Friday, May 25, 2012

10 Days in the RAW!

      Being a food writer has its occupational hazards – mainly in the form of being really bad for you. Foie gras, cheese, booze and chocolate are all pretty tasty, but it ain’t health food. I have to admit, after some meals, I feel like the restaurant owes me a side of Lipitor just to make sure that I don’t keel over at the table.
            The dirty little secret to restaurant dining is this: the reason why the food taste so damn good is not just due to the talents of a genius chef. It’s the fat. And usually gobs of it. A couple of months ago there was a giant hullabaloo over Paula Deen’s deal with Novo Nordisk after revealing she had diabetes.[1] In the large debate over the Queen of Butter’s conduct, an intrepid reporter did a side-by-side nutritional profile of Deen’s “Oven Fried Wedges” vs. Thomas Keller’s “Tasting of Potatoes with Black Truffles.” Keller’s  received the heart attack on a plate award with 484 calories vs. 328 for Deen’s.[2] The price for this indulgence? A mad gym schedule, health problems or both.
            On the flip side, as a someone who writes often on health and sustainability issues, I have probably seen every single trendy diet out there – paleo, vegan, vegetarian, extreme caloric reduction, low-carb, Atkins, acai berry, tapeworm, human growth hormone, implanted feeding tube…you name it, I’ve seen it. But up until now, I haven’t tried any of them -mainly because they’re crazy fad diets[3] that have no sound scientific (read: double-blind test in a peer-reviewed journal) evidence for them.
            But one diet has intrigued me as of late – the raw diet. Touted by celebrities such as Woody Harrelson, Natalie Portman, Sting and even famed Chicago based chef, Charlie Trotter, the diet is supposed to help your loose weight, detoxify your body and increase your overall health and make you look as good in a bikini at 40 as Demi Moore (who is also an adherent to the raw diet cult).
The raw diet is basically what it sounds like. You only eat raw food.  So no yogurt, no cheese, no bread, no rice, no cooked meat (but sashimi and steak tartar are fine) or roasted vegetables. But it’s not that simple. If you look at the labels of most foods, there is likely some component that has been cooked.
            I, like many, am quite suspicious of any health endorsements, especially of the celebrity kind. But what got me thinking about the raw diet were not only the amount of people latching onto the diet, but also the amount of “scientific” information backing up these claims. The source of all these claims? Enzyme Nutrition by Dr. Edward Howell.[4]
            Basically, Howell says that raw foods contain enzymes that help with digestibility. By cooking foods, all those enzymes are destroyed, thus forcing the body to produce digestion enzymes that it otherwise wouldn’t need to produce. Because those enzymes are a finite resource and a “life-force”, wasting them on digestion would reduce the amount that could be used for other functions, such as overall health and longevity. Because raw foods still carry those life forces, enzymes, our body preserves its own enzymes for better health.
            Pretty kooky stuff, eh? But people love it, citing it all the time as the scientific justification for a raw diet. Never mind that the science is from the 1920’s and 1930’s.[5] Never mind that the empirical science is never demonstrated. Never mind that the logic is completely ass-backwards.[6] According to raw foodies, it’s ALL true!
            Since the fad took off, several scientists, anthropologists and nutritionists have blasted the “science” of raw food. Chief among them is the physical anthropologist Richard Wrangham. In his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Wrangham posits that large evolutionary moves in hominid history are largely attributable to larger caloric consumption in the form of cooked food.[7] By cooking food, Wrangham suggests that prehistoric food sources became more bioavailable-that is food becomes easier for the body to digest thus saving calories for other activities, like growing cranial and brain size. It explains the shortening of digestive tracts, it explains the shrinking of jaw and teeth size, and it explains the rapid development of earlier forms of hominid species to the modern homo sapien. In short, for Wrangham, cooking food was the key in pushing human evolution.
            I’m all for brain growth. I’m also all for easier mastication. But in the spirit of empirical research, I have decided I am going to put all these rawist claims to the test and actually try it for 10 days. Granted, I am not the most objective observer. But if I feel better at the end of 10 days, maybe there is something to be said for this diet…or maybe I will only be more convinced that this diet is a piece of @$#@$^!
            So for the next ten days, I will blogging about my experience in the RAW. God help me and someone please call an ambulance if you don’t hear from me in a while. It’s going to be a LONG haul.

[1] If you want to relive some great moments in food notoriety, read my post on Paula Deen here…..
[3] The vegan and vegetarian diets are exempt. There are plenty of good reasons to do both, and for the most part, they are very good for you and the planet. Vegans usually have to supplement their diets with some vitamins (due to incomplete protein sources) but for the most part, most scientists and nutritionists will agree that being vegan or vegetarian won’t hurt you and probably would even make you a healthier person.
[4] While the book has been published since 1994, the original manuscript is much older – from the 1946. Howell, Dr. Edward. Food Enzymes for Health and Longevity. 2nd ed. (Lotus Press, 1994).
[5] Yes, I do realize some science from the 1920’s and 30’s still holds, as in Einstein. But this stuff? Uh…handily defeated by something called biochemistry….
[6] For those of you interested in the logical fallacies, it’s the one called argumentum e silencio (or argument in silence). The argument basically says the argument must be true because of “lack of evidence.” In other words, just because no one has argued against the theory doesn’t mean that the theory is true.
[7] Wrangham, Richard. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. (New York: Basic Books, 2009). While Wrangham’s is a popularization of the larger debate in physical and developmental anthropology about fire and hominid development, the book does a nice job describing a lot of very complex academic arguments regarding cooked food and the use of fire.  Most of these debates revolve around the timing, effect and physical evidence around cooked foods and human development. For the articles regarding these debates, just go to the footnotes (says the footnote girl).