Raw: It’s the new vegan.
The frontier of healthy eating these days is to consume plants only in their purest state. The trend, according to dozens of recently published living-foods cookbooks and Web sites, heralds a return to the healthier diet that sustained humans before we subjugated fire.
But some of the health claims are dubious at best. Case in point: The movement’s claim that cooking obliterates essential enzymes. Even if it were true, intact enzymes won’t do you any good. Your digestive system takes care of them pronto, explains Nancy Hudson, program director for dietetics at UC Berkeley. “If you have a functional adult gut, what you’re absorbing isn’t whole …” she says. “You can’t absorb whole proteins — you’d have an allergic reaction and go into anaphylactic shock.”
Hudson is noncommittal about the benefits of cultured foods, such as raw sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso, much vaunted by live-food advocates. “I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of advantage to specific bacteria,” she continues. “If you leave food sitting out for a while, it’s going to have bacteria growing on it.”
The raw-foods folks might be better off using these arguments instead: There’s growing evidence to suggest that foods cooked at very high temperatures — through deep-frying or roasting, not boiling or steaming — have higher levels of acrylamide, a known carcinogen; and burning or overcooking foods may create other potent carcinogens.
So how do non-Western health-care traditions view the raw-foods trend?
Alex Feng, a practitioner at the Clinic for Traditional Chinese Medicine at Oakland’s Taoist Center, says Chinese medicine classifies foods as cold-natured or hot-natured. Many raw fruits, nuts, vegetables, and fruit juices are cooling foods. The body, Feng says, must have what he calls “stomach fire” for its two most essential processes: absorption of nutrients and elimination. “If you’re in any way not very strong, then the fire that’s used to break down raw food makes it so that you don’t have enough fire for absorption,” he says. He recommends raw fruits only for people who are strong and healthy, with good stomach fire — or for folks in hot climates, where the cool nature of fruit helps the body regulate its own natural heat.
Michael Kreuzer, a practitioner at Berkeley’s Ayurvedic Healing Arts Institute takes a more positive view of the diet — but only for certain people. Ayurvedic medicine centers on a person’s constitution. Those with a vata constitution tend to be thin and have a tendency toward constipation, arthritis, and anxiety. “For this person,” he says, “they should positively not do raw foods; instead, they need to eat warm, cooked food.” However, those with muscular, fiery pitta constitutions or heavy, solid kapha ones may benefit from eating raw. By switching to raw foods some might coax their bodies back into balance, Kreuzer adds. “One man’s medicine is another man’s poison,” he concludes.