RAW FOOD: Passing fad or here to stay?

As the raw food trend gains momentum, Metro explores its potentially paradigm-changing rationale, as well as possible benefits and pitfalls.

A fruit and nut feast for breakfast. Many raw food enthusiasts believe in eating easily digestible foods like these in the morning (photo credit: MITZPE ALUMMOT)
A fruit and nut feast for breakfast. Many raw food enthusiasts believe in eating easily digestible foods like these in the morning
(photo credit: MITZPE ALUMMOT)
The dining room is abuzz as people peer at the food before them. It’s the first meal of a detox program at Mitzpe Alummot, a health retreat whose focus is on raw organic vegan food and juice fasting. This group includes people in good health, those looking to lose weight and those with cancer or type 2 diabetes.
For many, it’s their first foray into raw food; they’re unaccustomed to the colorful salads, sprouts and gourmet-style lasagna made from zucchini, pesto, sun-dried tomato tapenade and almond “cheese.” There are murmurs of apprehension, surprise – and approval.
MORE A lifestyle than a diet, raw foodism has been around for centuries but was made popular by celebrities such as Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. Not just focused on short-term results, the emphasis is on clean food. In Jerusalem, raw food products abound in health stores; the Natural Choice Café near Mahaneh Yehuda focuses on raw food cuisine.
Raw food is grown wild or is organic plant-based in its whole and natural form. It includes fruits, vegetables and sprouts, nuts, seeds and grains (soaked and sprouted). Most raw-food adherents adopt a vegan diet with no dairy or animal products. Dairy-like items such as milk and yogurt are prepared using nuts and seeds. There is an emphasis on sea vegetables, seaweed and fermented foods like sauerkraut for their probiotic content.
Raw food is generally sugar-free, lactose- free, dairy-free, egg-free and gluten- free. With so many limitations, one must be innovative when it comes to presentation and flavor.
Dessert ingredients include raw cacao, vanilla pods, coconut oil, cashews, dates and other natural sweeteners. Superfoods exceptionally rich in nutrient density such as goji berries, maca powder and acai berries provide taste and health benefits.
The means of preparation include juicing, blending, processing and dehydrating (the raw-food oven) at no higher than 46º.
THOUGH RAW-food pioneers like Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, Dr. Norman Walker and Ann Wigmore (founder of the Hippocrates Health Institute) used raw food as a way of curing themselves of serious illnesses, contemporary advocates like David Wolfe and Dr. Gabriel Cousens (who runs a juice fasting retreat at the Dead Sea) came to it for its underlying philosophy.
They hold that digestion is aided by live enzymes found in raw food, which break down when cooked. The body thus has to use its own limited supply of enzymes, leading to aging and degeneration. Heat-sensitive vitamins like B and C are destroyed during cooking, and good fats turn bad. Eating cooked foods increases the white blood cell count; the immune system gets activated to fight potential threats (the food just eaten), making it less available for fighting disease. Cooking can increase food’s acid-forming nature, affecting one’s internal acid/alkaline balance. If a body becomes too acidic, disease is more likely to follow.
Raw food enthusiasts speak of increased clarity, calmness and stamina; no more colds and flu; better digestion; improved skin, hair and nails, and brighter eyes. Less food is required and the body releases excess weight.
A MAIN component of the raw-food lifestyle is drinking fresh fruit, vegetable and wheatgrass juice. Natural health counselor Shoshanna Harrari says, “Health challenges respond to the vibrant nutrition and high oxygen content of fresh juices overflowing with vitamins, minerals, amino acids and live enzymes.”
Harrari recommends vegetable juices rather than overly sweet fruit juices.
“Blending is beneficial; it retains the fiber. For rapid healing, juicing is the way to go. Freed from energy that digestion requires, your body can focus on healing.”
Mitzpe Alummot founder Jerry Mintz has seen 40,000 people walk through its doors in the past 10 years.
“I’ve seen juice fasts – or feasts as we call them – cure all sorts of things. We recommend a three-week juice fast for people with Crohn’s disease and colitis. Their body gets everything it needs from juices and can focus on cleansing. Many people feel lighter and healthier after just a day or two of juice fasting,” he says.
FOR PEOPLE interested in moving in the raw-food direction, it can seem overwhelming. Many nutritionists suggest “just adding in” and “just taking out.”
Anyone can prepare raw food with a good knife and a basic blender. Low-cost additions like a nut-milk bag can be used for preparing almond milk, nut cheese and sprouting; a spiralizer creates noodle shapes using vegetables (you can use a potato peeler to start).
Although your shopping bill may be higher, Harrari points out that you’ll save on processed convenience foods – and on medical bills.
“You may want to grow your own foods. An easy way to start is with sprouts,” she suggests. There is an expanding range of ready-made raw food desserts, crackers and granola.
“Raw food is not for everyone,” says Mintz. “Where you are on the health ladder determines what you should put in your mouth.”
Harrari believes that it’s always beneficial to eat a good amount of raw food, but recommends that pregnant women, children, the elderly, athletes and people in cold climates incorporate other foods.
“It’s not wise to make a diet into a religion. All through life, we need different nutrition as we change and grow,” she says.
“People tend to eat what they like. If they only like certain foods in cooked form, they won’t eat them in raw form, which can cut out part of their nutritional needs. Also, many people on a raw food diet indulge in too many sweet fruits and nuts. To eat a 100 percent raw diet, a person has to know what they’re doing.”
According to Harrari, some foods and herbs, such as sweet potatoes, need to be cooked in order to release their nutritional properties and neutralize their toxins.
American Dietetic Association spokesperson Andrea Giancoli says, “While it’s true that cooking causes enzymes to unravel, the same thing happens to those enzymes as soon as they hit the acidic environment of the stomach.”
She believes that health perks are due to the plant-based nature of the diet.
Chinese medicine practitioners believe that raw foods are too “cold” – or yin – in nature, requiring too much energy to digest, resulting in less energy for other bodily functions. They recommend cooking food lightly to break down fibers and access minerals and nutrients.
Ginat Rice of the Kushi Institute says, “Raw food may be appropriate in hotter climates and weather patterns, but cooked food is more balancing in temperate and subtropical climates. Raw food is fitting for a yang [type A, intense, active] person and less so for a lethargic, weak or frail person [yin].”
The raw-food lifestyle’s holistic approach to health looks at sunshine, the quality of water, air, exercise, meditation and prayer, emotions and mental state.
“At Mitzpe Alummot, the focus is not only on nutrition but also on a compassionate approach and healing activities like yoga, meditation and chi-kung,” says Mintz.
“When we began, I thought food was the main part of being healthy; I now see that being happy is most important.”
The raw food movement has put clean food and a healthy lifestyle in the spotlight. Traditional natural produce is viewed by many with new eyes for its creative culinary potential and its power to heal.
Before making dietary changes, one should consult with a licensed physician or natural health practitioner.