Feature Archive

The Raw Deal

A diet solely of raw foods may sound boring, but many people swear it's the healthiest way to eat. And some nutritionists support it, too.

By Carol Sorgen
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

Eighteen years ago, David Klein suffered from ulcerative colitis (a rare condition with painful inflammation of the colon) so badly that his doctors wanted to "cut my colon out." Instead, Klein decided to take matters into his own hands and significantly upped his intake of raw, "living" foods. He saw such a quick improvement in his symptoms that he became hooked. Now, the former engineer is a 100% "raw fooder," a nutrition educator, and the publisher/editor of Living Nutrition Magazine.

Nutritionist Ralph Roberts, MS, CHN, also became a raw fooder when his doctor suggested increasing his consumption of fruits and vegetables to help him manage his hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Like Klein, Roberts noticed an almost immediate improvement in his symptoms, and now, four years later, is an enthusiastic supporter of a "living" food diet.

What does the term living food mean? Naturalist David Jubb, PhD, a behavior/exercise physiologist in New York (who prefers the term LifeFOOD), explains that a raw, living food eating regimen is made up of fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, organic (whenever possible), in season, and ripe; sprouted seeds, nuts, and legumes; and some fermented foods that are properly combined for easy digestion.

"LifeFOOD is vegetarian and is food that can be found growing wild in nature," says Jubb. Asparagus, for example, can be found growing wild; corn, on the other hand, can't. Most starchy vegetables come under that latter heading as well -- potatoes, turnips, and beets, for instance. "Let starch go," says Jubb, explaining that as it breaks down, starch ferments in your body, which does you no good at all.

Proponents of a raw, living food diet aren't "weirdoes or hippies," says Roberts. In fact, raw food meals are showing up on restaurant menus nationwide, and the movement is spawning books, clubs, and its own restaurants.

The reason for the increasing popularity of raw foods? "What you eat has much to do with how you feel," says Roberts. "And people just want to feel good."

Following a diet of raw, "living" foods can be as complicated -- or as simple -- as you like. You can fill your kitchen with juicers, dehydrators, and raw food cookbooks, or you can do what you need with a cutting board, blender, sharp knife, and mixing bowl.

"The more you follow a raw food diet, the less likely you are to get involved in [needing] recipes," says Klein. "What could be easier than just eating a banana for breakfast or putting some greens into a bowl?"

For his clients who aren't ready to give up on their traditional diet altogether, Ralph Roberts simply suggests that they try a modified plan for 21 days. "I don't want to deprive people of something they really want," he says. "Instead, I suggest that they have their coffee, or ice cream, or sandwich ... but after they've had their five servings of fruits or vegetables. By that time, they often don't want anything else."

Nutritionists who aren't raw fooders themselves agree that such an eating plan has its advantages. Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist with a division of the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, says a raw food diet is "nutrient dense," with a high content of minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. And because it emphasizes organically grown foods, says Kimball, it's virtually free of pesticides, chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics that are found in meats, poultry, and non-organic produce.

There is also little or no saturated fat, no added refined sugars, low sodium levels, and high fiber content. "All the things that are recommended to decrease our risk of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses," says Kimball.

Kimball does have some reservations, however. For one, cooking does not destroy as many of the nutrients as raw fooders claim -- "I think they're being a bit extreme in that regard" -- and, in fact, enhances the benefits of certain foods. Cooking increases the availability of the beta carotene in carrots, for example, as well as releasing the lycopene in tomatoes (both beta carotene and lycopene have been shown to offer protective benefits against heart disease and cancer).

A diet made up solely of raw foods may also leave you coming up short when it comes to calcium, omega-3 fatty acids (which are found in plentiful supply in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna and offer protection against heart disease and cancer, too), iron, and vitamin B-12 (which is found only in animal foods). "Raw foods do have calcium, iron, and even some fatty acids -- in walnuts and flaxseed, for example," says Kimball, "but not as much as you would find in other foods, and they're not always absorbed as well."

This doesn't mean you shouldn't necessarily follow a raw foods diet, but you should plan your meals carefully and consider taking supplements, says Kimball.

Following such a food plan can have other drawbacks as well. People with irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis may find a diet made up solely of raw foods a bit hard on their system, says Kimball. And people who have been told by their doctors that they have abnormally high potassium levels should boil their vegetables so that some of the potassium makes its way out of the veggies and into the water, says Wahida Karmally, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Karmally says that not all raw vegetables taste good, and if it's a matter of not eating vegetables at all, or cooking them, then by all means cook them.

"There's also something to be said for the comfort of a hot meal," Kimball says. "The satisfaction, or satiety -- that feeling of fullness -- you get from a hot meal is important to some people."

Breaking the cooked food habit can be a problem, says Roberts, as can the social aspect of following such a diet. "If you're married to someone -- as I am -- who doesn't eat this way, or if your friends don't understand you, it can be difficult." Roberts always offers to bring several of his favorite dishes when invited to dinner.

"By keeping a positive attitude and sharing what I've learned -- as well as some of my favorite foods," says Roberts, "I'm able to reach people and let them know that following this plan isn't really about the food at all ... it's about becoming aware of how to help your body heal itself."

Originally published Aug. 5, 2002.

Medically updated July 31, 2003.

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