I am blessed to regularly encounter adventurers who fearlessly pursue their best health in my practice. These folks are creative and willing to experiment so when someone tells me about something they find useful, I pay attention. (Heaven forfend I should become wedded to any one way of doing things, as many are in medicine, and in life.) I WANT to learn new tricks, thank you!
Recently, one of my long-time patients came in looking and feeling particularly fantastic. Bright mood, bright eyes, high energy, and down a pants size. She attributed this to having been on a raw vegetarian diet for about 7 weeks. (This was her own idea, OK?) Perhaps you have heard about this lifestyle, where one does not eat any food that's been heated over about 110° F. The raw food diet has several variations involving what percent raw, vegetarian or vegan
or brave enough for raw meat and eggs. Many folks who eat this way are pretty zealous about it, describing themselves personally as "raw" which makes them sound oh, I don't know, kind of wild and edgy. Cooked food is considered "dead" and "devitalized" and "full of poisons." Lots of movie stars are going raw.
Even in some of the more progressive nutritional literature, this approach to human feeding is considered rather extreme. Raw foods do contain more nutrients than cooked foods, though not a whole lot, and some nutrients are more easily assimilated and digested when you cook them a bit beta carotene and starches, for instance, and some proteins. A raw food diet is time-consuming to prepare and can be socially isolating, potentially low in protein, more likely
to expose you to bacterial contamination and nutrient deficiencies, and sounds Just Plain Weird and cold to many people. Still, it has a rapt group of devotees who say it makes them feel great. Gotta wonder, right?
Anyway, this patient. We've been following her body composition (lean vs. fat percentage) with the medical-grade body composition analyzer I use in my practice, for about a year. Bless her heart, she keeps scrupulously detailed food logs. I was eager to check her body composition – sure that I'd see that she'd lost muscle mass and that would be the end of this raw food gig. Well. Darned if she hadn't built muscle and burned fat just as well on her raw diet as
she'd ever done. If you can build muscle and lose fat you just can't be doing a whole lot of damage to your physiology – that's why I track these parameters it in the first place. So I found myself rethinking the idea of eating more raw food. Not necessarily ONLY raw, or for the reasons typically espoused by raw food advocates – something to do with preserving enzymes, honoring the essential energies of the foods, and things like that – but because if you eat more stuff raw
it will be mostly fresh unprocessed fruits and vegetables and nuts, and you will need to be mindful as you prepare it. Clean beautiful summer food – a lot of what we love this time of year is raw, isn't it? Hmmm . . .
Considering raw vs. cooked foods got me thinking about grilling, the sine qua non of hot weather parties and, particularly in some people's hands, the absolute opposite of raw. One of the arguments sometimes used to support a raw diet is something like "people have been eating food raw for a lot longer than they have been cooking it." Anthropologically, human use of fire for heat goes back way farther than its use for cooking. Half a million years ago our
ancestors huddled around burning coals, but cooking only seems to have come in around 40,000 years ago. Sadly, recently we have learned that grilled animal foods, particularly fatty meaty foods, contain carcinogens called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. (The raw food folks would say "SEE?") Fortunately, the use of marinades, culinary herbs, and generous side orders of fresh vegetables reduces the production and/or the impact of these chemical
byproducts thank heaven. Still, don't eat the black parts of that overdone chicken breast, and maybe skip the baby back ribs altogether. (Grilled veggies not a problem.)
I'm not sure where I'll ever go with the raw food idea, though it does have some intuitive appeal. I think it makes sense to try to eat more raw stuff overall or only very lightly cooked and not processed at all. The basic rule of eating "close to the earth" is a precious and powerful one, however you implement it. Can't be bad to strive to do more of that!