Stumbling to conclusions

I made a mistake. I watched a video on YouTube about doing a diet swap, specifically going raw vegan for one week. While I bear no ill-will to raw veganism as a concept, I do have a bone to pick with some of the conclusions drawn by its practitioners.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s go back to basics regarding scientific inquiry. Whenever we test a hypothesis, we design the experiment so as to limit the number of variables. What that boils down to is that if an experiment changes more than one thing, how do you know which change caused the result? You don’t. So, in the case of switching from a Standard American Diet to a raw vegan diet, it would be impossible to draw any conclusions about what has caused any positive effect because there are so many variables. It could be the lack of cooking; it could be swapping out refined carbs and meat for nutrient-rich vegetables; it could be some alchemical combination of both things; or it could be the result of removing an unknown irritant from your diet that has nothing to do with one ism or another.

You can’t know for certain until you test for each variable individually, then in combinations. And even then, you may not be able to prove causation, only positive correlation. That is to say, you might not know for certain that one particular change caused a result, only that the change was made and the result happened around the same time.

Yeah, science gets really picky about that stuff.

Last point: Occam’s razor. For an in-depth rundown, get thee to Wikipedia. In short, Occam’s razor is a philosophical idea about deciding between two possible solutions to a problem. If both solutions could produce the exact same result, but one is significantly simpler (relies less on coincidence, doesn’t just make us feel better), then the simpler answer is more likely to be the correct one. This is not entirely scientific, but still proves my point. If you’re looking at a list of ailments that are supposedly remedied by a diet that is raw AND vegan, is it not reasonable to guess that one of those elements could be more responsible than the other for that positive result? Occam’s razor would look at the elements (rawness, vegetables), combined with any prior knowledge (vegetables are good for you), and probably decide that – all things being equal – the vegetable side of the equation is more likely the heart of the remedy.

Okay. So, this video. The first nit to be picked is the idea that because no other animals cook their food, cooking is not natural and is therefore undesirable. You know, the usual claptrap about nutrient and enzyme destruction, much of which has been debunked by the folks in lab coats.

I offer the following statements in rebuttal:

  • Not all that is natural is without potential harm. Consider poison ivy, or snake venom, or sharks: these are all natural, yet they are not without danger.
  • We may be the only animal that cooks, but we are also the only animal that has wrested control of our environment (for better or worse). There is strong positive correlation suggesting that the only reason we have brains big enough to think thoughts like, ‘Why do we cook things?’ is because we started cooking things. Cooking food breaks down fibres and cell walls that allow our digestive systems access to calories and nutrients that built our big brains.
  • Why must there be an all-or-nothing prescription built into this diet? I would never dispute that a certain amount of raw vegetation is beneficial, or could even be necessary, to human health. However, it baffles me that we continually resort to these dietary extremes and expect them to be sustainable in the long term.

The video’s author spoke about her experience of social isolation as a result of choosing the absolutism of raw veganism, specifically making special requests when ordering at a restaurant. Yet it was still her choice to stick so resolutely to that dietary prescription, even though it made her uncomfortable just to ask that her salad not have cheese on it. She felt singled out, maybe slightly ostracised. But apart from doing it for the views, there seems to me to be little reason to engage in that kind of self-flagellation. Just eat the damned cheese! Life’s too fucking short. If you’re not allergic, and if asking for the thing to be otherwise causes social strain and emotional stress, why do it?

I get wanting to be better. Setting and keeping dietary boundaries is hard; maintaining balance can be tricky. There is a place for nutritional absolutism, and that place is at the start. Like two weeks of potatoes, it helps to be able to refute any and all cravings with a simple, ‘no.’ But that kind of dogmatic adherence to a diet, that kind of all-or-nothing attitude, is unsustainable at best, and self-destructive at worst.

When John Green was completing his 100-Days challenge, he had a great deal of difficulty being kind to himself when he veered a bit off course in his food choices. I’ve been there, too. You start with some simple ‘cheat’, then follow that up with an overboard debauch that leaves you hungover and ashamed. It’s similar to the binge and purge of bulimia, and it’s setting yourself up for failure. If you can’t identify triggers, if you’ve never put off a craving, if your food is as much entertainment as it is nourishment, then it doesn’t really matter whether you do raw vegan, or Paleo, or any other absolutist diet of restriction.