What is Raw Food Diet?

By Jennifer Drapkin

Special for eDiets

Few Americans had heard about the raw food diet until last year, when Sex and the City's Samantha, the show's sex-crazed character, downed a shot of wheatgrass juice before seducing a waiter.

Underground for more than a decade, the raw lifestyle has lately sprouted into the mainstream. There are raw cookbooks, restaurants, and even celebrity devotees like actor Woody Harrelson and model Carol Alt. In a country that digests fad diets at a rapid rate, raw foodism seems poised to become the next South Beach diet, doing for avocados and carrots what South Beach did for brown rice.

So what is raw food? Enthusiasts basically don't cook, because they believe that heating food beyond 118 degrees destroys its nutritional content. The diet is essentially vegan, since most animal products (besides sushi) need to be cooked to kill bacteria.

Instead of hamburgers, raw restaurants serve nut-meat patties. Instead of ice cream for dessert, raw foodies might whip up banana and tahini smoothies. Although most meals are served cold, sometimes foods are gently warmed in a food dehydrator.

What's wrong with cooking, you ask? Raw dieters argue that major health problems -- including diabetes, obesity, and heart disease -- arrived with the modern processed, fat-laden diet. Uncooked food is healthier, because it is higher in fiber and contains "live enzymes" that are normally killed in the cooking process. Devotees believe that live enzymes help to remove toxins from the body.

But as much as raw dieters focus on food temperature, the main goal of going raw is weight loss. By eating filling, high-fiber fruits and vegetables, raw foodies tend to eat fewer calories than on a normal diet. Enthusiasts also say they have more energy, better moods, and increased resistance to colds. Many dieters claim headaches and menstrual cramps are things of the past.

So should you consider going raw? That's a personal question, to be sure. But it's also important to realize that radical diets have a strong psychological component that's very appealing to some, says Madelyn Fernstrom, a nutritional biochemist and director of the University of Pittsburgh Weight Management Center.

And raw foodism is no exception, she contends. "Heating instead of cooking is ritualistic, so it helps people to latch on to the diet," she says. "Many people feel devoted to this style of eating because it gives them structure."

While strictness of the raw food lifestyle helps some people stick to the regimen, for others, it is a reason to quit. Many who have tried and failed complain that it is almost impossible to eat out with friends, and after a while, raw food becomes boring. Furthermore, the high-fiber diet may cause gassiness, which has never been known to fill up a social calendar.

Most nutritionists aren't sold on the raw food diet either, because there is nothing inherently unhealthy about cooking. Not only does heat sterilize food, it increases the availability of nutrients in many plant foods, including beans, tomatoes, carrots.

Also, it is very difficult for raw foodies to get vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins and iron, which are largely found in meat products. This can lead to anemia. Many women give up the diet because they stop getting their periods.

Raw foodies argue that humans are the only animals on the planet that eat cooked food; therefore, cooking isn't natural. But according to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, for homo sapiens, cooking is as natural as talking.

Humans have been cooking for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer, and our bodies have evolved to eat cooked food. From the shape of teeth to the size of our gut, the human body seems made to eat warm, soft meals.

Still, most Americans -- two-thirds of whom are overweight -- would be healthier if they took a few cues from raw enthusiasts and ate more fruits and vegetables to cut down on calories. However, almost all the benefits of the raw food diet -- clearer skin, a stronger immune function and higher energy levels -- can be achieved simply through a balanced diet and regular exercise.


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