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Rah, Rah, RAW

Count locals among the masses rallying against cooked food

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I am watching a video of a woman massaging kale.

The kale does seem relaxed, nestled as it is in olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt, while being expertly manipulated by raw foods author Brigitte Mars. She describes the technique as cooking without heat.

The result is "massaged kale," which can be found alongside such other raw food items as "sprouted red quinoa" and "seaweed ménage a trois" on the menu at Organic Orbit, a Boulder restaurant for which Mars serves as "Raw Food Ambassador."

Raw food diets aren't exactly new. (They do, after all, predate the discovery of fire.) And while their current revival won't be putting the South Beach Diet franchise out of business any time soon, the movement is making inroads into the mainstream, thanks in part to celebrity endorsements from the likes of supermodel Carol Alt and actors Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. Pop star Jason Mraz has gone so far as to name his upcoming national tour after Café Gratitude, a franchise that now has four raw food restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In fact, raw food restaurants are springing up not just in progressive enclaves like Boulder and San Francisco, but in major cities across the country — although Colorado Springs, as you may have noticed, isn't one of them. But the Pikes Peak Library District does carry more than a dozen titles promoting the raw food phenomenon, most of which are currently checked out.

And then there's that surest sign of growing popularity: the inevitable backlash. Catching Fire by primatologist Richard Wrangham hit bookshelves last month, bearing the subtitle How Cooking Made Us Human. The book opens with a chapter critiquing the raw food movement, then goes on to argue that the advent of cooked food led not only to the shrinking of the digestive tract, but also the growth of the brain. Despite the title, Wrangham doesn't go so far as to call raw foodists inhuman, but he does argue that the diet can lead to unhealthy weight loss and sexual dysfunction.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, raw foodists — generally defined as anyone whose diet ranges from 75 to 100 percent uncooked food — contend that cooking kills off enzymes that can facilitate healthy digestion, increase energy and stave off disease. There's even a feature documentary, Supercharge Me: 30 Days Raw (available from neoflix.com), which serves as a kind of counterpart of Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me. The 2007 film, which won awards at festivals you've probably never heard of, recounts filmmaker Jenna Norwood's month-long experiment eating nothing but uncooked foods. One of the motivating factors for Norwood was to fit into a Las Vegas showgirl outfit in time for Halloween.

44 years and counting

Vivian Rice's interest in raw food is considerably less frivolous than Norwood's. The founder of Colorado Springs' Wild Rice Nutrition, which she operates with her daughter Beverly, Rice recommends raw foodism to many of her clients. And she does so from a position of experience, having herself maintained a raw food diet for more than half her life.

Nutritionist Rice says even flesh eaters need to consume raw and green foods. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Nutritionist Rice says even flesh eaters need to consume raw and green foods.

"I've been doing this for 44 years, and I happen to be 81," says Rice. So does she think the two are, um, somehow related? "The fact that I'm 81 and the way I eat? You're damn right I do."

A former nurse who now teaches participatory raw food workshops — her next one is set for June 27 — Rice contends that no one should undertake a vegetarian, vegan or raw food diet without first consulting a professional nutritionist.

And that's not all: "Equipment is critical when one is on raw food," says Rice, who relies on a food dehydrator and a Vita-Mix blender that she describes as "one of the most exquisite items to have in a kitchen because it does about everything but think for you. All this kind of equipment is necessary."

Rice rejects the notion that getting adequate protein is a problem with raw food diets. She gets hers, she says, from chia seeds, ground flax seeds, hemp seeds — "it's not the same plant that you smoke" — and a variety of nuts.

While vegetarianism is prevalent among raw foodists, there are some who dine farther up the food chain. It's a unique movement whose participants can range from people who won't touch animal flesh to avid sushi fans and even a few unusual souls who consume meat in what Rice calls "its most on-its-legs form."

Of course there are some fairly well-known examples of the latter: Think circus geeks and fans of steak tartare. And then contact Dr. Bernadette Albanese, medical director of the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment, for an extended lecture on everything that common sense already tells you about the perils of raw meat.

On the other hand, dogs find raw meat to be both tasty and nutritious. Colorado Springs All Breed Rescue advocates a raw food diet for pets, as does Australian veterinarian Ian Billinghurst, widely known for his decidedly meaty BARF diet. BARF, you'll be glad to know, stands for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" and stems from the belief that wolves out in the wild do not cook their food. True enough, a YouTube search turns up no evidence to the contrary. (End of canine diet digression.)

As a vegan, Rice says she "can't bear the thought" of eating any kind of meat, raw or cooked: "But even if you eat animal flesh three times a day," she says, "it's required by Vivian Rice that you eat something raw and green with it. Because you need live food that has live enzymes, and enzymes are what makes metabolism work."

Eternal youth

While raw food may be gaining a foothold in the popular consciousness, it's still a long way from finding acceptance in the mainstream medical community.

"There really is no research to show that you have to go to that extreme in order to be healthy," says Beth Jauquet of the Colorado Dietetic Association. "My job as a registered dietitian is to make sure that somebody is meeting all of their nutrient needs. And so when somebody comes to me and is interested in some sort of fad diet — whether it be a raw food diet or any of the other fads that are out there — my job is to break that down and say, 'Is this diet providing you with all of the nutrients that you need, and none of them in extreme excess?'"

In her Denver-area practice, Jauquet says her patients who do attempt a raw food diet don't stick with it: "It's marketed as the key to eternal youth and the healthiest way to eat in the world, [but] I think when you look at the raw food diet, it's really, really challenging to be able to get all of the nutrients that you would need to be eating in a day. And that's not just breaking it down to individual vitamins, but also the macronutrients like protein and fat.

"Sure, it's going to provide you with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, which are all very good things," Jauquet adds. "But if you did this for a long period of time, then you can look forward to chronic nutrient deficiencies, like a B-12 deficiency, which can present itself in terms of fatigue."

Despite her upbringing, Bekah Stockwell has no further use for frozen lasagna. - CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
  • Despite her upbringing, Bekah Stockwell has no further use for frozen lasagna.

Even in alternative healing circles, a strict raw food diet is by no means universally accepted. Sara Carson, a naturopathic doctor here in Colorado Springs, specializes in the Ayurvedic tradition, which comes from India and has been popularized in the West by doctor and writer Deepak Chopra. A raw food diet, she says, "would be beneficial in the Ayurvedic model for certain body types" but would be "the worst possible way to go" for others.

"I usually do not recommend raw food diets," says Carson. "If you come from a really standard Western diet and go immediately to the raw foods diet, your digestion will not be able to handle it. So if someone went from eating McDonald's and Burger King, and just suddenly went to raw foods, they would get sick. Their body would detox too quickly and their digestion would not be able to handle the raw foods. But if you little by little move them towards that, it could be beneficial in some cases."

Still, even a gradual transition from fast-food super-sizing to full-on supercharging may not be advisable.

"You pretty much always have to look at diet as one of the key influences on health," suggests Carson. "But the same diet isn't going to be right for everyone."

Fast vs. food

Bekah Stockwell grew up eating what she describes as "typical Southern country food — entirely too much fried food and lots of frozen lasagna." A pink-haired 22-year-old who rides a matching fur-covered bike, Stockwell works at an Asian restaurant here in town, serving up curries and other cooked dishes that bear little resemblance to the trail mix, bananas and raw crackers she brings to work with her.

"I'm definitely going up to 100 percent raw," she says, "because I really don't like to eat anything cooked."

Stockwell embarked on her raw food sojourn two months ago, after reading and re-reading a book on the subject. In the beginning, she'd have a few bites of a dish from the restaurant and then take the rest home to her roommate.

The diet, she says, has gone on to produce measurable results. After a bike accident earlier this spring, she's convinced raw foods helped her heal faster. She also believes staying away from cooked food is helping her fend off the impending allergy season.

"I've also lost a lot of weight," she adds, "but I'm still healthy. I don't have a scale, but I've lost roughly three or four pant sizes."

Stockwell isn't alone. Back in February, a Colorado Springs Raw Food Meetup Group was organized by Deb Dewey. Within its first month, the group had 25 members, a number that's since risen to 38.

Among them is the 26-year-old author of "Jessica's Raw Journey" (jessicasrawjourney.blogspot.com), a blog that started up last November when the writer first switched to raw foods. She's expressed complaints along the way — including a "weird craving for cheese pizza" on her third day — but has otherwise maintained her enthusiasm through an apartment relocation and a trip home for the Christmas holiday.

In March, Jessica told her readers that, after a year of being unemployed, she had decided to join the Army. She also explained that she was temporarily limiting her diet to green smoothies and juice in order to help meet the weight requirements for enlistment. In her most recent post, on May 22, she admits to feeling "like a truck hit me" after beginning another fast — or, as she puts it, feast — but adds that the feeling soon passed.

"I am planning to do this until the end of the month, but probably more," she reports. "I can honestly see myself feasting until the middle of next month."

While they may offer a better selection of raw food than, say, an Army mess hall, Colorado Springs restaurants aren't exactly a raw foodist's paradise. Stockwell says she doesn't eat out a lot, and when she does, it tends to be at the Souper Salad down the street from her workplace. Rice sees no shortage of options, though they often require special requests — leaving the chicken off a salad, getting the noodle dish at Saigon Café without the noodles.

Fear of a green planet

Farley McDonough is the co-owner of Adam's Mountain Café in Manitou, which, as the area restaurant that most caters to vegetarians, would also be the most likely to offer raw food dishes. Indeed, she says, Adam's had planned on adding a raw appetizer to the menu this summer. But she has since backed away from the idea.

"It's so labor-intensive, you know?" she says. "I mean, it's just a really difficult thing to try to mass-produce in a dehydrator. You'd have to be really set up for it, I think. And not only that, you've gotta sell it."

Even when it comes to catering, McDonough says, attempts to introduce raw food dishes have failed to get off the ground. Last fall, at the Taste of Manitou, her restaurant presented the Cliff House, which hosts the annual fund-raiser, with the idea of a raw dish consisting of Thai, Japanese and Chinese salads on a single plate.

"It was really beautiful and very colorful, and they shot it down. They said, 'No way, we don't want it,'" she remembers. "And we were so bummed out, because a lot of our customers go to that event, and we thought that would be a way to expose people to it. And of course we were really confident that it would taste good."

More recently, Adam's did the catering for a number of vegans, who invited her to be creative and do whatever she wanted with the menu. McDonough says the resulting raw food dish met with more or less the same response: "It freaked them out and they said, 'Oh, please don't do that.'"

In other words, it may be a while before Colorado Springs catches up to West Coast and European fixations with raw food — if ever. McDonough says that she and her husband consistently found raw food on the menu during a recent trip to California, and the couple may yet end up offering a raw appetizer this coming fall. But even then, she notes, the fact that it's raw would probably be left off the menu.

"I don't know why people are so afraid of it," she says. "Maybe it would get a better response if they changed the name."

bill@csindy.com

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