Pop quiz time.
Say we’ve got a 2-year raw foodist—we’ll call her Betty Lou. Lately, Betty Lou hasn’t been feeling like her usual vivacious self. She’s always tired and fatigued, and even when she musters up the energy to exercise, she can’t seem to build or keep her muscle tone. Her husband Billy Bob keeps pointing out the dark crescent-moon circles under her eyes and complaining that she’s too bony to cuddle with. Poor Betty Lou! She decides she must be going through a deeper phase of detox, and decides to speed up the process by going on a two-week water fast.
What’s wrong with this scenario?
If you answered “over-cleansing,” you’re spot on the money.
The problem is a common one in the raw food world. We’re all trained to focus on purity, on blasting all those nasty little toxins out of our cells so we can be squeaky clean and healthy. And it’s an understandable mentality. In Westernized nations, most people suffer from diseases of excess—high blood pressure from too much sodium, obesity from too much McDonalds, diabetes from too much fat and sugar, osteoporosis from too much phosphorus, liver damage from too much alcohol, congestion from too much dairy—the list goes on. And on. We’re a society of sick, overfed couch slugs, padding the pockets of Big Pharma while lolling slothfully towards our graves… all because of the “excess” we cram down our throats.
Then along comes raw food, with its stunning ability to leave us cleaner than a rubber duckie’s armpit. (Nice image there, huh?) Because most of us started out with a lifestyle of “too much,” we immediately blame any health woes on being toxic—on having residual internal grime from our previous ways of living. That’s why we’ve got a smorgasbord of liver cleanses, colon cleanses, kidney cleanses, gallbladder cleanses, parasite cleanses, colonics, enemas, and water fasts at our beck and call. Indeed, cleanses and fasts are nearly as common in the raw food community as raw food itself.
Fasting, in particular, can be helpful in times of chronic disease or when the body needs a reset from a toxic lifestyle. But there comes a point where—as with the Standard American Diet of Unscrupulous Excess—the “health balance” tips too far in one direction. Just as you can be burdened with the strain of harmful substances and artery-clogging foods, you can be whittled away by too much cleaning.
And this is what more and more raw foodists are experiencing. You wouldn’t expect a carpenter to build a house without having any materials or tools, and you can’t expect your body to stay strong and sturdy if you’re constantly depleting it with fasts, cleanses, and other detox strategies. Unless you were really swimming in toxins before going raw, the niggling health problems that crop up after a year or more of eating an uncooked cuisine (sometimes earlier) are more likely due to deficiency than excess.
If you want to stay healthy, it’s imperative to know when you need to clean up, and when your body actually needs a better foundation to rebuild itself.
Is it time to keep cleanin’? The answer is probably “yes” if you are:
• only on your first few days or weeks of eating a raw food diet
• experiencing frequent mucus and phlegm
• having periods of feeling awesome, interspersed with heavy-duty detox episodes (headaches, the sudden desire to sleep for two days straight, wild cravings for junk food, flu-like symptoms)
• randomly smelling or tasting foods or medicine you consumed during childhood
• observing a resurfacing of symptoms you had much earlier in life (such as sudden, inexplicable pain in that toe you broke 17 years ago)
• experiencing acne outbreaks*
*disclaimer: specific raw foods, such as nuts, can sometimes trigger acne—in which case getting “cleaner” might not always be the answer here.
Is it time to rebuild? The answer is probably “yes” if you are:
• losing too much weight
• experiencing hair loss, excessive skin dryness, or soft/brittle nails
• noticing a loss of muscle tone
• feeling physically weak or lethargic on a consistent basis
• experiencing “loose”-feeling teeth, or noticing that your teeth are chipping or becoming weaker despite avoiding acidic foods
• exhibiting dark circles under your eyes that just won’t go away
• having legitimate cravings for protein (such as unseasoned meat, eggs, fish, or even a hunk o’ tofu)
• not digesting any of your food well
• having to sleep excessive amounts each night, every night—even on days you weren’t very physically active
• in women, ceasing ovulation and menstruation* (men, it’s okay if yours stops)
• feeling constantly hungry, but find that no raw vegan food you eat is deeply satisfying
*some women ovulate without menstruating, but many raw women who cease menstruating do so from hormonal imbalance, excessively low body fat, or deficiency. Tests are available to see whether you’re still ovulating (they may be more reliable than temperature-measuring methods).
If you’re not feeling like a jubilant, high-energy raw creature, take a look at which symptoms describe you better. If you’re nodding your head at the first list, you might need to do a bit more housecleaning before you’re on top of your game again. But if the second list resonates with you more, nix the fasts and cleanses STAT: your body is probably running on low reserves, and trying to scrub away more toxins will not only be futile, but could also be damaging to your health.
How exactly do you rebuild?
• Make sure you’re eating enough food in general. It’s woefully easy to under-eat on a raw diet, and this will probably be the case if you’ve been steadily losing weight/muscle mass—which is the first thing your body sacrifices when it senses a calorie deficit.
• Get adequate vitamins and minerals. Load up on leafy greens, seaweeds, and deeply-colored fruits and vegetables. Consider supplementing the hardest-to-get-on-raw nutrients: vitamin B-12, vitamin D, and zinc. It may help to get a blood test done to see if any specific nutrient could use temporary supplementation.
• Focus on higher-protein raw foods; avoid very-low protein fruits, sweeteners like agave, and oils (which will drag down the total percent of protein you eat). See my earlier posts on the Great Protein Debate Part 1 and Part 2 for more tips and info.
• Consume green smoothies or green juices to better assimilate the nutrients in greens.
• Allow yourself plenty of sleep and rest.
• Consider adding small amounts of energy-dense “taboo” foods into your diet, like raw (or very lightly cooked) animal products or cooked tubers and legumes. These foods don’t necessarily have to be permanent additions to your menu, but they can be deeply helpful for rebuilding when you’re depleted.
• If you’re avoiding certain raw foods for ideological reasons—like eschewing sweet fruits because you’ve heard the sugar is bad for you, eating no overt fats, avoiding sprouts, etc.—consider experimenting with these foods to see if you’re avoiding them for legitimate reasons. A diet with a wider range of foods and plant species will be more rebuilding than a highly restricted cuisine.
• And most importantly: avoid fasting, embarking on cleanses, pursuing highly physical activities without fueling yourself properly, or doing anything else that forces your body to draw on its own precious reserves. It’s time to treat yourself well!