Meals for Levi Bowland are pretty much the same every day. For breakfast, it is melon. For lunch, a heaping bowl of coleslaw and three bananas. Dinner is more fruit, and a salad.
Levi is 10 years old. Since birth, he has eaten almost exclusively raw and vegan food, meaning that no animal product 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 Dave 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 unpasteurised 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.
In the last year, Dr T J Gold, a pediatrician in Brooklyn has seen about five families who are feeding their children, including toddlers, raw diets. Some of the children were severely anaemic, she said, and parents were supplementing the diets with vitamin B12.
Dr Anupama Chawla, the director of paediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, points out that although fruits and vegetables are very good sources of vitamins and fibre, “they do lack protein.” Legumes, lentils, chickpeas and red beans, which have protein, she said, “can’t be eaten uncooked.”
Raw, unpasteurised animal products can also spread diseases like E coli and Salmonella, Dr Chawla added, one reason the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against feeding unpasteurised milk to infants, toddlers and pregnant women.
A raw diet could also be “an extension of the parents’ eating obsessions, and maybe even a clinical eating disorder,” said Dr Margo Maine, a specialist in eating disorders in West Hartford, Connecticut.
Raw enthusiasts insist they are raising vibrant, energetic children.
Julia Rodrigues, 31, a mother of two in East Lyme, Connecticut, credits a raw diet with clearing up her eczema and acne, and helping her and her husband, Daniel, shed 150 pounds. During her second pregnancy, she was almost entirely raw vegan; her toddlers, who also eat raw, are perfectly healthy, she said. “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?” Ms Rodrigues believes that cooking destroys immune-boosting minerals and enzymes.
Andrea Giancoli, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, agreed that cooking may diminish some nutrients. 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, California, was 100 per cent 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. “It was always like a borderline thing to keep enough weight on them,” she said, and getting proteins from cashews and almonds was expensive.
Her children also ran up against social problems. “They were socially isolated, ostracised and simply left out,” said Ms Talifero, who now incorporates cooked food in the family’s diet.
Sergei Boutenko, 29, a filmmaker in Ashland, Oregon, 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.