Warning: epic post ahead. You may want to read this one over the course of a day or two!
Have any of you checked out the summer issue of VegNews? I hope so: it’s chock full of delicious recipes (including key lime vegan icebox cake—yum!), informative articles, and (if you happen to be a local reader) a fun D.C. vs. Philly vegan showdown.
On page, you’ll find an article entitled “Is Raw Always Right?” The article is an exploration of how raw foodism has become increasingly flexible; whereas most raw foods leaders five or six years ago publicly espoused a diet that was 90% raw or higher, many raw foods devotees nowadays openly advocate the consumption of a higher portion of cooked food, including grains, legumes, and root vegetables.
Why has this change happened? And how? To find that answer, the article takes a critical look at enzyme theory (the famous idea that cooking denatures enzymes, rendering foods more exhausting to digest), and examines which foods really are more nutrient dense in raw form, and which are not. Experts interviewed include Brenda Davis, Joel Fuhrman, and Douglas Graham. In the end, it discusses how flexibility and relaxation of dogma actually seems to be moving the raw foods movement forward. If you’re interested in raw foodism, it’s worth a read!
As you may have guessed by now, I wrote the article. It was a fun, informative experience for me, not only because I had a chance to connect with other raw foods lovers, but also because I had a chance to crystallize and give critical thought to my own relationship with raw foodism. Ironically, just after the article came out, one of my dearest readers responded to my recap of The Seed conference in NYC (where I gave a presentation entitled the “semi-raw” life) with a question about my raw foods lifestyle. She wanted to know whether, in the context of my having changed my views on things like enzyme theory and food combining, I had any revised feelings about raw foodism itself. She mentioned that her understanding is that there are few or no health benefits directly associated with raw foods, and that, in fact, most people she knows find them harder to digest. So is my love affair with raw perhaps a remnant of my ED mentality? To this point, she mentioned that she finds my raw food preparations to be laborious, and that she worries whether they (and the example they set) are obsessive.
It was a good question, and it–just like the VegNews article–got me thinking about why raw foods matter to me. In response to my reader, I clarified that I do know that raw foods are harder for some people to digest. This is usually true for people with ulcerative colitis, and it is sometimes true for people with Crohn’s, (though it’s worth mentioning that many people, my friend Lauren included, credit raw foods with helping them to manage Crohn’s, too). I also realize that most foods are not inherently more nutritious when they’re eaten raw (there are some exceptions, which I’ll get to in a second).
In response to my reader’s speculation about whether raw foods seemed to help me only because they coincided with my ED recovery in general, I think it’s a good question, but it’s worth saying that I found a cooked vegan diet before I found a raw one. I was mostly vegan, then fully vegan, for about two years in full before I got into raw. So I don’t think that overall caloric adequacy was the hidden cause for my own personal digestive improvement with raw foods; what is worth pointing out was that I was still gaining from my last relapse in all of my early vegan years, and that raw foods were challenging at first because I personally found it harder to get the right amount of calories in to facilitate my continuing recovery. This is one reason I never went “fully” raw; I knew how important many cooked foods were to the density of my diet.
But let’s get back to the real heart of the matter here. If raw foods aren’t really much healthier for me than cooked foods, why eat them? And why write a blog that is identified with raw food?
The main answer is surprisingly simple: I love to eat raw foods. I very often prefer them to cooked ones. And from a culinary vantage point, I find raw foods recipes and techniques to be fun and fascinating. This isn’t my only reason, but it’s my primary one. When I got into raw foods, I was genuinely persuaded by the health claims. Years after I’ve stopped identifying with (many of) those claims, I’ve continued to love the food.
Do I continue to feel that there are any health benefits to a raw diet? Sure I do! One of the things that my research for the VegNews article affirmed is that some nutrients are more potent in certain raw vegetables, while others are released by cooking. Sometimes, a single vegetable’s antioxidant value may differ based upon whether it is raw or cooked: there’s more Vitamin C in a raw tomato, for example, but far more lycopene (also a powerful antioxidant) in a cooked one. This is the reason why I continue to think there’s a lot of value in a diet that includes both raw and cooked dishes (and the ratio should and can vary with preference).
So? you’re thinking. Don’t most of us eat both raw and cooked foods anyway? Well, we do in theory. But one thing I found early in my vegan journey was that it was remarkably easy for me to go days and days without eating any raw foods at all. My diet was certainly whole foods oriented and healthy, but–in spite of the fact that salads were and are pretty much my favorite kind of food–it didn’t really occur to me to eat other kinds of raw vegetable dishes. And I don’t think I was unique in this regard. My early experiments with raw foods felt revelatory, then, because they unveiled new culinary possibilities for me. I added crunch and freshness to my diet, and I quickly found that I prefer to eat a lot of popular vegetables–fennel, carrots, beets, zucchini, even parsnip–raw. Part of why I’m passionate about sharing raw food is that I think most of us could afford to eat more of it, and I want to show people how.
I also felt much, much better when I started eating high raw. You know the story: my IBS started to abate, my energy increased, and I felt more even-keeled. Is it possible that–as my reader suggested–raw foods just happened to coincide with my getting healthier in general? Definitely. But I still feel strongly that raw foods facilitated some of my healing from IBS, and gave me new stores of energy. Maybe it was the insoluble fiber and hydration of eating a lot of raw produce; maybe it’s that I started getting a lot more greens into my diet; maybe it’s that I started juicing; maybe it’s that I put more focus on vegetables in general. All of these things would have been possible without raw foodism, per se, but for me, raw foodism was the gateway.
When I was researching the article, a lot of the folks I talked to (Kristen, Natalia KW, Sarma) said that there’s something real and undeniable about the energy and overall wellness they feel when they eat higher raw, as opposed to less raw. From personal experience, I have to agree, though I’m also highly skeptical of claims of mysterious “health transformation” in the absence of hard, scientific evidence. For this reason, I don’t sell raw foodism as a panacea, and most of my energy is spent promoting the plant-based, whole foods bit when it comes to health. I try hard to distinguish personal history from broad claims that “raw is better” (which I certainly don’t think it is, not for everyone).
But to say that I don’t think raw foods had anything to do with my improved health would be a disavowal of my own experience. And I know from coaching others that we need to listen to personal testimony, even when there’s no hard evidence to explain it. This is especially true in the realm of diet. For instance, I have friends who say that grains simply don’t work for their constitutions. As someone who adores whole grains, I find it hard to imagine, and I think the health evidence to support a diet that includes them is substantial. That said, I can hardly claim that my friends are wrong, and I’m right. Ditto for fats: some folks find that higher fat meals put them to sleep–even if the fat in question is plant-based. Having always thrived on higher fat dishes, I don’t identify, but I think it’s entirely possible that different bodies have different responses to all sorts of foods and macronutrients. It’s not the same thing as making a blanket statement about health, but it is something to pay attention to in a personal context.
All the more reason that, when people ask “why raw,” I have to say “it’s just what fits my constitution.” There are certainly broad pieces of nutrition evidence we can’t ignore: that processed foods are lousy for us, that an abundance of varied vegetables is good for us, that excessive animal protein can raise the risk for multiple chronic diseases, or that vegetable centric diets can lower them. But beyond that, there are particular nuances that we don’t fully understand, and which shift from person to person.
But anyway, my food choices aren’t exclusively related to my understanding of what’s healthy: they’re a combination of health, ethics, personal preference, and–for me–a consideration of my ED history. To be frank, if I were eating exclusively with health in mind, there would be little reason for me to be a strict vegan. Vegan diets are certainly associated with proven health benefits, but there’s also relatively little evidence to suggest that very moderate consumption of animal foods is terrible for you, so long as your diet is whole foods oriented. For me, veganism is the “ideal diet” not because it’s the only healthy diet, but because it’s the only diet in which my interest in health, compassion for animals, the environment, and my desire to tie my food choices to a greater good to intersect harmoniously. High raw veganism is where all of those factors meet my personal taste.
There is a final reason raw foods are so personally meaningful to me, and this one is heavily tied to my eating disorder. In the years surrounding my last relapse, I realized sadly how totally distanced I was from food. It had been so many years since I’d been able to regard food as anything other than a vehicle by which I could be either thin or fat. And the food choices I made were always centered around the delivery of a certain, controlled number of calories and nutrients. For this reason, they were usually many steps removed from nature: sugar free yogurt, Tasti-D-Lite, Zone bars, little packs of tuna, lettuce sprinkled with nothing but vinegar. Learning how to cook and going vegan helped to introduce me to whole foods, but raw foods did something even more profound for me. It’s hard to explain, but it was as if I’d been given a bunch of raw materials (pun intended) and told: “Here, create something sublime using only what nature gave us. Look how beautiful food really is.” Put more simply, I’d say that raw foodism allowed me to make an intimate connection with the food on my plate. And the connection has lasted.
So that, friends, is why I still love raw foods, even if I’m not writing about the enzymes preserved in a dehydrator machine, or telling you that your body releases a flood of white blood cells every time you eat a morsel of cooked food, or that raw foods will help you to “detox.” I love raw foods because they taste wonderful to me, because they’re creative and fun, because they help me to celebrate the beauty of food, and because they make me feel good. They’re not for everyone, and I certainly won’t put on my nutritionist’s hat and tell you that they’re inherently better for you than cooked food. But I will put on my food writer’s cap, and tell you all about how much I love them. In the end, the fact that I can make food choices that are directed solely by preference and pleasure–not by health standards or nutrition research–is actually the biggest statement about my own recovery I could possibly make. I eat for health, but I also eat for pleasure. And it feels great.
On that note, time for me to study. I’d love to know what you think. As usual.