Exploring the Raw Life
I went raw once, and did so with a great deal of enthusiasm for the health benefits I would accrue. Certainly, eating only uncooked food seemed easy enough. Make a bunch of salads, gorge on apples and oranges, eat raw nuts, sprout some beans—piece of cake, I thought. After three weeks, all I wanted was a piece of cake. And bread. And hot, hot soups. Slowly but surely, after two months I returned to my old eating habits and to my beloved stove. I didn’t know what I know now: With a few simple tricks, we can conquer cooked-food cravings, as well as other common obstacles to a raw foods diet.
The payoff for eating raw foods makes it worthwhile. When you cook food above 114 degrees, it destroys the enzymes that help you digest and assimilate the food. High temperatures also alter the chemical structure of vital nutrients. Overall, “You lose 50 percent of the protein, 80 percent of the vitamins and minerals and about 95 percent of the phytonutrients,” says Gabriel Cousens, a medical doctor and author of Rainbow Green Live-Food Cuisine.
By enhancing nutrient absorption and making digestion easier, raw foods allow the body to spend its energy on other important functions. “If the body’s working on trying to digest heavy, difficult-to-process food, it can’t focus on healing,” says Natalia Rose, author of The Raw Food Detox Diet.
The potential benefit of going raw is more radiant health. Says Cousens, “A live foods diet decreases inflammation, slows the aging process, increases immunity and energy and results in increased mental, physical and spiritual well-being.”
Keep in mind though that cooking your food does carry some advantages—besides the yummy taste. Heat actually makes some nutrients, like lycopene, in tomatoes, more bioavailable by breaking down the plant’s cell walls. Cooking also destroys so-called “anti-nutrients;” for example, phytates in grains and legumes, which block mineral absorption, as well as trypsin inhibitors in nuts and legumes, which hamper protein digestion. However, soaking and sprouting raw food helps break down these compounds, too.
More importantly, raw foods don’t work for everyone. Both traditional Chinese medicine and ayurvedic traditions teach that uncooked foods cool the body and may actually require more energy to digest. Thus, people who naturally tend to feel cold or dry should avoid them.
“For certain body types at certain times of year, a raw food diet could be the best medicine,” says John Douillard, Ph.D., doctor of chiropractic and author of The 3-Season Diet. “But, during cold winter months, for certain body types, it can cause trouble.”
In general, most people can eat raw foods with glowing results. Plus, the regimen doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Depending on our constitution, we can choose how raw we want to go.
“Most people won’t do a 100 percent raw diet, because it’s too painful,” says Susan Schenck, a licensed acupuncturist and author of The Live Food Factor. “Most people do better on an 85 percent raw diet.”
Whether going all the way or taking the middle path, these seven surefire tricks make going raw easier:
Constant cravings – Overcoming an appetite for bread, cookies, pasta, chips and most candy doesn’t come easily.
The raw solution: “If you’re missing carbs, you can make satisfying substitutions from raw foods,” says Brigitte Mars, author of Rawsome! “Dates stuffed with almond butter or cookies made from raw, ground nuts and dried fruit can satisfy a sweet tooth. You can have flax crackers instead of chips or bread. And, you can make ‘rice’ out of cauliflower or rutabaga, and ‘pasta’ from zucchini strips.”
Social support – Food provides more than physical nourishment. “It’s tied up in all kinds of social cues, holidays, mother’s love and childhood memories of being loved and nurtured,” observes Schenck. Foregoing those comfort foods can make us feel alone and isolated.
The raw solution: Get support. Tap into the area’s raw community. Check local newspapers for notices of raw foods potluck groups, or start one.
Dining out dilemmas – Nibbling on crudités at a restaurant, while fellow diners cozy up to burgers and fries, tempts even the most devoted raw-foodist.
The raw solution: Schenck suggests printing small cards that say, “I’m a raw foodist; please prepare a large salad for me, with fresh, raw vegetables, nuts, seeds and avocado.” Ask the waiter to deliver this special request to the chef. At cocktail or dinner parties, call the host and ask to bring a dish to share. Then, whip up a favorite raw foods dish that will help keep temptation at bay and may introduce someone new to raw foods.
The salad rut – If our daily raw foods diet consists mainly of lettuce and grated veggies, we’ll get bored fast. One can only do so much with a bowl of Romaine.
The raw solution: Get creative. Invest in a few great raw foods recipe books. Seek out raw foods classes to learn techniques for preparing a variety of dishes—and meet new friends in the process.
Needing the heat – Eating raw seems easier in warm-weather months, especially when farmers’ markets call. But, when colder months return, we tend to crave warming meals, like soup and creamy foods. A plate of sliced apples just doesn’t have the same comforting appeal as a slice of warm, organic apple pie.
The raw solution: Eating foods raw doesn’t mean eating them icy cold. Most foods can be warmed to 110 degrees without damaging their enzymes. Also, eat high-fat raw foods, like avocados and nut butters, and add warming spices, like cinnamon, ginger and garlic, to dishes. Try grating apples, tossing them with cinnamon and ginger and warming them slightly in a dehydrator; no need to wait for winter. Yum.
Time crunch – Raw foods do take longer to prepare, at least initially—and that alone sends many people back to the microwave.
The raw solution: Spend a couple hours on weekends making enough food to last several days. Focus on easy raw dishes, like blended soups or nut pates, and take advantage of time-saving equipment (see link below for Kitchen Essentials). Also, find a raw buddy for a meal-exchange program: Each cooking partner makes double or triple quantities of raw dishes to share.
Commitment phobia – Following a raw foods diet requires discipline in terms of time, energy and attitude, all of which challenge most of us.
The raw solution: Lighten up. “Remember that the raw foods lifestyle is a choice, not a religion,” says Renee Loux, author of The Balanced Plate. “There isn’t one thing that works for everyone, and part of the journey is learning to listen to your own body.”
P.S.: If you can’t live without one or two goodies, like Aunt Marge’s chocolate truffle cake, have a tiny bit, mindfully and moderately. We won’t tell.
Lisa Turner is a nutrition writer, personal chef and food coach in Boulder, CO.