A small sect of dressmakers, construction workers and housewives centered around a health food store in Severna Park are shunning their stoves, animal products and processed foods in favor of a "paradise diet" of raw fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetables they say prevents heartdisease, cancer and arthritis.
Eliminating all preservatives, toxins and "dead" cooked food, they believe, reduces the threat of disease to almost nil and frees the body's immune systems to attack tumors, impurities and diseased cells that cause most common modern ailments.
Although nutritionists and doctors are wary of the claims, they say if people can stand it, a raw, low-fat, low-calorie diet is certain to improve some aspects of health. Medical professionals warn that anyone considering such an extreme vegetarian diet should be vigilantabout mixing foods for their proteins and finding a supplemental source of vitamin B-12.
"The body is so intricate and its processes so complicated that I believe nobody will ever fully understand it, much less be able to cure it by tinkering with it," Harry Cooke, owner of The Good Life health food store in Severna Park, said at a recent diet class advocating fruitarianism. "If every mouthful of food is gentle fiber, and you eliminate the separated oils, animal products, dead and cooked foods that we're not suited to digest, your body can cleanse itself of disease on its own."
Cooke, who has no background in the dietary sciences and is highly skeptical of the advice given by traditional dietitians, has been eating only raw food since a bad case of arthritis threatened his tennis game 10 years ago.
He baseshis fruitarian diet on the work of scientists and hygienists, who claim that humans evolved on a diet of fruits and nuts.
At age 65, Cooke plays tennis several times a week and can whip strong players one-third his age. He is so confident in his diet that he no longer carries health insurance.
"Doctors are obsessed with attacking symptoms. No treatment that keeps you from feeling pain or that hides the symptoms of a disease is going to heal you," said Cooke, who claims tohave been virtually disease-free for the past 10 years.
While about 30 county residents are following Cooke's advice and trying to eatall-raw, only six keep with it 100 percent of the time, said Annapolis dressmaker Donna Littlefield. She has been a fruitarian for 2 1/2 years and runs a support group and recipe exchange for fruitarians.
Littlefield says people generally get over their cravings for otherfoods, but the hardest part is going out to dinners or parties.
"People think you're nuts or you're going to die if you don't eat pasta," she said.
Gail Billings, 38, of Millersville, says she lost 50pounds, raised her energy level and no longer has severe menstrual cramps since she became a fruitarian last year.
While not embracingtheir claims wholeheartedly, some nutritionists believe fruitarians may be on to something.
Dr. Simeon Margolis, an expert on special diets for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said a fruitarian diet almost devoid of cholesterol and fat would reduce the likelihood of developing coronary disease or diabetes.
He also sitedpreliminary evidence linking fat to colon and breast cancers. Fruitarians would be less likely to suffer from gout, which can be caused by an excess of uric acid found in fish and meat, he said.
"The down side of such a diet is that B-12 is just not present in vegetable products. A lack of B-12 can cause pernicious anemia -- which is reversible -- and eventually the degeneration of nerve bundles in the spinal chord, causing loss of sensation in the feet and extremities -- which is permanent," Margolis said.
A little B-12 can go a long way,though, Margolis said.
"Just a whiff of other things, like eggs, can be enough," he said.
A more common but less serious shortcoming of an all-raw, no-animal-products diet, he said, is that it can result in a deficiency in certain amino acids unless fruits, vegetables and especially nuts are combined carefully.
Cooke dismissed Margolis' warnings as "the same old story from the medical profession." He believes the medical profession allows its judgment to be swayed by the medical-industrial complex that he says wastes hundreds of millions of dollars each year diagnosing and treating symptoms instead of attacking the causes of disease.
Others are less approving of peoplelike Cooke, insisting they can do more harm than good.
"It's scary," Anne Arundel Medical Center's Kay Patterson said of Cooke's dietary claims. Patterson manages the hospital's health education department.
"There are thousands of propositions out there, but they haven't been tested. I view nutrition as a science, and in a science thereshould be testing," she said.
Cooke, however, says there are too few strict fruitarians for a comprehensive study of their claims.