Including raw food in our diet is pretty mainstream nowadays in part due to the popularity of celebrities like Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley sisters. Using a spiriliser to make courgetti isn’t as unusual as it was a few years ago and there’s much more awareness of gadgets such as dehydrators to make nutritious crisps and crackers.
I’ve run weekly raw food classes on health retreats for the past 4 years and I also give raw food and healthy eating workshops in Bristol. The majority of people I meet are choosing to eat more raw food to help with weight loss, boost energy levels, for radiant skin and to improve their overall level of health. From these classes, I have found that there is a lot of stress around eating healthy food and the questions I am often asked in relation to raw food include how much to eat, how to combine raw with cooked food, is some raw food better than others, how can we make it easy and is it going to be expensive.
In a nutshell, raw food can be really quick to make, it doesn’t have to be gourmet restaurant quality or time consuming in order to taste delicious. We can easily combine raw food with our favourite cooked recipes and we don’t have to break the bank to do it. There are a couple of really nutritious foods we can include such as fermented foods, seaweeds and algae that are affordable and nutrient dense. Raw also doesn’t mean cold – we can make raw soups, raw curries, warm food up and use warming spices such as ginger, chili and cayenne which means that including raw food over winter in the UK is a much more feasible option.
Something to bear in mind – just because a food is termed raw, it doesn’t therefore guarantee that it’s healthy. We can follow a vegetarian diet devoid of vegetables and minerals or a vegan diet full of highly processed food, likewise, it is easy to make unhealthy raw food choices, the most common of which is to consume too many nuts and too much dried fruit.
Including a variety of raw nuts and seeds in our diet provides essential fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals but we can easily overdo it so be discerning when looking at recipes and aim to eat less than a handful a day if that. If we start our day with a nut based granola served with nut milk then we are more than likely done for nuts for the day so if later in the day we have some cashew cheese on almond and flax crackers followed with some cashew cheesecake, you can see how easily it can get out of hand if we’re sticking to raw and haven’t balanced our meals.
“Sugar free” is also a bit of a misnomer, especially if recipes are packed with honey, maple syrup and dates which all impact our blood glucose levels. These choices are better than refined white sugar but to be honest, it’s still sugar in our body. Our activity levels will impact what happens to the sugar we eat – if you’re about to hit the gym or head off cycling then you’ll burn it off but if you’re sitting at a computer munching on sweet potato brownies, there’s a strong likelihood that the carbs will turn to fat. These sweet alternatives can be helpful if we are trying to break away from eating refined foods, wean ourselves off junk food or reduce the amount of sugar we eat but they are best eaten in moderation.
It still surprises me to see so many raw sweets containing agave on the market as it’s a highly processed product full of chemicals. It may be a low in glucose but that’s because is is astronomically high in refined fructose (which is not to be mistaken with fructose found naturally in fruit with fibre and phytonutrients) and can cause havoc on our health. Eating rapadura or raw cane sugar is a better option!
Personally I love raw food but it’s not the only food I eat and I don’t suggest trying to follow a high raw diet diet unless it’s something that feels good and brings you joy. I do know a handful of people who follow a completely raw diet and it works incredibly well for them but they’ve been doing it for over 20 years so they’ve learnt what works, it’s become second nature and they also make sure their diets are supplemented correctly. Raw food can be transformational in terms of wellness but there are a lot of factors aside from diet that contribute towards our health. It’s no good forcing down a green smoothie, chia pudding or salad if we’re not enjoying it and there’s no way that we can simply eat our way to good health – we also need to take into consideration our activity levels, hydration, rest and relaxation. Work out what is manageable and realistic in terms of food preparation and more importantly ask yourself if you have a healthy attitude towards your diet and lifestyle choices.
There is so much conflicting information available online it’s no wonder that there is confusion about what to eat. Many people have told me they’ve felt guilty for making poor food choices or feel bad that they have no resolve to stick to what they believe is the correct way to eat. With the explosion of health related social media accounts promoting clean living, it’s easy to get swept away with the idea that food and lifestyle choices can be good or bad, an idea which can be damaging and easily lead to eating disorders if we’re not careful. It’s all very well looking at images of toned bodies in yoga poses or an ultra beautiful breakfast bowl but these lifestyle ideals can be misleading.
It’s for this reason that I started relating our food and lifestyle choices to cellular health in all of my workshops. It provides a framework to help us make choices with the knowledge that we are nourishing our cells and doing the very best that we can in order to feel good, which is what most of us are aiming for. There is no separation between body, mind and spirit so whatever is happening at a cellular level will be reflected on every level of our being. If we’re feeling tired, guilty, angry or stressed then it’s a good indicator that we may need to tweek something we’re doing. Lets stop and ask ourselves why our cells might be feeling the way they are and what they might need in order for us to feel better.
A high raw diet has the potential to help us feel wonderful but not if we’re getting stressed about it or eating raw treats all the time. It’s a silly notion to prescribe a one-diet-fits all because our needs are individual so we must work out what’s best for us. If we find ourselves veering off track, the best guidelines I’ve found to come back to are: eat real food that are not processed, choose fresh vegetables free from pesticides whether they are cooked or raw, include essential fats in our diet, opt for grass fed and organic animal products if we choose to eat them and don’t get stressed if none of this is an option. Most importantly of all, enjoy what we are eating.
Anna Middleton is a nutritional chef and health educator. You can find more of her thoughts, essays, and recipes at her website.