From the first page I liked the writing style. I found it easy to follow and understand, although a good knowledge of either nutrition or anthropology will make it a faster and more comprehensible read.
According to Wrangham, there are no raw food cultures ever recorded in human history. Yes, people eat foods raw but no culture has ever done this exclusively. Using this and other points, he provides an interesting critique to the raw movement.
Throughout the book Wrangham impressed me with the quality of the studies he selected to back up his theorizing. His theories were well supported and well argued. He first shows that the evolution of humans was directly linked first to the use of fire and second to using fire to cook food. Perhaps because he is a primatologist, he draws frequent parallels between humans and animals throughout the book. He uses the comparisons as a way to understanding how we as humans ended up in the unique position of being the only animal that cooks and how this has affected and changed us. In particular, he argues that the process of cooking created a fascinating shift in our anatomy that led to bigger brains and smaller digestive systems.
Wrangham also offers an interesting critique of our current method of caloric analysis of foods. In his writing he discusses the actual differences in nutritional values in cooked versus raw food. He also takes into account the amount of work our bodies have to do in order to digest various macromolecules such as protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Fat is the easiest to digest. Protein takes more work to digest if eaten with high fiber foods. Softer food makes you gain weight easier. Harder food takes more work and you will not gain weight as easily. He cites an interesting study in which rats were given the same amount of calories per day. One group of rats had their food pellets ‘puffed’ to soften them, while the other group just ate regular pellets. At the end of the study, the rats that ate the softer pellets weighed more than the rats that ate the harder pellets. The rats that ate hard pellets literally had to burn more calories in order to digest the harder food. Because the puffed pellets were softer, the nutrition and energy from them was incorporated and digested with ease.
He had a few random judgments that stood out to me as unnecessary and unprofessional. His comment “Life can be unfair” in regards to how two people can eat the same amount of calories and if your digestive tract works harder (as is the case with most lean people) then you will gain less weight. And vice versa. This flippant and unpleasant side note should have been left out.
He also made the statement that you rarely find amenorrhea in women who eat primarily cooked food. Amenorrhea is a pathology where a women stops having her period, which is linked to osteoporosis. He says that it is common among women on a predominantly raw-food diet. I believe these statements to be completely unfounded. I have worked with a number of women with amenorrhea and they are not raw-foodists. I have a hard time believing I have found the very rare ones. From everything I have read, it is not a rare condition in women.
All in all, I really thought this was a great read. It got me thinking and his anthropological prospective was a welcome shift from the nutrition centric books I’m usually pouring over. I enjoyed the historical and evolutionary approach to understanding our relationship to food. I also enjoyed learning about the evolution of human anatomy in direct correlation with the foods we eat.
I’d like to take a moment to expound upon my own theories on the subject of cooking and raw food inspired by the topics of this book. Keep reading if you are interested in hearing how some of my thoughts shifted from Wrangham’s work….
I think all health counselors should read this book to gain a more well-rounded perspective on the history of cooked food and how cooking effects the nutritional value of food. I appreciate the shift in my viewpoint. It filled in a lot of blanks for me with regard to the raw food movement. I love eating raw, but have never quite gotten into it as a full-time dietary change other than a few month-long cleanses. Currently, I eat at least 75% of my food raw and this is fabulous for me. And I also notice that I enjoy the option of eating warm foods regularly. I like how grounded I feel after soup or grains.
What if the raw food movement is another dietary fad that is the answer to the high consumption of refined, chemicalized, pesticide-ridden, homogenized, and heavily processed foods. The Standard American Diet laden with meat and animal products left the United States feeling clogged and sluggish. Our country is host to millions of people who have a lot of gunk to cleanse from their intestines and the raw food diet offers this in a great way that doesn’t require you totally fast from food. You are cleansing and eating at the same time, which allows you to cleanse while working or doing your other day to day tasks. I think it is important to eat raw foods, but I also think it is important to stay balanced and build digestive fire. Sometimes a continual diet of raw foods can dampen digestive fire. If you already experience compromised digestive function eating 100% raw foods may be very difficult because it can further impair digestion. When I read raw food books, I seldom see this important issue being addressed.
I also get concerned for my clients who experience alienation from their families from eating a healing diet while overcoming health concerns. People connect and come together around food. This builds community and defines culture. For this reason it is important to find common ground within your family and eat food together. This strengthens family and community and creates a place to connect. This has been happening for thousands upon thousands of years. The nurturing of family and community is very important in holistic health. It strengthens our relationships, which are one of the main facets of primary food.
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Learn more about the author here.
Learn more about Summer Bock's work here.