Going raw: Better for your body?
Proponents say eating foods in their natural state
can boost digestive health
By Amy Norton http://acidreflux.msn.com/article.aspx?aid=18>1=7557
Special to MSN
At the Quintessence restaurant in New York, health-conscious diners munch on burgers, burritos, mini-pizzas and three-layer "mud slide" pie. Far from being greasy-spoon cuisine, these versions of American staples are free of animal products — and not one ingredient is cooked.
The restaurant, with three Manhattan locations that have sprouted up in the past few years, is one sign of the movement known as raw foodism. Typically, going raw means eating nothing but uncooked, organic, vegan fare — raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, grains and sprouts. The "cheese" on a raw pizza is likely to be a concoction based on ground nuts.
The raw philosophy boils down to this: Heating food beyond 118 degrees robs it of most vitamins, minerals and enzymes. In contrast, say advocates, eating foods in their natural form makes all the nutrients available to the body.
Cooking up a storm
For proponents, swapping the stove for a juicer and "sprouter" means trading in heartburn, constipation and a host of other ills for a long life of good health and youthful looks.
Long-time raw-fooder Nancy Valdes, of New York, says for her, the diet banished constipation and gas. Valdes, who has been eating raw since she was 17, says people never believe her when she tells them she's 41 — a youthful appearance she attributes to the quality of her diet. She also says that since going raw, she has been rid of her "childhood diseases," such as rashes and bronchitis.
Dr. Doug Graham, an author and health consultant whose clients include world-class athletes, advocates a low-fat, raw, vegan diet, with fresh fruits and vegetables as the prime food source.
With cooking, says Graham, "vitamins and minerals lose their viability," and proteins form enzyme-resistant bonds that hinder the body's digestive enzymes from breaking them down.
Dr. Richard DeAndrea is co-founder of 21 Day Detox, a California-based program that uses raw food as part of a three-week workshop he says helps people clear their bodies of the toxins their usual lifestyle unloads.
Most workshop attendees eventually let some hot foods back into their lives. But that's not viewed as a lapse, as DeAndrea says that people who go 50-percent raw are likely to see "major health benefits."
However, other nutrition specialists express doubts about some tenets of raw foodism. Although cooking does diminish the nutrients in many — but not all — types of produce, there's disagreement on the consequences.
The fact that cooking changes a food's composition does not mean it has been stripped of its health benefits, says Claudia Gonzalez, a Miami-based registered dietitian who conducted a review of the raw-food diet for the American Dietetic Association.
Although she points out that raw foodists clearly get the fiber and other nutrients the typical American lacks, Gonzalez worries that they risk nutritional deficiencies because the diet may be too low in calories and nutrients like vitamins D and B12, which are found in animal products.
And while it may be obvious that meat, milk and eggs are potentially dangerous raw, certain non-animal products may be best eaten cooked as well.
"I would not eat raw legumes," says Dr. Jeanne Freeland-Graves of The University of Texas at Austin, noting that some beans — such as kidney and fava beans — carry potentially toxic compounds when raw.
And she and others throw cold water on the common claim that leaving food raw allows its enzymes to take over the work of the body's own digestive enzymes. "That's just not scientific," says Freeland-Graves.
Enzymes are complex proteins, and when we ingest food, she explains, whole proteins are quickly broken down into their component amino acids — so the body doesn't absorb intact enzymes. If it did, she notes, the immune system would launch an attack.
The enzyme claim by many raw foodists is "completely false," says Graham, noting that "we fight that (notion) at every turn."
Digesting the pros and cons
Enzyme issues aside, Dr. Lee M. Kaplan, director of the MGH Weight Center at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, points to the lack of scientific evidence that raw food fights disease, as many proponents claim.
The fact that a person's heartburn dissipates after he goes raw does not mean that cooking was the problem all along, says Kaplan, a spokesman for the American Gastroenterological Association. For example, he explains, the heartburn relief could have come from the elimination of chocolate, or any other food known to promote acid reflux.
Kaplan says he is not against going raw, but his advice is to concentrate on replacing highly processed foods with fruits, vegetables and whole grains, heated or not.
For his part, Graham, a raw fooder for 26 years, believes that a totally raw diet achieves "optimal" health, but he says that simply eating more fruits and vegetables is "a step in the right direction."
DeAndrea concedes that all-raw may not work for all people, since "everyone's constitution is different." He says the bottom line is that most Americans should eat fewer animal products and more plant-based fare.
"A person should try to eat more whole foods," DeAndrea says, adding, "If going raw is what does that for them, then it's probably a good thing."