Levi Bowland eats pretty much the same thing every day. For breakfast he eats melon. For lunch – a full bowl of coleslaw and three bananas. Dinner is fruit and salad.
Levi is 10 years old.
Since birth, he has eaten almost exclusively raw and vegan food, meaning he has not tried any animal products and any food heated to more than 118 degrees.
Before he was born, his parents, Dave and Mary Bowland, “were addicted to junk food, sweets, cakes, fatty fried foods,” says Mr. Bowland, 47, an Internet consultant from Bobcagen, Ontario. “We didn’t want Levy to grow up with that addiction.”
The Bowlands are among a growing number of families who raise their children on raw food: fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and sprouted cereals. While these meals are usually vegan, some include raw meat or fish, as well as raw or unpasteurized milk, yogurt, and cheese.
Many doctors warn against this trend. A child’s digestive system may not be able to “get nutrients from raw food as efficiently as an adult’s digestive system,” says Dr. Benjamin Kligler, a family physician at the Manhattan Health Center.
Over the past year, Dr. T.J. Gold, a nutritionally conscious pediatrician in Park Slope, Brooklyn, has seen about five families who feed their children, including infants, raw food. Some of the children were severely anemic, she says, and parents gave them B12 supplements.
“If you have to give your kids supplements, do you really think it’s a good diet?” says Dr. Gold.
It’s hard to measure how many families have gone raw, but there are a plethora of websites like the Raw Food Family, recipes, books, support groups and related products. The fifth annual Woodstock Fruit Festival in upstate New York is expected to draw 1000 raw food fans this year. About 20% of them are families with young children, says founder Michael Arnstein on thefruitarian.com.
Dr. Anupama Chawla, head of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, says that while fruits and vegetables are great sources of vitamins and fiber, “they lack protein.” Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and red beans, which contain protein, “shouldn’t be eaten raw.”
Raw, unpasteurized animal products can also be a source of E. coli and salmonella, adds Dr. Chawla. This is one of the reasons the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes the consumption of unpasteurized milk by infants and pregnant women.
Others believe that the severity of such a diet can border on pathology. In many cases, a raw food diet can be “an addition to a parent’s nutritional obsession and even a clinical disorder that they wrap up in a raw food diet,” says Dr. Margo Maine, an eating disorder specialist in West Hartford, Conn., author of The Body Myth. .
Raw food enthusiasts insist that their children grow up alive and energetic and have never felt bad in their lives.
Julia Rodriguez, 31, mother of two from East Lyme, Connecticut, considers the merit of a raw food diet to get rid of eczema and acne, as well as the fact that she, together with her husband Daniel, lost almost 70 kilos. During her second pregnancy, she was almost entirely a raw vegan. Her babies, also raw foodists, are perfectly healthy, she says. She does not understand the reason for the controversy: “If I ate food from McDonald’s all day, you would not say a word, but are outraged that I eat fruits and vegetables?”
Like other people who eat exclusively raw – or “live” – food, Ms. Rodriguez believes that cooking destroys immune-friendly minerals, enzymes and vitamins.
Andrea Giancoli, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agreed that cooking can reduce nutrients. “Enzymes are proteins, and proteins break down when heated to a certain extent.” But she says the enzymes also lose activity when exposed to the acidic environment of the stomach. And some studies show that levels of certain nutrients, such as lycopene, increase with heat.
Some raw food preachers are changing their attitude. Jinja Talifero, who runs a raw food education campaign, and her husband Storm in Santa Barbara, California, have been 20% raw food for the past 100 years, but stopped being a raw foodist about a year ago when financial and other pressures made it very difficult to support their five children. from 6 to 19 years old. “Their weight was always on the edge,” she says, and getting protein from cashews and almonds proved to be quite expensive.
Her children also faced social problems. “They were socially isolated, ostracized, rejected,” says Ms Talifero, who has now included cooked food on the family menu.
Sergei Butenko, 29, a filmmaker from Ashland, Oregon, ate only raw food from the age of 9 to 26, and all the while his family preached the benefits of such a diet. But he says, “I was hungry all the time,” and the raw food children he met seemed “underdeveloped and stunted.”
Now about 80 percent of his diet is raw food, but he also occasionally eats meat and dairy products. “If it takes 15 hours to make raw lasagna, which takes two hours of your life, it’s better to make vegan or vegetarian lasagna and mind your own business,” he says.