Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock (or a durian shell), you’ve probably heard the news that some raw leaders—including Paul Nison and Victoria Boutenko—are no longer 100% raw vegan. And if you’re like many raw foodists, this information is shocking, alarming, troubling, angering, saddening, confusing, and a bunch of other adjectives I’d list if I had a thesaurus handy.
The impact of this news on the raw food movement has been both fascinating and diverse. Some folks have reacted like this:
How dare they abandon raw! They’ve betrayed the community, they’ve broken their pledge of raw-ness, and they’ve crossed over to the dark side! Off with their heads!
Others have reacted like this:
Does this mean a 100% raw vegan diet isn’t possible to sustain? Should I go back to cooked food? Should I go back to meat? McDonalds, are you calling my name, my sweet former lover?
And still others have reacted like this:
What a relief to know I’m not the only one who can’t make 100% raw work! Phew. Now I can eat this steamed spinach leaf in peace.
So what’s really going on here? Why are raw food leaders not only coming clean about their divergences from raw, but actually promoting those divergences as okay (and maybe even healthy)? How should the raw community be responding? And how can we use this news to expose—and improve—some of the problems in the raw food movement?
Raw isn’t a religion
It’s common, maybe even expected, for “fringe” groups to become somewhat insular. And let’s face it: as raw foodists, we’re pretty dang fringe. We abandon our tasty potato chips and Alfredo sauce and blueberry scones like crazy masochists, running helter-skelter towards a field of lettuce and bananas. The general population thinks we’re nuts. Even the people who envy our dietary convictions secretly believe we’re bonkers. According to the rest of the world, we all have a health-food eating disorder called “orthorexia” and need to be in rehab, STAT, pumped up with a steady stream of doughnuts and Pepsi.
It’s tough for us raw foodies. We’re alone, and far too peaceable to wield an army. The only solution is to band together and eventually outnumber our dissenters (which shouldn’t be hard, if they’re all dropping like flies from bacon overdose).
Unfortunately, the sharp division between raw dietary beliefs and those of just about everyone else breeds an “us versus them” mentality. You’re either raw or you’re not. You’re either a supporter or a heretic. You’re either on our team or you’re a rival. So goes the black-and-white attitude.
That’s why things get tricky when raw gurus—the folks who’ve been navigating this path the longest, who’ve given us books and lectures and other culminations of their expertise—backtrack on their beliefs. These are the experts we’ve come to know and love. They have our attention, our respect, and most importantly, our trust.
At least, they had those things when they were telling us the message we wanted to hear: that 100% raw vegan is the most reliable path to health. So when their own certainty about the diet wavers, the rest of the raw community has a decision to make: should we continue listening to their ideas and learning from their knowledge, or should we shun them for straying from the truth?
The fact that the “coming out” of raw leaders has been so upsetting speaks volumes about the raw movement itself. It seems many of us—consciously or not—value the pursuit of raw more than the pursuit of health.
Really, there’s nothing logically threatening about Paul adding some raw dairy to his diet or Victoria eating a bowl of steamed kale once in a while. If these choices bring them well-being, shouldn’t we be supportive of their quest to be healthy—rather than ruthlessly critical of their less-than-total rawness?
The reason so many raw foodists find the recent news distressing is because of what it symbolizes: a blemish on the invincibility of the raw diet, and an indication that 100% raw isn’t the same as 100% healthy. Many of us, through the books we’ve read and the speakers we’ve heard, have come to think of raw veganism as a panacea for all the ills of the mind and body—and maybe even world. We adopt this belief with religion-like adherence. And learning that raw veganism isn’t necessarily perfect is kind of like finding out Santa isn’t real. (Remember that awful day? Oh, the horror.)
Why are people abandoning raw?
As best I can tell, the choice to renounce 100% raw veganism has two causes: the first is a legitimate nutritional reason, such as Paul’s choice to include dairy after seeing the off-kilter results of his blood test and bone density scan. The other is the yearning for psychological health and freedom. Although a completely raw food diet is liberating for many people, it can feel like entrapment or fanaticism for others. In the long run, an occasional cooked or partially cooked meal—assuming it’s nothing atrocious like fast food—is going to have little impact on the development of disease or other degenerative conditions. For raw leaders and other raw foodists who sincerely feel 100% raw veganism cages their freedom, allowing occasional cooked food to enter their menus can benefit the social and mental spheres of life without truly harming the physical one.
Who do we follow?
The “outing” of no-longer-raw leaders dredges up another issue as well. These are the people who’ve convinced us, by walking their talks, that a raw vegan diet is optimal for humankind. They’re our case studies, our guinea pigs—the only real evidence we have regarding the diet’s success. So when they retract their commitment to complete raw veganism, we lose our trail blazers. We’re left to—gasp!—find our way through the deep, dense jungle of raw foods on our own. In discovering that the raw leaders are fallible and human, allowed to change their mind and make mistakes, we’re forced to rely on ourselves when discerning what’s “right” and “wrong” in terms of diet choices.
As strange as it may seem, this is actually a wonderful thing. As I’ll talk about in the next blog post, there is no single raw diet that works equally well for all people. Everybody has a unique heath history, a unique ancestry, a unique scroll of physical strengths and weaknesses, a unique lifestyle—on and on. We aren’t all monkeys living in a climate-controlled zoo, playing in the exact same environment in the exact same way. We’re the weirdest, most behaviorally diverse creatures on the planet.
And health, as these no-longer-raw leaders are showing us, is about more than adhering unwaveringly to a diet regimen. Health requires balance on all fronts—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, relational—and 100% raw veganism doesn’t automatically deliver that.
What we can learn
Any time we start treating diet like a religion, we’re heading towards trouble. As a community of health-seekers, we should be applauding and supporting each other for each step we take towards becoming better, happier, more fulfilled individuals—not demanding a cult-like worship of a diet that, in essence, is more theoretical than proven. Attacking the leaders for diverging from raw only reveals the irrational pedestal we’ve placed raw foods on.
For many folks, the raw path and the health path run parallel. But the experience of “some” can’t be projected as the experience of “all,” and sometimes cooked foods or animal products can support health on a more holistic level than merely the physical. Let’s thank our raw leaders, 100% or otherwise, for being transparent about their journey so the rest of us can benefit.