If you believe the menu, the most famous dish at The Sunflower Center, the café and community center run by Lydia’s Organics in Petaluma, California, is the soup—the Famous Raw Green Soup, a cold, refreshing blend of cucumber, kale, avocado, celery, dulse seaweed and about five different herbs.
Raw soup may sound like an oxymoron, but it works. The flavors seem more complex, more interesting and more easily distinguishable. They jump out. Lydia’s, and its founder, Lydia Kindheart, specialize in raw, organic, vegan food. But especially raw; Kindheart, who eats a diet of 98 percent raw food, calls it “live,” implying that to cook food kills it, destroys its ability to grow and create life. “When I eat more raw foods I’m more energetic, and I can think more clearly,” she says. “I just have more access to me—more oxygen; my body functions better.”
Kindheart isn’t just concerned with the way the food tastes. That’s almost cursory to what the food does. The blends are less about how the flavors mix; Lydia’s menu focuses on the benefits their combination can offer the body. Cucumber cleanses the kidneys, dissolving uric acid. Seaweed offers minerals and silica. Celery is alkaline, which counters acidity. The kale is full of vitamin K, calcium and chlorophyll. The whole thing is blended to break down the cell walls, making it easy for the body to assimilate the food.
The community Kindheart is building—her line includes food sold at retail outlets throughout the U.S. and Canada—is one of the leaders in a growing international movement toward raw food. The idea, in part, is that cooking destroys the enzymes in food that help us process it, and our bodies have to supplement that loss with our own enzymes. We’re depleting our reserves of energy even as we pour more in. Though they may often be dismissed as nutritional extremists, raw foodists have a lot to teach us about healthy food and eating’s effects on our bodies. Fifteen-year-old Tom Watkins is one of these raw foodists. Thanks to two widely discussed documentaries by filmmaker Anneloek Sollart, Raw and Rawer, Tom became the face of the raw food movement in the Netherlands. In one scene from the movie, Francis Kenter, Tom’s mother, prepares a wrap for her son. Not a wrap as we know it, with a flour tortilla, chicken, beans and melted cheese; instead, she takes a large leaf of lettuce and fills it with some pureed green vegetables, grated red beet and carrot, and mixed sprouts. Tom folds the lettuce leaf in half and takes a bite. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It sounds like a rabbit gnawing away.
Tom is the first and only child in the Netherlands to have lived exclusively on raw food for such a long time (he’s been doing it since the age of 5). He does not eat any meat, fish, sugar, dairy or bread. A pediatrician alerted the Dutch authorities to his situation when she became concerned that Tom was not receiving enough nutrients. According to the doctor, his growth curve resembled the development rate of a malnourished child in Africa. Child protection services threatened to remove Tom from his mother’s care because his mother was homeschooling him without authorization. That was ridiculous, Kenter felt. Just look at what children eat at school: vending machine candy, soft drinks or greasy fast food. Traditional school was no fun for Tom; his classmates teased him about the dozens of apples he ate every week.
Popular raw food guru David Wolfe—nicknamed “Avocado”—gives Tom and his mother a pep talk in the movie. “If you’re strong enough to handle it,” he says to the boy, “your example is powerful enough to change the whole direction of this country.” Wolfe believes that one of the biggest problems in the Western world is that we do not eat enough vegetables; he views Tom as a shining, veggie-scarfing example. He does advise Tom’s mother to give him butter made from unpasteurized raw milk occasionally, adding some fats and proteins to his diet; the pediatrician had given her similar advice. Kenter, who also eats only raw food, disregards his suggestion.
You have to hand it to the raw foodists. It’s only logical for vegetables and fruits to be the foundation of our diets. They contain vital nutrients, enzymes and fluids. If you look at what an average Western family eats for dinner, you’ll conclude that many people are missing out on a lot. Well, except for…the raw foodists. The minerals, vitamins and fiber they consume in large quantities stabilize their blood sugar levels and keep their intestines in tip-top shape. Raw foodists also leave out almost all foods considered unhealthy: fast food, saturated fats, salt and refined grains and sugars.
But why stop heating food? Where did that idea come from? According to David Wolfe and company, cooked food is poisonous, theoretically leading to the formation of a layer of mucous in our intestinal tracts that causes us to fall ill. Lydia Kindheart also mentions the importance of chlorophyll, the substance that makes plants look green. The pigment occurs naturally in chloroplasts, which play a key role in photosynthesis, the process of collecting sunlight and transforming it into energy. “It’s sun energy, but it also brings oxygen into the system,” Kindheart says. “When you cook greens, you can see the chlorophyll literally turning a darker, brownish color. So it loses its chlorophyll. When you cook foods, you destroy the life force itself.”
Kindheart is short and friendly, with long gray pigtails swept back and braided together. She’s not preaching a gospel; she’s just opening a door. Ask her about the benefits of raw and she’ll tell you, but her customers are more likely to be won over just by trying it. An easy intro: the kale chips, slowly dehydrating in her kitchen, which smell strongly of herb du provence—an enticing mix of thyme, lavender and parsley. Everything is made of energy, Kindheart continues. Even people are energetic conductors; a significant percentage of the human body is made of water, and that conducts electricity. “If you incorporate live foods that are vibrant and carry their own electrical current, you charge your whole being,” she says.
Author and foodie Michael Pollan writes in Cooked, his most recent title, that a significant chunk of human development happened thanks to cooking. In prehistoric times, our ancestors mainly ate fruits and plants. However, cooking breaks down the cell walls, allowing the body to digest plants more easily and absorb more nutrients. For example, lycopene, a carotenoid, can be absorbed much more easily from cooked tomato than from fresh tomato. Cooking food also makes it possible to eat more. From the moment we gained access to fire, people suddenly had a lot more calories to fuel their day-to-day lives. In interviews, Pollan has occasionally stated that he’s not fond of extreme diets, like raw food, but he has raised another interesting point: The meaning of “raw” can include processing that performs a function similar to cooking. Raw foodists depend heavily on blenders and juicers. Without machines to process their food, they would never be able to consume enough nutrients to survive.
Natalia Rose, a raw food enthusiast and nutritionist from New York, is eager to abolish a number of myths. First, raw food is not tasteless or boring. Raw foodists are pioneers in finding new ways to prepare food. They brought fermentation back into style and frequently use nuts, seeds, sprouts and beans in food. (See the boxes for two recipes by Rose.)
Another myth, according to Rose, is the idea that you’re only doing it right if you switch to 100 percent raw food. “Many people who start eating a raw food diet become so religious about the raw aspect that they don’t really get the point,” she says. “The whole point is not to eat raw only. The point is that the organism gets clean cells, and is conducting life force energy. It’s not meant to vilify cooked food.” Rose explains that she’d prefer to eat steamed spinach to a bag of macadamia nuts—many raw foodists love nuts—because nuts are particularly hard to digest. “Good raw food comes into the body, gives it life force and doesn’t leave any residue. But just because it’s raw doesn’t mean that it’s life-generating.”
Food has dominated Rose’s life since her teens; she struggled with bulimia and anorexia from age 13. Walking through a bookshop in her twenties, she stumbled across a book that changed everything for her: The Raw Life by chef Paul Nison. She learned about the raw diet and about colonic cleansing, which Nison argued was necessary to clear residual mucous and other wastes from the intestines. After reading the book, she studied the raw food lifestyle and gradually started adding more raw food to her diet. She now has a flourishing nutritionist practice in Manhattan and has written books on healthy food, such as The Raw Food Detox Diet.
According to Rose, “raw” can be equated with “water-containing plant food.” Water-containing food is living food, she explains. Once foods are heated above about 110 degrees Fahrenheit (48 Celsius), enzymes in the liquid start to break down. Enzymes are proteins that work as catalysts, facilitating a wide array of biochemical processes, including the conversion of food into energy inside the body. “We were born with the capacity to produce a great deal of enzymes and started life with a huge enzyme ‘bank account,’” Rose explains. However, if you eat food that contains almost no enzymes, and you need enzymes to digest that very same food, you develop an enzyme imbalance. Raw fruits and vegetables contain living enzymes, so it’s almost as if they feed their own digestive process without requiring the body to contribute its own enzymes.
Some scientists disagree. They argue that the body can easily produce its own enzymes and that most enzymes break down when they come into contact with stomach acid and therefore do not play an active role in digestion. Regardless, it is indisputable that enzymes are broken down when food is cooked. That fact was enough for two pioneers in enzyme science—Edward Howell in the U.S. and Hiromi Shinya in Japan—to conduct further research into the role that these complex proteins play. They concluded that someone who eats large quantities of cooked food has an overworked, enlarged pancreas (the organ that excretes the most important digestive enzymes). The result, as they describe it, is fatigue, anxiety and skin disorders. “It’s important to keep your enzyme bank account filled,” Rose concludes.
A normal day for Rose looks something like this: She never eats in the morning. Around noon, she drinks green juice made from leafy greens, celery, apple, lemon and ginger. In the afternoon, she eats a watermelon or some other fresh fruit, followed around 6:30 by a few carrots and cherry tomatoes. For dinner, she has a large salad or soup, with something sweet for dessert, like raw ice cream, possibly accompanied by a glass of wine. She occasionally eats something cooked, like steamed vegetables with sweet potato and an avocado salad. A small serving of fish or a cube of raw-milk cheese is also fine as a snack.
Rose keeps a list of foods that should not be combined because they form a very complex mixture in your stomach and require different digestive methods, enzymes and digestive juices, like gastric and pancreatic juices. For example, she says, a cracker with avocado may exit the stomach within three to four hours. A cracker with egg, on the other hand, may take as long as eight hours to pass through the stomach. “After enjoying a quick exit combination, your body can get back to work strengthening and rejuvenating itself, whereas a slow exit combination will draw all your energy to your stomach for hours,” she explains.
It took Rose years to transition to this approach to food. It’s absolutely unnecessary for everyone to start eating 100 percent raw food, she says; the point is for you to feel good. In her books, she groups eaters into five categories, all of whom can add raw foods to their diets at their own pace. The transition from a Western diet based on lots of grains, salt, sugar and fat to a diet containing more raw foods requires a certain degree of precision, Rose explains. If you switch too quickly, you may experience withdrawal symptoms that make you feel distinctly unhappy.
Journalist Roxane Catz has first-hand experience in going cold turkey with raw food. Years ago, when the raw diet was first becoming popular, she was contacted by two raw foodists who wanted to counsel her through the transition to a raw diet. The deal was that she would write about it if the diet worked well for her. It went well at first: She lost a lot of weight, felt fantastic and had much more energy. She was also surprised to discover that the raw diet wasn’t boring at all; it included things like apple pie (with a crust made of nuts and dates), spaghetti (made from zucchini) and lasagna.
After a few weeks, however, she started dreaming of juicy steaks dancing before her eyes. She also noticed that she was becoming less sociable. “I started feeling really hyper and detached, almost as if I were in a lucid dream,” she says. “I was growing very thin; I really needed food that could ground me again.” She went on to write a book, Rox Raw!, about her experience, interviewing experts about the raw diet. She came to the conclusion that a fully raw diet was not for her.“That highly dogmatic approach isn’t good for anyone,” she concludes. “It becomes a kind of religion to them; it goes too far.” Various studies have shown that long-term adherence to a raw diet can lead to Vitamin B12 deficiencies and tooth damage. In children, it can also lead to delayed growth, as seen in Tom Watkins.
“People like Tom and his mother Francis, we need them,” Catz says. “They’re the activists that set the food revolution in motion. You always have people who go overboard and bring about change.” In her own opinion, she thinks what Tom eats is too extreme, but she does think that Kenter and the other raw foodists, like David Wolfe, have an important point to make. “Consider carefully what you put into your body. Don’t eat anything packaged, and don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.” Raw food is very inspiring, Catz adds. “You really learn fun ways to integrate fruits and vegetables into your diet.”
She also believes the food industry is out of control and only focused on money. That’s why she sees something extremely valuable in the raw food movement—a return to pure foods. She emphasizes that it’s never good to cook something into obliteration, like cafeteria food or barbecues. “There are no nutrients left in there,” she says. “Many people don’t really know what healthy food is anymore.” She quotes American author, farmer and culture critic Wendell Berry: “People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.” It’s time for a radical change, she believes. Her advice to anyone who is curious about raw foods: Try it for a while and see how your mind and body respond. Eat a varied diet, and feel free to eat something warm once in a while. “It doesn’t have to be so black and white.”
Q&A with Matt Monarch
Matt Monarch, an American living in Ecuador, is the founder of the popular online raw food store The Raw Food World and a raw food teacher who has been 100 percent raw for 16 years. To go on such an extreme diet, he admits, “you have to be a little crazy.”
Why did you start eating raw food?
“In 1998, I read a book by Norman Walker, Become Younger, about what the Western diet does to people. At that time, I wasn’t really happy with my life. I was living in Santa Monica, had a job at MTV Networks. I was trying to figure my life out. In Become Younger, I read how refined sugar damages the body and how bad processed foods are. I learned how people healed of diseases when they eliminated those foods. I was blown away. So I started eating raw foods only.”
What was it like?
“It created some kind of happiness inside of me. I suddenly felt so clear and vibrant. It opened me up. I was on a high. It catapulted me into a spiritual lifestyle because I started to read about things like meditation and yoga. I also lost 20 to 30 pounds in three weeks. People thought I was crazy and weird, they were worried for my health. I was going through a difficult detoxing process for years, when my body was getting rid of all the waste material. I was often hungry, had a headache and I had a runny nose all the time.”
That sounds rough; other raw foodists didn’t tell me about that!
“Well, if you don’t do a 100 percent raw food diet, you don’t go through all these detox phases. It’s a bit unhealthy, mentally. You have to be a little crazy, because you’ll have to say goodbye to your life as you were used to living it. That’s why I usually recommend people start with a ‘whole foods’ diet, leaving all the processed foods out but including foods like animal protein, brown rice, soy milk and whole grains. Really, you can be very healthy on this transition diet without taking it to such an extreme.”
What does a regular day of eating look like for you?
“After eating three raw food meals a day for years, my body requires less food. Right now, I usually drink vegetable juices and coconut water all day, and then I eat one solid meal—usually a big salad, with vegetables, sometimes avocado and lots of nut butter.”
Looking back on your decision 16 years ago, would you still “go raw”?
“Absolutely. But I think I should have been less dogmatic about it in the beginning. For me, it’s a way to live life more fully. It opened my eyes.” | Find out more: therawfoodworld.com
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