Raw foodists claim that most health problems are caused by what we eat, and whoever started cooking 40,000 years ago didn't realize that the human body wasn't designed to eat cooked food. Whether this sounds like sage dietary advice or tomfoolery, it's no surprise that a growing number of people are adopting a raw foods diet. Overprocessed to the extreme, the average American diet lacks vitamins, minerals, and enzymes—nutrients that raw foods offer in abundance.
In practice, raw foodists subsist primarily on uncooked, unprocessed, and organic fruits, vegetables, and seeds—and more sprouts than the average person encounters in a lifetime.
Taboos include meat, dairy, soy products, coffee, black and herbal tea, alcohol, and vitamin supplements. The truly devoted eschew staples such as vinegar, garlic, soy sauce, and herbs. Believe it or not, there are also more extreme versions of the raw foods diet, such as the fruitarians, who eat only raw foods with seeds, and the sproutarians, whose motto is "if it doesn't sprout, it's not alive."
What's the purpose of all this dietary denial? Raw foodists contend that cooking foods above 105 degrees destroys many nutrients. "Not only does cooking destroy vitamins and minerals," says Stephen Arlin, coauthor of Nature's First Law: The Raw Food Diet (Maul Brothers Publishing, 1997) and one of the more radical champions of the raw foods lifestyle, "but cooked foods clog the intestines and colon, leading to ills such as cancer and diabetes. The raw food diet is the natural diet of all creatures, from amoebas to humans; raw is simply the natural way to nourish your body."
In response to these claims, Suzanne Havala, nutritionist and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Being Vegetarian (Macmillan, 1999), says, "It is certainly reasonable to expect that a diet consisting largely of fresh, organic produce is loaded with beneficial nutrients, many of which are in very short supply in the typical North American diet."
Michael Donaldson, Ph.D., a nutritional biologist at Cornell University, says, "We are looking at the links between raw foods and [preventing] cancer and degenerative diseases. These studies have opened my eyes, because as scientists we are always trying to make the next pharmaceutical breakthrough."
In one study, Donaldson evaluated the seven-day intake of 180 people eating 60 to 80 percent raw foods to determine the average ingestion of vitamins, minerals, protein, and calories.
He discovered that vitamin and mineral intake was excellent; the ratio of protein to calcium was right where it should be; sodium levels were low while potassium levels were high; fat ratios were good, with 20 to 25 percent fat, coming mostly from flaxseed oil, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.
Cure for What Ails You?
Donaldson and his staff also conducted an intervention study looking at how the raw foods diet affected people with fibromyalgia, a nerve and muscle pain disorder. Over a course of six weeks, 30 people were put on a program that included two to three glasses of carrot juice, barley greens, raw fruits and vegetables, flaxseed oil, and some cooked food at dinner. At the end of the trial, two-thirds showed improvement: two participants overcame their severe depression; one woman went back to work after being out on disability.
"Generally the raw food diet works because it is a synergy," says Donaldson. "Vitamins, enzymes, a healthy bowel, balanced emotions, positive outlook—all of these components come together in a living way. People overcome arthritis, allergies, cancer, you name it. I am still amazed by the testimonials."
Rose Lee Calabro knows what Donaldson is talking about. Before turning raw she suffered from high cholesterol, high blood pressure, allergies, candida, chronic fatigue, joint pain, depression, mood swings, gallstones, hair loss, hearing loss, hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism, chronic sinusitis, insomnia, gout, and early signs of cancer in breasts and lungs. Although her transition to a raw foods diet was gradual (first vegetarian, then vegan), she truly began to notice changes after going raw. "In less than two years, I lost the weight I wanted to and cured myself of my health problems," says Calabro. She recently published a recipe book entitled Living in the Raw (Rose Publishing, 1998) and co-produces the annual Living Food Health Expo in San Francisco.
To Cook, or Not to Cook
Going raw does have its drawbacks. One is that some people find this type of diet leaves them hungry for, well, something more, something warm. "In the winter months," says Havala, "calorie needs may be greater due to the cold, and low-calorie, water-dense foods such as many fruits and vegetables might not provide enough calories for some people. In that case, greater reliance on starchier vegetables may help, but many of those are typically cooked."
And the raw foods diet did come up short on protein and one vitamin: B-12. "It is difficult to get sufficient B-12 in the raw food diet," says Donaldson. "A recent report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that even seaweed isn't an adequate source of vitamin B-12; in fact, it suggested that foods such as spirulina, dulse, and blue green algae actually reduce the body's available supply of B-12. Some nutritionists recommend supplementing the raw foods diet with nutritional yeast or a sublingual B-12 tablet once a week. Another disadvantage of the raw diet is that it tends to be low in protein, roughly an average of 40 grams a day for women, 50 grams for men. However, adequate protein requirements are probably lower than most researchers think. After all, the requirement for men is 60 grams, and this is an average, meaning many men do fine with less."
You don't have to go 100 percent raw to enjoy the benefits. Start adding more raw foods to your diet until you find a combination that feels right. Who knows? Raw could be right for you.
Blake More's articles have appeared in Alternative Medicine Digest, Intuition Magazine, and Utne Reader. She has also coauthored two nonfiction health books.