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The Scoop on Raw Food Diets

Unless you are a toddler, eating some sort of food raw does not normally breed discord at the dinner table. Most people have eaten food in an uncooked stage at some point in their lives, from an ordinary mixed green salad to a piece of fruit. More adventurous eaters have consumed exotic raw foods, like sashimi or steak tartare. And while eating raw fish or meat may be saved for special occasions, the idea of eating raw food is not considered unusual or daunting.

But the concept of eating an exclusively raw food diet is something new and fringe. Raw foodists, who primarily eat uncooked, unheated, unprocessed, and preferably organic foods, must maintain a diet of at least 75 percent raw food with a goal of reaching 100 percent of their diet from fresh foods. Raw foodists do not eat any food that has been heated to over 116º F, which they believe destroys beneficial enzymes and decreases overall nutritional value. As crazy as it sounds to the average undisciplined cheeseburger-chomping, coffee-drinking individual, raw foodists try not to stray from this one strict rule.

Go Raw or Go Home
And yet, within this very strict rule, raw foodists come in many shapes and sizes. Cynics will be happy to note that raw foodists are not just vegans looking for more excruciating ways to punish themselves. While the basic source of nutrition comes from eating raw fruits and vegetables, you can be a raw food vegetarian and include raw (unpasteurized) milk, honey, and eggs in your diet. Or you can be a raw food omnivore and eat raw beef and fish. Or you can be a juicearian and consume all your raw foods in a juice form. Or you can be a fruitarian and eat only raw fruit, which includes tomatoes and avocados. Ah, to be a raw foodist and contemplate all these wonderful choices!

Despite the obvious limitations on one’s diet, those who follow raw food diets are adamant about the health benefits. They believe that cooking destroys the natural enzymes that are essential for good health and this heating renders food toxic. According to the Web site, eating raw or “living” foods helps to improve energy and overall well-being, aids in weight loss, builds the immune system, improves appearance, and helps to recover from and prevent illness.

While it’s hard to quantify these claims, it is likely that because of the limitations on packaged foods, a raw food diet does contain fewer trans fats, saturated fats, and is lower in sodium than a typical non-raw food diet. Cooking can also deplete vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables, so a raw food diet may be higher in these essential nutrients.

A raw food diet is also a more eco-friendly diet. Because you are consuming foods that are not cooked, there is no electricity wasted in preparing it. And because most raw foodists consume organic produce, there are fewer chemicals polluting the environment.

Heat Shock
Yet, there are obvious hurdles when it comes to eating—or cooking—raw food. Vicki Santillano, a writer in San Francisco, says she spent two days researching how to prepare a meal for her raw-food friends. A vegetarian herself, she was perplexed at what to serve people who were averse to bread, pastas, or tofu, all of which are normally heated during production. Her friends also avoided certain food combinations, which added another layer of complexity. In the end, she made raw sweet corn and cashew chowder, kelp noodles with almond butter sauce, and a basil hummus, which she says, might have been fudged a little—the garbanzo beans were canned and had most likely been heated.

The limitations of not heating food become readily apparent when going raw. You can wash it, cut it, throw it in a blender, wait until decomposes, put it in a juicer, or dehydrate it, but that’s about it. It can get boring very quickly if one is not fully committed to the cause. And although there are packaged foods catering to raw foodies—at least in the adventurous eating Bay Area—reviews are not all positive. The “raw” cookies and crackers Vicki bought for her dinner guests? “They tasted like bird seed,” she says.

Eat Your Greens, and Then Some
Vicki also noted that although a raw food diet conjures up images of fresh fruit and vegetables, the meal was actually quite rich—a lot of nuts, nut butters, and oils. Despite the benefits of cutting out burgers and fries, a raw food diet shouldn’t be taken up to simply lose weight. While it may cause weight loss, the main reason to become a raw foodist is to change one’s lifestyle; it’s a long-term commitment. If you start it, you should do so gradually and stick with it. A drastic switch from eating cooked to raw would cause your body to go into detoxification mode, which includes nausea and headaches, and craving. And while these symptoms are only temporary, a drastic switch may cause you to “fall off the wagon” sooner than later, and there really isn’t a twelve-step program for raw foodists.

And there is a potential harmful side. Certain individuals should not even consider a raw food diet, such as children, pregnant women, anemics, and those with a family history of osteoporosis. Women can stop menstruating from too much weight loss. If you’re not careful about what you eat, bone density can be lost from a calcium deficiency in your diet. And you can contract a food borne illness from bacteria, especially if you eat raw fish, meat, eggs, or milk. 

I certainly think that we as a society should eat more raw foods, but a complete raw food diet? Extremism in any part of society is never a good thing. So why not go for, let’s say, a 25 percent to 50 percent raw food diet? Because being a fruitarian would simply be no fun if we couldn’t put our applies in a pie every once in a while.