x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Beyond rare

Food The raw food diet is gaining popularity in Hollywood. Is there more to it than spinach juice, sprouted mung beans and steak tartare?

Tucking into raw food like steak tartare can do wonders for your immune system while also controlling your weight.
Tucking into raw food like steak tartare can do wonders for your immune system while also controlling your weight.

It's hard to get out of bed in the morning when you know the only breakfast you've got to look forward to is spinach juice and sprouted mung beans. It's even harder when someone invites you round to dinner and, instead of enjoying their cooking, you're obliged to bring pea pods and a plastic bagful of raw steak for yourself. Grim though it might sound, this has been my life for the last 10 days. Why? Because I've been trying out what is currently one of the hottest ways to boost your health and control your weight: raw foodism. Banning any food heated over 40°C or anything heavily processed from your diet, raw foodism is an extreme but increasingly fashionable regime that promotes uncooked food as the way to look and feel your best.

The ideas underpinning the diet are as follows. Uncooked food contains far higher levels of digestive enzymes, which may help your body extract more nutrition from what you eat, thus boosting your immune system, controlling your weight and increasing your vitality. Eating food without these enzymes can make digestion far more difficult, leading to a build-up of toxicity within the body, while raw foods can also have higher levels of vitamins and, as unprocessed produce, are free of harmful additives. There is also a group of raw foodists who believe that uncooked food is the diet that we're best evolved to process, as it's what we humans sustained ourselves with during our long history as hunter-gatherers. Cooked foods are a relatively recent phenomenon in our diet, they assert, and our bodies are not well suited to processing them.

These theories remain controversial. Some scientists have pointed out that digestive acids in the stomach kill uncooked food's enzymes anyway, so that their entering the digestive system raw makes little or no difference. Raw foodists have conceded this but countered it by pointing out that as there are no digestive juices in the upper stomach, this gives raw food's enzymes a 30-minute window in which to work effectively before moving into the lower stomach.

As for those who advocate uncooked food as our natural diet, anthropologists such as Richard Wrangham have vociferously disputed this, claiming that humans have actually been eating cooked food for the majority of their existence (up to 1.8 million years) and that the switch to cooking was a major factor in the development of our success as a species. So far, so confusing. But while I've found no undisputable evidence as to the effectiveness of a raw food diet, that hasn't stopped it becoming popular. The film stars Gwyneth Paltrow, Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Mel Gibson all follow some form of raw diet, and while they might not be the most reliable guarantors of a diet's effectiveness, their high profiles have helped raw foodism shift in public consciousness from being seen as a completely wacko, marginal fad to gaining acceptance as a viable way of keeping fit and healthy.

But what is it actually like living on the diet? Curious as to whether it might have any tangible benefits, I decided to try it for a brief ten day stretch myself. I reckoned this would give me time to get over any initial side effects but hopefully be brief enough to stop me climbing the walls in frustration. While there's nothing remotely scientific about a lone journalist giving a diet a 10-day test drive, I felt that, as someone already in reasonable health, I'd be well enough placed to detect any obvious differences.

I've tried to eat healthily for some years now, eating white flour, red meat and sugar only once or twice a week, making my own meals fresh rather than eating processed foods, grilling or baking rather than frying and eating loads of fresh fruit and vegetables every day. I do plenty of exercise and my weight is within the healthy limit for my height - in fact, my only concern is the gradual onset of some standard thirty-something love handles. Given that I'm following most of the general health and diet advice circulating at the moment, could eating only raw unprocessed for 10 days make any difference to my health?

Well, I can vouch that it made a difference to my wallet - the diet is criminally expensive. Throughout the 10 days, most of my meals consisted of raw and dried fruit and vegetables (often juiced), supplemented with nuts and seeds, as well as pulses such as lentils and chick peas that I sprouted myself at home. While this may not sound pricey, it's the sheer volume you need to stave off hunger that pushes costs up - 10 to 12 servings of organic fruit and veg a day never comes cheap. And while many raw foodists are vegan, I also ate raw fish and meat, in the form of Japanese restaurant sashimi and homemade steak tartare. Given that raw meat can be risky to eat if the quality isn't superb, I sought out only grass-fed organic beef (supposed to have far lower levels of bacteria in it), which was almost laughably expensive.

I also noticed how tediously complicated the raw food diet made my life. If you're out and about, you can't just drop in somewhere for lunch because the chances are everything they have will be cooked. I quickly realised I needed to carry round a bag of dried fruit and nuts to stave off hunger before I could get home to juice some hapless carrot. Not only is the diet complicated, it's also boring. Making raw meals taste different from each other is a real art, one that I failed to master. I had bought myself a wonderfully creative raw cookbook - Raw by Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein - but most of the intricate recipes inside seemed to require something called a food dehydrator and at least 12 hours to prepare, so I soon gave up on it. As you can probably tell, I got pretty fed up with the diet almost immediately. Mealtimes became monotonous and managing my daily food intake required such military exactitude that it felt more like invading Poland than scheduling a round of snacks.

It doesn't surprise me that film stars love the diet. It must be easier to follow if you have staff to arrange everything for you, and it's also an invitation to become vacuously self-obsessed. While veganism makes your life similarly complicated and requires equal amounts of self-denial and discipline, I can see how it makes sense as a way of life for people who are passionate about avoiding animal exploitation. Raw foodism, on the other hand, seems to demand all the single-mindedness and rigour of veganism, but without any ethical underpinning to make it all worthwhile.

But while there are plenty of drawbacks to the raw food diet, I am grudgingly obliged to admit something: it works. During the first few days I had mild headaches, slight daytime drowsiness and such appalling bloating and flatulence I scarcely dared leave my flat. After about four days, however, this subsided and I realised with a surprise that I felt completely fantastic, with far more energy and clearer skin.

By the end of the 10 days, I had lost 1.5 kg. I had been to the gym three times during this period, which surely helped, but I hadn't attempted to limit the volume of food I ate. In fact, I positively stuffed myself. Whether these benefits had anything to do with the live enzymes in my food I can't say, but the obvious advantage of the diet is that it forbids so many foods that you're effectively forced to eat vast quantities of fresh produce if you don't want to starve.

Going back on to cooked food afterwards felt odd: I'd already forgotten how gluey bread felt in the mouth and I definitely felt heavier after eating. I was actually glad the following morning to be back on my sprouted chickpeas and raspberry juice. Having spent the first four days of the diet with a stomach as puffed up as a World War One zeppelin, I never imagined I'd end up having a good word for raw foodism, but while it's complicated, expensive and gets in the way of your life, I felt so much better that I've now sworn to eat only one cooked meal a day. Damn.