The end of cooking?

Is a raw food diet really the key to health, happiness and a long life?

By Lynda Strahl

Raisin cashew salad

Photo by Cindy Jockers (Cindalou's Kitchen Blues)

I was recently invited to dinner by my new neighbors, Douglas and Marcia. After assuring me that the menu would accord with my vegan principles, they proceeded to dish up the most delicious and unusual meal to pass my lips in a very long time.

For openers, they served a delectable chilled watercress soup. It was creamy and flavorsome, and I can taste it still. Then came the main attraction, a mock meat-loaf, made of a gorgeous mixture of portabello mushrooms and almonds. The supporting cast consisted of some interesting looking vegetables, one of which I took at first to be spaghetti but which turned out to be made of shreds of butternut squash with a light garlic dressing. Believe me, it tasted a good deal better than it sounds.

There was also a scrumptious salad that would have made a satisfying meal in its own right. And for dessert, my hosts served a grade A apple and walnut cobbler vastly superior to anything of that genre I have ever made myself.

It was only when I was sitting back, feeling replete from this splendid repast, that the truth sank in. Everything we had eaten had been raw. Not a single item had ever made the acquaintance of a skillet, saucepan, roasting tin or dutch oven. What's more, it emerged that my hosts only ever ate raw food. They eschewed all forms of boiling, broiling, frying, roasting, baking, stewing and related activities.

Douglas and Marcia, it seemed, were raw foodist. Or, as they preferred to be known, living foodists.

Why would anyone want to eat like that?

It didn't take much prompting to get Marcia to expound the thinking behind this unusual regime. "It's quite simple," she explained. "Cooking destroys or degrades most of the nutrients in the food, especially protein. Most of it is either completely destroyed or at least rendered useless by prolonged exposure to heat. Cooking also robs your food of its enzymes, plus most of its vitamins. Going raw is the only way to get the full nutritional benefit of what you eat."

This gave me pause. What she said seemed to make sense. But how did she explain all those folk like me, who take care to eat a sensible and balanced diet, who manage to get our full ration of nutrients, and do so without shunning the stove. If a raw food diet is so wonderful, how come I for one manage to keep healthy without it?

"It's a matter of degree", chipped in Douglas. "You're healthy because you are a vegan. Think how much healthier you would be if you were a living-food vegan."

"And then there's the enzyme question," said Marcia, warming to her thesis. "The fact is that every type of food naturally contains exactly the right mix of enzymes needed for that food to be digested. Heating food above a certain temperature kills the enzymes, which mean that our bodies have to generate the enzymes they need to digest the food in question.

"But the body is simply not equipped to produce the exact combination of enzymes you need to digest every kind of food. So the stuff takes longer to break down; it clogs up your intestinal tract and it takes longer to pass through your system.

"There's also a belief that we only produce a finite amount of enzymes in our lifetime, and the faster we run out of them, the more rapid the aging process will be. So there you are: Avoiding cooked food will keep you young."

She certainly scored a home run with that last point. I knew my hosts were both approaching the swamplands of middle age, yet they looked no older than the average college sophomore. If only the same could be said for this humble reporter.

In full flow now, Marcia went on to talk about how cooking also clobbers many of the vitamins contained in our daily fare. About half of B vitamins are lost as a result of heat, as is some 80 percent of Vitamin C. It's true that in most cases, you would need to cook the foods at high temperatures or for long periods before you lose that much of the good stuff, but unfortunately that happens quite often with the typical dishes most of us throw down our gullets.

But wait, there's worse

As if all this wasn't depressing enough, Douglas then went on to say that cooking can actually make food toxic. "Heating fats is especially bad because it generates free radicals, and you know how nasty they are." (For those of you who don't, free radicals are bad guys that are thought to increase the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and age-related illnesses.) "Cooked food can also lead to a weakening of the immune system and therefore an inability to fight infections," he said enthusiastically.

"There's another point Douglas forget to mention," said Marcia, with the air of one poised to deliver the clinching argument. "Washing the dishes is a heck of a lot easier with a living food diet. We never have to contend with large oven dishes loaded with burnt-on grease."

So what are we to do?

I came away from my neighbors' house still feeling good about the meal I had eaten. But I was uncertain about the arguments they had expounded so fervently.

Ten years ago I struggled hard to become a vegetarian. It was a radical move for me, and one which needed a lot of adjustment. Six years later, I went through a similar period of turmoil when I turned vegan. Douglas and Marcia were half-way to convincing me of the justice of their cause. But I felt that becoming a living foodist would be one lifestyle change too many for me.

Since that evening, I have read up on the subject and talked to people who know more about these things than I do. But I'm still not fully convinced.

One friend, a professional nutritionist, told me that raw food regimes do tend to be healthy, but mainly because they are generally low in fat and high in fiber. But so is a balanced vegan diet like mine. My friend went on to say that the benefits of going raw are partly offset by the fact that it limits the types of foods you eat and deprives you of certain important nutrients. He singled out iron and calcium as being problematical in that regard.

And then there's the question of variety. Douglas and Marcia are both excellent cooks, and could probably turn a clump of nettles into a tasty dish. In fact, I feel sure they have. But what about mere culinary mortals like me? I doubt that I could serve up appetizing lunches and dinners day after day in a stove-free environment. And think how much worse it would be for a living food home-maker, with a house full of hungry living food young ones to keep fed and happy.

It's true that there are some excellent raw food recipe books on the market, full of ideas for tasty uncooked meals. (One that I can particularly recommend is Renee Loux Underkoffler's Living Cuisine. As well as around 300 recipes, it has lots of useful advice about raw food preparation and techniques. For details of this and some others recommendations, see the panel on the right.) But I'm not sure that even these diverse books would provide enough recipes to keep my taste buds happy in the longer term.

Meet me part way

It seems to me that a sensible compromise is in order here. I'm not prepared to give up cooked food completely, but I have resolved to increase the proportion of raw food in my diet. That seems like an easy thing to do. After all, I have no problem in choosing a side salad in place of a cooked vegetable to accompany my meal. Why not take that idea just a little further?

For example, you can continue to eat soups and stews, but how about adding a sprinkling of shredded carrot, chopped broccoli or sliced mushrooms just before serving up? Or what about boiling and mashing your potatoes as you have always done, but mashing in a handful of alfalfa sprouts before it reaches the table? And of course you can add nuts and seeds to just about anything edible.

While most us would find it too difficult to go completely raw, we can surely all benefit by finding ways of eating more raw foods whenever the opportunity arises. Just remember to take it gradually and keep it balanced. Above all, there's no need to go cold turkey on the cooked stuff.

Lynda Strahl is a freelance journalist, based in Seattle.

October 2004

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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