Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Should We Eat?

I’ve been thinking lately about what types of food support humans in the healthiest way. There is much controversy over where to start to look – primates, early humans, hunter-gatherer tribes, modern-day cultures with the longest life spans, etc. While being vegan makes me feel a whole lot better than I ever remember feeling on the SAD diet of my teens, I know that I’m still not at the optimal level of health that I know I can achieve. Over the last year, I’ve eaten more fruit than ever, and I’ve had fewer colds and only a couple of cold sores, which for me is a direct indicator of my physical and emotional state of health. However, too many vegan cupcakes and holiday cookies and lack of a structured exercise routine outside of walking the dogs have left a few excess pounds on my body that it just doesn’t need to haul around.

It’s obvious that humans can adapt to their environment, and if the earth is going to support its growing population much longer, we can’t all eat food from only one region. Pete came across a movement that advocates eating only the food that grows within a 100km radius around your home. The simplicity of that idea really appeals to me, but it would also mean that being vegans during the long cold winter, we wouldn’t eat a whole lot of fresh food. We can practice this concept during the spring/summer/fall months, and we plan on doing this by joining a CSA, picking berries at local farms and shopping at farmer’s markets. We can buy locally produced maple syrup. But we will always rely on imported food.

I started to read more about the raw food movement, and its fundamental message resonates with me. Fresh raw fruits and green vegetables should form the main portion of our diet. In addition, raw nuts, seeds and sprouts provide fat and protein. We started drinking fruit smoothies and vegetable juices for breakfast instead of our usual homemade granola and soymilk with orange juice. We eat melons and berries for morning snack without the usual soy yogurt. We eat green salads for lunch. If we are hungry, we snack on raw nuts and dried fruits. I bought a book by Alissa Cohen called Living on Live Foods and tried some of the recipes for dinner and dessert. They were really good. Here is the Mock Salmon Pate over a green salad.

And for dessert, Banana Butter Berry Pie (next time, I would make just the crust and Layer One. It was yummy enough to stop there).

Both of us went through a day or two of feeling light-headed, nauseous and feverish that is described as going through “detox”. We both feel like we have more energy and don’t feel sluggish or sleepy in the afternoon at work. After the first week, Pete lost five pounds and I lost four. Our skin has started to feel softer. Our digestive systems feel like they are tuned up and running cleanly. It is clear that this way of eating is very close to the optimal diet for humans.

One clue that raw food might be the best for us comes from the fact that we have been feeding our dogs a raw carnivorous diet for over six months. They don’t eat grain. Their bodies are lean and muscular, even our 13-yr old shepherd. They are in perfect health. Their coats are soft and shiny, their teeth are white and they love their food. After seeing how they have responded to raw food, I intuitively know that’s what dogs, who are carnivores, were intended by nature to eat. Obviously I don’t feel humans are carnivores, and I choose not to be an omnivore. But the experience with our dogs leads me to believe that the living part of raw foods leads to good health and makes me question whether grains promote good health for humans.

Although I accept the basis of the raw foods diet, there are a few missing links for *MY* optimal diet that I need to fill in with my own preferences and philosophy. I really think that everyone needs to do this individually. There are a few claims made by the raw foods movement that I feel are not well substantiated by scientific evidence and are glossed over when the authors of books describe the benefits of the diet. The first is the concept of enzymes. The argument is that live food contains enzymes that the body uses to digest the food and therefore does not tax the body’s own limited supply of enzymes. From what I’ve read elsewhere, the enzymes that the body uses to break down food aren’t exactly the same enzymes that are contained in food. I’m not a physiologist or whomever it is that studies this subject, so I’d like a clearer and fair explanation of the health benefits of raw foods relating to enzymes before I am convinced that all foods consumed should be raw. The second claim is that nutrients are best suited to be absorbed by the body when food is in its raw state. I’m not sure that this is true for every food, and I wonder if there aren’t foods out there that have valuable nutrients that are only available to the body when the food is cooked. The most obvious example to me are the cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. I think they taste horrible in their raw state. Lightly steamed, however, I love both of them. Broccoli contains tons of nutrients and phytochemicals, and I wonder if breaking down some of the cell walls via steaming with clean water allows the body more access to them. I’m willing to sacrifice a few enzymes to reap the benefits of tasty healthful broccoli. Again, I’d like to see more discussion of this issue in a non-biased form.

Another food that I feel has a lot to offer but requires cooking are beans and lentils. Yes, they can be sprouted, but my body often craves slow-cooked beans for a reason. I feel they have health benefits of their own and since many major cultures that are studied for their longevity include cooked beans and pulses in their diet, I think I should too. One particular bean that I’d like to keep in my diet but really keep an eye on its concentration is soy. I think vegans tend to consume a lot of soy protein and I wonder if it’s too much. There have been lots of studies done on soy and results have been very conflicting. I think moderation is the key to soy’s benefits, so I’ll stick to edamame, tofu and minimal amounts of soymilk.

So that’s pretty much the gist of what I’d like to eat over the next while (and probably what Pete will be eating) and see how my body reacts. Mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, focusing on raw green salads, with smaller portions of lightly cooked vegetables, cooked beans, raw nuts and seeds, sprouts, and with minimal grains and refined sugars. I’ll detail our progress here.


Melissa said...

Great post. I often think about the raw diet, but I just don't feel like it would fit into my life right now...but just like becoming vegan, it takes work, that's well worth it. I look forward to seeing your progress :)

*a* said...

Thanks for a really great post. I'm heading towards this path myself. Sure becoming vegan has been great, but I readily admit to having been a bit of a "junk food vegan" in the last year and I know I need to clean-up my act a little!
I'd always heard that cats are obligatory carnivores, but that dogs can be very healthy on a vegan/vegetarian diet? Have I gotten this backwards all this time?!

Kati said...

Oh boy! I can't wait to see how you guys do on a high raw diet. I'm not sure if you knew this, but I've experimented with raw foods myself. I went 100% for about two and a half months last year, went through a pretty serious detox, and noticed quite a few changes, but not enough to keep me on the diet (I actually started gaining weight, although I know I was relying too heavily on nuts and denser foods - not enough fresh food). Alissa's book is what first got me interested in the whole concept - I love that "salmon" pate and yours looks delicious with that avocado! A lot of her recipes were hit or miss for me, though, but that's kind of true with all raw food, especially if you start dehydrating things.

I totally agree with you on the beans and cooked vegetables. I say, as far as the veggies go, it's better to eat them cooked than not eat them at all. I think the raw foods movement can be too exclusive and dogmatic a lot of the time, which precludes a lot of people from taking its advocates seriously...and possibly learning something valuable from this style of eating.

Good luck - I can't wait to hear your insights!

Freedom said...

Wow, that's totally amazing! I have been raw vegan for 7 months (after 2.5 years cooked vegan) and I feel amazing - plus casper and sana (dog and cat) both eat raw meat and are thriving. I truly believe it is the way to go for all people and their domesticated animals, and the environment too. Please check out my blog if you have any questions or want some recipe inspiration!
Good luck!

Tracy said...

Thanks for stoppng by and for the encouragment!

*a* - you're right, dogs can survive on a vegetarian diet, but I'm not convinced it is *optimal* for them. I feel it's my responsibility to feed them as close to their natural diet as possible, and not impose my ethical position on them. That's just what works best for us! (and Pete actually feeds them the meat so I don't have to touch it)

Veg-a-Nut said...

That is cool that you are finding what works for you. I eat alot of fresh fruit and veggies, but like you I thrive on cooked beans. I told my Omni husband that my body craves the protein in beans. I can just eat them plain and my body feels good. I have a girlfriend who went raw a couple years ago. She is now a raw vegan chef and she lost about 30lbs when she began. I also have another girlfriend who went raw vegan about 5 years ago. I am not sure she is doing her body good. Yes she lost weight, but her teeth are being destroyed. I am not sure if she is missing some nutrient or what. That is kinda sad.

My dogs will eat anything, but love apples and carrots.

Our cats won't touch raw animal food. Weird?

*a* said...

Thanks, Tracy! That's great info to have. You're lucky you have someone to do the dirty work for you!

Veg*Triathlete said...

Really interesting post, Tracy! I've been really interested in raw foods for some time now and have some of the same concerns about the "science" and dogma of the movement. I can say that I feel best when I eat mostly raw. I've found that especially in winter I like to add some cooked veggies and grains and tofu/tempeh. Ultimately, I think what's the best diet varies from person to person. I look foward to reading more about your experiences!

bazu said...

This is really interesting- I will love hearing about your progress and your thoughts. I also want to try the raw diet at least for one month. I've decided to do it over the summer, just because there will be so many more fruit and veggie options then! good luck!

Tanya said...

Hi Tracy,

Good luck on your raw quest. I don't know if you know about Simply Raw - its an Ottawa based organization. They have monthy potlucks - here's the link:

I haven't been to one myself but it sounds like a great opportunity to try a variety of raw foods. The next one has a talk by Brendan Brazier which should be really interesting.
Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

I have been reading up on nutrition a lot lately and agree that the raw foodist enzyme claims have not been substantiated so I have not gone the raw foodist way. I have also heard that toxins such as oxalic acid which affects the absorption of calcium is found in some vegetables like spinach and other leafy greens. And like mentiond b4 lightly cooking (steaming) veggies breaks down the cell walls ( broccoli and carrots) allowing more of their nutrients to be absorbed. So I would eat a lot of veggies but not too many raw-

Running Raw said...

Great post... I'm glad to see that you are exploring "raw" foods. It's really a more common sense, natural diet than a dogma... it's food at nature intended it to be - simple and nutritious. Yes, there is a LOT of misinformation being distributed by the so called "raw gurus". But it does work. Check out my site and join the revolution!


james said...

Hey great stuff pal!!
I really loved some recipies given by you.I am a body builder and very health concious person.What can be the best suited diet for me?