I’ll begin with a confession – adopting a raw food diet is not for me! So why write about it? Well, I know there are many high-profile proponents of this style of eating so I wanted to understand it better in case clients ask about it. And since I learned some things, I thought you might like to also!
The raw food diet basically means eating foods that have not been cooked or at least not heated over ~115°F. There is no *one* raw food “diet” – the ways of following vary among adherents. Even the maximum temperature that foods can be warmed to without being considered ‘cooked’ varies. There are those who eat 100% raw food and those who eat 60-85% raw, with the remainder of their diet cooked foods. Raw meat (think sushi, sashimi, steak tartare, and some cured meats), raw (unpasteurized) dairy, and raw eggs are included by some raw foodists; many avoid these foods altogether. Some eat soaked or sprouted grains and others stick to only vegetables and fruits, nuts, and seeds. All of the plans I read about exclude processed foods, refined flours and sugars, all or most vegetable oils, and coffee. Most stress using organic produce as much as possible. One person writing on being ‘fully raw’ stated one should not eat vinegars, salt, oils, or spices, and should limit good fats like avocados and nuts, and frozen or dehydrated fruits and veggies.
So, what are the advantages and disadvantages of this eating style? Proponents believe that cooking destroys vital nutrients and enzymes in food, and even causes toxicity in the food, so they believe raw food has more nutrients. They believe a raw food diet helps with weight control, and that it will help new followers lose weight. It’s thought eating raw fruits and veggies can reduce acidity in the body and help alkalize it. And there are claims that raw food is easier to digest and moves through the digestive system more quickly than cooked food. Some writers made other claims about protection from other diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. It is said people eating raw have more energy, better skin, and lower blood pressure. Disadvantages include the difficulty of eating out, whether at a friend’s house or at a restaurant; the additional prep time needed to make a meal – more chopping, blending, sprouting, dehydrating, etc.; limitations on what can be eaten; it is more difficult to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need in the right proportions; increased risk of food borne illness and pathogens from commercially sold produce; and a follower must understand how raw differs from cooked in foods like broccoli and cauliflower, which contain compounds called goitrogens. Goitrogens may block thyroid function but are deactivated by heat, so eating lots of raw cruciferous veggies could lead to thyroid problems.
As with most health topics on the web, this one has believers and deniers, wild claims for and arguments against. I saw a whole lot of claims with no explanation of their basis in fact. I read an article of how eating this way nearly killed someone. Well-known doctors speak up for it and others speak against it. Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda both promote cooked rather than raw foods. My take? I think the general guidelines for a raw diet are good, in that they include a lot of vegetables and fruits, little or no animal protein, no processed ‘junk’ food, and no refined sugars or flours. They promote organic, whole foods. Raw or cooked, eating this way is way better than the typical western diet. The plans seem flexible so they allow people who want to call themselves “raw foodies” can eat mostly raw but maybe include some lightly cooked food. And for those who do want some cooked foods, the recommendations are for light, gentle cooking – not fried or grilled to a blackened state. I question the claims of easier digestion, and this is one claim that was made without any citations of studies to back it up; in fact, articles weighing pros and cons were more likely to offer explanations of how this is not true. Claims of enzyme and vitamin loss from cooking were perhaps over-stated. Produce loses much of its nutrition the longer it waits past harvest and certainly cooking can add to that loss. Many cooking methods do not appreciably destroy nutrients, and even enhance some nutrients. A few articles stated that cooking makes food acidic, but this is not always true; also, our body determines our blood PH from many factors and constantly regulates it, and food does not change that. However, reducing some naturally acidic foods like meat, cheese and some grains is good for you, just not for your PH balance.
This way of eating is not for me because while I eat a fair amount of raw vegetables and fruits, I also like steamed veggies, hot soups, casseroles. And bread and pasta. I think the human race made giant strides in evolution because we learned to cook food, and those strides wouldn’t have happened if cooking destroyed nutrition. Many diseases that have become common in western, developed nations are due to poor eating habits, over-processed foods stripped of nutrition, and over- or under-consumption of foods due to ever changing food guidelines.
What do you think? Would you want to eat this way, or do you already?