Is the Raw Diet a Fountain of Youth?
On the raw diet: “I firmly believe we’re designed to live much longer than we do.”
So says clinical nutritionist Fred Bisci, Ph.D., head of the Spartan Nutrition Board. It’s a warm Monday in August, and I’ve traveled to Bisci’s home on Staten Island because I’ve heard he knows the secret to better health, improved athletic performance, and much longer life: a raw diet.
Bisci leads me down a steep set of creaky stairs to his office, where he consults with clients regularly to talk longevity and health. The quick-witted, trim 88-year-old doesn’t look a day over 70. He credits his youthful appearance and upbeat attitude to the 100 percent plant-based raw diet he’s been on for more than 50 years.
“Every animal has a specific dietary lifestyle based on their internal design and chemistry,” he says. “Our bodies are self-regulating, self-healing, self-regenerating. If the air was clean, our lifestyle was devoid of processed food, and we had less stress, living to 150 would not be out of reach. Maybe longer.”
The Science Behind the Raw Diet
First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: Bisci isn’t a conventional thinker and when anyone—much less an 88-year-old—starts talking about living forever, it’s tempting to dismiss it.
Except Bisci has a key supporter on his side on the subject of the raw diet: science.
The health benefits of the raw diet are abundant. One University of Giessen study found that those who follow the plan have higher levels of beta-carotene, which is commonly associated with disease prevention. Others have found that a raw diet can lower blood pressure and decrease your risk of stroke and certain cancers.
The diet involves eating whole foods served at less than 118 degrees Fahrenheit. While some followers put raw meat, fish, eggs, and unpasteurized dairy on their shopping lists, most stick to organic, uncooked, plant-based foods like Bisci does. Think nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, and some sprouted grains.
An 18-time marathoner, Bisci isn’t the only one scarfing down legumes instead of filet. The diet has doubled in popularity over the past year, according to a recent GrubHub study.
Bisci raves so much about the way he feels thanks to this way of eating a raw diet that he wrote a book about it: Your Healthy Journey. Still, he knows better than to suggest that everyone follow a diet as strict as his. “We are not trying to make one-size-fits-all. Not at all,” he says. “We want to meet people where they’re at.
“You come to me and say ‘Look, I’m not becoming a vegan, can you still help me?’ Yes, I can still help you. It all starts with leaving out processed foods.”
What the Raw Diet Isn’t
Ah, processed foods. By definition, they include anything you can’t see or find in nature. That means saying goodbye not only to French fries and soda, but also skipping over pastas and canned goods—and even orange juice, breads, and most cereals.
But giving up processed foods is only the beginning. Step two is crushing the idea that “organic” is just a way for grocery stores to charge you more for your favorite green peppers. Eating organic is essential, says Bisci. “You eat the same diet that’s not organically grown, you aren’t going to get any of the same results that I’m talking about,” he says, before asking me if I know about xenoestrogens.
This chemical is commonly found in pesticides that are used on the non-organic fruits and vegetables. Load your diet with foods that’ve been tainted, and your risk for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers rise, Bisci says.
“Once you know that, why wouldn’t you try to avoid it?” he asks. “The key is cleaning up your diet. Eat whatever you want, but clean it up. Now you’re well on your way to living a longer, better-quality life.”
The last two things you’ll need to delete from the diet: alcohol and coffee. For every study that finds that coffee has health benefits, Bisci claims, there’s a negative one that suggests it, say, messes with your gut health and muddles your mind.
“Coffee stimulates your adrenal glands. It may be okay in small doses but you can easily overstimulate them,” says Bisci. “Your cortisol levels creep up and cause all sorts of stress. You can even lose your memory. Just because you’re my age, you don’t have to have memory loss.”
Bisci says abstaining from those post-work cocktails is essential as well, for many reasons. Downing alcohol can interrupt protein synthesis, or your body’s ability to repair damaged proteins and build new ones. Translation? Kiss those muscle gains goodbye.
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The 5 Tiers of the Raw Diet for Spartans
Today, nearly 40 percent of adults around the world are overweight or obese, according to a global network of researchers called the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration. It’s a staggering number, one that motivates Bisci to keep seeing patients two decades beyond retirement age.
At the same time, Bisci understands his solution is too radical for most people—even for some Spartans. “Everyone starts somewhere different,” he says. “But the thing is, there’s roughly a 20 percent margin of error with the raw diet. You don’t have to be perfect. Every small change can make a major impact.”
This is why Bisci has created five levels. The first is one small step: Replace junk with good stuff. Doing that bare minimum, Bisci says, will help you reduce chronic inflammation, gain mental clarity, and feel better every day. You’ll see and feel the results, which will motivate you to take the next step. Here are the five tiers.
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Spartan Tier 1: Add by Subtracting
- Omit all processed foods, stimulating drinks (including coffee), and smoking products.
- Add fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, tubers, legumes, and starches.
- Eat only clean animal, fish, or egg protein.
- Hydrate properly: Bisci recommends about half your bodyweight in ounces each day (example: 90 ounces for a 180-pound male)
- Make sure you’re getting enough fresh air, sunshine, and rest: The Institute of Medicine recommends 700 IU of vitamin D daily. Since SPF can decrease the body’s ability to absorb vitamin D naturally from sunlight, an oral supplement can help with weight loss (particularly in the abdomen area), lower the risk of heart attack, and reduce respiratory infections. Meanwhile, according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults should get at least 7 to 9 hours of shuteye a night. That said, you may need less than normal, Bisci says, because a clean, plant-based diet helps the body recover from everyday activities more quickly.
- Load up on green foods and add supplements like blue-green algae, wheatgrass, barley grass, chlorella, spirulina, and alfalfa to your smoothies.
- When you have cravings, reach for foods with probiotics—Greek yogurt is a great source. Probiotics help with immune, brain, and bowel function.
- Take a digestive enzyme supplement with all meals, as they’re specifically designed to break down a broad range of foods into nutrients for your body to readily use.
Spartan Tier 2: Lose Your Vices
All of Level One, Plus:
- No more alcohol or dairy.
- Freshly prepare all foods and drinks. This means that you want food that’s prepared on the spot, rather than the next day.
- Make sure to chew foods well before swallowing. During this process, your body releases digestive enzymes in the stomach that help break down your food into energy, assisting the body in healthy digestion.
- Transition your diet to 70 to 80 percent plant-based and 20 to 30 percent legumes, starches, and clean animal, fish, or egg protein.
Spartan Tier 3: See More Green
All of Level One and Two, Plus:
- Transition your diet to 80 to 90 percent plant-based by eating more legumes and starches while reducing animal, fish, and egg protein to 10 to 20 percent.
- Consume more juices, blended salads, and green smoothies. “Blending items makes them more thoroughly broken down, as if you chewed on it for 5 to 10 minutes,” says Bisci. “Blended salads are much easier absorbed.” Still, there’s something to be said for the experience you get crunching down on lettuce. Chewing releases salivary amylase, which kickstarts the digestive process. Both methods, Bisci says, are beneficial.
- You can add protein to blends, but avoid adding huge scoops of powder. Instead, add protein through natural sources like sesame or chia seeds.
- For competitive athletes, the best energy sources are fruits and starches.
- Weight lifters can substitute plant for animal protein with legumes and starches if they increase calorie intake by 20 percent.
- Add stretching and conscious breathing.
Spartan Tier 4: Set the Animals Free
All of Level One, Two, and Three, Plus:
- You’re now 100 percent plant-based, eliminating all animal, fish, and egg protein from your diet.
- Aim to consume 70 to 80 percent raw foods and roughly 20 to 30 percent cooked items (over 118 degrees).
- Add yoga or Qigong, dynamic stretching, diaphragmatic breathing, and mediation.
Spartan Tier 5: Get as Raw as Possible
All of Level One, Two, Three, and Four, Plus:
- Transition your diet to 90 to 100 percent raw foods.
- Limit cooked foods to legumes, starches, whole grains, and tubers.
- Focus on whole meals only. You’re eating three meals daily and getting enough calories, with no snacking whatsoever.
The Spartan Diet: A Sample Menu
So how does this look in practice? Bisci provides sample meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In this example, you’re still permitted to consume clean, fresh fish.
- Fresh fruit (up to 1 pound), followed by a small handful of raw nuts—ideally soaked—at least 30 minutes after.
- Alternative: Chia seed pudding smoothie. Add fresh fruit (up to 1 pound) and use 3 tablespoons of chia seeds (one of Bisci’s favorites)
Eat the following in order.
- 8 to 12 ounces of fresh vegetable juice
- Large green salad, consisting of romaine lettuce, cucumber, celery, peppers, and two additional vegetables of your choice (Bisci is a huge fan of sprouts).
- Steamed vegetables
- ¾-pound of acorn squash or potatoes (white, sweet, or yams)
Eat in order, 3 hours before bedtime.
- 8 to 12 ounces of fresh vegetable juice
- Large green salad, consisting of romaine lettuce, cucumber, celery, peppers, and two additional vegetables of your choice. You can also blend this together, adding in a small quantity of fruit or avocado.
- Steamed vegetables
- 4 to 6 ounces of steamed, broiled, or baked fish
Keep in mind that, when you’re training hard, you’ll need additional calories. Add more starches and fruit.
4 Things to Know About the Raw Diet
This is a lifestyle change, no doubt. Your date may think you’re a whack job, Bisci jokes, but the positives outweigh the negatives. If eating raw—or transitioning through the five Spartan tiers—piques your interest, here’s what to know going in:
1. The detox is real: When you first start eating raw, your body gets confused—similar to what has been popularized as the keto flu. By omitting processed sugars and carbohydrates, you’ll feel tired and extremely low energy. This can last from a short two weeks up to six months. Make sure to stay hydrated, consume at least half of your bodyweight in ounces daily, and replenish electrolytes with raw food items like high-in-potassium bananas and avocados. Your energy will rebound and may even reach new heights now that you’re consuming clean food.
2. Planning is essential: As with any diet, it helps to plan your meals for the week, especially if you’ve got a jam-packed schedule or you’re traveling away from home. Salads and shakes will be your best friends. If you’re making a smoothie, double or triple your recipe and pour the extra into ice cube trays. When you’re ready to start sipping, simply toss them back into a blender for an easy meal without hassle.
3. Plant protein is your friend: If you’re an athlete who’s consuming high amounts of protein as part of your training plan, Bisci has some surprising news: You only need 25 to 30 grams of plant-based protein to perform well daily, he says. If you’re a long-distance athlete, you’ll have to increase that. One Stirling University study found that while training, athletes can reap optimal gains and protein synthesis by consuming 40 grams post-workout, instead of the typically recommended 20 to 25.
Bisci disagrees. Rather than protein, he says that it’s more about overall calories, which should be 20 to 50 percent more than when you’re not competing. When he was running marathons, the nutritionist opted for higher amounts of fruit to fuel him for hours on end.
Through a raw diet, you’ll find protein in everything from nuts (¼ cup Brazil nuts has 5 grams) and seeds (4 tablespoons of chia seeds, sesame seeds, or hemp seed hearts have 15 grams) to some leafy vegetables (1 cup of kale or broccoli has 2 grams). It’s all about finding the ratios that work for you.
“It’s a trial and error thing, not something that can be measured by a blood test,” Bisci says. “When the ratio is working, you’ll be able to maintain and potentially increase your muscularity. And you’ll have good energy and good strength.”
4. It’s going to take a while to get used to: Bisci hopes that people who eat raw look at it as a total lifestyle change instead of a diet. If you’ve maintained a diet before, then you know that it takes time to ease into things. But where there’s a will, he says, there’s a way.
“It’s not for everybody, and that’s okay,” he says. “It’s really about how dedicated you are, how much you’re willing to work to get what you want. This is a lifestyle. It’s meant to be done for your whole life.”
After 50 years of eating raw, he’s certainly the right person to ask.