Uncooked and Uncovered
Its advocates say this diet phenomenon is nutritious, healthy and energizing,
but critics wonder if it is sensible and safe.
Diets can be just as trendy as the styles of the day, quickly losing their allure and appearing dated. But the raw food diet, which consists of uncooked and unprocessed organic food, is no mere fad weight-loss plan. This formerly-underground lifestyle choice, which technically dates back to the dawn of time, has enjoyed a boom in popularity in the new millennium thanks to its makeover from fringe to fashionable. What was once thought of as an austere, stringent regimen for hardcore vegans and environmentalists has gained some serious mainstream cache. Demi does it. Sting swears by it. Supermodel Carol Alt asserts it changed her life.
How extreme can this eating plan be if the rich and famous are so swiftly gulping it down? Can you never eat a warm meal again? Will you get all the nutrients you need? Is food poisoning a serious concern? And what, exactly, is sprouting—and do you have to have a green thumb to do it?
As with any nutritional choice, there are as many variations as there are rules. But if you want to bite into the basics of raw foods, a few guiding principles can start you on your way.
Hardcore proponents of a raw or “living foods” diet eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and seaweeds that have not been heated or cooked above 115 to 120 degrees. More relaxed raw buffs allow meals heated up to 160 degrees, and incorporate very lightly seared meat and fish and unprocessed dairy products into their diet.
“The basis of raw foodism is that life promotes life,” says Jeremy A. Safron, author of The Raw Truth: The Art of Preparing Living Foods (Celestial Arts). “Food fresh from nature’s garden contains a wide range of nutrients and a powerful amount of life force. Raw foodists believe in living as closely to the earth as possible and respecting all life.”
Followers of the diet also say they feel energized because the body does not have to work hard to digest cooked food. They point to the importance of enzymes, protein catalysts that allow chemical reactions—like digestion—to occur efficiently. The bottom line is that raw food has enzymes whereas cooking denatures them, or renders them completely inactive. “Enzymes are responsible for every metabolic process that takes place in the body from digestion to cell repair,” notes Matt Amsden, an LA-based raw food chef whose company, RAWvolution, delivers raw food meals to clients. “When you consume enzyme-rich food, it practically digests itself, leaving you with a surplus of energy to do what you love.”
Such a concept dates back as far as the 1800s, and was advanced by the work of people like Artturi Virtanen, a 1945 Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, and Dr. Edward Howell, an Illinois physician who researched the role enzymes play in a person’s diet. In his 1985 book Enzyme Nutrition (Avery), Howell argues that the pancreas has to work harder on a diet of cooked foods, and cites a study where rats that were fed cooked foods had an increased incidence of pancreatitis.
The Raw Deal
Critics of the raw food diet, such as the American Dietetic Association, argue that the body already makes enough enzymes needed to fully digest and absorb food so it doesn’t matter whether they’re still alive and active in your food. Raw specialist Nicholas J. Gonzalez, MD, counters that theory in the foreword of Carol Alt’s book Eating in the Raw (Clarkson Potter): “The body can use its own enzymes in the digestive tract to break these denatured proteins down into the component amino acids, absorb them as such, then put them back together into brand new enzymes—a process that is, again, time and energy consuming, and amounts to basically reinventing a very complicated wheel.” Furthermore, this stressful process puts undue strain on your system, and can lead to a host of disorders and diseases. (Gonzalez uses enzyme therapy to treat cancer and other degenerative diseases in his New York office.) “I frankly think ‘cooked food’ is an oxymoron,” he adds. “We may be able to ingest it, and our bodies may be able to process it into something that allows us to survive but never to thrive.”
Another complaint is that a raw food diet is too restrictive, requiring extra effort to get the recommended amounts of vitamin B12, calcium and protein (like vegan diets). The raw foodists’ defense is that living foods have much higher nutrient values than cooked foods; the same food in cooked form can have up to 85% less nutritional value, according to Dr. Ann Wigmore of the Ann Wigmore Natural Health Institute in Aguada, Puerto Rico. They note that certain vitamins, especially vitamin C and B vitamins like folate, are heat-sensitive and are destroyed in cooking. Many also believe that heating food negatively affects the absorbability of minerals. For example, the calcium in raw cow’s milk is more easily absorbed than pasteurized or cooked and processed milk.
Naturally, the idea of people consuming unprocessed dairy products, raw meat and other food that’s never heated above 160 degrees also makes the mainstream food establishment more than a little skittish, fearing outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. Raw enthusiasts must be extra diligent about the freshness and integrity of their foods, making sure to avoid harmful bacteria and molds. Some general knowledge about food is helpful, too; it helps to know that the eyes of a potato have a toxin that’s neutralized when you cook it, so if you eat one raw, make sure to remove the eyes. To be safe, consult a specialist or authoritative guide before attempting to start a completely raw food diet.
Eat to Live
A major part of the raw lifestyle is germinating and sprouting. Any serious raw foodist worth their weight in seeds learns how to sprout, since it’s the ultimate expression of the living food concept: Take a raw nut, grain, bean, root or seed and soak it in filtered water for a specific period of time, expose it to air and indirect sunlight and—voila!—it starts to grow new life, or sprout. Some grow sprouts, others grow greens or grasses, but they’re all considered bio-regenerative food, or food that heals, according to The Raw Truth’s Safron. Usually high in chlorophyll, “sprouted food is very helpful in the building of new cells, provides existing cells with additional oxygen and helps rejuvenate the body,” he asserts. Germinating is the precursor to sprouting in which seeds, beans or nuts are soaked for a lesser amount of time; they soften and their nutrients are unlocked.
Sprouting also reportedly eliminates certain acids and toxins in plant life that would otherwise interfere with digestion, and changes the nutritional composition of a food. For example, sprouted beans are easier to digest than unsprouted beans because their protein content increases while their starch content decreases. Researchers at the University of Granada in Spain agree: They found that germination of pea seeds significantly improved palatability and the nutritive utilization of protein and carbohydrates (Nutrition 2/05).
Cultured and dehydrated foods are also crucial to going raw. A cultured food is any type of edible that has had a beneficial culture (like acidophilus) introduced into it which continues to grow. Miso, seed cheese and sauerkraut are good examples of foods that help beneficial bacteria proliferate in the body.
Dehydrated foods have had the water removed from them through a dehydrator, which blows hot air at a temperature below 108 degrees. Theoretically, dehydrated foods retain their nutrients longer because they’re unaffected by the breakdown caused by water trapped in cells. Dehydrators can be used to make comfort foods like cookies, chips, and dried fruits.
If you’re not quite ready to shell out for special cooking equipment or begin making dehydrated pie crusts, you can always cautiously tread down the raw food path. Start the day with a raw breakfast (which is fairly easy to do with just fresh fruit and a blender) or take one day a week to eat only raw food. While the average person isn’t keen on eating blood-red meat, anyone can benefit from adding more raw vegetables and fruits to their diet. You just may tap into the raw power that will allow you to keep your edge.
Mushroom Quiche (serves 4)
3 cups raw, germinated walnuts
1/4 cup flaxseeds, ground
1 garlic clove
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or herbs de Provence
1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 tablespoon Bragg Liquid Aminos (a liquid protein concentrate derived from soybeans)
to taste salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup chopped scallions (green and white parts)
3 1/2 cups chopped cremini mushrooms
1/3 cup cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Bragg Liquid Aminos
1 1/2 lemons, juice of
pinch ground nutmeg
1 cup raw, germinated walnuts or 1 cup tahini
1 1/2 teaspoons psyllium husk powder
1 cup distilled water
1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine all of the crust ingredients. Process until a dough is formed and the walnuts are very well chopped. Season with salt and pepper. Very lightly oil a 12-inch pie pan or dish. Press the crust mixture into the plate and dehydrate overnight, or let sit in the sun for 1 to 4 hours.
To make the filling, marinate the chopped scallions and mushrooms in olive oil and 1/2 tablespoon of the liquid aminos in a large bowl for at least 1 hour. In a blender, combine the lemon juice, nutmeg, walnuts or tahini, psyllium powder, water and remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons of liquid aminos. Blend well until smooth and creamy. Fold this mixture into the marinated mushrooms and scallions. Spread evenly over the crust. Chill for at least 1 hour and serve. The quiche will firm up as it sits.