I’ve decided to kick off 2008 with a 30-day trial of eating a 100% raw vegan diet. I’ve done a couple 30-day trials as well as a 45-day trial of raw foodism during the past several years, but I always went back to eating cooked vegan food. I’m eager to give it another try now because I’ve greatly increased my knowledge of how to succeed on this diet. This made me aware that my previous trials were terribly flawed from the start.
My first attempt at a raw diet was in ’97 or ’98. I decided to do a 30-day trial and lasted only 3 days before giving up. I failed because I was eating mostly vegetables and simply couldn’t get enough calories. I had no knowledge of how to eat a proper raw diet, so I just ate more of the raw foods I previously ate. I made really big salads and fruit smoothies, but I ended up spending a lot of time in the kitchen preparing food, and I was constantly hungry. It was hard to get even 1,000 calories a day this way. I concluded that raw foodism just wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to spend all day eating.
About 5 years later I became curious enough to try again. This time I educated myself by reading about the raw food diet from experienced raw foodists. I bought a couple raw cookbooks and experimented with recipes for several weeks in advance. I bought a juicer and an Excalibur dehydrator. This allowed me to successfully complete the 30-day trial. After a short period of detox, I felt absolutely fantastic on this diet — better than I’ve ever felt in my life. I probably lost 5-10 pounds in those 30 days as well. I knew I was onto something, but at the end of the trial, I still returned to eating cooked food because eating raw was too much work. I was spending 1-2 hours in the kitchen each day making complicated recipes with 15 different ingredients. I also had to go shopping more often to keep all the right fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs in stock. The main problem was that I only had raw gourmet cookbooks. The food was delicious, but I didn’t have time to become a gourmet chef. I felt great on this diet, but it was too inefficient for me to justify sticking with it.
A few years later I did another raw trial using essentially the same approach, and I got the same result. I liked the food, and I felt great, but I ultimately concluded it wasn’t worth the effort. I figured that the only way I’d go raw long-term was if I could pay someone to do all my food prep for me. But I also felt that if the diet took that much work, something just wasn’t right. Again, the mistake was trying to eat raw gourmet, which basically meant trying to duplicate cooked foods in raw form, such as raw pizzas, enchiladas, and nori rolls. Such foods can require a lot of effort.
A little over a year ago, I did another raw trial. This time I put aside the raw gourmet cookbooks and focused on simple recipes with only 5 ingredients or so. I found many great recipes online and in some books and ebooks. But I didn’t get the same result. I just didn’t feel as good as I did on the first couple trials. After the first week, I actually started to feel worse. That really confused me, so once again I went back to cooked vegan food.
My fascination with the raw food diet reminds me of the Dr. Soran character from the movie Star Trek: Generations. Once he experienced the bliss of the Nexus, he wanted nothing more than to return to it. After I experienced the incredible energy and vitality of my first 30-day raw trial, I’ve always wanted to return to it. Being vegan has given me a lot of benefits, both mental and physical (see Why Vegan? for details), but what I experienced from an all-raw diet was even better. I felt totally euphoric during my first raw trial, like I was constantly buzzing on an emotional high. Other raw foodists have reported similar results. The incredible feeling of well-being — emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually – is perhaps the diet’s most attractive benefit. I had enough of a taste of that feeling to know that it’s worth some effort to figure this out. If it takes me a few more years, so be it.
I knew there was something I was missing, so a few months ago, I started looking into the raw food diet in earnest once again, determined to make sense of my previous experiences. I read books and listened to audio programs from long-term raw foodists, including Dr. Douglas Graham, Frederic Patenaude, and Roger Haeske. I read blogs. I poured through FAQs. I subscribed to newsletters. I bought a phone consultation. I read hundreds of pages of insightful text, most of it written by people who have successfully gone raw and kept it up for many years.
I found that many other raw foodists struggled for years to fully convert. There’s a lot of conflicting information on this diet, and it can be a real challenge to make sense of it. Some versions of the diet produce great results; some don’t.
What I learned was extremely eye-opening, and I had many a-ha moments. I can see why my previous attempts failed to stick as well as why my most recent attempt produced negative results. I can’t share all of those insights in a single blog post, but I can share my most significant realization.
Fruit or Fat
When you eat a raw diet, there are two primary ways to get your calories. You’re either going to get most of your calories from fruit or from fat. It isn’t very practical to try to get your calories from vegetables, since you’d have to eat all day long. Most raw veggies are too low in calories, and high-starch vegetables like potatoes aren’t very edible raw. Also, you can’t really eat a high protein raw diet, since raw high protein means high fat, like eating lots of nuts and avocados. So if you want to get enough calories on a raw diet, the basic choice is: fruit or fat. Understanding this was a big breakthrough for me.
Many raw foodists go the high fat route, getting 50-70% of their calories from fat, with the remainder coming from fruits and vegetables. This is the approach I used in all my previous trials. Many of my recipes were heavy on nuts, seeds, avocadoes, coconuts, and cold-pressed oils. I’d often snack on a cup of raw almonds while working. That’s 72 grams of fat! I was still eating what I felt was a lot of fruit, but most of my calories were coming from the denser high-fat foods. I could easily hit 200 grams of fat in a single day. I favored those foods because it seemed like I couldn’t get enough calories otherwise. The gourmet raw cookbooks I had also favored high fat recipes, such as flax crackers, guacamole, and raw pâtés made from nuts and/or sunflower seeds. And I actually lost weight eating like that, and I felt great during all but the most recent trial. However, sometimes after those high fat meals, my stomach felt like it was filled with oil. I knew this wasn’t quite right. The foods were natural, but the overall diet seemed too unnatural.
The other raw school says high fruit is the way to go, restricting fat to 5-15% of total calories and getting around 5% of calories from vegetables. So you’re getting 80-90% of your calories from fruit (excluding fatty fruits like avocadoes and coconuts). In practice this means eating a lot more food, since fruit has a lower caloric density than fat. Among the best foods to eat on this diet are bananas and mangoes, since they have a high caloric density. A single banana or mango is about 100-130 calories, depending on the size. With a bit of practice, this can be a practical way to eat, since most fruit requires little or no prep time.
There’s very compelling biological evidence that a high fruit diet is optimal for human beings. I can’t share the volumes of info I’ve read about this, but one of the more convincing points is that the nearest animal species to human beings, including gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos all naturally favor a high fruit diet, meaning that when fresh fruit is readily available, they’ll get the vast majority of their calories from fruit. How they get the rest of their calories varies (nuts, seeds, insects, or even other animals), but a clear preference for a high fruit diet is something they all have in common. Another clue is that when people do eat a high fruit diet, they tend to reach their optimal weight, get sick much less often, and feel fantastic. Even I’ve noticed that when I have an all fruit breakfast, I feel much more energetic, assuming I eat enough calories. I could go on and on about the healthful properties of fruit, sharing enough references to keep you reading all day, but suffice it to say that fresh fruit is hands-down the best stuff you can possibly eat.
My recent studies strongly suggest that the high-fat approach to raw foodism is a mistake. It’s fairly well-established that a high-fat diet isn’t healthy in the long run, at least in its non-raw forms. Too much fat thickens the blood and reduces your energy. Excess fat in the bloodstream makes it harder for your cells to assimilate blood sugar, causing more sugar to hit the bloodstream which then leads to an explosion of yeast/Candida. It’s well-established that fresh fruit is the most optimal human energy source, but optimal results cannot be achieved when adding fruit to a diet that includes lots of fatty, cooked, or processed foods.
Many health experts recommend avoiding too much fruit, and such advice has a grain of truth when viewed through the lens of SAD (Standard American Diet), since merely adding fruit to the SAD diet won’t help much and may even produce adverse effects, such as exacerbating diabetes symptoms. But people have reported outstanding results with a diet that maintains fruit as the foundation. Dr. Douglas Graham, who’s been eating raw for 27 years (according to his online bio), recommends the 80/10/10 diet, a 100% raw diet which involves getting 80% of your calories from carbs (mostly fruit), 10% from from protein, and 10% from fat. I read a couple of his books many years ago (Grain Damage and Nutrition and Athletic Performance) and thought he was totally wacko. Now I think it’s more likely he’s a genius.
Fruit is naturally high in vitamins, and vegetables are naturally high in minerals, so the two make a great combo. A diet of 100% fruit is considered by many to be suboptimal and unhealthy in the long run, partly because it’s deficient in minerals and partly because people don’t seem to thrive on such a diet. Just getting 5% of calories from veggies, especially green leafy veggies, seems to provide plenty of minerals.
If you happen to be thinking, “But where will you get your protein?” then it’s unfortunate you’ve been taught that humans need a lot of protein… probably by marketers who want to sell you something or those they’ve managed to convince. As long as you consume adequate calories, protein deficiency just isn’t a realistic risk. You can start by reading The Great Protein Myth.
According to the Max Planck Institute, 25g of protein per day is plenty; the human body recycles most of its protein and has little need for dietary protein. There are tribes of extremely healthy people who thrive on 10-20 grams of protein per day. Excess dietary protein does far more harm than good. Who benefits from the perpetuation of the protein myth? The meat, dairy, and protein supplement industries and their advocates benefit most from it, especially since it gives them even more marketing dollars to keep the pro-mythology cheerleading going.
One of the strongest proponents of a high protein diet was Dr. Atkins, who had a heart attack, slipped on the sidewalk, and later died of kidney failure. At the time of his death he was also obese (255 lbs, 116 kg). Later his company declared bankruptcy. If you want to look like your skin has died on your body, then yeah, high protein is the way to go. If you’re curious, by all means test it for yourself.
30-Day Raw Foods Trial
For my upcoming 30-day raw trial, I’m going to test the high fruit version of this diet for the first time. I’ve been practicing this week by eating fruit until noon each day to get a feel for the right quantities. To do this diet correctly, I’ll be eating many pounds of fruit each day. For example, for breakfast yesterday, I ate 12 clementines (tangerines), a large Fuji apple, 2 leaves of romaine lettuce, a stalk of celery, a mango, and a liter of fruit smoothie (3 bananas, 1 mango, 2 stalks celery, 1 cup water). The effort to prepare this food was minimal. Afterwards I felt very energetic for hours.
For dinner last night, I ate a banana, a mango, a papaya, 2 stalks of celery, and a large bowl of blackberries and blueberries (about 1 cup of each). I could tell that wasn’t digesting as well, since I still had some cooked food in my stomach from lunch. When I’m doing 100% raw, that shouldn’t be a problem.
I noticed that even though Erin and the kids didn’t initially seem too excited about me doing this trial, when they see me eating so much colorful fruit, they often want a taste of it. During breakfast Erin took an interest in my clementines, while my daughter Emily asked for some of my smoothie. At dinner I shared some papaya with the kids upon request. Normally my kids don’t like to eat a lot of fruit, but when they see me eating it, they often want some. Just like a bonobo.
I’m going to make other refinements to my approach this time. On my earlier trials I included items like sea salt, cold-pressed oils, and spices, which are commonly consumed by many raw foodists. But this time I’ll be eating an even more restrictive diet. Here are some of the rules I’ll be following:
- 100% raw, living foods only (nothing dead/cooked)
- No processed foods
- No salt
- No oil
- No vinegar
- No spices like cayenne pepper, basil, oregano, etc.
- No maple syrup, honey, or other sugars
- No dried fruits like raisins or dates
- No condiments like Bragg’s liquid aminos or Nama shoyu
- No garlic, onion, or hot peppers
- No dehydrated foods
- No supplements or powders
- No green drinks
- No grains (wheat, rice, corn, spelt, etc)
- No beans (including all soy products)
- No caffeine (coffee, tea, etc)
- No alcohol
- Minimal juicing (Vitamix is OK since I still consume the whole food including the fiber)
- Raw nut butters and raw tahini used sparingly
- Favoring organic foods as much as possible
- Favoring proper food combining (avoid fruit-fat and other suboptimal combos)
- 5-15% of weekly calories from fat
This diet will essentially consist of raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, and that’s it. This is more restrictive than how most raw foodists eat, but I want to test a very pure, unadulterated version of this diet. I can always scale it back after the first 30 days.
Blogging the Trial
Depending on reader interest, I could blog about this experience as I go along or just share a summary at the end of the 30 days. I realize this may seem a very radical diet to some people, so I’m not sure how many people would care to read about my experience with it. If you’re interested in a detailed play-by-play, such as a daily food log, or if you’d like to learn more about raw foodism in general, please let me know via the contact form or by posting in the forums. I wouldn’t want this experiment to hijack the blog for a month if hardly anyone is interested, but I’m happy to share more info about it if people are genuinely curious. If I do log it publicly, I’ll of course be brutally honest in sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly. Obviously I want this trial to succeed, but this will be my 5th time doing a raw trial, so I feel prepared for any outcome.
If you happen to be a raw foodist yourself or have previously experimented with the diet, especially for longer than 30 days, I’d welcome your feedback and advice, either via the forums (public) or the contact form (private).
Since I’ve never eaten quite this way before, I don’t know what the results will be, but I’m looking forward to finding out. At this point I’m only committing to this for 30 days, from January 1st to January 30th. At the end of the 30 days (assuming I make it that far), I can decide whether or not to continue. If I do continue eating raw beyond that point, that would be a first for me. Will this be the one that sticks?
On another note there’s something strange about the very notion of this trial. I have to imagine the bonobos of the world would laugh at me for considering it a major challenge to eat the way they do. For now I must concede that point to them.
Update 12/31/2007: Due to very high reader support, I’m definitely going to blog this 30-day trial as I go along. See the next post for details: Raw Foods.