Why all the hype about the raw food diet? What does it involve exactly and is it suitable for anyone? Is it a truly healthy diet or just one the latest trends? Once again, in order to distinguish between fact and fiction it is necessary to go beyond the media reports and have a look at the science behind it…
What Is a Raw Food Diet?
The fundamental principle behind raw foodism is that plant foods in their most natural state (uncooked and unprocessed) are the most nutritious for the body. Raw foodists are divided between those that advocate raw veganism or vegetarianism, those that advocate a raw omnivorous diet, and those that advocate a 100% raw carnivorous diet. Most raw foodists are raw food vegans, who eat no animal products, but some do eat raw animal products, such as raw eggs, raw unpasteurised milk, cheese made from raw milk, sashimi (raw fish), or carpaccio (raw meat). Some people eat only raw foods, while others include cooked food for variety and convenience. The diet is made up of 75% fruits and vegetables but it isn’t easy to follow as the food needs a lot of preparation (peeling, chopping, straining, blending, and dehydrating). Staples of the raw food diet include beans, dried fruits and nuts, seaweed, whole grains, sprouts. Alcohol, refined sugars, and caffeine are strictly not part of the diet. The food is not cooked on a stove or oven, instead food dehydrators are used to dry out fruits and crunch vegetables etc. The main ‘diet rule’ is that cooking temperatures cannot be higher than 115 to 118 degrees Fahrenheit.
Is the Raw Food Diet Healthy?
The reactions on whether raw food diets are healthy are mixed. On the one hand, there are numerous advantages that cannot be ignored. People who follow a raw food diet believe it has numerous health benefits, including weight loss, increased energy, clearer skin, reduced risk of disease and many more. Medical literature on the raw food diet is limited and usually research tends to focus on vegetarianism and veganism and the health benefits of a plant-based diet, which are lower BMI and body fat content, lower cholesterol and blood pressure and better glucose levels. Therefore, people tend to be slimmer.
A few studies investigating raw foodism in particular, suggest that this diet may have some health benefits. For example, cooking vegetables tends to kill important nutrients like vitamin C and folate, although this is not always the case; in fact, sometimes the nutritional value of foods is enhanced by cooking which is the case with fiber rich foods for example. Cooking also promotes the formation of potentially harmful or cancerous compounds in food during high heat cooking, grilling etc. Eating raw vegetables (such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale) may reduce the risk of bladder cancer. Moreover, another study showed that raw vegetables may reduce the risk of oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal, and gastric cancers. Researchers found that cooking these vegetables destroys certain compounds which act as cancer protective agents. Additionally, raw foodists believe high temperatures from cooking destroy enzymes and vitamins critical for proper digestion. However, this is not true as the body itself produces the enzymes necessary for digestion, not the food. Besides the immediate benefits mentioned above, the raw food diet could theoretically slow the aging process and reduce inflammation, due to its high antioxidant levels which have proven health protective effects.
What Are the Main Concerns?
One of the main concerns regarding the raw food diet is the risk of nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin B12 is found naturally only in animal products. It is critical to nerve and red blood cell development and deficiencies can lead to anaemia and neurological impairment. Low bone mass may be another risk for raw foodists, who tend to be slim although research suggests that they can have good bone quality as long as they are careful with their calcium and magnesium intake, both very important compounds for bone health. Finally, another study showed that a raw food diet can interrupt the menstrual cycle, usually because of drastic weight loss. Moreover, one of the main sanitation concerns is that cooking food below 118 degrees may not kill harmful, food-borne bacteria naturally present in raw food.
The raw food diet is not the perfect diet plan. It is rich in nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals, and low in fat and sugars, which seems rather appealing to the fit minded individuals. However, raw foodists, like vegans, need to make sure they are not deficient in essential nutrients such as vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, most of which are found naturally in animal products.
Raw foodists usually get the same amount of protein as non vegetarians through plant foods eaten throughout the day but because plant protein is less digestible, they are advised to consume soy and bean products on a daily basis. Nutritionists also recommend increasing their calcium intake. This is because their diets are high in certain compounds called sulfur-containing amino acids, found in nuts and grains for example, which can increase bone calcium loss.
Finally, raw foodists should ensure their vitamin D intake is adequate, especially people who live in northern climates because low levels of vitamin D can also lead to weaker bones and osteoporosis. They are advised to consume vitamin-D fortified foods, including soy milk and rice milk, some breakfast cereals, spreads, margarines and also consider supplements if necessary.
In any case, this type of diet is not recommended for children and teenagers who need larger quantities of high quality protein to support growth. Furthermore, people with hypoglycemia or diabetes, who need to maintain their blood glucose levels within a very narrow range, should be cautious when adopting the raw food diet as their food choices will be very limited. Also, it is rather common that people experience a detoxification reaction when they start the raw food diet, especially if their previous diet was rich in meat, sugar, caffeine and poor in fruit and vegetables. Nausea, mild headaches, and cravings can occur but usually only last for a few days.
Raw Vs Cooked
Depending on the source of information, a raw food diet is either a path to perfect health or to serious undernourishment. Once again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Raw foodists insist that a diet consisting mainly of uncooked, unprocessed plant foods leads to a leaner, healthier body, higher energy and can significantly lower the risk of disease. However, the raw food diet is a lifestyle choice and should not be seen as a quick weight loss plan. If you’re a healthy adult who enjoys cooking and you have no problem giving up meat or dairy, the raw food diet might be for you but keep in mind it should be part of a healthy balanced lifestyle. The main thing to consider before adopting this diet is ensuring that it will not compromise your health in any way. Consume a variety of foods in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies, use supplements if necessary, have regular health checks and ask your Nutritionist for advice.
By Kleio Bathrellou