Raw, adjective: 1. uncooked, as articles of food: a raw carrot.
I know, I know: you're thinking, seriously, Rach - what the hell is this whole weird "raw food" thing anyway? After enough people asked me that, I figured I'd sit down and write a little blurb about what exactly "raw" means. (And thought if I threw in a random half-naked pic, you might actually read it. Whoohoo for implied nudity.)
Usually when people ask, their eyes get a little glassy, their tones a bit mystified. I know that it probably sounds a) freakish, b) very fringe, or c) like just another wanky hippie granola California thing. So, if you're at all interested in knowing what I'm talking about when I say "raw," read on. If the whole thing bores you, well, then, go eat a cheesesteak, and we'll call it good.
What follows is a melange of a lot of the reading I've done over the last several years, so you'll find various influences here. I don't pretend to be a scientist, so I'll phrase it in lay(wo)man's terms and assume that if you want more detailed background info and/or specific studies to which I refer, you'll just ask me. I'm always game to answer questions. And I'm still very much learning, myself, too.
YOU'RE A KID FROM THE LAND OF BEEF. WTF?
I've always been interested in the politics of food, not only in terms of ethics and grand global schemes, but also in terms of more microcosmic levels of interpersonal relations and how food plays a role in them. So for several years now I've been buried in research on holistic nutrition, anti-establishment healing and just general hippie-granola wanky vegetarian shit. Being in San Francisco has, of course, been a boon to that, and such a blessing on many levels, in that the Bay Area is such a progressive place in terms of organic and regional produce, healthy lifestyles and just a general foodie mentality. But at some point, I really began to see the various elements of that theoretical work coming together in the form of what we put into our bodies, and why, and how that affects our daily lives (and the future).
I was first introduced to the "raw food" lifestyle when I was living in the UK and doing a lot of reading in my downtime, sans laptop, sans cell phone. Then, when I moved to Southern Spain and was living at a sustainable community there, one of its primary emphases was raw food and the ways in which a raw diet can potentially assuage all kinds of environmental, economic, political and physical problems. The whole thing was still fairly new to me at that point, but I was hooked, and after returning to the States to be with my father during his battle with cancer, I obviously had a new impetus for researching this stuff further. So I read everything out there in the hopes of easing Dad's pain, and learning what I could do to avoid being in the same situation myself thirty years down the road.
Long story short - after so much research and simultaneously witnessing remarkable changes in my own body and mind after several years of living this way myself, I'm sold on this shit - and as an environmentalist, a theologian, a yogi, a social progressive and just someone who'd like to be around someday to meet my grandchildren, I really can't imagine finding a more ideal solution to so many of the current micro- and macro- problems we're having on a global level. Obesity, poverty, resource depletion, Big Pharma, Big Food, consumerism, the sexual, race and class politics of meat and of food consumption...all of it seems set to do battle with this radical (or not so radical, when you really look at it) new approach to eating and to nourishing ourselves and one another.
SO WHAT DOES 'RAW' MEAN, ANYWAY?
There are two perspectives on the definition of "raw" food. First, the scientific one: when food is cooked above 118 degrees, all of the digestive enzymes and 85% of the vitamins in it are destroyed. So, basically, instead of getting the energy your body needs to metabolize your dinner in the food you eat, your pancreas has to produce all the necessary enzymes itself. As a result, it spends all its time and energy creating enzymes to digest your food, and thus has no additional enzymes to perform all the functions your body needs to heal and metabolize - everything from replenishing your skin cells, to healing your injuries, to growing your fingernails, to cleansing out your cells. When you eat food that hasn't been cooked over 118 degrees (a.k.a. "raw"), all the enzymes your body needs to digest your food are present in the meal itself, which frees up your pancreas to use all the enzymes it creates to maintain, heal and keep your body running like a well-oiled machine. Simply put, that means your body spends less energy digesting its food and more energy repairing itself. As a result, you're in better shape, and you feel more energized, to boot.
Second, the more spiritual definition: the vast majority of the major world religions have a word that describes the energy (or "life force") of a living being: prana, qi, chi, spirit, mana, etc. Basically, and I'm speaking from a Buddhist yogic perspective here, cooking food destroys its prana. The life energy that was in that broccoli is depleted, and as a result, its vibrations are no longer there to sustain you. If you consume "living" foods, they still retain the prana or life energy that they inherently possess. Follow one perspective or the other, or a combination of both, as I do, but ultimately, that's what it means when I say a food is "raw."
OK. SOUNDS A LITTLE WANKY TO ME, BUT I'LL KEEP READING. WHY DO IT?
For soooo many reasons. Like I wrote before, all of the many threads of what it means to me to live consciously, to choose my actions mindfully, and to subvert the dominant consumeristic paradigm come together in this way of life. How, you say?
* It's environmentally sound. Eating whole foods means you create very little waste. You leave a smaller ecological footprint. You don't use plastic or styrofoam containers. You don't leave charcoal remnants or microwaveable packaging behind. You create less trash. You tread lightly upon the earth.
* You can grow your own food (whoohoo for gardening!) or eat locally, relying on fresh regional produce and local farmers instead of vast multinational corporations that care more about the bottom line than they do about the nutritional content of their food. Goodbye, Kraft! Goodbye, Big Food! Hello, fresh strawberries from your garden, homemade veggie juice, and eating according to the seasons. A much more sustainable and real option, as opposed to eating something that was dehydrated and packaged in a factory in Mexico, sat in a storage facility for a few months and finally made it in a box to the shelves of your local WalMart.
* It's physiologically ideal. Hundreds of studies out there have shown that a vegetarian diet is the most healthful, and that a vegan diet can in fact turn around heart disease and cancer. Our bodies are not meant to eat meat like other mammals'. We have long intestines where meat putrifies and ferments, leading to toxicity and cancer. Our genetic makeup leaves us suited for the old-school nuts and berries - whole foods! - of hunter-gatherer days. Our bodies are simply not able to digest all the processed crap that passes for food now. All the plastic-wrapped snack cakes and processed microwave dinners are, in essence, plastic. Our bodies can't deal with that shit. It sits in our colons and festers. Whole-body health begins in our colons. When they are covered with the paste-like glue from white flour and sugar, and rankled with rotting meat that our bodies take eons to digest, they can't absorb nutrients through the walls of the intestines. Some raw foodists eat raw meat and dairy; after all I've read about the dangers and politics of meat and dairy, I'm not up for that, but if you are interested and can't give it up, it's always an option, I suppose.
* We live in a society where we're killing ourselves slowly with what we eat. The diseases that are growing endemic now - diabetes, heart disease, cancer - are borne of our own affluence. We are, in essence, eating ourselves to death. The obesity epidemic gets constant press coverage, and it's only getting worse, as we see in our young children. The bovine growth hormones in dairy products mean that kids go through puberty younger and younger. The steroids in meat cause hairy lips on women and infertility in men. Many people, subsisting on white flour and sugar, are overweight and yet ironically malnourished. We have the power to choose to eat well, to nourish ourselves, to put things into our bodies now that won't toxify and rot our insides; we also have the power to ignore all that and wonder why we get sick down the road. Why NOT nourish yourself well? It makes so much sense, especially when we have the opportunity and means to do so. And that means getting the most nutrients and enzymes we possibly can. And that's through eating the raw fruits, veggies, and nuts that can sustain good health or nourishment.
* As a woman, I am so sick of being surrounded by other women who are obsessed with their weight. Dieting is ubiquitous. Surround yourself with middle-aged women and you'll find 100% of them hate their bodies, want to lose weight, and feel guilty every time they eat something. I am, quite simply, not willing to spend my life doing that. All of my studies in social theory and feminist theory have taught me that what we put into our bodies, how we eat, whether we allow ourselves to satisfy our appetites, is highly political, and as a feminist and just a person who wants to do a hell of a lot in her life, I refuse to waste that kind of energy over whether I eat dessert or not! Eating raw means that I am healthy and nourished and that I never deny myself food when I am hungry, because everything you eat is so goddamned GOOD for you! I feel radical and defiant eating so well, and eating so much - because you really do eat so much when you are eating this way, a bowl of spinach here, a whole cantaloupe there, six apples a day, or whatever.
* You don't kill anything or create any more suffering than you need to. Eastern religions like Buddhism, with its notion of ahimsa (non-suffering) and also Hinduism's influences on yogic theory have led to a strong connection between yoga and vegetarianism. So raw foods are just a good extension of that. I don't want anything to die so that I can eat it, especially if it's just going to give me high cholesterol and colon cancer anyway. That's so selfish! We are connected to all these beings in the circle of life. And the chickens on poultry farms live in conditions of miserable sorrow, on top of each other, sick, beakless, never even seeing the outside world. And the cows that produce our milk for ice cream and cheese undergo awful doses of antibiotics, painfully swollen udders, and ultimately a violent death at the hands of slaughterhouses. Yogis believe that when we consume the products of these suffering and dying animals, we consume their suffering and fear, and experience that heaviness and sorrow as a result. If I have the luxury of choosing not to eat those products of suffering, I am most certainly going to do so.
WHAT EFFECTS HAVE YOU SEEN FROM THIS IN YOUR LIFE?
* My eyes sparkle. My skin glows totally radiantly, even after just a day of eating well. My cheeks are rosy. I have a thousand times more energy. Three or four days into a good raw stretch, I hardly need any sleep; maybe 5 or 6 hours a night, max. I want to get up in the morning; I wake up before my alarm. I'm super-hydrated and my skin is no longer dry, even on my hands. My nails are stronger than they've ever been.
* My yoga practice is enhanced, four-fold. Since fruits and veggies are so water-rich, being so well-hydrated means that my joints and muscles are incredibly flexible again. Thirteen years after high school dance team, I still have all my splits! Love it. As soon as I eat a lot of cheese, sugar or wheat, I can feel that familiar ache in my joints and my muscles, the tightness and the difficulty stretching that wasn't there before. It's a very clear connection. When I'm very raw, my running is amazing, too; I can run longer, feel lighter, and run faster than when I'm eating a lot of heavier grains and breads, dairy, sugar, etc. There's a remarkable causal relationship.
* Emotionally, I feel light and clear, lucid and peaceful. I've always been a bit prone to melancholy, but when I eat this way, I feel such clarity, such levity, so calm-minded and at peace. Gone are the mood swings that used to come with the rush and subsequent crash of high-glycemic foods like sugar and cooked white potatoes/flours/etc. I'm glad to get up in the morning; I feel patient and optimistic. The emotional payoff from knowing you are taking such good care of your body is pretty amazing, too, and it's all about the momentum; after you see such clear and immediate results, you just want to keep it going.
* I never have to buy new clothes, which, given my anti-consumer sentiments, totally rocks. Most of my duds are the same ones that I bought some eight, ten years ago in college. I love the fact that I can live so simply and not have to constantly be pumping more money into the consumer economy because the old clothes don't fit. One of my favorite lines from the John Cusack movie Grosse Pointe Blank was when Joan Cusack described her high school reunion, something along the lines of: "Everyone was the same, it was just like they'd all swollen." We can defy that cultural mandate to grow increasingly unhealthy as the years go by.
* When I injure myself, say, with a bruise here or a twisted ankle there, it heals so quickly, because my body has so many enzymes and nutrients to take care of itself. My muscles are stronger and more defined than ever, and I get tons of protein from all the nuts and legumes, as well as calcium and iron from all the green veggies I eat.
BUT ISN'T IT HARD SOMETIMES?
Sure it is. Socially it can be hard now and then, especially the times when there aren't really any good foods around, or I'm traveling, or away from home. And those are the times you just do what you can with what you've got and trust that you'll get back at it when you're able to. I still drink coffee; I love the warmth and the comfort of it too much yet to give that up. As for alcohol, wine is actually officially "raw" because it's not heated past 118 degrees, so that's fair game, and in terms of liquor, I usually try to stick to vodka or gin, since it's a bit lighter. I'm not totally hard and fast about it. If someone makes me a cake for my birthday, I'll have a piece. I realize it's a luxury, an elite privilege, in many ways, to be able to choose this way of life, and I understand that not everyone can do so, so I'm not going to push it on anyone. But, by and large, I do what I can to keep it up. The rewards are so quick and so remarkable, I can't help but want to continue with it.
On a more theoretical level, it's exciting to see a lot of ostensibly macrocosmic social theory coming together in this very tangible realm of food and consumption. You can see so many threads of "nourishment" cohering here: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, sexual, environmental, etc. And that feels inherently deviant in a culture that is so full of "empty calories," a.k.a. superficial bullshit that masquerades as deep or true or life-giving.
A great book to look into if you're at all interested in the politics of food is The Sexual Politics of Meat, by Carol J. Adams. It's a real barnstormer in the study of the sex, race and class dimensions of eating and who gets to eat what. We see this today in the connections between poverty, diabetes and obesity...and in so much more. Check it out.
If you want other resources, let me know; I've got some great stuff that's worth a look and will do a much better job than I ever can. From a more yogic perspective, Steve Ross's book, Happy Yoga, has a great, easy-to-read chapter on raw foods that really draws sharp connections between scientific, religious, and physical reasons for living this way (and it's funny, too). Despite the wanky name, it's a smart, sweet book and definitely worth a look. Several of my friends have watched their lives open up and change for the better because of reading his work.
If you're interested, try it out for a day, or even a morning. A typical day for me is a whole cantaloupe in the morning, with coffee; a big (and I mean mammoth) salad for lunch, with lots of spinach, mixed greens, artichoke hearts, beets, kale, carrots, broc and caul, tomatoes, etc., a few apples scattered in there for snacks, dried cranberries or raisins, a lot of almonds and walnuts, a couple of Lara Bars, and a Kombucha (Chinese tea, also raw and organic). As you can imagine, I'm constantly eating. It rocks. And after awhile, that flour cake just starts to look (and taste) like plastic to you. When you get used to being so well-nourished, you just want to keep it up.
So, that's my little raw foods primer. Now, go eat a head of celery! Or something. You'll be glad you did.