Is Uncooked Better?
Is the raw-foods diet a healthy trend? Here's a look at the pros and cons of a commitment to living foods

By Lindsey LaFon
Photos by Jeff Padrick

A child eyes the apple raisin cookies on display at the Raw Truth Café in Las Vegas. Made with raw fruit and "baked" in a dehydrator instead of an oven, the cookies get a thumbs-up from Mom and four are placed in a bag. Only three make it home.

Meals at this family's home have taken a noncooked turn, too. Raw squash soup, mango salad, and leafy spring rolls are the new fresh favorites. Sometimes the kitchen stove remains off for days. By adding a moderate number of raw dishes to its more traditional American diet, this family has joined the raw-foods movement.

Raw foods, also called living foods, are currently riding a wave of popularity, with celebrity devotees including supermodel Carol Alt and actress Alicia Silverstone, feature spots on daytime talk shows promoting raw foods, and dining intelligentsia from Los Angeles to New York talking up the trend. Promoted with near-evangelical zeal, the movement has developed an international following, with organizations in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. But just what, exactly, is a raw foodist—and what foods are considered live?

Generally speaking, anyone who gets 75 percent or more of his or her diet from uncooked, organic plant foods is considered a raw foodist. That means no meat—most live foodists are also vegetarians or vegans—no pasta, no processed foods of any kind. As with many regimens, a range of opinions exists regarding the hows and whys of the living-foods diet. Experts, both credentialed and self-appointed, abound. The uncontested basics, however, are pretty straightforward.

Here's the raw-foods theory: All plant foods contain enzymes, which supposedly assist in our digestion and absorption of nutrients. According to raw foodists, cooking food—even heating food above 105 degrees—destroys these enzymes, forcing the liver, the pancreas, and other organs to work overtime to correct this deficiency. The effect, raw foodists claim, is that this enzymatic draining causes disease, speeds up the aging process, and subjects us to a range of maladies including fatigue and a general loss of vitality. Raw foodists also argue that cooking depletes the protein and vitamin content of food. Hence, the no-cook philosophy, which, according to raw foodists, allows foods to play their complete nutritional and digestive roles.

Scientifically speaking, however, most plant enzymes are not digestive enzymes that can be utilized by the body. Little scientific evidence supports the contention that cooked foods contribute to illnesses. Many health experts also point out that cooking food can actually destroy the harmful bacteria and toxins that are present in some raw plant foods. Hence the controversy regarding whether a 100 percent raw-foods diet is really beneficial to your health.

A Growing Trend
Once considered a fringe diet, the living- foods lifestyle is currently quite fashionable. Live-foods recipe books filled with exotic raw recipes abound. Slick periodicals offer advice on fasting, colonics, and exercise—all elements of an integrative living- foods lifestyle. You can even find raw-foods personal ads and a singles dating service.

On the culinary front, dozens of living-foods restaurants, such as Vegas' Raw Truth Café, have sprouted up in the last decade, offering many people their first encounter with a raw-foods menu. Whether they arrive as converts or are merely curious, diners are tempted by a selection of fresh dishes. Menus are sprinkled with such delectable-sounding items as "pasta" made from shredded zucchini, azuki-bean burritos wrapped in cabbage-leaf "tortillas," and slices of no-bake silk pie, concocted from puréed avocados and dates with an almond crust. The flavors are complex, the textures chewy, crispy, or smooth. Drinks are typically juices, smoothies, raw coconut milk, or purified water.

In Chicago, self-described holistic teacher Karyn Calabrese is merging raw cuisine with the fine dining scene at her restaurant, Karyn's Fresh Corner, which opened in September 2002. The restaurant resides in the same complex as her Inner Beauty Center, which offers Pilates and yoga classes, massage therapy, and nutritional counseling services, making it a holistic hot spot. Here, Calabrese has put legions of Chicago's movers and shakers through her signature four-week detoxification program, easing them into a raw-foods diet. By focusing on daily incremental changes in diet as well as exercise habits, she tailors her program for people who desire the living-foods lifestyle but don't know where to start.

Appearing on Oprah in 2000, Calabrese was one of the first to bring national attention to the raw-foods lifestyle. Promoting what she calls an "inner ecology," she explained to television viewers that making the switch to raw foods is a gradual process. "You can't go from A to Z overnight," she says. "Your body will intuitively lead you to where it's ready to go next."

Differing Views
Decades ago, a handful of pioneers in natural wellness sowed the seeds of today's raw-foods movement. Herbert Shelton, the father of the natural-health-science system called Natural Hygiene; Ann Wigmore, the founder of the current living-foods movement; and the late T.C. Fry, a popular author and champion of Natural Hygiene, all contributed to the body of knowledge that became identified as the raw-foods lifestyle. Controversial and often single-minded, their approaches appealed to small groups of dedicated acolytes. Today's authorities in the raw-foods community tend to be less dogmatic, but no less committed.

One such present-day champion of the living-foods lifestyle is David Wolfe, author of Eating for Beauty (Maul Brothers, 2002). Wolfe knows that not everyone who reads his books will go 100 percent raw, so he encourages his readers to find out what foods and eating habits fit their lifestyles and incorporate these into their daily diet regimen. For him, the decision to go raw came at 18, when he stopped eating dairy products and eggs and discovered he was lactose-intolerant. "I had an unbelievable cleansing," he recalls. "In two weeks, I had lost about 10 pounds and I could think more clearly. I got hooked and have been totally on vegan and raw foods since."

Talk to any raw foodist and you are likely to hear similar testimonials about cleansings, vitality, and well-being. But some also add words of caution and helpful advice. Tom Billings, a 49-year-old computer consultant and yoga teacher, and somewhat of a shaman in the living-foods community, once followed a completely raw diet, but has since given it up. A vegetarian for more than 30 years, Billings says that for most people, adhering strictly to a raw-foods diet is "just a phase they go through." On his Web site (www.beyondveg.com), the Berkeley, California, resident questions the sustainability of long-term raw-foods diets and cautions against such practices as heroic fasting, his term for extreme approaches to food abstinence and purging. "I am not a diet guru," he says, noting that he is simply drawing from his extensive personal experience. "I just want to present an intelligent response to some of the misconceptions that surround the raw-foods movement."

Holistic health professionals are also cautious about embracing 100 percent raw regimens. Paul Gannon, ND, who specializes in gastrointestinal health at Aspen Naturopathic in Aspen, Colorado, explains that diets relying heavily on fruits can cause serious insulin imbalances that compromise the immune system. "There is a huge dose of sugar in an 8-ounce glass of juice," says Gannon. "Because of this sudden, concentrated sugar intake, our pancreas kicks in and overproduces the amount of insulin needed to process these sugars. This extra insulin weakens our immune system and causes irritability."

A former vegetarian and private chef, Gannon also warns against relying solely on soy foods for protein. Soy is highly processed, says Gannon, and can therefore impede digestion and cause abdominal upset. Children, who need large amounts of protein in their diets, have an even tougher time with all raw foods. "Children have small stomachs and high-energy needs that simply aren't met with raw foods," says Vesanto Melina, RD, of Vancouver, British Columbia. "Adults can do OK on a vegetarian or raw diet if they carefully follow certain guidelines."

These guidelines include making sure you get enough vitamin B12 in your diet; raw foodists are prone to anemia because of the small amounts of animal foods in their diets. Melina therefore recommends getting 3 mg of vitamin B12 daily in a supplement to keep red blood cells and nerves healthy. "Raw foodists must also find some source of vitamin D," she says.

Bring Raw Home
Besides facing nutritional challenges, those adhering to a living-foods diet face daunting practical day-to-day issues. Simply ordering a meal out at a restaurant or eating at a friend's house can be tricky. Even meeting your own basic nutritional requirements can be challenging. To start with, those on a raw-foods diet should consume a whopping 12 cups of vegetables daily, including leafy greens, which are rich in calcium. Melina also recommends six large pieces of fruit and 1 cup of seeds, nuts, or nut butters daily.

Then there are the practical issues of setting up a raw-foods kitchen. Turns out it's not as simple as you might imagine. Beyond the basic cutting boards and knives for all that chopping, most people committing to the lifestyle find they need a blender, a food processor, a juicer, and a dehydrator to make meals that are varied and satisfying.

In the end, taking a more moderate approach to living foods may be the best answer for most. In fact, adding a sensible amount of raw foods to your regular diet—some sprouted nuts or grains, a bowl of uncooked carrot soup, and a glass of tasty raw coconut milk—can be a healthy move. By including a few living foods in your usual diet several times a week, you can receive the health benefits of eating nutritious whole foods, without worrying about the possible nutrition obstacles that can arise when you go totally raw.