Screeching, painful joints brought on by rheumatoid arthritis crippled Agathe Mathieu's ability to use her hands after she developed the inflammatory disease at 42 years old.

So when a friend lent the seamstress a book on the health benefits of a raw food diet, she immediately began a regimen of only uncooked meals with the hope of healing herself. Three months later she regained function in her hands and could pull a thread again.

"It's all gone; it's never come back," Mathieu says after sticking to the diet for nine years. "I have the look of someone who has arthritis, because my fingers are twisted a little bit, I've bumps and swelling, but the pain, the incapacity is gone."

Restoring joint mobility is one of many possible health advantages attested to by followers of raw foodism or rawism — the practice of eating mainly uncooked and unprocessed foods such as plants, seeds and nuts. Fans of the diet also boast it creates higher energy levels, fends off illnesses and slows down the aging process.

"Going raw you just leave out a lot of real junky food," says registered dietitian Vesanto Melina.

The 70-year-old sifted through the scientific literature on raw food regimens in Becoming Raw, a co-authored book listed as a top guide among raw foodists.

Melinda says one possible explanation for why the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis may vanish after someone starts the diet is because it can eliminate "unfriendly" intestinal bacteria.

"If you eat whole plant foods, and it seems even more so with raw plant foods, you'll get a friendly bacteria that protect us against different illnesses. And they affect whether nutrients can break through your intestinal wall and cause inflammatory responses," she says.

She also points to the abundance of anti-inflammatory components and protective anti-oxidants — like vitamins A, C and E — found in uncooked vegetables and fruits.

"In that whole pattern, you get things that really help your cells and your body remain less inflamed," Melina says.

She adds the same factors improve cardiovascular health.

"Plus, you've got absolutely no cholesterol in your diet, because cholesterol isn't found in plant food. You automatically eliminate that."

Keeping a healthy heart

Clive Langton, a co-founder of the non-profit group the Raw Food Society of BC, vouches for a raw diet's power to heal.

Working in the United States as a counter-terrorism consultant following the 9/11 attacks, Langton thought he was staying healthy by refusing to eat meat.

But after going for his annual checkup, his doctor shared some bad news that proved otherwise.

"I had wanted to live my life in a healthy way since I had become vegetarian," Langton recalls. "And here I was being a vegetarian and now being told that you are a candidate for a heart attack."

A hectic schedule of travelling to 35 cities in seven weeks for training sessions and presentations led Langton, now 64, to choose quick veggie meals like pizza that he'd gorge on late at night.

"You can do a lot of being a vegetarian in the junk food way, too right, because there is everything available. There's soda pops that are supposedly natural. There's chips that are natural and maybe a good oil, but there's lots of salt and lots of oil and fried," he says.

When Langton shared the doctor's warning with a couple friends, one of them eventually convinced him to check out a health talk on raw foods.

Although initially reluctant to go, Langton became fascinated by the seminar and the suggestion to blend vegetables and fruit in the morning to create a green smoothie — a mainstay beverage among people on raw foods.

He instantly began swapping out cooked foods for unprocessed, raw ones.

"When I did the next 12 days, I lost weight of course, my face felt clear, my skin was radiant, my eyes were feeling brighter and able to see more clearly, and I just felt much more heightened and alert and alive," Langton says.

The most profound change occurred when he visited his doctor a year and a half later after maintaining a diet of virtually all raw foods.

"My doctor said your blood count and everything else was that of a 30 year old, and at the time I was in my mid fifties," he says.

Balancing a raw food diet

Melina, who's been on a high raw diet for six years and has competed in triathlons annually since turning 60, recommends people on uncooked vegan diets take vitamin B12 supplements.

"The lack of it raises something called homocysteine, and that increases your risk of heart disease. So you have this great diet that was putting (you) in good health and a lack of vitamin B12 can undermine the whole thing," she says.

For Vancouverites and others living in rainy cities, the registered dietitian also suggests taking a vitamin D supplement because raw food purists might miss out if they aren't drinking fortified milks.

Consuming enough protein while going raw is possible, she adds.

"You can get a lot of iron or protein from 9 cups of kale, but who's going to eat that?" Melina asks.

"In terms of percentage calories from protein, kale is as good as beef, but you have to eat a larger volume of kale because it doesn't have as many calories."

According to the Melina, a mix between healthy cooked and uncooked foods is ideal.

"I personally think that the best combination is high raw. So that would mean maybe 75 per cent of your diet is raw, but include some cooked legumes like beans, peas and lentils to get the protein content higher," she says.

While Melina believes a raw food diet can be an excellent choice for adults, she warns against feeding it to infants.

"A baby or even a child shouldn't be on a diet that is full of fibre and plants; raw plant food," she says.

"Their stomachs aren't that big and they don't take that long too eat, and they just can't get the calories in that they need to grow."

Serving up a raw cuisine

Mathieu now works with her hands 16 hours a day, seven days a week preparing organic and vegan, raw cuisine at her newly opened North Vancouver grocery and café Tao Organics.

She says people often misunderstand what a raw food diet can be.

"For many a raw food diet means eating carrot and lettuce, and that must be boring like heck," Mathieu says.

But her menu consists of a smorgasbord of meals, including burgers, nori rolls, pizzas, crepes and cakes.

Mathieu's most popular grocery item is her kale chips — dried out pieces of the vegetable topped with tahini, apple cider, garlic and lemon juice. A 20-gram portion packs 5 grams of protein.

Her raw lasagna, also a favoured dish, is made with zucchini pasta, spinach, marinara sauce, marinated mushrooms and cashew cheese.

"A misconception is that you cannot have exquisite flavour out of fruits, vegs, nuts and seeds, but actually you can," Mathieu says.