Does Rawfood Support Veganism?

Published in July 2005 VegNews Magazine

Dr. Will Tuttle, Ph.D.

While rawfoodism may certainly contribute some wisdom to help us optimize vegan health, I wonder how much it actually supports our long-term efforts to promote veganism to the general public. It’s been my experience that when I or people I know have undertaken rawfood diets it’s been because we wanted to get something from it, like better health, or more energy or personal purity. It’s basically good old self-centered motivation.

Veganism, by contrast, is completely revolutionary because it insists on an underlying motivation of compassion born of our direct experience of interconnectedness with other sentient beings, and is an ethical refusal to treat them as mere commodities to be consumed. As vegans, we strive to live in a way that minimizes unnecessary suffering to other vulnerable creatures and we gladly reject our culture’s fundamentally self-centered orientation of cruel domination of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and research. I believe veganism is the essential healing force that our culture desperately needs, because the mentality of domination that starts on our plates reverberates through our various cultural institutions as authoritarianism, oppression, and violence. Healing this mentality requires cultivating vegan values: concern and caring for others weaker than us, and refusing to exploit them. As vegans, the improved health we naturally experience is a side-benefit; it’s not the main focus because we sense there’s a higher purpose in life than just being physically healthy.

With rawfoodism, though, I wonder if we make the vegan connection. My wife Madeleine, for example, became a strict rawfoodist 25 years ago and for two years ate a completely raw diet that was nominally vegan. Her motivation, though, was not vegan, but was to have more energy, be healthier, and need less sleep. For this, the rawfood diet was successful, but after two years, like most people who take up rawfoodism in our northern climate (except the rawfood “pro’s”), she discontinued the rawfood diet, and found that eating cooked grains was helpful and nourishing, both physically and mentally, as well as emotionally. However, because her motivation was still basically health, after a while she felt it was good to supplement her diet with dairy products and occasionally with fish. In my experience, this pattern seems all too common, though Madeleine did eventually go vegan several years later.

As rawfoodists, we eat what seems to be a vegan diet, but when we can no longer stick with it, unless we already have a strong vegan motivation, we typically revert to being omnivores again, not to being vegans who eat both cooked and uncooked food. I’ve also found that when I’ve been a rawfoodist, a lot of willpower was involved, because it would be tempting to cheat a little here or there, since only my health and purity were at stake. If I didn’t cheat, I’d be quite proud of myself. As a vegan, though, I find my diet requires no willpower and there’s nothing to be proud of, because it’s based simply on seeing animals as beings to be respected rather than as objects to be eaten.

I also wonder whether rawfoodism is healthier than non-rawfood veganism. As a rawfoodist, for example, I’ve eaten raw meals of dates, figs, bananas, nuts, nut butters, and avocados and though I was bringing in huge and unhealthy amounts of sugar and fat, I was strictly avoiding steamed kale and broccoli—and merely maintaining a delusion of healthy eating.

Another open question is whether a raw diet uses less energy or is more environmentally benign. As a rawfoodist I would buy piles of bananas, pineapples, and other tropical and subtropical foods, all of which had to be shipped many thousands of miles, and I had to go to the store more often to keep the refrigerator stocked. Now, as vegans who eat both raw and cooked food, Madeleine and I use one 7-gallon tank of propane to fuel our stove every six months! This is a tiny amount of fuel compared with the huge amounts of fuel required for transportation. I wonder if the fuel savings of eating raw is not more than offset by the hidden fuel demands of transportation, because five pounds of rice or lentils goes a lot farther than five pounds of bananas.

A final important question is whether rawfoodism might alienate the general public because it’s perceived as being more extreme and difficult to adopt than a vegan diet that includes both cooked and uncooked foods. I believe our goal as a movement should be to promote the compassion and environmental sustainability that vegan living provides. It seems that in promoting veganism to the public, breads, pastas, grains, potatoes, cooked vegetables, soups, salads, beans, tofu, and meat analogs are probably a lot more appealing than a diet composed of strictly raw foods. We are trying to build bridges to the omnivorous public to bring them over to veganism and away from cruelty and destruction, and I wonder if, in being rawfoodists, we may tend to make ourselves impossibly remote.

Veganism, which is a committed effort to live the ideals of mercy and kindness to others, is indispensable to all spiritual paths, because it emerges from and deepens the understanding that we are all completely interconnected and interdependent. It seems to me that our deepest purpose on this earth is spiritual, and that the towering spiritual geniuses who have blessed this earth have typically been vegan but have been little concerned with whether their foods were cooked or not. For example, when we look at the great Zen masters of China and East Asia of the last 1,500 years, we find people who invariably ate a vegan diet of both cooked and uncooked foods. The desert fathers of the Christian tradition are similar, as are the sages of most other religious traditions.

It seems the essential point is to go vegan (and go organic) because of compassion, and to endeavor to be the change we want to see in the world. From this basis, we can mindfully explore the potential benefits of rawfoodism if we’re so inclined.

Will Tuttle, Ph.D., composer, pianist, Zen priest, and author of The World Peace Diet, is cofounder of Karuna Music & Art and of the Prayer Circle for Animals and Circle of Compassion ministry.

Back to articles