(I know… I promised pineapple salsa. It wasn’t just a ploy to get your attention; I just ate all the salsa, so no photo op. I’ll try to include at least one fruit salsa this week!)
Back in August, I wrote a post about a friend who was doing a raw diet. At the time, I was interested in her motivation, and she offered to loan me the book that started the whole thing for her.
It took a few months, but I finally borrowed the book, and then read enough portions of it (I didn’t read all the included recipes) to get the gist of the eating philosophy. If you’re unfamiliar with raw diets (I’m gonna go out on a limb here and hypothesize that most Americans are indeed unfamiliar, unless you live in some uber-hip area where your average citizen leans heavily toward edible things chic and trendy), they are based on the idea that your blood needs to remain within a certain pH range in order to remain physically and emotionally healthy (yes, I am grossly paraphrasing here — if I am misrepresenting then feel free to correct me via the comments section). Certain foods are acidic, and certain foods are alkaline, and you need to eat more of the alkaline foods to keep your blood in its zen state (i.e., blood being slightly alkaline), in turn keeping you thin and healthy and happy. Some of the foods that are alkalizing were surprising — such as tomatoes, which I always thought of as acidic. Turns out that to maintain slightly alkaline blood, you need to eat mostly raw foods, specifically raw greens and other vegetables, and totally bypass meats (excepting limited amounts of fish), sweets, mushrooms, yeast breads, and many fruits.
The book is scattered throughout with first-hand accounts of how the diet has changed lives. There are anecdotes from people who have been very ill for many years — with everything from chronic pain to depression to cancer — and their stories tell of dramatic improvement after being on the pH diet. And I don’t necessarily doubt these stories — I firmly believe that what you eat is more important that just about anything when it comes to your health (I recently told a friend who was disgusted by her husband’s new habit of pipe-smoking that before she tried to convince him to give up smoking, she needed to convince him to stop drinking diet Coke). I also buy the fact that a heavily acidic body chemistry can wreak havoc on everything from immunity to emotional health — it leads to candida overgrowth, prime parasitic environments, and weight gain. So dramatic changes in diet that reverse this direction would logically begin to reverse the damage that was being done in the acidic body. In short, I believe the personal testimonies in the book.
So if I believe all this, why not renounce my meat-eating ways and jump on the bandwagon? Well, the simple answer — the same answer I will give as reason to not do just about any extremely limiting diet — is that I don’t believe it is sustainable.
As an example, I give you a sample paragraph from the book:
Now that we’re fully alkalized, for the most part we don’t eat dessert. For us, a treat is a crisp, red bell pepper or thick slices of subtly sweet jicama. I realize that might be hard to imagine until you’ve reached the same place. But tastebuds that may now be dulled by the effects of extreme sugars and salt will come to appreciate the humbler sweetness of vegetables. A cookie or candy bar will seem much too sweet, even intolerable. You will see.*
I think that, if you live in America, or really, if you’re alive, anywhere — you must admit that we have become a species that specializes in extreme sugars: from the usual suspects like the Little Debbie snack cake to the jar of spaghetti sauce that taste testers picked above all others in a blind tasting (2 1/2 tsp of sugar in one 1/2-cup serving of spaghetti sauce? really?). And I consider myself a bit of a dessert-Nazi: my kids often get special in-season fruit or berries for “dessert” — and only if they really and truly eat a fantastic, well-balanced meal to they get something more decadent like a (single) cookie. My extended family comes close to suggesting child abuse, as stingy as I am with sweets. But — seriously — a red bell pepper? That’s what my dulled tastebuds are gonna want eventually, even over that creamy, complex piece of fair-trade, 70% cacao chocolate? Over this piece of chocolate, the one that has bacon in it? Am I going to stick birthday candles in a piece of jicama in less than two years but who’s counting when I turn 40?
Or what about the fact that, if you follow this diet, your options for breakfast include: salad, soup, vegetable juice, warm brown rice topped with avocado and tomato, steamed vegetable wraps, cauliflower casserole, or steamed broccoli. You could also have a bowl of buckwheat or sprouted grain cereal — the options that appealed most to me — but with absolutely no sweetener (not even unrefined). This might be less of a leap to many people who already prefer a savory breakfast; but I have a hard time with savory foods first thing in the morning. I don’t see myself enjoying a tomato and avocado salad with my morning cup of coffee. Oh, wait — I wouldn’t be drinking that cup; the coffee’s gotta go, too.
Other foods that are no-no’s on a raw/pH diet are: mushrooms, vinegar, sugar of any kind (including honey and maple syrup), bread, many fruits, dairy, all animal fat, meat, eggs, most condiments (incl. ketchup, mustard, anything fermented or pickled), corn, peanuts, and alcohol.
Ok, now. Raise your hand if you think you can do it.
Only 3 of you? Truth be told, even the few people I know that have attempted it have found it quite difficult or impossible to maintain. But now my question is: why should you do it?
Once again, I disclaim that people who have been healed of disease need not answer; anyone who goes from being really sick to being well will have the necessary willpower and conviction to stick with just about any diet (my friends with celiac are a prime example). But for the rest of us? The rest of the people of the world who might not feel bad but think we could always feel a little better; those of us who might like to lose 10 pounds; those of us who would like to wean off the happy pill we started taking post-partum — is a diet like this sustainable, for us?
I don’t think it is. I don’t think that it is realistic to think that most Americans could eat like this for the rest of their lives, even if it does make them feel better (and the folks I mentioned above — the ones who find it difficult to maintain — DO say that they feel better when they are sticking to the diet).
The thing is, there’s a lot about a raw diet that makes sense to me; a lot that is beneficial. First and foremost, you do indeed get your green vegetables (assuming you actually eat them and don’t live off your dessert of red peppers). You also necessarily remove many processed foods off your plate; when 70-80% of each meal is supposed to be raw, you can’t zap that frozen entree and call it dinner. Lastly, eating raw food provides your body with beneficial enzymes that are often destroyed in the high-heat of cooking. These enzymes assist in digestion (your body doesn’t make them), and allow the gut to actually absorb the macro- and micro-nutrients found in whole fruits, vegetables, and grains (just because a food contains the RDA of a nutrient doesn’t mean our body actually absorbs and can use it).
So what do I do? I see benefits of eating raw, but I don’t believe the extreme limits of a mostly-raw diet are practical for my daily life (or the life of my family); not to mention the fact that we really enjoy eating most of the foods that are forbidden on a diet like this — like meat, cheese, mushrooms, and coffee. Even if we were all in perfect health and perfectly happy as a result of eating raw (and I have my doubts that this would be the case, long-term), wouldn’t we feel cheated by missing out on some of this earth’s greatest foods?
For our family, we’ve chosen to apply many of the same principles to our diet while not going to the outer limits. I try to eat my leafy greens, and do my best to win the hearts of my children over to their flavor. I try to provide raw fruits and vegetables several times a day (for my kids, I’m happy if they crunch their carrot sticks at lunch). Over the past few months I’ve been whittling down our grain allowance, but still relying on some processed snack foods because I just can’t keep up with making those things from scratch. I’ve also been attempting to serve fewer grains, and rely less on pasta — though this has been quite difficult to accomplish. The bread we eat is mostly homemade, and I try to help our bodies digest the grains by sprouting, pre-soaking, or souring them first — but even this has been quite the sea change in our kitchen, and I’ve found it hard to keep up with the needs of a growing family of five. I also recently acquired a rockin’ food dehydrator (whoohoo!!), thanks to some generous birthday cash gifts and the ability to save money on a refurbished model. With this, I am now able to soak and dehydrate our nut and seed snacks, making them easier to digest and their nutrients easier to absorb. We still eat meat and dairy, but we drink raw milk and have been sourcing our meat and eggs from local farms who raise pastured animals (their meat is naturally higher in omega-3s, and naturally lower in unhealthy fats).
But I look at that paragraph I just wrote, and I think, holy cow, that’s a lot of work. I have the luxury (and yes, even when I complain most days, deep down I still consider it a luxury) of being at home to accomplish all of this. It is a full-time job, keep up with it all on top of keeping up with three kids and their laundry. And that’s not to toot my horn — but it’s to say that this is the max of what I’ve found to be sustainable. There is a huge bell curve of eating/cooking habits — and while everyone’s goal might be to be in that upper 5% of uber-healthy, you’ve gotta find where your life fits on that curve, practically and financially. Small changes and growing children can help us along that curve — but right now I’m at a spot I can live with, with hopes of improving still.
Not to say that I think I’ve arrived, or that I have all the answers. Our diet has changed so much over the past 7 years since we started a family and began feeding small children. Who’s to say I won’t continue to drift toward more drastic changes? I’ve already predicted a future of living “off the grid” — maybe I will also evolve to a place where I think bell pepper is a great dessert, that coffee is for the afflicted, and that eating shitakes is the equivalent of willingly taking an LSD trip, for all their ill-effects. Maybe?
Raise your hand if you think this scenario is likely.
Good. Not a single one.
* Young, Robert O., Ph.D., and Young, Shelley Redford. The pH Miracle. New York: Wellness Central Press, 2002. p. 119.