In the Buff: The Pleasures of Raw Foods

—by Emma Onawa, HPC member

When most people think of raw foods, what comes to mind are salads, veggie plates, fruits, and sprouts. These foods do provide a staple of a raw food diet and represent a simple and easy way to increase raw foods in your diet. Yet, a true raw food diet includes many of the dishes that normally would be cooked or otherwise processed, such as lasagna, crackers, ice cream, tacos, and cheese. Even meat can be made part of a raw food diet.

Raw food diets are also called uncooked vegan diets, uncooked vegetable diets, and living foods diets. Although historically meat, meaning any animal flesh, was part of some raw food diets, most raw food advocates exclude meat from the modern raw food diet. Aside from other philosophical and health reasons, the modern use of antibiotics in many meats, conditions in slaughterhouses, and the environmental toxins frequently found in fish and other seafoods arguably preclude meats from a true raw food diet. Many raw foodists would also insist on only organic ingredients and no animal-derived products. Dairy products are excluded, since most are processed, and many raw foodists are vegans. The key word, of course, is uncooked. In raw food preparation, cooking is defined as heating food above 118 degrees.

Why uncooked? It’s generally known that cooking reduces the nutritional value of food. What’s less well known is that cooking foods causes far more damage than simply a reduction in nutritional value. It creates toxins that gradually accumulate in the body. Cooking destroys and denatures most of the protein in our food, which renders it harder for our bodies to use and digest; and it destroys essential amino acids. Up to 97% of vitamins and minerals are also lost. Pesticides break down into more toxic compounds, which are more easily assimilated into our bodies; and free radicals, mutagens, and carcinogens are produced.

Cooking also damages the fiber in food and changes the structure of fats, which are incorporated into the cell wall and interfere with the respiration of the cell. Cooked food suppresses the immune system and takes much longer to move through the digestive tract, increasing the risk of putrefaction. After eating a cooked meal, the blood shows an immediate increase in white blood cells or immune system response, which occurs whenever the body detects a harmful substance.

One of the most critical impacts of cooking food is on its enzyme content. Enzymes, metabolic and digestive, are the catalysts for every chemical reaction in the body, such as digestion, cellular division, energy production, immune reaction, and brain activity. Cooking food destroys these vital enzymes, requiring our bodies not only to produce the enzymes needed to digest our food, but also substantially reducing the intake of these vital enzymes. Our bodies produce only a finite lifetime supply of enzymes, and cooked food requires us to use more of these enzymes than necessary. The reduction of enzymes can also be called aging.

To support the benefits of raw food diets, raw food advocates point to the absence of diseases such as heart and other arterial diseases, cancer, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases in both animal and early human (prior to the use of fire) populations. Pets that are fed cooked and otherwise processed or packaged foods suffer from human diseases that do not occur when these animals live in the wild. Eskimos, which means “those who eat raw,” developed no arteriosclerosis and virtually no incidence of heart disease, stroke, or high blood pressure when they lived on a diet of raw whale and seal blubber.

People who change to raw food diets report weight loss, substantially increased energy levels and stamina, reduced need for and more restful sleep, better emotional health, greater concentration and sharper thinking, and fewer illnesses. Athletes report improved performance and greater strength and stamina.

Although relatively few scientific studies, most of which have been done in Europe, have focused on the health effects of a raw food diet, those that are extant support many claims of better health. Uncooked vegan diets have been associated with substantial weight loss, a reduction in high blood pressure, and decreased serum total and LDL-cholesterol levels. Other studies have shown a decrease in fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. And, studies have shown healthier fecal microflora, cancer preventative factors, and improved biochemical and metabolic functioning. Two studies showed a decrease in vitamin B12 levels, recommending that raw foodists take a B12 supplement. Another study showed increased intake of fiber, vitamins A, B6, C and E, folate, copper and potassium, and decreased intake of all fats, cholesterol, protein, sodium, zinc, and phosphorus.

Raw foods advocates do have their detractors, many of whom respond to the more purist and zealous advocates, who promote the diet as a panacea for all health problems or as good for everyone, regardless of individual circumstances. Others are concerned about specific nutritional deficiencies that result from exclusively raw food diets. Some vitamins and minerals, such as lycopene from tomatoes, can be obtained only by cooking the food. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that increasing raw, organic foods in the diet can provide great health benefits.

So how can you get started on a raw foods diet? A simple step would be to increase your consumption of raw organic vegetables, salads, and fruits and to reduce your consumption of processed, cooked foods and meat. Even this step can help you to reap the benefits of a raw food diet. A more serious plunge into raw foods will require a small investment in basic equipment. This equipment includes:

  • A dehydrator. The preparation of raw crackers, cheeses, veggie burgers, and similar foods requires dehydration—the only heat process used with raw foods.
  • A heavy-duty blender, such as a Vitamix, to handle raw foods such as sweet potatoes.
  • A heavy-duty juicer, such as the Champion, to handle foods such as nuts and hard fruits.
  • A large food processor.

In addition, you will need to stock your pantry with a variety of staples, such as grains and legumes, dried fruits and seaweeds, oils, seasonings, and raw nuts.

The transition from a cooked to a raw food diet may involve a detoxification process that can cause temporarily unpleasant symptoms, such as fatigue, skin breakouts, diarrhea, and sinus congestion. It’s your body’s natural process of shedding toxins it has carried. A gradual change to raw foods may lessen these effects. Numerous raw food recipe books are available to help you with the transition.

To sample a raw dish that goes beyond a salad, try the recipes in the sidebars. The lasagna is delicious and satisfying. The cacao sauce will make chocolate lovers and non-lovers alike feel as if they’ve died and entered nirvana. And, if you didn’t know the ice cream was made solely from frozen bananas, you’d swear it is the real fat-and dairy-filled thing. Also, check out Ecopolitan, a raw food restaurant in South Minneapolis, located at 2409 S. Lyndale Ave. (612.874.7336).

Sources and For Further Information:

For recipes, information about raw foods, and links to additional Web sites, try these sites:

I also found these books to be useful:

  • The Complete Book of Raw Food, Lori Baird, ed., Hatherleigh Press, New York, 2004. A very complete guide to raw foods with over 350 recipes, basics, and tables of resources, raw food chefs, and services and suppliers.
  • Raw, Charlie Trotter & Roxanne Klein, Ten Speed Press, Canada, 2003. A beautifully illustrated guide with full-page color photos of foods and dishes.
  • The UNcook Book: New Vegetarian Food for Life, Juliano (Brotman), Harper Collins, New York, 1999. Includes color photos with unique recipes and information on basics.
  • Feasting on Raw Foods, Charles Gerras, Rodale Press, Pennsylvania, 1980. An early work from Rodale Press, well before raw foods became a fad.