Image courtesy of Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Meals for Levi Bowland are pretty much the same every day. For breakfast, it’s melon. For lunch, a heaping bowl of coleslaw and three bananas. Dinner involves more fruit, and a salad.
Levi is 10 years old.
Since birth, he has eaten almost exclusively raw and vegan, meaning that no animal product, or any food heated over 118 degrees, passes his lips.
Before his birth, his parents, Dave and Mary Bowland, had “all these addictions to junk food, candy, pastry, fried fatty foods,” said Mr. Bowland, 47, an Internet consultant in Bobcaygeon, Ontario “We didn’t want Levi to grow up with those same addictions.”
The Bowlands are among a growing cadre of families who are raising their children on entirely uncooked fare: fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and sprouted grains. While most of these diets tend to be vegan, some do include raw meat or fish, as well as raw or unpasteurized milk, yogurt and cheese.
But many doctors are cautioning against the trend. A child’s digestive system may not be able “to pull the nutrients out of raw foods as effectively as an adult’s,” said Dr. Benjamin Kligler, a family practitioner with the Center for Health and Healing in Manhattan.
Over the last year, Dr. TJ Gold, a pediatrician in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with a strong focus on nutrition, has seen about five families who are feeding their children, including toddlers, raw diets. Some of the children were severely anemic, she said, and the parents were supplementing the diets with vitamin B12.
“If you have to supplement something for children in order to do it, is that really the right diet for them?” Dr. Gold said.
It’s hard to gauge how many families have adopted raw food diets, but websites abound, like the Raw Food Family blog, along with recipes, books, support groups, and products for purchase. The fifth annual Woodstock Fruit Festival in upstate New York this summer is expected to draw 1,000 raw-food devotees. About 20 percent are families with young children, said the founder, Michael Arnstein of thefruitarian.com.
Dr. Anupama Chawla, the director of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, points out that although fruits and vegetables are very good sources of vitamins and fiber, “they do lack protein.” Legumes, lentils, chickpeas and red beans, which have protein, she said, “can’t be eaten uncooked.”
Raw, unpasteurized animal products can also spread diseases like E. coli and Salmonella, Dr. Chawla added, one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against feeding unpasteurized milk to infants, toddlers and pregnant women.
Others fear that the rigidity involved in such strict diets may border on pathology.
In many instances, a raw diet could be “an extension of the parents’ eating obsessions, and maybe even a clinical eating disorder that they have sort of packaged in this raw diet mentality,” said Dr. Margo Maine, a specialist in eating disorders in West Hartford, Conn., and author of “The Body Myth.”
Raw enthusiasts insist they are raising vibrant, energetic children who have never had a sick day in their lives.
Julia Rodrigues, 31, a mother of two in East Lyme, Conn., credits a raw diet with clearing up her eczema and acne, and helping her and her husband, Daniel, shed a combined 150 pounds. During her second pregnancy, she was almost entirely raw vegan; her toddlers, who also eat raw, are perfectly healthy, she said. She doesn’t understand the controversy: “If I were eating McDonald’s all day you wouldn’t say anything to me, but because I’m eating fruits and vegetables you would?”
Like others who eat only raw, or “live,” food, Ms. Rodrigues believes that cooking destroys immune-boosting minerals, enzymes and vitamins.
Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agreed that cooking may diminish some nutrients. “Enzymes are proteins, and proteins unravel when they are cooked, to a degree.” But, she said, enzymes are also naturally rendered inactive by the acidity in our stomachs. And several studies have shown that levels of some nutrients, like lycopene, are enhanced by cooking.
Some longtime raw-food evangelists are rethinking their devotion. Jinjee Talifero, who runs a raw-food education company with her husband, Storm, in Santa Barbara, Calif., was 100 percent raw for most of the last 20 years, until about a year ago, when financial and other considerations made it difficult to continue feeding their five children, ages 6 to 19, that way. “It was always like a borderline thing to keep enough weight on them,” she said, and getting proteins from cashews and almonds was proving too expensive.
Her children also ran up against social problems. “They were socially isolated, ostracized and simply left out,” said Ms. Talifero, who now incorporates cooked food in the family’s diet.
Sergei Boutenko, 29, a filmmaker in Ashland, Ore., ate only raw from 9 to 26, and for years his family preached the virtues of the diet. But, he said, “there was this constant hunger,” and the raw children he met seemed “underdeveloped and stunted.”
He now eats about 80 percent raw, with occasional meat and dairy. “When it takes 15 hours to make a raw food lasagna that wipes out two days of your life, it’s better to just make a vegan or vegetarian lasagna and move on with your day,” he said.