the need to maintain a belief in spite of disconfirming evidence. Thus, their dogmatism was inversely correlated with how much evidence they had to justify their belief.

My Verdict


BENEFITS


  1. Some of the food is shockingly good (but you don't have to be a raw foodist to enjoy it.)

  2. If you want to lose weight, strict adherence is a virtual guarantee of results. Why? Because we aren't cud-chewing ruminants with four-chambered stomachs, making it nearly impossible for us to get enough calories by consuming 100% raw plant matter.

  3. If you're a woman, there is a high probability that you'll develop amenorrhea.(6) If you're sick of your period, you might actually welcome that.

RISKS


  1. You'll lose weight, but you'll lose it indiscriminately (it's called starvation). Say goodbye to that hard earned muscle.(6)

  2. If you don't want to lose weight, the only way for you to get enough calories is by consuming an unhealthy amount of sugary fruits, otherwise know as raw junk food.

  3. Even if you were to break the rules and eat meat — putting you at risk of food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli — you would have to spend hours every day chewing. On their raw omnivorous diet, chimpanzees have to spend up to six hours chewing every day, and they're our closest relatives. However, that doesn't take into account the fact that we have evolved to eat cooked food. For us, it would likely take even longer.

  4. As I said, if you're a woman, there's a high probability that you'll develop amenorrhea and stop getting your period. You'll also be infertile and at risk of developing facial hair.(8) Worth it?

  5. You'd think that eating raw food would mean spending less time in the kitchen, but it can actually be very time consuming. Strict raw foodists chop, peel, sprout, strain, blend, and dehydrate constantly.

  6. Meat, alcohol, refined sugars, and caffeine are all off limits! I'd rather be a monk.

I'm not saying that all raw foodists are masochistic control freaks. Most of them are nice, normal people. Some of them even seem to be pulling it off. But an obsessive preoccupation with healthiness, especially when based on an incorrect idea of what is healthy, can itself be unhealthy. The dogmatism that often results is very anti-social, and can ruin a persons life.

That said, don't take my word for any of this. All of my observations could be due to sampling bias. Chances are there's a raw food potluck coming up in your locale, so please, go make your own assessment. A word of advice though: avoid the stinky durian and make a B line straight for the avocado mousse.

References/reading materials:


  1. Pennisi, Elizabeth. "Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains?." Science. 283.5410 (1999): 2004-2005. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.

  2. Lambert, Craig. "The Way We Eat Now." Harvard Magazine. 2004: n. page. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://harvardmagazine.com/2004/05/the-way-we-eat-now.html>.

  3. Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Penguin Press HC, 2013. Print.

  4. "Intestinal obstruction: Symptoms." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 18 12 2012. Web. 11 Dec 2013. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/intestinal-obstruction/DS00823/DSECTION=symptoms>.

  5. "Debunking detox." Sense About Science. Web. 11 Dec 2013. <http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/debunking-detox.html>.

  6. Koebnick, C, C Strassner, I Hoffmann, and C leitzmann. "Consequences of a long-term raw food diet on body weight and menstruation: results of a questionnaire survey.." Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. 43.2 (1999): 69-79. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10436305>.

  7. Joyce, Christopher. "Food For Thought: Meat-Based Diet Made Us Smarter ." NPR. 02 08 2010: n. page. Web. 11 Dec. 2013. <http://www.npr.org/2010/08/02/128849908/food-for-thought-meat-based-diet-made-us-smarter>.

  8. "Amenorrhea: Complications." Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 17 05 2011. Web. 11 Dec 2013. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/amenorrhea/DS00581/DSECTION=complications>.

by Josh Weed

Share Tweet Reddit

@Skeptoid Media, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit

 

 

 

Donate