What's up with ... the raw foods trend?
Kate Pallardy likes to cook. But you won't find her turning on a stove anytime soon. That's because the pro triathlete and ultra-marathoner follows a mostly raw diet, shunning sauteed stir-fries and baked breads for uncooked salads and smoothies.
Pallardy first decided to adopt the disciplined eating plan to overcome digestive issues, but soon discovered a happy side effect: She started racing faster. "The simpler my diet became, the easier my running felt," Pallardy said. Her husband, Mike, also started eating raw in the hopes of slashing his Ironman time.
Pallardy is just one example of a small but growing group of elite athletes who credit their health and success to a raw, vegan diet. Tonya Kay, a dancer and stuntwoman, said she's felt stronger and less injury-prone in her 10 years as a raw foodist. And trail runner Tim VanOrden, the Masters mountain runner of the year in 2010, believes so strongly in the lifestyle that he started the Running Raw Project, a Web site and business aimed at spreading the raw-food gospel.
While there are no universal rules for a raw-food diet, most plans don't allow food to be heated above a certain temperature -- typically 114 to 118 degrees. (That's enough to warm up a dish, but not actually cook it.) The majority of raw foodists are also vegan, but some do eat unpasteurized dairy products and uncooked fish.
The thought behind the diet is that cooking destroys many of a food's nutrients and enzymes. While that's technically correct, it's only part of the story. Stomach acid also breaks downs enzymes, too, so they're already deactivated before digestion, said Andrea Giancoli, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association based in Hermosa Beach, Calif. "And for some fruits and veggies, like tomatoes, more nutrients are released or better absorbed when they're cooked," she said.
Because it's nearly impossible to follow a 100 percent raw diet, it's much more common for followers to be "mostly" raw. Pallardy, for instance, is about 90 percent raw, but supplements with Vega protein powder. She also carbo-loads before races with cooked brown rice, quinoa and gluten-free oatmeal. "I wish I could be like my husband and throw down an entire watermelon and run 13 miles at a six-minute pace, but I'd end up vomiting," she said.
The real deal
The benefit of a raw food diet is that it's high in produce and healthy fats from things like nuts and avocado, and low in processed foods. But the plan can be tough for athletes, said Giancoli. It may leave them deficient in the nutrients found in animal products (or fortified, non-raw vegan foods), such as iron and vitamin B12. And because a raw food diet is often low in calories, it may lead to unwanted weight loss and amenorrhea (the absence of a menstrual periods), said Giancoli.
But for Pallardy and her husband, the switch to raw foods was monumental. "My pain subsided almost overnight and my energy level skyrocketed, as well as my ability to handle higher workloads in training," Pallardy said. "Best of all was our speedy recovery rates from workouts."
The couple is expecting their first child this year, and Pallardy recently underwent tests for any possible nutritional deficiencies. "I was low in vitamin D," she said. "But everything else was perfect and with a little more sunshine and supplementation, all my bases are covered."