If the phrase "raw food diet" conjures images of long hair, Birkenstocks and fringe communities, it may be time for a new picture. The number of people eating only raw food is growing, and followers report significant health improvements when making the switch to this way of eating. Furthermore, the results of several small studies indicated raw food diets might help people with Crohn's disease.

So what exactly is a raw food diet?

Raw foodies believe that food cooked over 116⁰ F loses most of the vitamins, nutrients and enzymes we need for a strong immune system. This is not a recent trend; raw food diets date back to ancient Greece.

Followers do not heat at least 75 percent of their food. They eat primarily fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, sprouts (food that is still growing when eaten), nuts and seeds. Raw foodies avoid eggs and diary, and most are vegan; they do not consume any animal products. They believe eating this way protects them from disease, and improves their overall health.

In February 2008, the journal of Inflammatory Bowel Disease reported the results of a small, but rigorously controlled, study of diet modifications in people with Crohn's. The subjects who changed their diets showed an improvement in intestinal lesions compared to those who did not. Researchers believe such results support theories that our western lifestyle, which includes diets high in saturated fats and refined foods, causes intestinal lesions to persist, and accounts for an increase in earlier onset of Crohn's disease.

In another study, a researcher followed a group of about 500 raw foodists whose diet consisted of 80 to 90 percent raw foods. Participants reported significant improvement in immunity, digestion, allergies, weight moderation, chronic illness, and mental and emotional health. In fact, 68 percent reported being free from illness after consuming only "live foods."

At least anecdotally, evidence to support raw food is mounting. Raw food chef, author, and Crohn's sufferer Paul Nison says he became disease free after switching to a raw food diet. David Klein, Ph.D., author of Self Healing Colitis and Crohn's, reports supervising the cures of 1,000 Colitis, Crohn's and Irritable Bowel sufferers.

Addenbrooke Hospital in the United Kingdom has implemented a program of identifying Crohn's trigger foods, eliminating them and "switching" off the disease. After two to three weeks, 90 percent of patients in the program report being symptom free.

Even the most passionate raw foodists acknowledge it's not always easy to follow this diet. However, improved health motivates them to stick with it.

The idea of vibrant health through plant-based nutrition is not limited to a small group of medical professionals pushing the limits of traditional medicine. On May 2, 2009, leaders from around the world convened for the third International Living Food Summit. Their goal was to establish scientifically based, common standards for optimal health.

Whether you feel a raw food diet might right for you, it's clear that the idea of creating and maintaining health through diet is here to stay. In the United States, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine is conducting studies on health effects of modified diets, including at least one specifically for Crohn's disease.