Raw Foods

In Health And Disease

     It seems strange to have to go back to the first step in civilization, namely, the invention of cooking food, in order to build up a new health for civilized man.  In reality this is not very strange, but one of those simple ideas which seems just too obvious to be accepted by our elaborately developed minds.

     Is it not true that mankind, before that first discovery, was living on uncooked food for countless ages, as free animals still do?  Is it not plain, then, that man must have originally been intended to live on uncooked food?  We all know that there is a monopoly of food creation—not of food production, but of food creation—that is, capturing sunlight and using it up to organize substances into food; that this monopoly does not belong to any factory or mill but to living nature and not to any part of nature, not to animals, not even to plants, but exclusively to green leaves, to chlorophyll-holding parts of plants, for chlorophyll alone can capture sunlight, the source of all earthly life.  It is true that modern chemistry has attained marvelous achievements, much more than I can understand, but there is one thing the pioneer chemists admit now: that their hopes to acquire the knowledge of living nature will never be realized.  Take the example of protein research.  The greatest authorities in this branch of science now confess that protein molecules are far too intricate, commutable and bewildering to be sufficiently understood by science, and—protein molecules are the crucial point of food creation in leaves!  Why, then, should we be surprised to learn that uncooked fresh vegetable food, that is, food in its original form, freshly created, is a promoter of human health?  For with it we consume the fuel of life at its very source and origin.

     The point is, of course, to put a rejected cornerstone of health back into its place of honor and not to return to the stone age: to attain better enjoyment and dignity of life and real culture, rather than to return to animal-like primitiveness.  That this way, indeed, results in a happier and worthier life need no longer be proved to those who know it.

     Fifty-two years ago my father, Dr. Bircher-Benner who was then a young doctor in an industrial suburb of Zurich….came across the health-giving power of raw vegetable food.

     He had a patient suffering from gastric disease.  He had already tried all the remedies he knew and all that the science of that time taught him, but without result.  He was very much afraid his patient was going to die.  His intestines could no longer absorb food, not even the least quantity of finest white flour, pap or carefully cooked puree.  Then a vegetarian suggested to him that he should try fresh raw fruit salads and juices.  As that seemed harmless and there was no alternative remedy, my father and the patient decided to try it.  To their amazement the paralyzed stomach began to absorb food and the patient gradually recovered (indeed he lived after that for 24 years). The remedy seemed foolish but it was efficient.  No objection could be raised as the facts spoke for themselves.  The experience had just to be checked and tried again, and this my father did.  It stood the test again and again.

     Dr. Bircher-Benner was then in his fourth year of medical practice.  As a student he had been eager to learn how one could cure people, and he had been unhappy to find that the medicine of his time was concerned rather with symptoms than with causes of disease, and seemed to apply with ostensible success palliative measures instead of aiming at the reconstruction of real health.  And having now to treat patients himself he was looking out more and more for measures of true help.  Raw diet seemed to be such a measure.  He had to study it closely, and he did this during the next forty years onwards, experimenting on himself, and his family and on willing patients, studying at night the literature dealing with it, discussing it with scholars, checking and comparing results.  It was research as far as research could be reconciled with increasing medical practice and an ever-growing family.  He went abroad to learn what could not be learnt elsewhere.  He opened a small private clinic to enable him to give better treatment, and in order to have the effects of the treatment under better control.  He was daring, and did not shirk responsibility whenever he tried the treatment with a new disease, even an incurable one, like arthritis or celiac.  Sometimes, as he told us later, he felt like Columbus, when the sailors tied him to the mast.  But success came and came again and new shores appeared.  The raw diet had a real power that enabled the patient to overcome the disease whenever it was not too late.

     In 1900 he felt sufficiently confident to bring the question before the Medical association.  It was an inspiring and wonderful gift he was going to offer his colleagues, and if real research was to be done, one practitioner was not enough—many had to cooperate.  Therefore he wanted to interest at least some of his colleagues.  He could report on consistent facts during five years of experience, and he had tried hard to think out a reasonable working theory that would explain these perplexing facts.  This he put before the Association.  But when he had spoken the chairman rose and said briefly:  “Bircher has transgressed the limits of science!”  Yet 38 years later leading member of the same profession were able to write: “He who goes through the pages of medical literature meets constantly with recommendations of vegetable raw diet,” and “Good results could be got most quickly when typical raw diet (as prescribed by Bircher-Benner) was given.”

     For the moment, however, raw diet was an outcast and Dr. Bircher-Benner had to go on alone.  Knowledge of nutrition was then considered by the medical school as practically complete and definite.  Ten years later a new era began and all views were again called into question….

     Patients began to pour into my father’s clinic from far-away countries.  Many new treatments were introduced.  Modern equipment and methods, such as few would expect to find in a private clinic, were added to obtain a comprehensive knowledge of the patients problems of disease.  The clinic evolved and became something like a center for research and teaching.  The sons and niece of Dr. Bircher-Benner joined his work.

     In our clinic, of course, the new diet could not be part of symptomatic medicine.  It became, by itself, a center of a medical conception that sees, not cases of this or that disease, but sick persons as a whole, a medicine that was concerned with thoughts and emotions as much as with infections and physical disorders, that saw the reality of the disease in the pre-clinical phase, and saw its causes in disorders of the organic whole.  For health itself is an organic whole—a medicine that understands health as a positive state and not as a mere absence of disease; One that seeks to rebuild a new, better, stronger health and stamina, in addition of removing the prevailing ailments: one that wants to get at the roots of sickness by all helpful means, be they orthodox or not….


     Those who believe in tradition find it hard to accept discoveries without tradition.  And so they feel about the health-giving power of the raw diet.  Is there any precedent of it?  Was there any teacher, scholar or medical man in history who taught it?  Was there any nation in history who made raw food the cornerstone of its daily fare?

     Yes, there was.  We have just not paid attention to it.  There are some very interesting examples, and they should be made widely known.  Here we must confine ourselves to a few instances.

     When Alexander the Great came to India, as his helmsman Onesikritos relates. He met with a holy man called Dandamis who refused bread offered to him. “Mother Earth gives me all I need,” He said, “as mother feeds her child.”  He drank water when thirsty, ate fruit from the trees when hungry, and did not touch animal or cooked food.  He asked the Greek interviewers if their countrymen had similar principles and was told they had.  Pythagoras, the great philosopher and physician, whom science calls its very founder, and who lived, with its initiated pupils, on nothing but uncooked food—apyrois sitiois—unrefined food.  When he withdrew to the ‘holy shrines,” Pythagoras wanted the food that would keep the body in an unalterable condition and the soul in an even state, the food with least bulk and the one which would quench both hunger and thirst.  He used therefore to take a dish made from a variety of fresh raw plants and honey or, sometimes, fresh milk.  It was with a similar aim and with almost the same ingredients that Bircher-Benner, 2,500 years later, recommended the dish called fruit “muesli,” without knowing of this precedent….


     There is a strange and not very well defined group of nations that formed the Tupi-Guaranis-Civilization of lower South America.  They built no stone temples, not even simple ones, nor pyramids, and their political domain was no rigid empire like that of the Incas, their neighbors in Peru, but a loose dominion of allied clans of equal status, comparable with that of the Celts.  It took long, therefore, to recognize this culture.  But it was, in several respects, more highly developed than that of the Incas or the Mayas, as was the case with the culture of the Celts compared with that of the Romans.  There must have been very wise men among them.  Their eloquence and righteousness seem to have been paramount.  But we confine ourselves here to the question of their food and health…. There is positive evidence that raw food was the main food of their daily fare, and that meals were often begun with it.  They had domesticated animals for company, not for food, and their nutrition was practically vegetarian, without dairy products.  Green leaves, such as spinach, were an important item.  Salt was voided, as they said it shortened life. And it was replaced by extracts from plants rich in mineral salts.  Their training in self-discipline imposed a minimum of essential food, few meals and occasional fasting.  There are many testimonies which vouch for the health and stamina of these people fed in such an extraordinary way.  Some characteristic expressions about them are:  Their health is constantly good and hardly ever out of equilibrium.” “The aged go about like youth and proudly hold up their heads.” “Their nerves are like ropes and extremely sensitive at the same time.”

     This culture has almost passed away today and the facts can no longer be checked from actual reality.  But there is one existing example, the people of Hunza who live north of Kashmir.


     You probably know what Sir Robert McCarrison testifies about these people. (Also, G.T. Wrench) What is said there about the food and health of the people of Hunza is essentially confirmed and much enlarged on in the works of David and M. O. Lorimer, Those remarkable linguists who were the first and only ones, until this day, who stayed and lived with the Hunza people for any lengthy period….

     The Hunza phenomena is probably one of the most inspiring discoveries of recent years for our tortured world.  You know that this small nation live on sloping, mountain  terraces, about 6,000 feet high, above a canyon, and between enormous masses of glaciers.  Their terrace farms are irrigated like those of the Peruvian civilization.  They are separated from, rather than connected with, the world by a 60-mile ravine, and by 16,00-foot passes leading to China, Pamir and Afghanistan.  They were living practically in the stone-age until 200 years ago and claim to be descended from the ancient Greeks.  They are handsome, well built and intelligent, but very poor, unimaginably poor indeed, and very happy and very healthy.

     Contrary to what Sir Robert McCarrison found in his short stay, the Lorimers’ since then have clearly shown and confirmed that meat and milk are nonexistent in the daily fare of the Hunza people.  Except for a little goats’ milk curd during part of the year, meat figures only occasionally in festival meals.  So they are practically vegetarians. 

     To their domestic animals they are very kind and obviously hate to kill them, but have occasionally to do it from sheer want.  Lorimer found a man who arranged a shearing and everything so that the sheep should believe it was going to be sheared and then killed it unawares and all of a sudden, appealing to the pity of God the Almighty.  He met with young goatherds who were pulling the plough themselves on a fields patch to be drilled with barley, whilst oxen were pasturing nearby. “Why don’t you put the oxen to the plough?”  He asked, and they answered that the oxen were on a holiday!

     The main foods consist of humus-grown and freshly ground whole grain cereals slightly cooked to porridge or baked to pancakes, sometimes sprouting, and, as a second and not less important main foodstuff, much fruit, fresh and dried, eaten frequently, at the beginning of meals.  All food is grown on their own compost manured healthy soil.  Salt is very rare.  There are no stimulants, no sweets, no dishes rich in protein, no coffee, etc.  Spirits have been banished a long time ago….The total food quantity is barely sufficient, so that they do not get satiated except occasionally at festivals.        One thing which Mc Carrison and Wrench did not know, when writing their works, is the fact that there is a sever general famine every spring in Hunza, which lasts for a bout three months.  At the end of this time they live mainly on young greens and weeds and have to work unrelentingly on their fields—a strenuous kind of chlorophyll cure, so to speak.

     Let us see now what is said about their health.  Sir Robert McCarrison stressed the perfect health and the freedom from diseases (especially from chronic diseases) of these people.  After an investigation of the possible causes of this excellent health, he traced it essentially to their food.  Sir Robert McCarrison, as you know is a great authority on nutrition research.  Dr. Wrench, taking the people of Hunza as an example, showed that, beyond freedom from disease, health was characterized by three main positive qualities, all of them clearly visible in Hunza: (1) Perfect stamina and efficiency in sports, in which the earth-bent peasants of Hunza excel at their festivals, and their almost untiring endurance in hardships. (2) Indulgence towards their fellow men—nerves as strong as ropes and yet as sensitive, we might say, as the soul of a poet.  (3) A bright and radiant state of mind always ready to break out into a happy smile or laughter.

     From the Lorimers, we can learn even more.  At the height of the time of hunger Hunza people remain perfectly hospitable, do not complain, not even speak of their hunger, and show the same happy smile or laughter in their hunger-worn faces.  In wintertime they squat together in narrow rooms without windows or fire, for six to seven weeks on end, and stand this privation without quarrels or gloom.  They even enjoy it as their happiest time.  Their middle-aged and old people look much younger than we do at the same age.  Very old people stooping cheerfully under a bundle say that a place, which entails climbing endless stairs for an hour and a half, is “quite near.” A great-grandmother nursing her great-grandson at her own breast is just a little proud, but arouses no sensation.  As girls marry not before 16 or 17, such a woman must be in her fifties.  Death comes about, if not by accident, in that painless peaceful way of a fully matured lifetime.  The Hunza people get up at two a.m. and gather together for a festival despite awful frost, instantly warming up to flaming joyfulness and splendid life—without needing stimulants….


     But you will want perhaps another example—one where exact quantitative analysis has been made (this is not yet the case with Hunza).  Here it is.  Such work has been done in modern Mexico by the Instituto Nacional de Nutricion.  This institute was founded in 1943 and developed with the aid of the American Center of Nutrition Research at Boston…..The Instituto had, in 1946, already analyzed more than 400 typical Mexican foodstuffs, of hitherto unknown, composition.  It had, in addition, recorded and analyzed the nutrition and the health of many groups of the indigenous Mexican population, especially of the poorest.  The results reveal a resemblance to the Hunza phenomenon in its food and health aspects, which is a welcome proof of the truth of its teaching, namely: practically vegetarian fare without dairy products and with a stress on raw food, a relatively high percentage of green leaves, careful husbandry with attention to the biological values of the soil in agriculture, and of food in cooking, and practically no industrially processed food.  The total quantity of food barely sufficient and certainly much below our official caloric standards, yet a state of health essentially better than that of well-fed middle-class people in wealthy Michigan: these “underfed” Indians are capable of carrying something like a piano on their backs over mountain trails during many days without being worn out, and of keeping an even cheerful temperament which readily breaks out into joy.  I have seen this myself…..


     The very much isolated Angmagsalik group of about 1,000 Eskinos scattered over an extremely large area, lives practically without food supply from outside and exclusively on fish, game birds and what little land and sea plant food they can find, such as algae, herbs, berries, and the vegetable content of animal stomachs….

     Though one-sided this fare was a quite natural and whole food under conditions of continuous emergency status, grown at the heart of nature without chemicals and consumed almost without processing, largely in the raw state….

     The health of these Eskimos… is good enough, or apparently so, when they are young, up to 20 or 25 years of age.  They are good looking then, good-natured, often smiling, very agile and efficient in hunting—which they must be in order to survive—and they are rarely sick.  Their teeth are perfect and tuberculosis is very rare in spite of poor hygiene and many hardships.

     Earlier observers had only noticed that all these young people were in obvious good health, but they had not remarked that the older ones hardly existed.  Hoygaard was the first to discover it, and I think this discovery to be important, that these Eskimos hardly ever reach their 50th year of age and that the average span of life is 271/2.  Whenever they reach the thirties they look already old and are so arteriosclerotic that they lose all their agility and succumb to the dangers of arctic hunting.

     It was not unwise, therefore, to attribute health-giving power not to animal raw food, not to any raw food, but to vegetable raw food, and to postulate protein intake in vegetable proportions, as my father did.  To live and be healthy and to remain young and agile until old age on nothing but natural vegetable food is possible….


     We must now approach the question why and how raw food cures.  There is still much to be discovered before a definite answer can be given.  Mankind likes simple answers.  Thus some put it all down to the lack of salt or to the richness in cellulose.  The latter helps to overcome constipation, and the raw diet proves to be the one saltless diet which never becomes humdrum.  When vitamins were first discovered, some put it down to them, for raw diet is very rich in vitamins.  They thought they could improve on raw diet and gave vitamin pills and injections instead, but with less beneficial effect….Health is a combination of many factors…..

     Experience shows that when man is attacked by illness it is never because of one single deficiency in nutrition.  There are always effects from manifold nutritional mistakes sapping health in many directions: deficiencies of various vitamins, of auxones, enzymes, protein qualities, influences of protein excess, lack of moderation; there are toxins from bacteria, from a constipated intestine, alcohol xanthines, uric acid aggravating allergies, disturbed mineral balances, etc….

     More light has been thrown on the problem from the functional side by the researches of the Medical Clinic of the University of Vienna.  They direct attention to the crucial zone of nutrition which is not the intestines, as we always thought, but that omnipresent minute interchange of energies and substances between the ends of the blood vessels, the capillaries, and the tissue cells in every living part of the organism.  This exchange goes on constantly at billions of point simultaneously.  The nutritive substances of the blood and the waste substances of the cells have to pass through two fine membranes and a narrow interstice.  Normally it would be ruled by the law of diffusion, that is nature’s law of leveling differences.  This is, indeed, the case in a dead body, but during life a principle resides in the living cell that is opposed to diffusion and seeks to create manifold antagonisms instead of leveling them, for life needs antagonistic tensions, the more and the stronger, the better.  Unhealthy cells lose part of this capacity.  They can, for instance, no longer prevent salt from passing into the interior with the same success as when healthy.  Minerals begin to exchange, tensions to flatten.  When this happens, alterations of the capillaries appear: spasms and the legions of the membranes, and this seems to be the very beginning of the so-called degenerative diseases.

     The problem is then to restore the opposing power of the cell.  If we attain this, recovery follows everywhere; If we fail in this nothing else will really help.  The famous clinic of Vienna tried every possible means of achieving this and found out that there was only one successful means to be taken, namely the application of raw vegetable diet…..


     The world should be passionately interested in these examples [examples of these nations and their diets], for there is much teaching to be found in them which would help to solve the problems of the hunger stricken countries--in an economic and happy way.  Unfortunately the efforts of research seem generally to tend towards special minor problems of vitamins and essential amino acids, a very fragmentary but voluminous kind of research that seems to have the unique purpose of proving the necessity of large quantities of animal protein and meat.  We may say that this contention is hopeless, indeed!

{An address delivered at the 11th International Vegetarian Congress, held at Wycliffe College, Stonehouse, Glos., England, August 1947}

Dr. Ralph Bircher