What’s the Deal with Raw Food?
The Raw Food Diet
A food is considered “raw” if it is not heated above 120 degrees, and includes raw milk (unpasteurized and non-homogenized), raw honey, raw cocoa, and raw fruits and veggies, as well as fermented foods such as raw cheese, raw yogurt, raw kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkraut, pickles, wine, fermented beets and carrots, and fermented apple cider.
Although I’d been exposed to the idea of raw food while studying naturopathic medicine (in fact several of my classmates were raw food gurus), I never did fully understand the concept of why a raw food diet was supposed to be healthier than just eating a standard whole food-based diet.
At the same time, though, I was puzzled by the fact that so many patients needed probiotics and digestive enzymes long-term. My goal is always to guide my patients to the point where “food is [their] medicine” (so said Hippocrates), and supplements are mostly unnecessary.
Well, as it turns out, Raw Foodies have an answer to the reason why the rest of us need probiotics and digestive enzymes so frequently.
Raw food naturally contains enzymes, probiotics, vitamins, and minerals*. However, certain procedures in food processing tends to destroy them – most notably pasteurization.
Pasteurization involves heating foods to unnaturally high temperatures in order to kill off bad bacteria. The problem is, in the process, all of the naturally occurring enzymes are destroyed, as well as all of the good bacteria, and a good percentage of the vitamins and minerals.
So what, you ask? Your pancreas and small intestine produce enzymes. And you already have probiotics in your gut, don’t you? Why do you need more from your food?
That’s all true. But before pasteurization was commonplace, digestion was sort of a group effort, as it were, between your gut and the food ingested. The active enzymes in raw foods would help take some of the strain of digestion off the gut, so that enzymes would not be depleted.
Also, the probiotics in those raw foods would help to digest what’s left over, further reducing the strain on your gut. (For instance, many lactose intolerant people can drink raw milk without a problem.)
Raw nuts and seeds also contain enzymes – they are the very ones necessary to begin the germination process. But they also contain enzyme inhibitors. These inhibitors keep the nuts and seeds from germinating until the proper time.
Guess how nature breaks down those enzyme inhibitors? Rain.
For that reason, Raw Foodies soak their nuts and seeds before consuming them, to break down the enzyme inhibitors and activate the enzymes. (Turns out ancient cultures like the Aztecs figured this out, soaking their nuts and seeds and drying them out in the sun before consumption.)
Okay. So what’s the deal with fermentation then?
It’s the probiotics that trigger the fermentation process**, whether inside your gut or outside of it. So that means they’re naturally high in probiotics.
Naturally fermented foods are lactic acid-based and not vinegar based. Most interesting to me is the fermentation process of sourdough – the grains are fermented in order to cause the bread to rise, rather than adding instant yeast (although sourdough bread does not rise as quickly). Once fermented, this “starter” never dies, and a small portion can be saved and re-used in subsequent loaves.
The fermentation process predigests the gluten protein, which lessens or eliminates symptoms even for some who are gluten intolerant. (I’ve read of some speculation that the steep rise in gluten intolerance has something to do with the invention of “instant yeast” in the 1980s.)
My take home message here is this:
- Eat food in its natural state, that has been minimally processed. This means avoiding those foods that have undergone procedures like pasteurization and homogenization whenever possible, and avoiding preservatives.
- Soak your nuts and seeds.
- Add fermented foods to your diet, such as raw yogurt, raw kefir, and raw sauerkraut.
*Crash course in the physiology of gut health:
- You ingest food in the form of complex molecules (sugars, starches, fats, or proteins). But your gut can only absorb simple molecules, so those bigger molecules have to be broken down. This requires enzymes.
- Think of enzymes like pairs of scissors that cut bigger molecules into smaller pieces. You need a specific pair of scissors depending on what you’re trying to cut, though (that is, you need different enzymes to digest different kinds of food.) These enzymes are produced in your pancreas and small intestine.
- Beneficial bacteria (probiotics) gobble up whatever’s left over after your enzymes digest your food, and these probiotics leave behind lactic acid as a byproduct. (This is called fermentation, by the way.) Lactic acid keeps the “bad” bacteria and yeast in check.
- Vitamins and minerals, found in raw foods, are needed for most of the biological processes in your body. Without them, these processes just won’t happen.
**Crash course on fermentation:
- Fermentation happens in the absence of oxygen, and it’s the conversion of carbs (sugar) to alcohol or lactic acid, and carbon dioxide (CO2).
- The CO2 is what causes bread to rise.
- Lactic acid and/or alcohol act as a natural preservative because bad bacteria cannot survive in an acidic environment. They also break down antinutrients (phytobiotics) that that block the body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals.