Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Relishing Raw Food

Eating “raw food” sounds easy, doesn’t it? You just get a bunch of raw nuts, vegetables, and fruits and eat them! But it’s more complicated than that. How do we get enough protein, for example? Protein is no small matter, as I keep reminding myself, and nuts for every meal just don't offer enough protein. We can live without eating carbohydrates, but we can’t live without eating protein. In fact, we can live quite well by eating nothing but protein (and fat). So that gives an idea of just how much significance we ought to be giving our protein needs.

Protein. When you think about it, most of the protein we eat is processed or heated in some fashion, for example – cheese, tofu, and yogurt. Even oats, believe it or not, have been heated and processed. Unless you specifically buy them unprocessed, as in oat groats or buckwheat groats, for example. The “groat” is the unprocessed grain.

If you look at a classic raw food menu for a day, the protein content is really quite low – about 40-50 grams a days, at best, which would only meet basic metabolic needs (theoretically). My body currently needs more than 60-80 grams a day for optimal functioning.

That being said, those who have been on a raw food diet for sometime swear to their increased energy, stamina, and health levels. I suspect that, as the body detoxifies itself with all those powerful enzymes contained in the unprocessed food, it becomes much more efficient at processing and using the protein. And therefore less protein would be needed to function optimally.

Enzymes and phytonutrients. Enzymes are just proteins, and this is only one of our body’s protein needs. So the big deal about eating raw food is for the enzymes (and other micro-nutrients). Enzymes power nearly every biochemical reaction in our bodies! The incredible diversity and powerful functions of enzymes continue to astound me. I took a graduate course in college (nutrition science) on the study of enzymes. At the time I wondered why in the world I’d need to know so much about them, but now I’m glad I do! To be honest, I think I’m just now beginning to appreciate these incredible messengers and workers in our bodies and all that they do.  Enzymes are definitely a big focus of mine right now, and this just lends more credence to the concept of food as medicine.

Our enzymes function optimally with a body temperature in the range of about 98.6. This obviously differs in each of us, but a too-cold body temperature causes them to be sluggish. It’s one of the reasons our bodies try hard to warm up when cold. It’s not just because it feels good.  And too much heat, of course, denatures and unravels all the beautiful enzymes, which renders them useless. The body has a way of working with what it’s got, and channeling what’s available to the most important functions so that life continues.

So what would you think would happen to one’s enzyme function during chronic illnesses? I’m one of those who believe with on-going illnesses, enzymes are somehow compromised and not functioning well. You only have to look at your body temperature to see the logic in this. It’s complicated, however, and can involve several organs like the thyroid (which helps regulate body temperature) and adrenals – two more of my favorite topics!

Many chemicals can also denature enzymes, such as acids. Think of “cooking” fish with lemon juice (acid) which would be Ceviche, that tasty Mexican dish. Who knows what all processing and chemicals added during processing have done to foods that used to be raw.

We’re only beginning to understand what phytonutrients are contained in foods, so who knows, really, what processing does to those beneficial micro-nutrients. We do know, however, that they are important! So this is a plus in the raw food department – it’s eating food in its most natural form.

The argument for eating less processed food is a powerful one, that’s for sure. Think about even a simple bag (package) of lettuce or greens purchased at the grocery store. We forget that all those greens have been through a processing plant, with chemicals added during washing to keep the bag fresh on grocer’s shelves (thanks to the modern wonders of “food science”). We pay a price for convenience and that’s true whether food is raw or cooked.

Harder to digest? The one argument for not eating raw food is one’s current state of health. If you have any digestive problems or have a chronic illness such as an autoimmune disease or especially chronic fatigue, adrenal fatigue, or fibromyalgia – then cooked food is much easier to digest. Much. In fact, you’ll probably find that eating raw food doesn’t go well, and I wouldn’t recommend it in the above situations.

In these cases, I always go with the Ayurvedic approach, which is to eat warm, cooked, oily/buttery foods that are easy to digest (depending on your body type and situation – ask me if you want more information on this). Warm, cooked foods also don’t need to use the body’s precious energy to warm raw food up to body temperature before digesting, and instead, contribute a little needed heat to the enterprise.

So how would someone with a chronic illness get the extra enzymes then? Good question. I’d recommend taking digestive enzymes (with food) and systemic enzymes (without food), such as Vitalzym or another good brand. The digestive enzymes are good for anyone, actually, especially over 40-50 years old, and the systemic enzymes are good for acute illnesses as well, such as recovering from a surgery. Drinking fresh vegetable juice on an empty stomach is also a great way to get systemic enzymes.

I’m fairly new to the raw food way of eating, but a raw food diet works really well with my no-grain (Paleo) food style, so I’m excited to keep learning and trying new things. I’m currently replacing one meal a day with a raw food meal – usually breakfast. I do cheat some, though, so that I can get enough protein and other nutrients until I get it all figured out. My body type and metabolic type require lots of protein, hence the cheating. For example, in the recipe Sunflower-Persimmon “Cereal”, I add some whey protein to bump up the protein so I don’t feel starved within 2 hours. But this is not a standard practice in the raw food arena. Also not standard -- the (processed) oats and roasted (cooked) sunflower seeds in this recipe. Think of this as more of a beginner’s recipe, but a good one!

So how much protein is in my raw breakfast “cereal”? With about 10 grams of whey protein added, and ¼ cup nuts added (about 7 grams protein), and the oats (about 2 grams) it’s almost 20 grams of protein. This works for me. Some folks find that less protein in the mornings works better, and have to force themselves to eat something at all.  This breakfast “cereal” would be a good thing to force yourself with!

You’ll find that raw food recipes really taste incredible! In a way that the raw components by themselves would not taste. I’m not sure why this is, unless it’s simply mixing the ingredients together in such an intense way, and unleashing all the phytonutrients – and possibly “flavinoids”?

Raw Breakfast “Cereal”.  For these breakfast “cereals’, anything that tastes good in a bowl of cooked oatmeal or a batch of cookies or any grain cereal you eat, will taste good in this raw version. The options are endless! Use almonds, cashews, walnuts, different grains (that are workable in the food processor), or dried cherries, raisins, dates, apricots, and different spices.

Here’s a recent combination that I liked. It tastes a little sweet and salty, not just sweet:

Sunflower-Persimmon “Cereal”
(makes 1 serving)

sunflower seeds, roasted& salted, ¼ cup
oats, ¼ cup dry uncooked
whey protein, 2 T, (optional), I use vanilla whey lightly sweetened with stevia
shredded coconut, 2 T
pumpkin pie spice
persimmon, 1 small Hachiya (the harder variety)
2 prunes (or dates)

Combine dry ingredients into food processor. Process (with steel blade) by pulsing at first, then constant until seeds are finely ground. Add the persimmon in big pieces and the prunes. Pulse until the desired texture. The dry ingredients will come together into a ball. Shape the mixture into a big ice cream ball onto a lovely plate or in a bowl, and enjoy!

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