Are We Absolutely Raw?
It’s an interesting time to be a raw food enthusiast, especially when the raw food is plant-based. All indications point to a quiet but definite plant-based revolution as more people consider the knock-on effects on personal health, animal welfare and environmental matters of our collective and individual food choices. And this may also account for some of the questions about how Graham and I eat, or perhaps more accurately, the perception of what we do and don’t eat. It’s becoming harder to dismiss us as just plain odd as the fringe on which we find ourselves is getting progressively wider whilst our waistlines are not. Similarly we’re bucking the trend in respect of prescription medications; as the list of sometimes lifelong medications extends for some of our age group, ours has gone the other way and currently stands at zero. Maybe it piques the interest to see us walking often several miles a day without getting tired? I’m speculating; there could be any number of reasons why people ask questions and ‘prod’ us with reasons why we might be misguided but if there’s one common factor in these exchanges it’s the perception that because we claim to eat raw food, we must only eat raw food which in turn must inevitably be cold.
We’ve always been careful not to refer to how we eat as a ‘diet’ for the simple reason that however appropriate the word may be in respect of its origins, it’s come to mean something different in today’s culture thanks to the preoccupation with weight and losing some of it, preferably rapidly even if the means to that end include restriction, boredom, hunger and general joylessness. Eating has to be enjoyed; we typically engage in it three times a day! But our non-use of the word makes little difference and the perception of our way of eating being a diet carries with it the notion of it being ‘all or nothing’. Not so! It’s very common for those who ‘eat raw’ to consume around 80% of their food in a raw state, and the remaining 20%? Well, who knows; it’ll likely vary from person to person. For us it’s whole grain sourdough bread, along with some non-raw items like miso and roasted tahini as well as occasional cooked meals in restaurants. Of course there are those who ‘graduate’ towards 100% raw which is usually a carefully considered process rather than an overnight jump from a standard, mainstream diet which would most probably prove challenging in all sorts of ways. But did you know that eating just 51% of your food in its raw, unprocessed, uncooked state brings with it enough of the benefits of this way of eating to count as raw? (assuming we feel the need for classification). How challenging is this? If you eat primarily real food, there will probably be several days, especially in the summer when you do this without ever thinking that you’re eating raw. It’s almost certainly one of the contributing factors to the success of the traditional Mediterranean way of eating. If you’ve ever eaten with Spaniards you’ve probably had a ‘Primer Plato’ (starter) which was at least as big as the Segundo Plato (what we call the main course) and that Primer Plato is quite often a salad, a big one. Their fruit is plentiful and eaten mostly in its raw state, and have you seen them munching away on ‘pipas’? Pipas are nothing more exotic than sunflower seeds, raw sunflower seeds, and they’re popular in Spain!
So, what are the benefits of eating at least 51% of our food raw? Well, that’s where it gets tricky, not because there aren’t plenty of benefits, there are! But because we all like to have science to back things up and the science is in short supply here. However, this really is a good time to remember that absence of proof, is not proof of absence. Raw food just hasn’t had the sort of funding that backs up new pharmaceutical drugs, for example, but then nobody stands to make big bucks from researching it …. You have to go back as far as the 1930s for the most notable piece of research. It was the discovery by Paul Kouchakoff at the Institute of Clinical Chemistry in Lausanne that digestive leukocytosis (a rise in white blood cell count after a meal) doesn’t occur after a raw or high raw meal. He concluded that cooked and especially processed foods (processed foods in 1930s Switzerland?!) instigated the same response in the body’s immune system as a virus or bacteria, in other words it’s treated as a foreign invader. Interesting, certainly, but a deal clincher? Probably not, at least not for us; we didn’t know about it when we were getting more interested in making adjustments to our way of eating. So like scores of other people, we progressed gradually, and simply became captivated by what was happening. The concept of raw food was already vaguely familiar to me as long as 15 years ago when I made the momentous discovery (it really was!) that food might heal the chronic endometriosis I was experiencing. It did and one of the pieces of advice that I adhered to in the process was to ‘eat something raw with every meal’. I cannot claim to have done this imaginatively in those days, but it was certainly do-able. This whole experience filled me with excitement for the capacity of real food to heal and I consumed volumes of information about nutrition (I’ve continued to do this; it fascinates me still). I would never return to my unconscious meandering through whatever food-like substances forced their way into my awareness, and by the time Graham and I got together, I’d given up dairy, too. How fortunate that he was so easy going! He met me more than half way, a lot more, and began to eat very similarly to me. What happened next really took us by surprise. Graham was carrying too much weight and was concerned about the associated effects on his health. Dieting had never proven to be very successful so it came as a surprise to both of us when my ‘endometriosis diet’ led to Graham losing around 4st without even trying. The raw bit came later and we continued to be surprised. The weight plateau that Graham appeared to have reached gave way to a final shedding of excess weight when we transitioned to raw food and along with it, he no longer needed medication for high blood pressure. I think I assumed I had done all that could be achieved when I was no longer ill, but eating raw foods seemed to take us a step further; instead of simply not being ill, we’re both enjoying better health and energy than either of us did in our 30s.
Of course the above is anecdotal and there is actual research which supports both cooked and non-cooked food; yes, we certainly do know about lycopene being more available in cooked tomatoes, but it seems that far more phytochemicals are damaged by high heat, as are other nutrients, especially water soluble vitamins. But my attention has been well and truly captured by the emerging and significant news about pro-and prebiotics. We’re starting to learn that the little critters that live in our gut play a far greater role in our health than we ever realised. Aside from having a perhaps obvious role in digestive health, we’re learning that they also impact on mental health and immunity each of which may lead to multiple illnesses and symptoms if they’re the ‘wrong kind’. The ‘right kind’, often referred to as friendly bacteria are found in abundance in fermented foods and drinks such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and kefir and are commonly included by those who eat raw foods … cooking or pasteurizing kills the bacteria. But there’s another factor that’s worthy of consideration and that is the issue of food for these little microbes. The good guys like certain types of fibre, and guess what? They like it in its original form, raw, not cooked (although onions seem to be an exception in being good prebiotic foods whether they’re cooked or raw). So we may have learnt how to assimilate cooked foods, but the trillions of microbes on which we are so dependent for optimal health have not evolved to work with anything other than (mostly) the raw materials found in nature, and giving them a good talking to about the history of man and fire won’t get us anywhere; they’ll look after us if we look after them and they don’t ask for much.
But there still remains the matter of cold food ...in the winter! Before I dispel that notion, I would just like to allude to ‘the worst of both worlds’ that seems to be widely considered acceptable at events where, in all other ways, inclusivity may well be prioritised. Buffets. Cold, cooked food where refined, white flour typically plays a starring role. But no one complains. This is apparently fine and normal. Contrary to popular belief, our raw meals are not always cold; we often heat dishes (as opposed to cooking them), and anyway, well chosen spices can give heat even to unheated food, but that’s an explanation for another time. By heating up to a maximum of about 46 degrees Celsius nutrients remain largely intact and the food is still effectively raw and bursting with vitality unlike the great cling-film-coated buffet sandwich.
Finally though, there is nothing to fear from us. We may be enthusiastic, with good reason, this way of eating is spectacular, but it isn’t our goal to convert others, even those who come to our classes and lunches. Our aim is to provide a clear basis of inspiration and information so that those who wish to feel better, perhaps a lot better, may get to do that by looking at things a little differently and daring to venture into new territories.