Does cooking make us human?

A few weeks ago, raw food was abuzz in blogland. I gave it a try to help my digestion, but that way of eating didn’t work for me. Now that it’s fall I’ve noticed less and less talk about raw food, and more and more posts about oatmeal, baked squash, and delicious apples. It’s propitious that Bobby alerted me to this article yesterday… Did Cooking Give Humans An Evolutionary Edge? – a transcript of an NPR talk from Science Friday. It has to do with the differences between humans and other primates (like this gorilla that lives in the San Francisco zoo)…


I thought the transcript was incredibly interesting. You can also listen to the program (it’s just under 30 minutes). If you don’t have time to read or listen though, I’ll summarize here…

  • It’s an interview with Dr. Richard Wrangham, a primatologist (someone who studies primates = humans, apes, monkeys, and prosimians) who wrote Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
  • Dr. Wrangham proposes that cooking has actually been a key aspect of evolution and our bodies have changed over the years due to the fact that we can cook our food. It’s given us a huge evolutionary advantage because we have more time to use our brains instead of foraging and chewing all day long. (This is called biocultural evolution, when you evolve along with the tools/methods of your culture.)
  • Apes show either a preference for cooked food over raw food, or they are neutral… they never prefer raw to cooked food.
  • A human’s digestive system is 2/3rds the size of an ape’s (if you adjust for the size of the ape versus the size of the human) and we have small teeth and small mouths – not ideal for lots of chewing.
  • We’ve adapted to a “high quality” diet. (High quality meaning mostly cooked and easy to digest… not talking about the processed, industrial “food” crap that most people live on.) Cooking is what increased the “quality” of our diet.
  • We don’t have to eat large amounts of food and we don’t have to retain and ferment food for many many hours to digest it.
  • The changes to our digestive system happened about 1.8 million years ago.
  • Cooking our food increases the proportion of nutrients and energy that we’re able to digest. While a cooked carrot may technically have the same number of calories as a raw one, we are able to access more of the calories from the cooked one. Another example – when you cook an egg and eat it, you can digest about 94% of the protein. A raw egg? You digest about 60%. That’s a big discrepancy.
  • Why does cooking make things easier to digest? For protein, the process is called denaturation. The protein cells are kind of like a big ball of yarn; cooking unwinds the yarn so it’s easier to digest. One way to denature something is to put it in acid. So our stomach acid can do some of this, but cooking makes it that much easier for our bodies to digest protein. A similar process happens with starch – chains of sugars open up during cooking so that they are more readily available to absorb.
  • Humans are one of the only species that typically does not thrive on a raw diet… about half of women following a raw diet stop menstruating and most people lose weight (due to an energy shortage = significant calorie/nutrient deficiency).
  • Now this doesn’t mean that a raw diet can’t be beneficial – a lot of people are eating too much currently, so a raw diet may help them reduce the amount of food they eat (because it’s so limiting) so they can maintain their weight and feel better. A lot of the benefits that come from a raw diet are due to cutting out processed foods and chemicals. Many people have undiagnosed food allergies (gluten, wheat, dairy, etc…) and since those foods aren’t common in a high raw diet, people will feel better since they’re not eating them anymore.
  • Again, eating more raw food is not necessarily bad or unhealthy, but you should not follow a high raw diet. If you live in a place where food is scarce, you should especially *not* follow a raw diet… if you live in the US or another developed country, incorporating more raw foods into your diet is a fabulous idea if it will help you eat less and eat fewer processed, industrial foods.
  • Many people think that following a raw food diet is the most “natural” way to live… not true. We have evolved away from eating raw food. And one of the major reasons that we’ve been able to advance so far in terms of knowledge and technology is due to the fact that we are NOT like other primates – we don’t have to eat all day to get enough food, giving us time to use our gargantuan brains.

I’m learning about some similar concepts in my anthropology class. There is the idea of biocultural evolution, which basically says that our culture (using tools, cooking food, etc…) has a large influence on our evolution. The invention of tools allowed us to evolve away from huge teeth. The cultural idea of wearing clothes might be the reason that we aren’t covered in hair. And maybe cooking is responsible for changing our digestive system, our mouths, and our teeth.

What works best for me is a fairly natural diet (no processed foods) with a little bit of raw food. I am influenced by macrobiotics (completely cooked, nearly vegan but with fish, and very Japanese). I’m also influenced by the paleo diet (limited grains and carbs, lots of animal fat and protein, lots of veggies – mostly all cooked). When I eat fruit it’s usually raw I do snack on raw veggies sometimes. I love salad (obviously, again) but I don’t eat salad every day unless it’s the summer. I love my oatmeal, oat bran, baked and steamed squash, and many other cooked foods, especially in the cooler months.

What works for you? What do you think of the ideas that this guy is proposing?

35 Replies to “Does cooking make us human?”

  1. Very very interesting post, Maggie. It questions the fact that raw food might not be the most “natural”. His logic does however makes a lot of sense.

    I hope to listen to the 30 min show later tonight!

  2. I’m not a “trend” follower unless it’s a superfood i’m interested in. I’m now using chia seeds and bee pollen.

    I think there are REAL raw foodies out there and then those that think it’s cool for a month and then can’t do it anymore.

    What works for me is meat, grains, fats and veggies.

  3. i think i heard this on the splendid table podcast i listen to, and i was intrigued, especially given the raw movements that seem to be going on. i don’t really know what to make of it all, except find what works for you 🙂

  4. I really love raw food and I would still be very into it (right now I’m about 50-75% raw) if the weather wasn’t horrible. I just need some comfort food to warm me up!

  5. I cook b/c I love it. To me a raw diet would take way too much effort, education, and reading to start and upkeep. I obviously eat a lot of raw fruits and veggies, but I don’t think I could ever eat a full raw diet.

  6. Very interesting. I also read something similar that humans are the only creatures that continue to consume milk past the infant stages. On the other hand, they don’t have access to all the crap that’s out there for humans, so who knows what they would choose if thrown in a mall food court? 🙂

    For me, I agree with the natural, high-veggie, everything-in-moderation method. Animals eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re full, use food as fuel and never worry if their ass is huge. I suppose we could learn a lesson from them (but just cook the food first…)

  7. ohhhhh i LOVED this post. i also loved my anthro classes in college, so that could be why too. i think things are always changing, ebbing and flowing – which is why i think it is just best to go back to your preferences and what your body can handle.

    ummmm how did i miss this many maggie posts? your new CAMERA is a beauty and your pictures are fantastic! how much was that model? the next camera i buy will definitely be an investment camera!

  8. Oh, if only I KNEW what works best for me!:) I’m still trying to figure that one out! I KNOW grains do NOT work for me and beyond that–who knows.

    I have been on the raw food bandwagon recently due to major intestinal issues. I saw my ND yesterday–who is almost all raw–and we are re-thinking what might be best for me. I’ll be glad when it makes more sense:)

  9. I studied this a lot when I was first pursuing a high raw diet…and it is so interesting!! I think I presonally do best with a mix of raw and cooked foods….and I need a fair amount of protein, so meat, fish, dairy, and soy are also important for me right now in my lifestyle.

    thanks for an interesting post……and a cute gorilla pic! 😀

  10. This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    I have learned over the years that I have to really listen to my body, and I also try to incorporate changes very slowly. Otherwise I get overwhelmed… I actually read Natalia Rose’s book The Raw Food Detox Diet and was fascinated. At the same time, I knew that eating only (or almost only) raw foods was too difficult to incorporate into my life at this point. I therefore tried to incorporate the things that made the most sense to me and that were feasible for me.

    I still start my day with a bowl of raw fruit first thing in the morning. In the summer I ate only fruit until lunch, and it worked great for me because I had an easier schedule. Now I’m back to teaching VERY early morning classes, so only fruit until lunch doesn’t work so well. Another thing I incorporated is starting every meal with a big raw salad. (I have always eaten a lot of salad, but the book made me REALLY focus on eating the salad first and before eating lunch and dinner). I have found that I eat a lot less cooked foods.

    But I have also realized that eating mostly raw foods is so much easier in the summer… The produce is better, I have lots and lots of my homegrown tomatoes, there is a wide variety of fresh fruit…

    Again thanks for sharing the above; it’s great food for thought! 😉

  11. i listened to this program on…well, friday! ive heard other interviews with dr wrangham as well, and i really appreciate his insights. he makes a lot of great points, and backs them up scientifically. hard to argue with a lot of what he says.

    im a person who appreciates and strives for balance in all things…wholeness, raw, cooked. all have benefits.

    for me, cooked food is better right now because of my current digestive and weight issues. i love raw veggies and still have my servings of them at lunch, but i know they are harder on my system. it is so fragile that any extra “work” to digest raw foods isn’t good, and i often don’t digest food so i dont get the nutritional benefits. cooked food is more gentle for me, takes less energy to digest, and i will tend to benefit more from it right now. but dammit im still eating my raw carrots and celery and tomatoes. 😉

    that’s my story.

  12. This is so interesting, thank you for this! I’ve never quite bought into the whole raw thing… although I believe that incorporating plenty of fresh, raw fruits and veggies into our diets is definitely a good thing, I’ve never bought the idea that our bodies can’t “handle” cooked food. Like this story pointed out, our bodies have adapted over millions of years. They’ve fine-tuned the digestive mechanisms and are actually pretty efficient at doing what they do.

  13. Thought-provoking post, Maggie! I’m a big fan of raw, personally but I completely agree that it’s a very personal thing and I’m very much against dogma’s. There is no such thing as the perfect diet and it all depends on situation.

    You also make a very good point that cooked does not equal overprocessed!

    And thank you so much for your help with my blog, you’ve been a doll for working so hard at it, but I guess now we know why it didn’t work xD


  14. This is going to sound weird, but I actually sit around thinking about stuff like this all the time. Like if I was a cavewoman, I don’t think I’d be juicing. But then again, I’d also have rotting teeth and lice. And I’d eat whatever I could find whenever.

    Wow, this is sounding dumber than I thought. Anyway, I loved reading about this and agree with much of what you and the author said!

  15. great post. i have to admit that i sometimes feel guilty when i see so many people eating raw and i am not! maybe i think to much that raw food is healthier for us. but who knows? after this article i feel more confident eating what my tummy pleases. i too have a lot of stomach problems and i think they would get worse if i stated to incoporate a lot of raw foods into my diet. so this really helped me shed some light on the whole raw deal.
    thanks maggie

  16. really interesting Maggie. Once again, I think when we choose which type of eating style we adopt it’s very personal, because you can find studies/articles both against or supporting it…. so at the end there’s no right thing, just what works for you.

  17. The Maggie way of eating works for me…minus the dairy. 🙂

    I heard about this research as well. I also read a post by Dr. Michael Eades the other day about the size of the human brain vs. the size of our GI system and why we can eat what we eat compared to other species. Fascinating.

  18. this was fascinating; thank you for posting it! i always go by the “eat mostly plants” philosophy (including grains, legumes, etc). some dairy and some fish work for me too. as long as the bulk of what i eat is natural, i feel good about it.

    i agree with a lot of the author’s statements, especially that raw works for so many people because they are transitioning from a mostly processed diet. but if that is what gets more people to switch over to whole foods, then i think it’s fantastic. i’ve learned a lot from the raw community, and though i’ll never categorize myself in any way, i think it’s wonderful that they are so passionate about their way of life and the way it makes them feel. i suppose we all just need to find what works for us, and be open to the fact that it can be different for everyone!

  19. Great post Mag! I agree with stuff. To be honest and truthful I don’t think eating all raw is healthy for any one except rabbits!! haha I dont think its physically or mentally healthy. But thats just me. To each their own :). Still love my raw desserts though!


  20. Don’t you LOVE NPR and all of its weekly programs?! This one, especially, was so interesting and thank you for sharing your thoughts on the issue. I’m with Justine on the raw desserts, but a diet with parameters that prohibit me from steaming or roasting my root veggies and squash is not the diet for me 🙂 or my belly.

  21. Well I think you can guess my feelings on most of this, though I do give the author a great deal of credit for pointing out how fundamentally flawed the human digestive system is. That said, he and I do not agree on what renders food more digestible for us!

    So glad you enjoyed the research.

  22. This is very interesting! I’m certainly all for raw foods, but I could never eat an entirely raw diet. I’ve found that during the summer eating raw comes naturally, but when the temp drops I begin to want warm foods.

  23. So interesting! I’m definitely going to listen to/read this, mostly because I want to know how they account for the high variability in humans’ digestive systems . . .

  24. I read about this in the New York Times a few months ago and found it fascinating. Not sure why so many people think a raw food diet is healthier than cooked food. I love raw veggies and have some raw cookbooks because I think the recipes are good but the “science” that raw foodists always tout is totally bogus. If it makes someone feel better then great, but with the exception of a few things that have slightly more nutrients raw than cooked there is no health advantage to eating raw from a nutrient standpoint.

  25. Over the summer when raw food seemed to be very popular across the blogs, I secretly started to feel guilt everytime I warmed up my oatmeal or microwaved my broccoli. Of course, looking back, that is absurd to feel that especially since I eat healthy whole foods most of the time. But the research you’ve shared is even more reassuring that I live healthfully. Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

  26. I only briefly read about this in Omnivores Dilemma but I would love to read more on it. I am not sure where I stand but it is very compelling to read. Pretty cool Kath linked this to her blog!!

  27. Thanks for the summary – definitely food for thought! I eat a lot of raw veggies & salad because that’s the way I prefer my veggies. And a lot of the raw food that I see pictured/described on food blogs looks really tasty and healthy. However, it seems to me that by going completely raw you would be cutting out plenty of other nutritious foods. Plus there is the inconvenience factor. In the end, everyone has to do what is right for them. For me an all raw diet would not be practical or enjoyable – it gets cold here in the winter, can’t imagine not being able to eat hot food!

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