Life in the raw

So what’s all this fuss about the raw food diet anyway? While some might say it’s just a passing fad for tree-hugging hippies, otherwise known as rawists or raw foodists, others say it’s the best rediscovery of the millennium and that it’s good news for everyone. Even so, are our bodies designed to cope with eating only raw food products? How good is this regime for pregnant mothers? Does this way of eating go beyond simple nutrition? We questioned the experts to bring you these raw food facts to chew on.


What is the raw food diet?
Followers of the 100 percent raw food diet eat uncooked fruits and vegetables, avoid meat, dairy, cereal grains, salt and sugar. Similar to the rabbit’s eating habits, going raw means no cooking. However, this doesn’t mean that food has to be plain or boring, or feel as though you’re a rabbit stuck in a pen – in fact, it’s quite the contrary. Silwood-trained chef and co-founder of Kwalapa Organic Wholefoods Store, Restaurant and Deli in Cape Town, Emily Moya, asserts that raw food is full of flavour, colour, nutrition, creativity and it is absolutely delicious. It has become so popular that her restaurant has weekly ‘Raw Food Wednesdays’, where raw foodists converge to indulge in tasty titbits. “I was blown away by its versatility. Rawism has totally re-inspired me as a chef,” she says. “If you go raw you don't suffer the usual cravings, because your body gets all the goodness from the food and is therefore not looking elsewhere for that 'quick fix’.”  


Although traditional cooking methods aren’t used, food can be prepared in a dehydrator, which circulates warm air to dry, rather than cook the food. Other methods include using the most natural sources of all – the sun for heating and drying – and water for soaking and softening certain foods. In this manner, all the foods maintain their nutritional value – keeping the food ‘live’.


Why go raw?
According to Peter and Beryn Daniel, co-owners of Soaring Free Superfoods, raw food educators and co-authors of Rawlicious, SA’s first gourmet raw food recipe book, initially the benefits of raw food are in the nature of their cleansing ability.  Says Peter Daniel; “Toxins are released from the body, removing blockages, which allows healing to occur. The in-tact nutritional building blocks in raw food then work to nourish the body at a deep cellular level, often providing nutritional elements that have been missing from a person’s diet for many years,” he says. “These are elements such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, living structured water and the biologically active plant compounds; phytonutrients, which in their natural form provide great healing effects.” 


Not only does it satisfy your appetite, but eating raw also gives you a sense of lightness and of clarity, he explains. “Emotions become more stable and a calm, centred confidence and a feeling of connectedness results.”


On a physical level, many chronic health conditions show a remarkable improvement. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2008, Yvonne Ward-Smith, owner of Sprouts Kitchen in Pretoria took charge of her health and chose to heal herself in a holistic way – of which diet played a significant role. “As I needed to maintain an alkaline state in my body, I became a vegan and raw foodist, eating only raw, organic foods, abundant with life energy,” she says. “Through this life-changing experience, I developed an enormous knowledge on nutrition and what cleanses, nourishes and heals the body. I learnt the importance of consuming food full of life-force energy, enzymes, vitamins and essential minerals.” 


As raw food is much higher in potassium, magnesium, folate, fibre and phytonutrients - all of which are well-known and researched factors in preventing and healing disease, the raw food diet can help with; heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, strokes, breast, colon and prostate cancer, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and kidney disease, to name a few. And, according to Peter, there is also a marked decrease in the need for sleep. The quality of the skin, nails and hair improve, recovery time from exercise is reduced and stamina and strength also increase, he says.


And, if that isn’t enough to convince you, eating raw is also good for the environment. Far less rubbish is produced, as all the waste can be used for composting purposes, and, less preparation time means less electricity is used.  


So, what’s wrong with cooking my food?
Rawists argue that as human beings we are the only species on earth known to cook our food before consuming it.  They also argue that before the discovery of fire, there was only raw food, which was - and is today, still in harmony with our genetic make-up.


Scientific studies have proven that when we consume cooked food, white blood cells rush to the mouth or stomach in order to protect us from what is perceived as ‘invader food’. Therefore, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that this leaves the body and immune system vulnerable to attack, because its defence system is put under pressure every time we eat something cooked. Also, enzymes, which are essential for cleansing and rebuilding the organs and tissues of the body, die when cooked at temperatures higher than 45 degrees Celsius. 


“I think it is accurate to say that by de-evolution we have lost the strength of our digestion. Raw foodism is a step forward – and not back and fortunately our digestive system can be healed over time,” he says. “Common forms of cooking such as steaming, boiling, baking and frying are destructive to the sensitive molecular structure of our food – and most food is cooked at well over 160 degrees Celsius. At such high temperatures,  up to 80 percent of the nutritional value of the food is lost.”


Nutritional therapist, Adele Pelteret concurs; “Cooking – especially frying and char-grilling can create high levels of free-radicals aka ‘the bad guys’, which cause oxidative stress in your body, leading to cellular damage, inflammation and even cancer,” she says. “However, on the flip-side, in some foods, cooking helps to release essential nutrients, not available in its raw form - like lycopene in tomatoes, and, beta-carotene in carrots.”


Is this for fad dieters?
“If people are following a raw food diet for the right reasons such as improving their  health and longevity, or even because of moral beliefs – and are doing it correctly by making sure they get the right mix of nutrients, then this lifestyle can offer tremendous health benefits,” says nutritional therapist, Frances van Reenen. “Unfortunately, with every eating plan where weight loss is a ‘benefit’ as is the case with the raw food diet, many people see it as a rapid slimming gimmick and tend to jump on the dietary band wagon. In this instance, these people may be at risk of developing deficiencies of key nutrients such as B12, vitamin D and iron. You really need to be nutritionally well-informed and committed to this way of eating to gain all the benefits."  


Says nutritional therapist, Hannah Kaye; “The reality is that making the shift to being a raw foodist is not easy – and requires a long-term effort. It has the potential to be a healthy way of life – even if you replace only part of your diet with raw food – and don’t become complacent,” she explains. “However, if you are looking for a quick fix, this is not for you.” 


Raw food, naturally rich in nutrients, means that you feel satisfied faster than you would eating nutrient-deficient foods, which ultimately means you’re consuming less calories. Also, by limiting the amount of calories you eat, less time and energy is spent on digestion, which means you’ll probably have boundless energy to spend elsewhere! 


What’s the downside?
“Our body’s nutritional requirements are unique to each and every one of us – much like your finger print is unique! Some people respond very well to a 80 to 100 percent raw food programme and others don’t,” says Pelteret. “There are also some dangers to be aware of, such as overeating of certain foods, for example acid fruits and dried fruits, can cause dental problems, stomach upsets and blood-sugar imbalances, and overeating on nuts and seeds can also cause digestion difficulties for some people. Nutrients like B12, iron,  zinc, calcium and vitamin D can also become deficient if not eaten knowledgably and carefully.” But in general, she says, most of these issues can be resolved with proper nutrient supplementation, where an expert should be consulted.


Kaye points out that it also might not be the most convenient route to better health. “It requires that you be extremely prepared in terms of what you’re going to eat, but with today’s hectic lifestyle, that isn’t always possible,” she says. “It can also be very limiting in a social context, especially when so much of our socialising today happens around a dinner table.”


Changing dietary habits is often met with resistance from friends and family who prefer you to be as they are, not different.


What’s organic got to do with it?
When going raw, it is essential that you go organic as well, says Yolande van Papendorp, owner of NumNum Whole Food Shop in Knysna.  “My grandpa used to say; ‘if a worm doesn’t want to eat it - why should I?’ and I agree with him fully,” she says. “Organic food is meant to be sun-ripened, free of pesticides, hormones, and chemicals and grown in healthy soil. It should therefore also taste better and be better for you.” Ben Jochanan Getz, permaculturist and managing director of Urban Harvest Edible Gardens agrees. “I take the fact that freshly harvested organic food is often host to small insects, as a great sign – because it means that the food is edible!” he says. “Fruits and vegetables sitting on shelves, in refrigerators, or being cooked progressively, lose their vital colour, fragrance, taste and ultimately, their life energy.” 


According to medical experts and nutritional researchers, sprouts come as close to being a "perfect food" as anything available. The raw food diet requires you to find alternatives to meat and dairy products – and find new ways to supplement your protein intake. “Beans and grains are a time-honoured way to get plenty of protein with low fat, high fibre and no cholesterol,” says Joseph Feigelson of Kitchen Garden, “The most powerful enzyme-rich foods are sprouted seeds, grains and legumes. Sprouting increases their mineral, vitamin and enzyme content as much as 400 times more than non-sprouted seeds. The enzymes in sprouts help our bodies digest nutrients and also help to boost the life-giving activity in our body – and are delicious as part of the raw food diet.”


Organic olive farmer and owner of Blue Sky Organics, Liz Eglington, urges raw foodists to be particularly aware what fruits and vegetables they buy and where they are sourced from. Her twelve years of experience in organic farming have shown her the huge difference in nutritional transfer from soil that is rich, full of microbial life and fully balanced, compared to food that is grown in agro-chemically farmed soil, which is microbially dead, completely out of balance and full of chemicals. “It is the billions of microbial life in the soil that breaks down the nutrients that make them exchangeable or available to the feeding roots of the plants and trees,” she says. “So without this microbial presence in the soil, the nutritional transfer is minimal, if not zero. Agro-chemically grown fruit and vegetables are ‘fed’ agro-chemicals in huge doses – which are watered into the soil and the plant is forced to take up, through its water roots. This happens whilst its feeding roots become totally redundant and in most cases are destroyed by the chemicals and burnt by the sun.”


Is there more to being raw? 
It has been said that rawism goes beyond simple nutrition – and is a way of life that changes behaviour. So, does this mean a generation of weirdoes will emerge from this movement? Peter laughs at the idea. “Every religious text refers to food as a gateway to higher spiritual connectedness, and this is a commonly reported effect of a largely raw diet,” he says. “When your body is clean on the inside and fed with the correct nutrition, all the bodily systems begin to function properly. This is clearly seen in the mental effects, where thoughts are clearer and the choices one makes reflects connectedness and thoughtfulness.”


Women planning to conceive should also take a second look at the raw food diet, but should embark on it before falling pregnant, says independent midwife and Aware-Parenting facilitator, Marianne Littlejohn. “A raw food organic diet during the pregnancy ensures that mother and baby draw the correct nutrients from the diet and will not gain excessive weight,” she says. “On average, women gain 10 to15 kilograms during pregnancy! More than a 15 kilogram weight gain may be excessive and can lead to larger babies and more difficult births.  A raw food diet will help a pregnant woman stabilise her weight gain and increase her health and radiance during pregnancy.” 


Littlejohn also credits the raw food diet as a way to teach the unborn baby healthy eating habits from an early stage in life. “The baby will grow into a child who gravitates towards healthy foodstuffs and avoid sweets and other toxic foods.” 


Ok, so how do I start?
Peter Daniel’s advice to aspiring rawists is to start slowly. “Gradually increase the amount of raw food and decrease the amount of cooked food you eat,” he says. “Just by adding in a small handful of goji berries or cacao nibs to your daily intake, can change a dismal diet into a promising one,” he says. “Taking responsibility for your health is essential to success! It’s a path that will bring you closer to your true self, without any hazy gauze blocking out your authenticity. Raw food presents you with a whole new world that will satisfy you on so many levels.”


Chocolate that’s good for you… honestly?
You could be forgiven to think you could only imagine the possibility of a guilt-free chocolate that doesn’t land on your hips the moment you put it to your lips, but finally there is an alternative out there to satisfy even the most hardened of chocolate-lovers: raw chocolate – totally organic and sugar, dairy and GM-free. “We hand-make our bonbons with the finest raw organic cacao, rich in magnesium and which is loaded with anti-oxidants. To sweeten the taste, we only use organic agave nectar, which has a low-GI and is 1.7 times sweeter than regular sugar, so we use much less,” says Anthony and Michael, owners of Honest Chocolate based in Cape Town. “It is our passion to make chocolates rich in nutritional value and enzymes, which is devoid in the average chocolate bar. Our chocolate, simply put, is amazingly good for you!”


Rawists report the following advantages of the raw food diet:
  • Increased energy levels
  • Stronger nails and glossier hair
  • Clear skin 
  • Reduced PMS symptoms
  • Improved eyesight
  • Strengthened immune system
  • Better digestion
  • Weight loss and stabilisation
  • Improved taste
  • Emotional balance and mental clarity
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Smaller carbon footprint
Celebs in the raw
  • “I noticed that when I began feeding my family high life-force food, especially organic food, their energy shifted. My two sons became sweeter and more loving, and developed an awareness of their physical and emotional well-being. Now that they’re adults living on their own, they continue to eat healthfully.” - Doreen Virtue, internationally acclaimed spiritual doctor of psychology.
  • “I just think that we're not getting nutrition from the foods we're eating because we're cooking it, we're processing it and we're radiating it. We're not feeding our bodies, and the problem is we are hungry all the time. We're hungry. Everybody stops at 4:00 in the afternoon and eats candy bars. You choose the foods you eat, and you need to choose the correct food, and understand how this food goes into your body. I eat raw food.” - Carol Alt, Supermodel
  • “I completed a 38-day green juice fast - It was great, I really got charged from it. I definitely felt my electro-magnetic field expanding… My whole journey with food started as an energetic quest. Once I was vegan, I felt like I had a lot more energy and then I turned to raw foods. Sometimes I go on a cooked-food bender, and I really feel different.” – Woody Harrelson, Actor
  • “I love swimming in the ocean and appreciating the warm, clean, blue water. My idea of paradise is a sandy beach with fresh fruit growing all over the area. I love mango and other seasonal fruits and vegetables. I love the We Care Spa in Palm Springs, where we fast, do yoga, have nutritional classes and rest our minds. It changes my spirit.” - Alicia Silverstone, Actor
‘Life is designed raw. Out of trillions of organisms that were alive at the beginning of time, are alive now and will be alive at the end of time, only one tampers with its food. You do not want to bet against those kind of odds.' – David Wolfe, Sunfood Diet Success System


USEFUL CONTACTS:
  • Birthrite Midwifery Services, Marianne Littlejohn, Independent Midwife and Aware Parenting Facilitator, +2782-498-7622
  • Blue Sky Organics, blueskyorganics.co.za, +2721-715-1953
  • Honest Chocolate, honestchocolate.co.za, +2782-829-3877 / 082-736-3889
  • Kitchen Garden, kitchengarden.co.za, +2782-820-9646
  • Kwalapa – Organic Wholefoods Store, Restaurant and Deli, kwalapa.com, +2721-687-9314
  • NumNum, Knysna Whole Food Shop, barnies.co.za, +2744-302-5752
  • SA Association for Nutritional Therapy, saant.org.za: Adele Pelteret, Nutritional Therapist, lifestylenutrition.co.za, +2721-531-3589, Frances van Reenen, Nutritional Therapist, +2779-999-6821, Hannah Kaye, Nutritional Therapist, hannahkaye.co.za, +2783-601-1750 
  • Soaring Free Superfoods, superfoods.co.za, 086-100-0976, +2721-702-4940
  • Sprouts Kitchen, sproutskitchen.co.za, +2712-346-4369 
  • Urban Harvest Edible Gardens, urbanharvest.co.za, +2772-475-2977
Author: Charlene Yared-West. Published in longevity Magazine, May 2010, p. 82.

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