When I first heard of the growing popularity of raw foodism - a lifestyle that advocates a diet of 80 to 100 per cent uncooked, unprocessed food - I thought, "Aha, here is the next fad!"
Raw foodists, however, see nothing new in eating raw. Animals in the wild have never eaten cooked or processed food. And they remain relatively free from those diseases, like diabetes, that are increasingly common in humans and domesticated animals.
Eating raw food is thought to increase resilience to disease, give more energy, better skin tone and increased physical strength and endurance (many athletes choose it for this reason). Why? Because enzymes, probiotics and nutrients are destroyed or denatured in the cooking and/or processing of food, but in raw food they are abundant and fully available for nourishment. And the enzymes aid digestion, leaving more energy for other biological processes, such as healing disease.
A living laboratory
Curious, I arrange to speak with New York based nutritional scientist and raw food advocate Dr Fred Bisci (PhD). After a lifetime of clinical study and personal experimentation (using his own body as a laboratory), and after supervising dietary change in over 35,000 clients, I'm certain his views will be well grounded in experience.
"This is not a philosophy. This is not an abstract science," he tells me. His practice is scientific, its evidence base including the body's electrical and chemical reactions to what is ingested and assimilated. Time and again, he says, he has seen the astonishing results that a diet of raw food can produce.
Dr Bisci has lived on a 100 per cent raw food vegan diet for over 45 years. And, if you were wondering, yes that means no processed or cooked food, no meat, dairy or eggs: 45 years of fruit, vegetables, juices, and grains, nuts and legumes (soaked). Daunting, even for the health nuts among us.
If Dr Bisci makes it seem easy, keep in mind he was once an Olympic-style weight trainer: reaching his highest potential has always been an interest in some way. This rigorous commitment to health seems to have paid off. He is entering his eighth decade, disease free, with sparkling eyes, abundant energy and the physical vigour of a forty year old. "Eating food in its highest biological state, and cleanest form, slows down the ageing process," Dr Bisci says. "The body responds in a dramatic way with a sense of wellbeing and more mental clarity."
Fuelling the body with raw food is like putting a high octane fuel in your car: the system just runs cleaner, more efficiently.
Leave out the harmful
"When I was a little boy in the '30s and '40s, the people I knew rarely got sick," Dr Bisci says in his book Your Healthy Journey. "We were born at home and were fed whole, real foods grown by my mother and her children in a very large garden."
Now enter the new age of "scientific processing and devitalisation of our food". Dr Bisci strongly believes cutting out processed foods is the most important thing you can do for your health. In fact, those trendy diets like the Zone Diet and Eat Right for Your Type Diet "have some validity and can all claim good results because of one single common denominator: they encourage you to eliminate the toxic, processed foods that are so destructive to human physiology".
So, if you do nothing else, follow this one simple rule: don't eat it, if you can't hold it in your hand and see that it has grown on a tree, sprouted from a seed, or been plucked straight from a garden bed.
A measured approach
Simple, however, should not be confused with easy. Just this weekend I met friends at the beach for chocolate chip ice cream, dipped absent-mindedly into a communal bag of potato chips at a BBQ and ate blueberry cheesecake to celebrate a birthday...all pleasurable, and all examples of how personal and social habits revolve so frequently, so unconsciously, around processed food.
At the supermarket, however, I try to take Dr Bisci's good advice. I make efforts to seek out only what could theoretically grow in my garden. I am inspired. There's a vital spring in my step already, as I clutch the shopping basket, ready for the challenge. A few aisles later, my basket is still empty. The shelves may be teeming with potential fuel for my body, but most of it is pre-cooked, canned, preserved, and, to use Dr Bisci's term, "devitalised".
What a 100 per cent raw food diet requires seems extreme in a world overflowing with the convenience of processed food. For this reason, Dr Bisci cautions against being fanatical. He does not demand that his patients be puritanical followers (after all, it is supposed to be science, not ideology, at work here).
"I don't push it onto people. There are many variables and individual needs. I always work with people where they're at," Dr Bisci says. "For example I work with athletes who want to eat animal protein.
"In dietary change I also bring into play psychology. Many people self medicate with food. But when we look at change, we have to start somewhere. If someone drinks and smokes, I suggest first that they give up smoking. The rest can come gradually. The idea is to do the best you can without becoming obsessive," he says.
In Your Healthy Journey Dr Bisci makes a point of keeping perspective. He knows first hand what a difference good food can make to wellbeing, but he also knows, "Food is just fuel so you can live a full and healthy life. There are a lot of wonderful things out there, besides food - fresh air, a beautiful place in the country, music, art, family and friends...I socialise with a lot of people that don't eat a great diet. I have some fantastic friends that eat the worst diet in the world."
The science behind the raw food diet also shows that obsession doesn't always serve you well. Eating only raw food dramatically changes body chemistry, and change is stressful for the body. To go 100 per cent raw, then suddenly switch back to processed foods is the worst thing you can do. What is best is to work out the highest percentage of raw food that you can comfortably sustain, and stick to it.
"The body is extremely adaptable and consequently you have a 20 per cent margin of error - meaning that without doing everything perfectly, you can still achieve a very good result," Dr Bisci says.
Raw food for healing
Those with serious illnesses are obviously more motivated to alter their lives for their health's sake. Clarisse and Maria, both diagnosed with breast cancer, have made a journey to recovery through a mixture of mainstream medicine and Dr Bisci's lifestyle interventions. Since switching to raw food, Clarisse and Maria have experienced unprecedented levels of health and wellbeing.
"I knew that a healthy lifestyle had always helped my blood pressure and migraines, but cancer was a new ball game," Clarisse explains. "The mainstream system didn't support recovery through nutrition at all." She sought out Dr Bisci for this part of her treatment, and has not looked back.
Maria agrees. "I have never felt so good in my life. I don't think anything would get me off it, because once you know the feeling of wellness..." she says. "Aiming for more of a raw percentage of food was the key. I started at 60 per cent raw food, now I eat 75 per cent raw, a raw breakfast and a raw lunch. Breaking old habits just snowballs because the more you do, the better you feel."
A raw food diet can be an effective way to support your body during illness. Nuts, fruits and vegetables, especially in their raw state, are well known for their ability to alkalise body chemistry. According to Dr Bisci, "Blood Ph should be between 7.35 and 7.45. If it's too acidic you have inflammation, and many diseases can be traced to inflammation." A raw food approach therefore is very effective in clearing secondary allergies and healing skin conditions. It also helps reduce weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, normalise thyroid function and bowel movements, to name a few. "When you eat a good diet some psychological problems may also clear up," Dr Bisci explains.
Dr Bisci estimates that 85 per cent of cancers are caused by lifestyle factors. Through lifestyle change it is possible to turn these diseases around, even reverse genetic tendencies towards illness.
But, he warns, diet is not a panacea. "Some foods have medicinal value," he says, "but food is not the cure. A raw food diet helps the body access its own God-given renewal and remedial capabilities, which is allowed to happen when you remove what is harmful."
After going raw, Maria says: "I taste food so much better...everything feels right about it. I eat salad with absolute enjoyment. My eyes are so much clearer, my hair more beautiful." Ironically, at a time when technically there was still cancer present in her system, she says she had never felt greater levels of wellness.
In researching this article I heard similar claims from others; many don't want to give up a raw food diet once they've tried it, the benefits being not only positive, but tangible.
Beyond the physical aspect, there is the emotional, mental, and spiritual too.
In his book Dr Bisci says: "When you commit to a healthy lifestyle, your blood gets cleaner and your mental sharpness and spiritual clarity becomes elevated...Can a mere diet have an impact not only on the mind and body, but also on the spirit? Absolutely yes." When I ask him about this he remarks, "The body is part of a unified system and having a clear, healthy, energised body has benefited the non-physical areas of my life tremendously."
Your healthy journey
When we ask what's new in health, forget the latest health revolution. It's the industrialised diet that we've come to accept as the norm that has really caused the shock waves - to the biological system we depend on and experience the world through.
Your healthy journey begins, says Dr Bisci, when you are able to "submit faithfully to the laws of nature".
Move away from the dazzling, colourful, processed foods that saturate our existence, to food that the human body knows how to utilise best. It's a simple step, and will become easier too when you can almost taste the life force in a salad, compared to the dead weight of junk food. While I'm not sure if a 100 per cent raw food diet is for me, I'm definitely going to spend more time at the fresh produce section of my supermarket, where, I can now see, the food buzzes with vitality. And looks more and more irresistible.