Raw food: Healthy simplicity?



There is no denying that every year, there seems to be a new fad diet, a new "bad food" and a new "power food." But in recent years, one particular diet has picked up a lot of ground. This new diet is different. It is not trademarked and it is not really a diet so much as a lifestyle, and adherents simply call it "going raw."

Going raw consists of just that: not eating cooked, fried, steamed or boiled foods. It's basically not eating food heated beyond 115 degrees.

While going raw can also include eating raw meat, the majority of raw foodies tend to be either vegetarians or vegans, and their diet mostly consists of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and cereals.

Going raw is not easy, however. It is difficult to find restaurants that can accomodate this diet, and at home, this type of diet can require a lot of prep work, let alone having to give up many of your favorite hot meals. In fact, going raw requires so much dedication that raw foodies measure their success in percentages. They will tell you they are 80 or 90 percent raw, for example.

Jenni Weems, a local certified health coach and author of the rawfoodeffect.com, has been practicing this diet and coaching clients for a year now and says she is about 90 percent raw. Like many, she has had episodes where she has "fallen off the wagon," but she says that is all part of the natural process.

"I have heard stories of people who try and go completely raw overnight, but I usually recommend a slow approach. Every small step is a step in the right direction," Weems said.

So why go raw? Why give up the stove, the grill and the microwave?

Mostly, it's for health reasons. Those in the raw community believe that this lifestyle leads to better health and preventing chronic diseases. Some doctors use raw foods as a form of alternative medicines to treat diseases such as cancers and autoimmune diseases. Some raw foodists point out that it helps their skin, their weight, mental clarity, hydration, immune system and energy levels and provides a host of other benefits.

Their belief is that cooking destroys enzymes in foods, and that is vital because enzymes help bodies break down nutrients so that the body can absorb them.

"Cooking destroys one hundred percent of the enzymes. They destroy some of the biochemicals and vitamins and the life essence of that food," Weems said. There is no proof that a completely raw diet can be more beneficial for a person, according to the American Dietetic Association. They challenge that the body, not what it takes in, produces enzymes, and they also claim that not cooking foods property may not kill harmful food-borne bacteria. The ADA also says a raw food diet can be deficient in certain crucial nutrients such as B12 and protein.

Lu V, owner of Go Raw Café in Las Vegas, says she takes supplements to offset the crucial vitamins that are hard to find in the raw diet.

"With any diet you are going to need supplements. Even those who eat a typical American diet need supplements because they probably don't get enough vegetables in their diet," Lu said.

Because of the nature of their diet, preliminary research indicates raw foodists consume an average of 18 fruits and vegetables per day, while the typical American consumes only an average of three servings of fruits and vegetables in one day.

They also tend to have a lower body mass index and decreased levels of bad cholesterol. The diet has also helped decrease symptoms of fibromyalgia and is high in fiber and low in saturated fat.

Weems has said she feels like she has more energy and mental clarity, she has noticed that her skin has cleared up, and she just feels better overall.

Lu, who used to be a school teacher, realized she wasn't feeling as exhausted when she was done with the day. Both women confirm that they feel better overall, they say they feel happier, more satisfied and in an odd way, more at peace. And in fact, Lu says her husband -- who had high cholesterol -- reduced his levels to a healthy state.

"That's kind of how we got started," Lu said, "They had given him drugs to take, and when we saw all the possible side effects of the medications, we decided to change the way we ate, and the doctor was really amazed with the changes."

For Weems, her goal was simply to be healthy. When she first became pregnant she had started going vegetarian, then vegan. By her second pregnancy, she was well on her way to a raw lifestyle.

"I used to eat McDonald's, Taco Bell and would have my Starbucks until I became pregnant. I changed for my family I knew I was creating. My family and I wanted to do all I could do to decrease certain dangers in food," she said.

However, both raw foodies recognize that keeping up with this lifestyle presents its challenges and that it takes adjustments.

Lu said she prepares her meals in advance, including the breads she makes on her own. Sometimes she mono eats, which means that she will eat just one of something for one of her meals like bananas, apples or whatever is available.

"It's OK to just have bananas for lunch or snack. For some reason Americans are so used to having several courses in one meal, and they tend to just eat so much," Lu said.

Weems prepares her meals with a goal of trying to incorporate different colors of foods and always tries to keep her food goals at the forefront.

"It would get difficult when I would go to a restaurant and I would feel like such a snob making all these requests for my order, but I realized that I didn't need to settle and bring down the quality of my eating. Instead, I could order something healthy and inspire those around me," she said.

Going raw and changing her eating habits also made her battle with a bigger monster than food cravings: She had to deal with her emotions.

"Going raw really forces you to tackle personal issues," she said, "because we tend to do a lot of emotional eating and you can't satisfy that when you eat raw."

And while going raw does not necessarily always give you a full feeling, Lu points out that it gives greater satisfaction.

"Sometimes you can eat a burger, and you still keep eating. That's because your insides are asking for nutrition, and that's something you don't get with a burger -- but you can get that from eating healthy," she said.

At her restaurants, Lu incorporates many different colors and vitamins in her meals, and her house salad has even won local awards as the best salad in town.

"People would be surprised how good raw food tastes. I get people in here that come just because they are curious and they like it," she said.

You can even try to eat "normal" as indicated by her menu that includes, burgers, pizzas, lasagnas and even burritos - all raw.

Her clients include people who want to lose weight, who have health issues, athletes, performers, vegetarians, vegans and even celebrities who have shows in town.

"I do get a lot of tourists, and from that, we ended up becoming a distributor because everyone wanted more of our products," she said.

Her success caused her to open a second restaurant in Henderson, and she gets requests to open more restaurants, something that she said has really made her aware of how health-conscious people have become.

And while she knows not everyone can or is willing to adopt this lifestyle, she asks people to make changes like substituting romaine leaves for bread in a sandwich or substituting one raw vegan meal for a "regular" one.

"It's just about getting closer to nature," she said. "The more processed something you eat is, the more you are getting away from nature."

Weems teaches her clients just that. She also understands that not everyone will go raw, but she thinks it's important that they incorporate it into their lifestyles.

"You can strive to be just sixty percent raw for example," she said, "You have to realize that this is a journey and you want to start off small by taking out the processed or junk foods and incorporating more greens," she said.

Both Lu and Weems said they would like to see people incorporate more raw greens in their life if nothing else. One easy way to do that is by making green smoothies, which they say are surprisingly good.

Eating more raw greens can serve as a new adjustment to someone's diet or a stepping-stone to going raw.

"I feel that it is the only way to live," Weems said, "but in reality, you have to do what you are comfortable with, and it can be as hard or as easy as you want to make it."