Diner: The Raw and the Cooked

Is the raw food diet a culinary cure-all or the raw deal?

Jan 26, 2005 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

Journal entry, Jan. 10, 2005. Day One of Raw Food Diet. I'm unfocused, scattered and distracted by a raging headache, which is compounded by the cold, rainy weather. I can't stop thinking about food. I'm grieving my usual winter breakfast of hot oatmeal with blueberries and cream and feel deprived, unsatiated by the !@#$&* fruit and almond milk smoothie that replaced it. Who in the hell drinks frozen smoothies for breakfast in January? Morning is the smell and sound of coffee brewing, not the obnoxious whirrrrrr of a blender. And frozen bananas do not perfume the kitchen; this is not the stuff of sensorial memories. OK, so the colossal salad for lunch was excellent — four stars for an inspired avocado dressing — but it's chilly and damp and winter, and I want my hearty tomato soup and grilled cheese! Extra kosher dill, please.

I can't do this. Why am I doing this? I need my 4 p.m. ritual of Earl Grey with milk and honey! Ten more days of salads and fruits? These "raw foodists" are insane. Sprouted and dehydrated foods? No coffee. No hot food! No wine. No sugar. No bread. No comfort food! Culinary bankruptcy! AAARRRGGGHHH. This is pure misery. Note: Remove all sharp objects from house.

Cincinnati chef Khassa Selassie has a mission. Symptom-free from the debilitating effects of sickle cell anemia for the past seven years, 30-year-old Selassie wants the world to know that he rid himself of 20 years of lengthy hospital visits, bouts of temporary paralysis and constant dependence on medication — including morphine — by taking control of his health through a diet of living foods. As chef and owner of The Living Room (1431 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-621-1646), a restaurant that serves strictly vegan and raw foods, Selassie is one of many similar success stories in the growing raw food movement.

Once the domain of hippies and health fanatics, raw food is, well ... hot, being promoted by celebrities and trendy chefs as the latest and greatest way to eat healthy.

Devotees claim the raw food lifestyle increases energy and vitality, delays aging and offers greater resistance to chronic disease, even arresting some diseases. In this uncooked, unprocessed, unheated and organic plant-based eating philosophy, food is not heated over 116 degrees (water boils at 212 degrees). The theory is that essential enzymes (which assist in the absorption and digestion of food), coenzymes, vital nutrients and life energy are significantly altered, denatured and destroyed in the cooking process and that, to utilize cooked foods, the body depletes its own supply of enzymes.

Hardly a revolutionary train of thought, the raw diet theory has repeatedly surfaced since the early '90s and has its various books, champions, gurus and respected institutes to support it, but has gained considerable momentum in the past four years since the seasonal, market-driven menus of the restaurant industry has done much to carry it forward into the mainstream.

Currently, dozens of haute-cuisine restaurants scattered throughout American cities offer a raw food menu. In 2004 über-chefs Charlie Trotter, long known for showcasing an all-vegetable tasting menu at his Chicago restaurant, and Roxanne Klein, who turned discerning gourmands into believers with her innovative, multi-course raw food meals at her eponymous San Francisco restaurant, published RAW, a stunning photo-laden cookbook exalting "the innate wholesomeness and splendor of fruits and vegetables." More celebrity endorsement of the raw food diet comes from model Carol Alt, currently promoting her new book, Eating in the Raw: A Beginner's Guide To Getting Slimmer, Feeling Healthier and Looking Younger, The Raw Food Way. Although not a deliberate focus of the book, Alt claims a raw food diet cured her cancer which was diagnosed 10 years ago.

It's no secret that increasing your fruit and vegetable intake while decreasing empty calories, refined sugars and flours, bad fats and processed food has health benefits. But does a raw food diet really have the power to heal, to change lives?

Absolutely, says Dr. Gabriel Cousens, a Rock star in the raw food movement and author of several books including Conscious Eating. In addition to the popular enzymatic rationale, he believes that cooking food destroys electron energy, actually changing the shape of fatty acid which prevents cell membranes from working efficiently. He cites the Eskimos, who although they ate excessive amounts of raw blubber, never developed heart disease. Only when they began to cook their food, he states, did their rate of heart disease and high blood pressure skyrocket.

Cherie Soria, founder of the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute, a raw food cooking school, credits raw foods with healing her carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. Hundreds of testimonials on raw food Web sites and message boards declare that asthma, allergies, thyroid imbalance and chronic colds were alleviated by the raw food lifestyle.

Naturally, there are as many detractors of the raw food diet as there are enthusiasts. Nutrition experts challenge the claim that plant enzymes contribute to human health and that the body must use up its own supply to facilitate digestion, counterclaiming that enzymes in raw foods are tailored to meet the specific needs of plants and bear little relationship to human health. No solid, scientific evidence, they claim, exists to support otherwise.

While raw food boosters maintain that uncooked foods are metabolized more efficiently than cooked foods, nutritionists insist that, on the contrary, phytochemicals are far more available after food is cooked than when it is raw. Nutritionists also agree that some plant-derived nutrients are actually better absorbed by the human body when cooked, such as the cancer-fighting antioxidants beta-carotene and lycopene. A recent study compared the antioxidant levels in fresh versus raw tomatoes to discover that cooked ones contained three times more lycopene than raw tomatoes. Even more alarming to the experts is the level of toxins and undesirable substances in some raw foods (many legumes are high on the list) that, at best, can interfere with absorption of nutrients and, at worst, can cause damage.

While most nutritionists agree that the American diet is sorely lacking in adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, few of them can get behind any dietary extremes and instead advocate a mindful, moderate eating lifestyle.

Good health isn't the raw food diet's only attraction. Most devoted followers of the raw food way of life place equal importance on the spiritual component. At the renowned Ann Wigmore Institute (she dedicated her life to teaching others about living foods and is credited with developing and introducing a method of indoor gardening and sprouting), meditation and silent meals are part of the daily practice. Victoria Jayne, executive director of the International Raw and Living Foods Association, believes that to focus on our spiritual journey, we need optimal health, and that a commitment to feeding our bodies with life-promoting food is the profoundly simple way.

Journal entry, Jan. 18, 2005. Day Eight of Raw Food Diet. I feel fabulous. My energy level has doubled: No mid-afternoon slump, and I've required less sleep. Colors seem brighter, sex has been Olympic, and the five extra post-holiday pounds have disappeared. Woo-hoo! Let's hear it for high-fiber! Due to the garden of fruits and vegetables I've consumed in a week, I'm the proud owner of a squeaky clean colon. Pass the peas, I feel good. I love the relationship that has developed with the increased food preparation. I didn't realize how much of it I had given up for convenience. I've enjoyed every bite that much more. Are we so conditioned to over-processed foods and flavorings that our taste buds have become desensitized? Can I realize this as a full-time way of eating? No, I don't think so. I truly enjoy warm oatmeal, tomato soup and grilled cheese and I think that counts for something. As delicious as Chef Khassa's chili is, I'd rather eat mine warm than cold — especially in winter. I don't need to lose weight, I don't suffer from chronic aches or pains and my spiritual path seems fairly clear, but I'm hooked on this high energy level and how great I feel. I can easily find some moderate ground — increasing my intake of raw foods to nine or 10 servings a day and surrendering some of the habits.

Well, maybe not the Earl Grey. ©

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