The Ayurvedic Perspective on Raw Foods

Some clients visit me in clinic saying that they are suffering with a disturbed gut even though they have a ‘super healthy diet’ and drink plenty of water and they can’t seem to understand why. Once we start to unravel this ‘healthy diet’, what often becomes apparent is the high level of raw and/or cold foods in the diet. Yep, you guessed right! SALADS can be a trigger for disturbed digestion for many people! But how is this possible? Especially when we have been told a raw food diet is healthy and retains the vitamins and mineral.

Well in Ayurveda there is no blanket answer to this question, essentially there is no right or wrong answer as to whether raw is good or bad.  It’s all a matter of digestive capacity, our constitution, climate, season, imbalances and symptoms as to whether raw foods are suitable for us or not.

Not all raw foods are bad and raw foods are not bad for all. We are all unique and so our approach to diet needs to be suitably customised. It’s not just what we eat but how we digest that matters. So we have to address this on a case by case basis.

While for some, raw foods are digestible and can be taken in small amounts, a diet dominant in raw foods can often lead to symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal cramps, constipation, disturbed sleep, dry skin, lack of energy, feeling cold and lowered appetite.

I help clients to transition to a more Ayurvedically balanced diet suitable specifically to them and these adverse symptoms quickly fade away. There are many dietary habits that disturb our digestion. Ayurveda views raw foods as being cold, dry, light and rough, making them similar to the qualities of the vata dosha. On the premise that like increases like vata can get aggravated and can put a strain on the digestive system especially if the digestive fire is weak to start with. If foods are hard to chew, it will be for sure hard to digest. A weak digestive fire can lead to poor absorption of nutrients and an increase in toxins (ama). This leads to a lack of nutrients for our tissues and cells and increase in body imbalances and, subsequently overtime, diseases. Pitta types are generally able to tolerate raw foods better than vata or kapha dominant types since the light, cold, rough and dry qualities of raw foods are fine for the naturally strong digestion of pitta.

Examples of commonly eaten raw/cold foods include: cabbage, broccoli, carrot, beetroot, kale, lentils, soy beans, chick peas, broad beans, kidney beans, raw nuts and seeds, pasta or grain salads. Raw/cold foods that are more digestible in the summer include all sweet seasonal fruits, tomatoes, celery, cucumber, watermelon, all leaves.

Ayurveda generally does not encourage heavy consumption of raw foods or cold foods. This is because raw foods are harder to digest for the body in comparison to cooked food. We may argue that we lose some vitamins, minerals and enzymes, but if we can’t digest them they it is of no use in our system. Cooked foods are already broken down to a level that the gut can extract optimal nutrients, whilst minimising digestive stress. Some raw foods even contain anti-nutrients that actually block the nutritional absorption of foods altogether. The vitamins and minerals contained in many fruits and vegetables are actually more bio-available once cooked. Lightly steaming or sautéing foods at low temperatures can help them to be more digestible, retain the nutrients and cooked with spices, enhanced even further. Over cooking foods can reduce the prana (energy or nutritional content) of the food.

In summer, we are naturally drawn to juices, smoothies and salads as they seem more suitable. Even though our digestive fire is generally lower in the summer, the more sun exposure our ‘raw’ foods have the more digestible they are likely to be and so summer lends well to more cooler, salad based meals. Salads would be that as described above. Salad dressings that contain, pepper, mustard, honey, vinegar can help bring a little balance to coldness of salads.

Let’s note that pasta, grain and lentil based ‘salads’ are not actually salads and can also disturb digestion if eaten cold.