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Lessons From the Mistakes of Natural Hygiene

Many people don’t really know what Natural Hygiene truly is, yet many have been enjoying its benefits without even realizing it.

Back in the 19th century, many doctors carried the medieval belief that bathing and fresh air were damaging to health. When patients had a fevers, many doctors thought they were doing the right thing by giving the poor sick person hard liquor, denying them any water, and closing the windows to prevent any fresh air from coming in.

Early Natural Hygienists of the past century fought hard to promote rationality in medicine and especially the importance of bathing. Now the medical community claims that they were the ones to promote the concepts of bathing and hygiene to the masses, when in fact this was done by rogue, outcast doctors who were ridiculed by the medical community in their time.

Let’s not forget that just 50-60 years ago, doctors recommended smoking as a health practice and white bread was considered health food!

Hygienists were way ahead of their time, and their influence are still felt today. If you can go today to a store like Whole Foods and purchase organic fruits and whole grain products, you can thank Sylvester Graham and his friends for that.

Unfortunately, these names have been forgotten from the history books, and now we only think of names like Louis Pasteur when it comes to hygiene.

So when I’m pointing out some of the mistakes of Natural Hygiene, I don’t want to sound like I’m taking anything from the movement. I just want to bring these great ideas to the forefront, shake them up a bit, and remove the few wrong concepts that just don’t stand up to the realities of human health.

It’s important to mention that Natural Hygiene is essentially a philosophy of health. Modern Hygienists have vastly different ideas on what is the best die and lifestyle for health, but all agree on the methods of the body’s healing capacities.


Fasting is an integral part of the Natural Hygiene doctrine. Unfortunately, in spite of the amazing benefits that can be derived from supervised water fasting, most of the medical community is particularly clueless about it as a real healing modality.

Although humans throughout all recordable history have practiced fasting, it really became a true method of healing with the Natural Hygiene movement in the 19th century. That’s why it was called “water cure” at the time.

Fasting is true physiological rest. It’s not just the act of not eating that works, but it’s also everything that accompanies a proper fast, such as complete rest in bed.

Fasting works because:

1) It removes the cause. Most diseases are caused by our lifestyle — mainly what we put in our mouth. By not eating for a while, you are certain to remove any dietary causes of disease.

2) Fasting is digestive rest. Digestion takes a huge energy toll on the body. Not eating redirects those energies towards healing.

3) Fasting itself is a physiological process that leads to healing and recovery. Many animals fast in times of stress and disease, and this is no coincidence. After a few days of fasting, the body starts burning its fat reserves and goes through a complex set of physiological changes that leads to having the nerve energy for the body to heal itself.

It’s a shame that water fasting has not gained yet the popularity it deserves. I’ve got nothing to criticize on the topic of Hygienic fasting, except that it has to be conducted by a competent doctor with extensive experience with it.

The Appeal to Nature Fallacy

One of the areas where I feel Natural Hygienists got some of their philosophy wrong is what we could call the “appeal to nature” logic.

This, by the way, is not just a mistake made by Hygienists, but also by raw foodists, environmentalists, paleo dieters, and pretty much any person in the natural health scene. We’ve all been guilty of it.

The appeal to nature fallacy is this concept that the wild state of nature, or perhaps the way humans were living thousands of years ago (presumably: in nature), should be the way we should live our lives today.

Some examples:

– Humans should not eat ANY foods other than fruits, greens and nuts, because those are our natural foods (why? look at our modern cousins, the chimpanzees, who live in “nature”).
– We should never take drugs, under any circumstances, because they are not natural.
– We should not eat foods that we can’t make a meal out of, because obviously, in nature, we wouldn’t be able to do that
– We should never process our foods in any way
– Human progress and civilization is wrong, because it takes us away from our natural state, where we would be healthier and happier
I want to be clear that Hygienists aren’t the only ones confused by this fallacy.

Paleo diet promoters will claim that we should eat meat, fruits and vegetables, and avoid all grains because those foods have only been part of our natural diet for the past 10,000 years. On the other hand, meat and produce have always been part of our natural diet.

There are also people who will refuse to eat fruit as they feel it’s been too hybridized and the fruit “in nature” would be the only kind we were/are really supposed to eat.

The Appeal to Nature is a subtle underlying philosophy that has actually been with us since the dawn of civilization. People will always want to revert back to “the good old days”, as it were!

Forbidden Foods: Mushrooms, Garlic, Onion, and Other “Unnatural” Items

Natural Hygiene forbids a lot of foods. Generally, animal products are off the table completely. Cooked foods are frowned upon for the most part, and so are absolutely all seasonings you could imagine.

Prominent Natural Hygienist Herbert Shelton rejected all spices, garlic, onion, seaweed, and even mushrooms.

I must say that I followed that philosophy for a long time, and it’s not specific just to Natural Hygiene. Many Asian health philosophies eliminate garlic, onion and strong spices, finding them too “stimulating.”

The reasoning they give is quite simple. Garlic and onion are simply too strong. You could never make a meal out of them. They contain toxic mustard oil that irritates the digestive track.

Mushrooms are not human foods. They contain almost no nutrients, and are largely indigestible.

Seaweed is pond scum. Would you salivate in front a pile of seaweed? I didn’t think so. Makes sense because it’s not that natural to eat plants growing in the ocean.

This reasoning sounds good on paper, but the problem is that science is actually showing that some of these foods are good for us, and there’s no reason to avoid sources of nutrition on a modern world given they prove time and time again to be health promoting.

At the very least, these foods are not evil or toxic for you. You can eat and enjoy them and be just fine. Most likely, you’ll even enjoy some health benefits in the process.

Although I avoided onions, mushrooms, and spices for a long time, I now eat them regularly. I find they digest just fine for me and my body accepts them without any issues at all.

Likewise, I don’t like raw garlic except in small quantities in hummus or guacamole.

But I don’t mind a bit of cooked garlic or onion, and I do like some red onion on my salads.

As for seaweed, I’m not a big fan either. That’s just my personal taste. I don’t mind nori in a recipe, but I don’t enjoy eating seaweed in general.

But that’s just my personal taste, and what I’ve found to be perfectly acceptable and healthy within my own health regime. It’s changed over the years, but this is where I currently feel best.

What have been your experiences with Natural Hygiene, forbidden non-hygienic foods, and any other fasting or hygienic healing modalities? Let us know in the comments below!


Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets.