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WHO AND WHAT IS A RAW FOODIE?
The Florida Times-Union
August 14, 2008
If they aren't dining at the only restaurant in Northeast Florida that caters to them, they meet up in each other's homes. Their diets are so far from the mainstream, there's little they can order in a typical American restaurant.
For them, eating is a quasi-religious experience, a quest to consume living plants that still have "life force."
They are raw foodies.
For most who follow this diet - which makes veganism look comparatively undisciplined - it is a way to improve health, digestion and well-being. Others do it for environmental reasons; eating raw means no processing, no cooking, no slaughter of animals. It is the world's least carbon producing diet, they say.
There are more than 200 people who belong to the Yahoo group Jax Raw, and their numbers are growing. The diet has received some buzz thanks to Hollywood: celebrities such as Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore have reportedly dabbled in raw, and the cuisine was featured prominently - if mockingly - in an episode of Sex and the City.
They do not consume meat or any dairy products. Instead, their calories come from fruits and vegetables. On the most basic level, raw foodies believe that essential enzymes are destroyed when foods are heated above about 118 degrees.
Critics of the diet say the enzyme theory is false, and in fact claim that many foods are enhanced nutritionally by cooking. And, because raw foodies don't do dairy, tofu or most beans, they say followers don't get enough protein.
But for those who believe, the diet has been anything but a detriment.
"This is the best I've felt in years," said Candice Walker, a 51-year-old Ponte Vedra Beach woman who has been raw for more than a year. "I'm back to the weight I was in high school, and I'm not starving myself."
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I met two members of the Jax Raw group for lunch on a weekday last month. At the request of the group organizer, we met at HealthyWay Cafe, an organic eatery that caters to health-conscious consumers. Knowing my dining companions don't eat meat, I ordered a rice and bean bowl with steamed broccoli. I would learn there was nothing before me my dining companions would eat. All the items had been heated above that tepid 118 degrees.
The organizer admitted she had never actually eaten at the cafe, and she found little on the menu she could eat.
She ended up ordering a fruit salad. The salad came with yogurt, which was out (dairy). As was the dressing (heated and processed).
Ian Keogh, who's been totally raw for more than two years, had a less complicated order: two glasses of orange juice.
Although following such a strict diet comes with a kind of purest high, Keogh admitted the hardest parts about being raw are psychological and social. If you're trying to stay raw on your birthday, for example, there will be no cake or ice cream from the grocery store.
"My parents, especially at first, didn't really understand this way of eating at all," said Keogh, 31. "They're more accepting but they still think it's a crazy nut and salad diet."
The uniqueness of the diet is what leads to such strong communities of raw foodies, like the one in Jacksonville. They depend on each other for recipe ideas and social support.
The vernacular of raw foodies often drifts to numbers. How hot is the food, what percent raw are you, and how long have you been doing it? Most people who begin the diet might try making one meal a day raw, making them 25 percent raw. Because of the difficulty of adopting the diet - common foods such as bread and pasta are verboten - many don't get beyond 75 percent raw.
Instead of ovens, raw foodies use blenders and dehydrators to prepare food. Not surprisingly, most adherents to this diet lose weight rapidly.
Keogh, for example, is 5 feet 10 and weighed 175 pounds before he went 100 percent raw. In months, he dropped to a wiry 145 pounds.
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Research into the benefits and drawbacks of the raw diet are minimal. A Washington University researcher in 2005 found that people who follow a raw diet tend to have less bone mass than those who don't. But, he surmised, it's probably because they weigh less. That study only involved 18 raw foodies.
Other research has raised concerns that women who follow the diet miss periods - again because of low body weight.
Tara Gidus, an Orlando-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said there are many benefits of such a diet but they don't outweigh the risks.
"We know that a plant-based diet is good for you. All major health organizations, study after study, show people who eat it are healthier than people who eat a lot of animal protein," she said. "But, I believe raw takes it to an extreme that could be unhealthy."
Gidus, whose specializes in nutrition for vegetarians, said mainstream science doesn't support raw foodies' claims that heating food degrades it. In fact, certain foods, such as tomatoes, have been shown to be more potent nutritionally when cooked, she said.
And even if one doesn't eat meat, heating foods can help kill off toxins such as salmonella. Choosing organic produce - which most raw foodies do - doesn't necessarily help, Gidus said, because organic produce is often grown with manure as a fertilizer.
"Organic fruits and vegetables have actually been shown to have higher levels of bacteria," she said.
Followers of the raw diet aren't deterred. The raw foodies look to texts such as Enzyme Nutrition by Edward Howell, a medical doctor who began using nutritional therapies in 1930, as blueprints for their lifestyle.
They realize mainstream America is suspicious of their lifestyle, but they are just as suspicious of mainstream America. The food pyramid, many believe, is the result of intense lobbying by the meat and dairy industries.
And, it's obvious to them the current recommendations aren't working.
"The necessity for this nation to get healthier is glaring, and this is one of the easiest ways to get health," said Yvette Schindler, who owns the all-raw Present Moment Cafe in St. Augustine.
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Step into the kitchen at Present Moment, and you won't find vats of cooking oil or even an oven. When Schindler opened the restaurant two years ago, the concept was so unusual, city inspectors didn't know what to make of her idea.
"At first they thought it was an oyster bar - that was the only kind of raw restaurant they'd heard of," she said. "The feeling was that if there was no meat or fish or dairy, there would be nothing to eat."
She said hers was the first raw foods restaurant in Florida. Now there are at least four, and another - Cafe 118 - is slated to open soon in Orlando.
For Schindler, eating raw isn't about what you can't eat; it's about all the things you can eat.
At her cafe, you'll find pasta on the menu (made from zucchini); chips (made from dehydrated corn); a burger (made from a nut, carrot and zucchini puree); and ice cream (made from pureed cashews and coconut meat).
And the food, with varying textures and flavors, is quite good, even to a palate more accustomed to traditional American fare.
A former macrobiotic chef in Sante Fe, N.M., Schindler, 58, initially thought the diet was too radical. But she tried it as an experiment after her son introduced her to it. Now she is an unabashed raw foods evangelist.
"You don't have to take a banana or nut and cook it - it's done," she said. "Insects and animals are enjoying that vitality in nature. So should we."
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This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/081408/lif_317855080.shtml.