Depending on the source, a raw food diet is either a path to perfect health or to serious undernourishment. Probably, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Devotees insist that a diet consisting mainly of uncooked, unprocessed plant foods leads to a leaner body, clearer skin, and higher energy. They also believe it cuts the risk of disease.
But what exactly is a raw food diet? Is following a raw food diet healthy? Can anyone become a raw foodist? Read on for some answers.
What Is a Raw Food Diet?
The fundamental principle behind raw foodism, also called rawism, is that plant foods in their most natural state - uncooked and unprocessed - are the most wholesome for the body. The raw food diet is a lifestyle choice. It is not a weight loss plan.
Sticking to a raw food diet isn’t easy. Most raw foodists spend a lot of time in the kitchen peeling, chopping, straining, blending, and dehydrating. That's because the diet is typically made up of 75% fruits and vegetables. Staples of the raw food diet include:
- Sprouted seeds
- Whole grains
- Dried fruits
Alcohol, refined sugars, and caffeine are taboo.
Most raw foodists are vegans, who eat no animal products, but some do eat raw eggs and cheese made from raw or unpasteurized milk.
How Do Raw Foodists Prepare Meals?
Raw foodists do not cook using a traditional stove or oven. They use food dehydrators that lend crunch to vegetables and cookies. Food dehydrators also dry out fruits for fruit leather and other raw food recipes.
The dehydrator works with heat, but temperatures cannot be higher than 115 to 118 degrees. Raw foodists believe high heat leaches enzymes and vitamins critical for proper digestion. The American Dietetic Association challenges this assertion. It says the body -- not what goes in it -- produces the enzymes necessary for digestion. The ADA also says cooking food below 118 degrees may not kill harmful, food-borne bacteria.
Raw vs. Cooked
Medical literature on the raw food diet is scant. Research tends to focus on vegetarianism and veganism and the health benefits of a plant-based diet, among them lower cholesterol and better glucose levels.
A few studies do support the belief that cooking vegetables tends to kill important nutrients. One showed that eating raw, cruciferous vegetables (such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale) may reduce the risk of bladder cancer. Researchers noted that cooking cruciferous vegetables robs them of their isothiocyanates, agents that alter proteins in cancer cells. They found that even a few helpings a month of raw crucifers seems to lower the risk.
Another study in which researchers reviewed findings of about 50 medical studies on raw vs. cooked foods showed that eating raw vegetables helps reduce the risk of oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, and gastric cancers.
Is the Raw Food Diet Healthy?
The verdict on whether raw food diets are healthy is mixed.
Researchers who studied the impact of a raw food diet found that participants had low cholesterol and triglycerides. They also had a vitamin B12 deficiency. This finding is consistent with another study of raw foodists in Finland. B12 is found naturally only in animal products. It is critical to nerve and red blood cell development. Deficiencies can lead to anemia and neurological impairment.
A German study of long-term raw foodists showed that they had healthy levels of vitamin A and dietary carotenoids, which comes from vegetables, fruits and nuts and protect against chronic disease. Yet the study participants had lower than average plasma lycopene levels, which are thought to play a role in disease prevention. They are found in deep-red fruits like tomatoes. Lycopene content is highest, however, when tomatoes are cooked.
Low bone mass in the lumbar spine and hip may be another risk for raw foodists, who tend to be slim. However, more research is needed to determine if raw foodists are at risk of low bone mass. Variations in bone mass may be due to weight loss.
Finally, another study showed that a raw food diet can interrupt the menstrual cycle, again because of drastic weight loss.
Raw Foodism and Nutrition
The raw food diet is rich in nutrients. It’s full of fiber and it’s low in fat and sugars.
The American Dietetic Association offers these guidelines for raw foodists:
- Eat almost twice the iron as nonvegetarians. Good sources of iron are tofu, legumes, almonds and cashews.
- Eat at least eight servings a day of calcium-rich foods like bok choy, cabbage, soybeans, tempeh, and figs.
- Eat fortified breakfast cereals, nutritional yeast, and fortified soy milk for B12. Take a B12 supplement too.
- Eat flaxseed and walnuts. Use canola, flaxseed, walnut, and soybean oil. These are all sources of omega-3 fatty acids. You may also want to take an omega-3 supplement.
Raw foodists typically get the same amount of protein as nonvegetarians through plant foods eaten throughout the day. But because plant protein is less digestible, the ADA recommends raw foodists eat plenty of soy and bean products.
Nutritionists at the ADA also recommend that raw foodists increase their calcium intake. That's because their diets are high in sulfur-containing amino acids - nuts and grains, for example -- which can increase bone calcium loss.
Zinc is better absorbed by the body through meat. The ADA recommends soaking and sprouting beans, grains, and seeds. Doing this may help the body better absorb the nutrients from these foods.
Finally, people who do not eat meat or dairy products should be vigilant about their vitamin D intake -- especially for people who live in northern climates. Low levels of vitamin D can lead to weaker bones. The ADA recommends vitamin-D fortified foods, including some brands of soy milk and rice milk, some breakfast cereals and margarines. You also may want to take a vitamin D supplement.
Should You Become a Raw Foodist?
If you're a healthy adult who likes to prepare food but not necessarily cook and you have no problem giving up meat or dairy, the raw food diet might be for you. Here are some things to consider before adopting a raw food diet.
The ADA wholly supports diets that are plant-based, but it takes issue with one that is mostly raw: Cooking makes some foods, like eggs and tomatoes, more bioavailable. That means their nutrients are better absorbed by the body.
Because raw foodists do not eat fish, they may not get enough essential fatty acids, like omega-3s. Other vitamins and nutrients, such as vitamin B12, are also often lacking. As a safeguard, the ADA recommends raw foodists take supplements.
The ADA does not recommend a raw food diet for infants and children.