In The Raw

Uncooked fruits and vegetables gain new cachet as the belief grows that they're better for you.

May 08, 2002|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

When psychotherapist Judy Landon suddenly developed joint pains six years ago, she explored an unconventional remedy.

Landon, 51, had long favored salads and fish and never ate much red meat, but then a nutritionist suggested her body might feel better if she tried something more extreme - a diet of only raw vegetables and nuts.

"Once I started doing it, I just felt so much better," said Landon, a part-time dancer who lives in Westchester County, just outside Manhattan. "My pains went away, I felt so much lighter and cleaner."

So Landon joined the growing number of Americans who in recent years have turned to the latest trend in cooking - which is, not cooking.

They're on raw-food diets, which have one basic rule: Food must not be heated over 115 degrees. Raw-food fans believe that cooking vegetables destroys almost all beneficial enzymes, nutrients and vitamins. Meat and fish are no-nos. Instead, those on this diet get their protein from nuts. Raw dishes are sometimes referred to as "living food" because some consider uncooked vegetables alive because they still contain enzymes.

Contrary to what many probably think, the raw-food diet is not just a West Coast phenomenon or a faddish revival of the nature-loving, hippie lifestyle of the 1970s. Today's raw-food fans say they have chosen the diet out of frustration with the plethora of processed foods on grocery-store shelves and in restaurants. Some, like Landon, tried it as a panacea for aches or allergies. Most say they just want to return to the basics.

And, unlike the 1970s, this time around, there are online support groups, Web sites with information and even raw-food restaurants that have sprung up to support this trend.

Some raw restaurants have become so popular that they draw diners who aren't on the diet. Quintessence in Manhattan, for example, has two stylish locations that count Woody Harrelson, Ben Vereen, Alicia Silverstone and Moby as regulars. And on a recent Friday night, Alanis Morissette was spotted sharing a raw burrito with friends at the Quintessence in New York's East Village.

Popular items on the Quintessence menu include the burrito, which is a lettuce leaf filled with guacamole, tomatoes, onions and vegetarian pastes, and the Italian pasta dishes, which comprise squash specially sliced to resemble noodles. Other items include uncooked takes on dishes like ravioli, meatloaf and dim sum dumplings.

"There is a huge interest in raw-food diets," said Suzanne Havala Hobbs, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina's school of health policy who is also a nutrition adviser for the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group. "The Vegetarian Resource Group has been getting numerous questions, e-mails and telephone calls about the diet.

"Some of this emanates from celebrity interest in raw-food diets," added Hobbs, who is conducting a study on the attitudes and practices of people on raw-food diets. "But part of the reason that raw food has become trendy is that vegetarian diets have become widely accepted and this is just an extension of that."

Aging baby boomers have also been a factor. Loren Lockman, founder and director of the Tanglewood Wellness Center in Bethesda, said he's noticed in recent years an increased interest in raw diets among those between 40 and 55.

"Baby boomers are getting older, and they're starting to fall apart," said Lockman, 41, who lectures on the raw diet and teaches food-preparation classes around the world. "We're starting to see all kinds of people with failing health who are looking for solutions."

Brian Clement, director of the Hippocrates Health Institute, an alternative healing center in West Palm Beach, Fla., said he's placed many cancer patients on the raw diet and seen improvements in their health. He emphasized that raw food doesn't cure illness - it builds up people's immune systems.

"When you eat foods that haven't been tampered with or processed in any way, there are four elements that you don't get in cooked food - enzymes, oxygen, phytochemicals and hormones," said Clement, who has been on the raw diet for 31 years. "When you consume these elements, you increase your immunity, which is really the way we stay healthy."

Cynthia Finley, clinical dietitian specialist at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, cautioned against doing the raw diet as the sole cure to a serious illness.

"Phytochemicals are protective against cancer and heart disease," Finley said. "But phytochemicals aren't necessarily destroyed through cooking.

"There are benefits to eating raw vegetables," she added. "When you cook something, you break down the fibers, so something may not have as much fiber in it and there might be some loss of heat-sensitive vitamins like vitamin C. But any diet that narrows things down too much might eliminate things you really need. If you're just eating fruits, vegetables and nuts, you're not getting B-12. That's necessary for proper nerve function and it's found only in eggs and meats."

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