COLUMBIA — Inside the Cambridge Clubhouse, food is the main topic of conversation. It's Sunday night, and it's time to eat.
Everyone but newcomers has brought a dish to share. They are happily eating and begging to copy recipes for tomato and macadamia mozzarella linguine, a carrot salad, even pumpkin pie.
By the end of the evening, Glenda Nickell has managed to snag a great recipe for cranberry sauce that does not require it to be cooked above 115 degrees.
Nickell, 57, is a member of the Columbia Raw Food Group, which meets monthly in the clubhouse on Scarborough Drive. She went fully “raw” a few weeks ago, but she says she has been toying with varying levels of healthy eating for years now.
While working as a nurse in Florida, Nickell also spent time at a vegan resort and was introduced to the benefits of eating uncooked, unprocessed and often organic foods.
About 20 members of Columbia's raw food group meet monthly for a potluck to talk about recipes and the latest health studies. Some have been eating raw for months or years, some are new to the idea and others tag along with friends.
Here, “the standard American diet” is a dirty phrase.
Raw foodists eat fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouts and herbs. Some include a few processed items such as cold-pressed olive oils, raw nut butters, fermented foods, pure maple syrup and a type of raw soy sauce called nama shoyu. Nothing is cooked above 115 degrees.
The trend has been steadily growing in the United States over the past few years. Followers believe that cooking food breaks down its enzymes and nutrients. They say eating a raw diet promotes weight loss, more energy, clear skin and improved overall health.
“In my opinion, the great experiment of ‘let’s-use-chemicals-to-make-food’ failed, and we’re going to have to come back," Nickell says. "We’re going to have to move backward to reclaim our health."
In 2001, she married Dave Williams, who was also an ordinary American eater. That diet changed when "we began falling apart," Nickell says.
She was taking medication for fibromyalgia and high cholesterol, and his chronic back problems worsened to the point that he was worried about his job at Boone County Lumber.
“If you’d have told him back then that he’d be eating like this now, there is no way he could believe it,” Nickell says.
A few years ago, a doctor recommended the book "Eat to Live" by Joel Fuhrman. Mostly vegan, and somewhat raw, his diet weighs the number of calories in a piece of food versus the nutrients it contains. Fuhrman judges food by a simple formula: health = nutrients/calories.
The higher the final number, the better the food is, Fuhrman wrote.
One of the pillars of the diet is that the body has the power to heal itself with the proper nutrition.
Williams and Nickell say they went on and off the diet until five months ago, when they fully committed to the regimen.
He says he no longer needs his pain medication, and she has stopped both of her prescriptions.
They say they have more energy and think more clearly.
Catherine A. Peterson, associate professor of nutrition at MU, recommends a diet full of fruits and vegetables, but she has reservations about a strict raw diet.
Peterson suggests that many of the health benefits cited can be traced to becoming more conscious about food. Eating more produce cooked or uncooked, as well as cutting back on processed grains can have significant effect alone, she says.
She warns that limiting a diet to raw food might cause serious side effects. Eating raw produce can lead to an increased intake of goitrogens, for example, which can cause a thyroid hormone deficiency. Most side effects manifest in the long term, she says.
Peterson encourages raw foodists to be cautious and educate themselves about nutrition before embarking on the diet. Choosing wisely is smart, she says, but it's important to understand the science of food.
For instance, removing milk from the diet may create a calcium deficiency, and it can cause riboflavin and protein deficiencies as well.
"It can be used in a very helpful manner if one knows what they're doing," she says.
Cori Wheeler, another member of the raw food group, says the raw food diet helped her handle symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder.
The Moberly Area Community College nursing student said she has even noticed that she’s calmer at her job as assistant manager at Kostaki's Pizzeria.
When she first decided to eat this way, she says, she went through “detox,” a restricted two-week diet intended to remove toxins such as sugar and processed food from her body. According to Nickell, the experience is similar to caffeine withdrawal.
During the first few days, participants usually become physically ill. Wheeler found herself sluggish and tired. By the fifth day, she says, she felt calmer and less stressed.
Wheeler solidified her position after watching a video about the effects of the standard American diet on animals.
Andrea Dolezal, a student at Stephens College, has been a vegetarian since 2006 and a vegan since 2008.
While most raw foodists tend to be motivated by their health, Dolezal converted at 13 after her father explained the source of veal.
“People assume I can’t eat anything, which is definitely not true,” Dolezal says with a laugh. “I eat a lot.”