Summertime is a good time to give it a go
by Mollie Doyle
The general and accepted definition of a raw foodist is someone whose diet consists of 80 to 100 percent fresh, unheated over 115°F, unprocessed, unadulterated foods. Generally, raw foodists subsist on fresh organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, sprouts (seeds, beans and grains), seeds, and sea vegetables. That’s it, though some omnivore raw foodists will eat raw fish, eggs, and even meat.
The raw food movement was founded in the 1830s by Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian temperance minister, the same man who gave us the graham cracker. Graham was convinced that disease was preventable with a simple diet of water, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. He was proven right when his followers not only survived but thrived during the 1830s cholera outbreak that swept through Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Advocates of a raw food diet talk about acid in the body and the alkaline effect of eating more raw fruits and vegetables. They believe that eating fresh, raw vegetables supports the human body’s naturally alkaline blood (pH 7.4), whereas eating foods like meat and dairy makes the body acidic and more susceptible to disease. There is plenty of medical evidence to support this—and an equal amount refuting it. The USDA, the Mayo Clinic, and the CDC have not weighed in on raw food yet. Additionally, there are few scientific studies of the long-term effects of a raw food diet. A 2005 article published by The Journal of Nutrition reported lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in raw foodists, which is great.
But the study also found that 38 percent of the participants were vitamin B12 deficient. And that same year a Washington University study found that raw food eaters had significant bone mass loss—though the bones were apparently healthy. Maria Cruz, a nutritionist who teaches at Williams College, believes that a complete raw food diet is unnecessary. “It is very difficult and time consuming,” she says. She thinks that if you go with the raw food diet, you need to be vigilant and educated in the subject enough so that your food offers maximal absorption and nutrition.
Raw food chef Jill Pettijohn, a 14-year veteran of following the raw food diet, agrees. “It’s really not that hard to do once you know the basic principles,” she says.
When Jill first “went raw,” she was doing the Zone Diet and eating a lot of tofu (she was already vegetarian). When I ask her where she is on the raw spectrum these days—closer to 80 percent or 100 percent raw—she told me, “I am much more allowing than I used to be. Many years into it and I’m realizing raw is not always possible—particularly living in a colder climate like New York.
While our ancestors foraged for berries, a good deal of the food they ate was cooked. I don’t think you can necessarily keep 100 percent to what your philosophy says. Just because you’re mentally a vegetarian does not mean it necessarily works for your body. For instance, I do eat some steamed vegetables and even occasionally have some cooked fish because it is what my body needs.” But Jill keeps to the raw food diet because it makes her whole mind and body feel better and she has more energy. So maybe going raw is just a matter of trying it out.
For some, it’s for a medical reason. Elizabeth Petty—founder and owner of The Catering Company of Washington and Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, Washington D.C.’s acclaimed raw food restaurant was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She began to fight the disease with her oncologist, surgery, and prescribed drugs. As she began her chemotherapy treatment with doxorubicin, which is often called “the red devil” because the drug is red and its side effects are so intense and grave, Elizabeth read Kris Carr’s book, Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips. “I closed the book and knew I was going to go raw and save my life,” Elizabeth says. She began chemotherapy and it was “wrenching and writhing pain” at first, but then, the raw diet began to kick in and she started feeling better. Because of the raw diet, Elizabeth never missed a day of work, “a day of life,” as she calls it.
As with Jill, Elizabeth’s diet is not filled with 100 percent raw food. She eats some cooked vegetables. “Sometimes I just get tired of eating raw spinach. I mean, at some point you have to enjoy life. If I get too anxious about what I’m eating, it is not benefiting my health. Stress around eating and food is as negative as any food that makes the body acid. I believe you can change your cellular structure through positive thinking, the way you think about yourself and about other people and how you feel about the world.”
Enjoyment is key. But while I used interpret enjoyment as indulgence (like chocolate cake and triple cream cheeses), I now find it through the foods that nourish me: local eggs and yogurt, fresh greens from my garden, or blackberries from the bushes around the house. While I’m not convinced that going raw is the healthiest choice for everyone, adding more raw food to our diets certainly makes sense.