While I relax with Erin and new baby Holden, several distinguished bloggers have been kind enough to guest-post here. Next up is Gena, a nutritionist and raw-food enthusiast with one of the most informative blogs out there, Choosing Raw. Here she is with an insanely helpful intro to raw foods and how they can make us better runners and endurance athletes.
Thanks, Matt, for having me as a guest on No Meat Athlete today. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a vegan with a passion for raw foods, who’s living and working in NYC. I’m also a clinical nutritionist, and my emphasis as a counselor is on helping people learn to eat healthy plant-based diets. I’m also the voie behind Choosing Raw – a blog devoted to helping people of all lifestyles to enjoy the benefits of raw.
RAW. What does that word suggest to you? Let me guess: extremism. Fringe movement. Zealotry. Deprivation. Starvation. Weird. Wacky. If you’re one of the many people who thinks this way, I’ll confess: I don’t entirely blame you. Many strict raw foodists can be zealous or fanatical in their approach, and some are a little wacky! (Many others are smart, welcoming, and altogether awesome.) I blame many of the misconceptions about the raw lifestyle on a single fact: raw foodism tends to attract extremists. And for this reason, many of the men and women who appreciate raw foods also tend to be a little militant in their thinking: they begin worrying about “how raw” they’re eating, or become convinced that eating 100% raw is absolutely mandatory. Oftentimes, this kind of thinking is married with other sorts of food dogmas: strict adherence to food combining (the practice of eating foods that take similar amounts of time to digest together), fixation on toxicity in water, air, and the home, and obsession with fasting are a few examples.
In many ways, raw foodists have it right: many of us do upset our stomachs by eating foods that don’t digest well together all at once; we are constantly exposed to a barrage of toxicity simply by living in the contemporary world; and fasting can be a useful practice for those with compromised health. With all of that said, though, it’s a mistake to assume that one has to be dogmatic about 100% raw foodism or health practices associated with raw foodism in order to experience good health. One doesn’t. The important thing is to eat raw foods some of the time–a lot of the time–which is more than many people do. Cooking is so commonplace that none of us stop to consider the novel prospect of NOT cooking–of enjoying food just as it springs up from the earth. And the point of experimenting with raw food is to remind ourselves that raw foods have real health benefits, and that it’s important to enjoy food in both cooked AND raw form. Does it have to be all the time? Absolutely not. Is it wise to eat raw some of the time? Yes, it is.
So this leads me to an obvious question: What’s so great about raw food, anyway? And for the purposes of this blog, how can raw food help us perform athletically?
Let’s focus on the first question. Why raw? Well, it’s a complicated question, but I have a pretty simple answer: cooking food, especially veggies, can strip them of a great deal of their nutrient value. If we eat raw foods once in a while–or more than that–we give ourselves a chance to experience the full nutritional potential of a food. Some nutrients–like the lycopene in tomatoes–are actually released by cooking, and so it’s wise to eat raw AND cooked. But most of us could use more raw, and less cooked, and that’s why I’ve made it my mission to help people find simple, everyday ways to incorporate raw foods into their diets.
Pretty simple, huh? No hocus pocus, no scripture. Now, there are many other reasons why raw foods can be important. One of the main reasons why many people seek out raw foods is to get more live enzymes: it’s a fact that enzymes in food begin to die at 115 or 117 degrees. Enzymes are building blocks in many important bodily processes, and they’re also key to digestion. Our bodies make enzymes, of course, but the idea is that, if we keep a food’s enzymes intact, we actually give our body an extra boost of digestive power: the food aids in its own digestion, so to speak. This is less of my own motive for eating raw than it is for some other raw foodists, especially those who eat raw exclusively. But it’s important to remember, because digestion is hard work, and causes us to exert a great deal of energy. If our bodies are working overtime to digest food, they have less time to focus on other bodily processes.
This becomes especially important for athletes to remember. There is a growing body of research nowadays to suggest that recovery is as crucial as performance in determining the endurance of an athletic career. And recovery is contingent upon the body devoting vast resources to muscle repair, to the stabilization of the endocrine system, and to immunity. If our bodies aren’t constantly trapped in a cycle of digesting and assimilating hard to digest food–like cooked animal protein–they have more energy to boost recovery. And that’s why raw foods can be so crucial for athletes. They not only give the body extra nutrition, and spare the body digestive difficulty, but the variety of foods in a semi-raw diet (nuts, veggies, seeds, fruits, sprouted grains, etc.) happen to be far easier to digest than most animal protein.
There’s another part of this puzzle: alkalinity. Our bodies exist in a ph balance. The more acidic we are, the more susceptible we are to chronic disease, and so our bodies work desperately to neutralize acidity. They do this by leeching minerals from our bones and blood to “buffer” the acidity with alkaline bases. By flooding our bodies with alkalinity, we spare them this arduous process, and we stave off many common health complaints. So how do we get more alkaline? You guessed right: most raw foods (veggies, fruits, some grains, vegetable juices, greens) are heavily alkaline. They help our bodies to stay in a ph range that’s healthy, which (once again) preserves energy that would otherwise be devoted to buffering. Now, with a few exceptions, those same foods (veggies, fruits, sees, grains) are also alkaline when cooked (in other words, it’s the foods themselves, not the rawness, that is alkaline), but if you eat them raw you get the alkalinity+the high nutrient value. Win win situation!
Get the idea? Raw foods = greater stores of preserved energy. And we all know what more energy means: it means hopping out of bed with a clear head for your morning run. It means sustained performance in triathalon training. It means recovering from a marathon faster, or healing an injury in weeks, rather than months. In short, it means a wellspring of endurance. What’s not to like about that? And indeed, a growing body of athletes is proving to us all that a vegan diet with emphasis on raw foods can prove optimal for physical endurance and performance. Among well known vegan athletes are Scott Jurek, Tim Van Orden, and Brendan Brazier. Brendan is not only a world renowned triathlete, but he’s also an outspoken proponent of veganism and the author of Thrive, a book I recommend heartily to anyone who’s interested in a plant based diet for athletic performance. (Check out my recent interview with Brendan here for more information on his work.)
This all sounds great on paper, of course, but for many of us, raw foods still seem intimidating. Here’s the good news: they don’t have to be! Raw foods aren’t just crazy dehydrated concoctions or sugary snacks, and they aren’t just wacky “superfood” cocktails. Raw foods can be simple. Salad. Gazpacho. Smoothie. Guacamole. Dates. Sauerkraut. Almond butter. Guess what, guys? These are raw foods! And they’re far from terrifying: in fact, many of these are foods we eat on a regular basis, without considering how “raw” they are. Focus on eating more of these foods, and perhaps finding a few other ways of enjoying raw fruits and veggies each day. Snack on raw, homemade trail mix, rather than packaged, before a workout, and refuel with a fruit smoothie; enjoy a big salad with guacamole and raw hemp seeds for lunch, rather than a boring sandwich. Soon enough you’ll be eating more raw foods without giving it too much thought. But from these easy new habits will come a torrent of energy — energy you can devote to your sport, or simply to your own life.
I hope this gives you an overview of why eating more raw food can be rewarding and worthy. For more tips, please visit my blog. And if you are seeking out private help, check out my nutritional counseling. I wish you all energy, vibrant health, and–most of all–fun with your rawventures. Enjoy!