Raw food, fruitarian or paleo?

A new food trend goes beyond vegetarianism and veganism


It’s raw food’s moment. The newest food trend took centre stage in Milan on 1 December with Raw for Love, a “raw food cuisine course” where 100 people – with all proceeds to charity – got to grips with recipes where you don’t switch on so much as a burner (much less an oven). The rules of raw food are very strict: food must not reach a temperature higher than 42 degrees – nothing that it wouldn’t reach on the hottest summer days, in short. As for what to eat, raw foodists range from those who include sushi, sashimi, carpaccio and eggs, to those who combine raw food with vegetarianism, or even veganism, and only eat foods of plant origin.

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Doctors and nutritionists have been investigating the possible health benefits of a burner-free diet since the 1930s. Swiss doctor Maximilian Bircher-Benner (who entered the history books as the inventor of muesli) opened a sanatorium in Zurich based on the use of raw food. In 1984 Leslie Kenton published “Raw Energy” in the United States, a bestseller that sang the praises of raw food with a plethora of recipes to bring tasty dishes to the table, from salads to soups and desserts.

However, raw food’s real comeback began in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s. In 1994, young chef Juliano Brotman opened Juliano’s Raw, a restaurant serving only raw food, in Los Angeles. The restaurant’s clientele grew and notably included cinema and TV stars, always on the hunt for new food trends to talk about in interviews. From Robin Williams to Steve Jobs and Demi Moore to Woody Harrelson (who would soon open a raw food restaurant of his own), they became fans of Juliano, who in the meantime wrote highly successful books (see links) and closed and reopened his restaurant in bigger premises.

From California, raw food also took off in Europe – and in Italy, with associations such as Nudo & Crudo, which organised the event in Milan.

For its enthusiasts, eating raw food means keeping enzymes, anti-oxidants and bacteria intact that would otherwise be destroyed in cooking and that can promote digestion, strengthen the immune system and slow the body’s aging process. As is often the case with diets, the few scientific studies on the issue have yielded conflicting results: some show benefits, especially when raw foodism is combined with a vegetarian diet: reduced risk of developing certain cancers and lower blood cholesterol levels. However, others reveal a risk of weakened bones and teeth, and pathological weight loss. It’s certainly a good idea to talk to a specialist before deciding to make a radical change of diet.

As for the fundamental basis of the raw food diet – that consuming raw food is the more “natural” choice for human beings – some scientists see this very differently. The most famous of these is Richard Wrangham of Harvard University, who has proposed a radically different argument for some years now. In his view, it was actually cooking that made the leap from ancient hominids to homo sapiens possible. Wrangham bases this on two facts: the body needs to expend a lot more energy to digest raw food, while the brain is the part of the body that consumes the most energy. Put these two things together and you realise that if you’re eating raw foods, which are generally not highly nutritious – as was the case for our ancestors, who couldn’t rely on animal husbandry or agriculture but had to settle for collecting whatever they found – the brain can’t grow very much. Gorillas already spend 80% of their waking hours eating, and they need less energy than we do. If they had brains as big as ours, they would need to eat for nine hours a day.

However, cooking predigests food, changing its chemical properties: fire (or rather heat) does the work for us and allows us to save energy, which we can then use to fuel the huge brains we have in our heads. According to Wrangham, this leap forward took place between 1.8 and 1.6 million years ago, when our ancestor Homo erectus started using fire to cook food. Most anthropologists actually see things differently, believing that use of fire began much later when the modern human brain had already developed. However, if Wrangham is right, we should say: I cook, therefore I am.

Who doesn’t eat what, and why

Vegetarianism: The oldest and most popular of the “food minorities”: vegetarians do not eat meat and fish, or any foods that involve the killing of an animal. There are many variants, from semi-vegetarianism (which allows eating fish) to ovo vegetarianism and lacto vegetarianism, which do not allow dairy products and eggs respectively. In many western countries, between 5% and 10% of the population describe themselves as vegetarian. According to Eurispes data, Italy is the European country with the fiercest vegetarian contingent: 10% of the population.

Veganism: The most radical wing of those who don’t eat food derived from animals: not only no meat or fish, but also a strict ban on dairy products and eggs. The term arose in Great Britain in 1944. Since then, the vegan movement has been constantly growing. In addition to cereals, fruit and vegetables, vegan cuisine includes an abundance of legumes to provide the protein that most vegetarians get from eggs and dairy products.

Fruitarianism: Fruits only: apples, pears, apricots and peaches, but also pumpkins, tomatoes and cucumbers, in short the things we commonly call vegetables but that are actually the fruits of their respective plants. No meat or fish of course (or dairy products or eggs) but no leaves, flowers, roots or seeds either. So it’s farewell to salads, cabbages, rice, wheat and corn. This diet is particularly restrictive and risks nutritional deficiencies, and is primarily adopted for ethical and religious reasons: from the belief that fruit was the diet of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to the desire not to damage not only animals but also plants, since fruit is actually the only part of the plant that can be taken away without killing it.

Paleo Diet: This is a modern take on what is presumed to have been our ancestors’ diet in the palaeolithic era. It includes fish, meat from pastured animals, eggs, fruit, mushrooms and nuts. There are no cereals, legumes, dairy products, refined salt and sugar or oils, all foods that only appeared with agriculture, the domestication of plants and animals, and food processing (whether artisanal or industrial).
The paleo diet was popularised by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin in the 1970s, and has been promoted in numerous books and articles based on the idea that human genes have not had time to adapt to the changes introduced with agriculture. In spite of its avowedly scientific bases, it is disputed by many evolutionists (who point out how much human genes have changed just in the last 10,000 years, such as the gene for lactose tolerance which has become widespread over a few thousand years since the beginning of animal husbandry). Nutritionists also object, with a panel of experts interviewed last year by the magazine US News & World Report placing it last (for its effects on health and effectiveness in weight control) out of the 29 most popular diets in the United States. On a par with the Dukan Diet, but that’s another story.

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