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Nutrition, Not Magic: My Thoughts on the Raw Food “Panacea”

Posted Oct 01 2010 1:05pm

After my Angelina Jolie post , I thought I’d had my fair share of raw/vegan diet controversy for a little while. That was until today, when my reader Nathalie sent me a link to this blog post , which was featured on Wordpress. It recaps the reasons why one blogger chose to end a raw “cleanse” she had embarked on. I’d like for this post to enter into a dialog with that one, but I do it with respect and humility: hers was a thoughtful, researched, and valid post, and my real intent is not to challenge her ideas so much as to share what they evoked in me.

What first struck me about this blogger’s testimony was my frustration with some of the grandiose and unscientific claims made about raw foodism by well known raw foodists; these claims are presented as fact throughout the raw community, and they prove very alluring to newcomers who are exploring raw foods. The blogger who was ending her raw “cleanse” quoted from Alissa Cohen ’s website:

Here are numerous benefits to eating a raw and living food diet. Some of these benefits include people healing themselves of diabetes, fibromyalgia, acne, migraines, back pain, neck and joint pain, asthma, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, hypoglycemia, colitis, diverticulitis, Candida, arthritis, serious allergies, depression, anxiety, mood swings, heartburn, gas, bloating, skin diseases, obesity, chronic fatigue, cancers and many more. Excess weight seems to just melt off your body when you eat a raw and living food diet! The raw and living food diet has helped many people feel better when nothing else has worked.

By eating a raw and living food diet you will begin to turn back the hands of time. People who eat raw food have a glow to their skin, a shine to their hair, a sparkle in their eyes, a healthy, fit, body and look younger than their age. They have a youthful energy and they feel good about themselves and happy to be alive!

People have reported their hair turning back to its natural color, teeth getting tighter and gums stop bleeding, wrinkles, deep creases and age spots disappearing, dark circles, bags and eye puffiness vanishing, acne and blemishes fading, looking better without make-up and having a natural sunny blush.

If you are sick, tired, overweight or just want to feel better than you do right now, this way of eating could be the answer that you are looking for. The raw and living food diet has been one of the greatest miracles in many peoples lives.

Of course, high raw diets can help to lessen many of the conditions listed in the first and second grafs. And they can be great miracles in many peoples’ lives. I am forever grateful for what discovering raw food gave me: health improvements, a new set of kitchen techniques, and a fresh way of looking at food. But I also cringe and feel angered when I read such claims as “by eating a living and raw food diet you will begin to turn back the hands of time. People who eat raw food have a glow to their skin, a shine to their hair, a sparkle in their eyes, a healthy, fit body and look younger than their age,” or “Excess weight seems to just melt off your body when you eat a raw and living food diet!”

I think it’s safe to say that most people who eat a balanced diet comprised of many raw foods enjoy good health. But raw foods are most certainly not a money-back guarantee. Having been a part of the raw community for some time now, I can say with assurance that many a raw fooder does not have perfect health, glowing skin, or an effortlessly svelte physique. Many don’t. And to present raw foodism as a catchall cure for all human ailments–let alone a fountain of beauty or youth!– is beyond misleading. Many people who try raw diets find that they do not magically cure grievous health conditions (that’s usually the nature of those conditions, not the fault of raw foods). Many more don’t take care to eat raw food in a reasonable, balanced way—they overdo it with sweets, or they restrict and under-eat, or they forget to balance their diets with sensible amounts of protein and iron—and they feel very poorly indeed. That a food is raw does not automatically mean that it’s healthy; it’s what kind of raw food you eat, and how you eat it that defines the value of your diet.

The blogger also points to Richard Wrangham’s book, How Cooking Made Us Human , and punches a hole in enzyme theory, especially as it’s been handed down by Ann Wigmore and her followers. I’m not the correct raw-eater to respond to this, since I don’t personally believe that uncooked foods contribute their own enzymes to digestion. I think our stomach acid denatures food enzymes, and that our body provides its own to the digestive process. (This doesn’t mean that heating doesn’t devalue food in other ways: water soluble vitamins are drastically lessened by heating, which is a good reason to eat more raw food, more often.)

The fact that my own motives for eating raw foods have nothing to do with enzymes should tell you something significant: not all raw foodists eat raw food for the same reasons. There is a huge spectrum of motives for eating all or semi-raw. To group raw foodists together under the rubric that only some raw foodists present to the world is unfair and misleading: it’s just as misleading as saying that all vegans are vegan because they love pets (some are vegan purely for health reasons; some, like me, are not born pet lovers, but believe that all sentient beings, our animal neighbors included, have a right to compassion).

I’ve met 100% raw foodists, high-raw eaters, semi-raw eaters, and raw dabblers. I’ve met some raw eaters who are trying to treat health conditions, some who just love the food, some who like how they feel when they eat raw, and some who do believe very firmly in enzyme theory. I’ve liked and respected all of these people, and admired their conviction. That doesn’t mean I wish for my intentions to be conflated with theirs, which is the problem I have when people google “raw foodism,” find a quote on a website, and then decide that all people who enjoy raw food must have similar things to say.

I’m united with many raw foodists in believing that raw foods are often more nutrient rich than cooked ones. I also think that most Americans never even think to eat anything raw, and that’s the main error that raw foodism corrects. It isn’t that most of us need to eat all or even mostly raw to be healthy: it’s simply that most of us don’t even know how to eat a raw meal that isn’t a salad–and that’s a shame! More raw foods, more of the time, is an easy and worthwhile goal for most people, and my hope is that sites like mine can help curious eaters to bridge the gap between cooking and uncooking.

I also believe—as all raw eaters must—that raw foods are conceptually useful. Many of us grew up eating plates of food that had been so processed and tampered with that they failed to evoke nature at all. For me, discovering how to prepare food raw helped me make a connection between what’s on my plate and what grows in the earth. This focus on the origins of my food deepened my vegan convictions, and it was highly rewarding.

What I do not believe is that raw foods are “magical,” or that they effortlessly restore human bodies to perfection. I don’t believe any diet—raw, paleo, omnivorous, macro, or whatever—has mystical superpowers, and I don’t like the suggestion that human health is easily perfected. Yes, we live in a world in which our health is unnecessarily compromised, and yes, there’s a lot we can do to change that. But the human body is also subject to the wear and tear of time, the capriciousness of errant cells, the invasion of pathogens and viruses. We are not supposed to be invincible. To say that we could all live longer, more vibrant, and less painful lives than with the help of good nutrition is an understatement, but I don’t accept the idea—so rampant in the raw community—that health can be rendered superhuman through diet. (As a side note, and in response to the blogger’s thoughts on the naturalistic fallacy , I’m not at all against allopathic medicine. I simply think it’s flawed, and should be practiced along with various holistic treatments.)

I think my main point is this: raw foodists come in many shapes and sizes. We’re not all exclusively married to enzyme theory, we’re not all believers that cooked food is poison (nothing could be farther from the truth, as far as I’m concerned), and we don’t all think that raw foods are a panacea. They aren’t. They’re simply one very excellent, fun, and creative way to get premium nutrition.

Each and every day, people email me to ask whether “going raw” or doing “a cleanse” can fix their binging habits, or their acne, or their sleep problems, or their depression, or their obesity. Well, they certainly might help: eating more whole, unprocessed, and delicious plant foods should strengthen immunity and boost health, and they might kick start weight loss. But as powerful as food is, it can only go so far. Raw foods won’t fix binge or restrict cycles unless the eater in question has committed to balance, and they may not cure an autoimmune disease without the additional help of medicine (holistic or allopathic). They can only be a part of the whole health picture–albeit a big and powerful part.

I have some additional questions, I suppose, for the blogger who shared her thought-provoking post . What was she trying to achieve by eating raw? Why did she attempt all raw? What did she eat? Most of all, why did she feel compelled to use the word “cleanse,” which is so often a euphemism for dieting or trying to “wipe the slate clean?”

Since I don’t know the answers, I can only direct you to A Sheep in Wolves Clothing for more exploration. But what I hope you’ll take away from this post is an understanding of the nuance that exists among people who eat—and love—raw foods. We have very different beliefs. To say that “the raw food diet”—a term that’s reductive and misleading in and of itself—“sucks” because of the unfounded claims put forth by some raw foodists is unfair. It’s unwise ever to take extremist positions within a community and hold them up as universally representative; within any group of people who share certain habits or beliefs, there’s a lot of variation.

What do you think, guys? What does “raw” signify to you? If you do eat raw, what are your motives? How do you feel about the post I linked to?


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