Load up Instagram and search for hashtags such as #cleaneats and you’ll unearth a wealth of enticingly colourful dishes… and many of them will be made from entirely raw ingredients. Raw food diets are probably the natural next step in our quest for pure, wholesome eating. Many of us have already shunned gluten, sugar, dairy and red meat. Does it get more clean, more healthy than raw? After all, raw foodstuffs are in their most natural state, with all nutritional benefits fully intact. It seems to be a no-brainer that this is the way forward for the health conscious. But just what does it mean to ‘eat raw’ and is it the lifestyle choice for everyone?
What constitutes a raw food diet?
There’s not a set plan to follow when you eat raw. Ultimately, it’s a lifestyle choice – think of it more like veganism or vegetarianism than a weight loss diet like Atkins or Slimming World. The good thing about that is there’s room for you to adapt the diet to suit you.
You’d be forgiven for picturing plates full of lettuce leaves and uncooked carrots when you hear the word raw. Before researching this article, I know I certainly wasn’t aware of the array of food that was still on the menu for raw eaters.
The most popular form of raw eating is, of course, the raw vegan diet. This plant-based diet has plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables at its core. Milk alternatives like almond and cashew milk are allowed plus an abundance of nuts and seeds. That said, according to WebMD, you can include unpasteurised dairy produce and even raw eggs, meat and fish (hello sushi!). Food can even be slightly warmed, but never above 118 degrees (above this temperature and food starts to lose its nutritional value).
Why go raw?
Generally speaking, heating our food doesn’t add any nutritional value (there are of course, always exceptions to the rule). Staunch raw advocates, like US raw food pioneer Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram, believe that by consuming food in its purest form, we lessen the stress our bodies endure from digesting and eliminating ‘toxic residue’ from cooked foods (think oil, free radicals etc.)
Some of the benefits are said to be:
- Reduced inflammation
- Improved digestion
- Improved heart health
- Halting or even reversing the symptoms of chronic conditions
- Improved liver function/ cleansing
- Better skin
- Achieving/ maintaining a healthy weight
My raw experience
With a list of such desirable benefits, I was intrigued to see what a raw food diet could do for me.
I’ve suffered with Irritable Bowel Syndrome for the last seven years, following a course of strong antibiotics. I’ve tried many diets, therapies and supplements to alleviate my symptoms: gluten free, dairy free, sugar free, exclusion diet, pro-biotics, kinesiology – the list seems endless! I’m still yet to work out what’s right for me.
After hearing about the inflammation-reducing benefits of going raw, I decided to give it a try. I booked onto a week-long wellbeing retreat in Spain earlier this year. Run by a qualified nutritionist, guests are served a raw, vegan, free from added salt and sugar diet. You can also opt to swap any of your meals for a nutritionally-balanced juice. I decided to mix and match, starting my day with a juice and enjoying the delicious array of raw foods on offer for lunch and dinner.
I loved starting my morning with a juice and one of my favourites was the antioxidant juice: apples, cucumber, celery, carrots, lemon and avocado. You could customise your juices too, so if you wanted less fruit or none at all, you could just leave a note on your meal choices each day. Wholesome salads were central to most lunches and dinners. I enjoyed the protein-rich blackbean, avocado and sweetcorn salad (there were a lot of avocados on the menu!) The food was amazing and I was definitely never left mealtimes still hungry. However, I felt far from revitalised and full of energy at the end of my week.
I expected to feel some of the classic detox symptoms as my body adjusted (headaches, irritability, tiredness etc.) but I actually didn’t experience any of them! Instead, I felt progressively more sluggish, bloated and full of aches and pains as the week went on. I was confused and disappointed that I wasn’t getting the same great results as those around me. While I wasn’t alone in my experience, I was definitely in the minority!
It was purely by chance that I shed some light on why I was feeling like this. I booked in for an ayurvedic massage on my last day. After listening to my symptoms (including pre-retreat) the practitioner explained that right now, the imbalances in my body meant a raw diet simply wouldn’t suit me. She said the symptoms I was displaying were my body’s pleas for warm, easily digestible foods. While a raw diet can soothe digestion in some, it turns out that for me it was making it more difficult. She challenged me to eat only warm, cooked foods for a month. I took her advice and while my digestion is far from perfect, I’m getting on much better with a diet of more cooked food than raw.
When it works
Keen to restore my faith in the potential of raw eating, I sought out someone who’s had more success. Tracy Sadler is a raw food enthusiast and yoga teacher who hosts her own raw masterclasses and cookery schools – who better to ask?
Tracy decided to experiment with a raw food diet for health reasons. ‘I had chronic fatigue, poor digestion and a few other concerns caused by a virus I got from living in a mould-ridden house,’ she explains.
That was four years ago. ‘I ate solely raw for about 18 months. Initially, I had a lot more energy, my digestion improved, along with my intuition (knowing what was and wasn’t working for me). Over time though, I had further digestive issues as my digestion isn’t very strong. I’m now receiving ayurvedic treatment and acupuncture to help with this, as well as adding some cooked food back into my diet.’
Eating raw encourages you to be creative in your dishes – there’s no such thing as a typical day’s diet for Tracy. ‘I like to make Indonesian and Thai-inspired curries. Kale chips are a good snack, as are in season fruits (though I’m not a massive fruit eater). I enjoy making raw spreads with honey and carob powder, which is great on oatcakes.’
Tracy ate purely raw for far longer than I did, so I asked for her thoughts on whether everyone could benefit. ‘Not necessarily,’ she says ‘I think it’s important to know what’s going on with your digestion and, if it’s weaker, incorporate some cooked foods too. I wish I’d have known that when I started eating raw, but I do think finding the right balance for you is key.’
‘My advice to anyone considering going raw would be to go at your own pace. If going completely raw feels too extreme, maybe just try one meal a week and see how you go. Listen to your body and do what makes you happy.’
I think Tracy hit the nail on the head – it’s all about balance. None of us is built the same and our digestive systems are entirely unique. While some people will thrive on a raw food diet, there are those like myself who can probably only stomach about 20% raw in our diets. So, give it a try and see what your body tells you, it won’t take long to see the results (positive or negative). As for me, I’ll be sticking to my soups for now. Maybe one day I can join you for a rainbow salad.