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The idea that a raw food diet is healthy is not new.
A mid-19th century American Presbyterian minister and dietary reformer Sylvester Graham claimed that people can avoid getting sick if they ate uncooked food.
Many people do believe that the act of cooking food, especially vegetables, reduces the number of essential vitamins and minerals, which accounts for the popularity of raw food diets.
However, other studies also indicate that certain practices may offset the benefits of raw food, such as dental erosion, low bone mass, and low serum HDL cholesterol, also known as “good” cholesterol.(3,4,5)
Is it, or is it not worth trying?
There is no simple yes or no answer to that question.
Just like eggs and coconut oil, raw food diets can work for you if you understand how it works.
Below are the pros and cons of a raw food diet, so you can assess if this might be something you would like to consider and ask your doctor or nutritionist to design a program for you.
We also have some basic information that can help you maximize its benefits if you choose to adopt it.
Defining a Raw Food Diet
A raw food diet is sometimes referred to as a living foods diet because the food is consumed in their raw state.
Raw foodists believe that heat used in cooking breaks down enzymes in the food, which helps release the nutrients in food.
Without these enzymes, the body has to work harder to digest food and may result in feelings of tiredness.
A sluggish digestive system may also lead to clogged arteries.
Many variations of raw food diets or raw foodism exist.
While this usually means fruits and vegetables, some diets include some animal-based foods such as liver, also uncooked.
Generally, however, raw foodism is the consumption of uncooked and unprocessed nutrient-rich sprouted grains, beans, fruits, nuts, and seeds, comprising from 50% to 100% of the person’s daily food intake.
Some diets allow some heating of food, but the temperature should not reach more than 118 degrees Fahrenheit.(8)
A raw food diet may be one of three general types: semi- or partial vegetarian diets, which include chicken and fish; lacto-ovo diets, which include dairy products and eggs; vegans, which is completely plant-based with no animal-based foods.(9)
Many studies indicating strong evidence of beneficial effects of a raw food diet refer to the second type or lacto-ovo diets.
A review of the literature on partial vegetarian and vegan diets indicate the need for more in-depth studies to support claims of long-term health benefits.
One study that reported positive long-term effects of a vegan diet used self-reported data from participants.(10)
Adherence to a raw food diet, then, does not restrict you to just plant-based foods.
You can eat small amounts of meat and other animal-based foods, cooked or uncooked if you choose.
Examples of acceptable uncooked meats include properly prepared sashimi and ceviche.
You may also choose to consume salted, dried, pickled and fermented foods, as these are not subjected to high heat.
Other animal-based foods that may be part of a raw food diet include milk, cheese, and eggs.
Advantages of Raw Food Diet
Despite doubts about the long-term benefits of raw food diets, most people agree that there are definite benefits to trying a raw food diet in the short term.
Below are the pros of a raw food diet.
For most people, the top reason for switching to a raw food diet is weight loss.
High-calorie foods like bread and other baked goods and fast food are cooked, so they are not allowed in a raw food diet.
By default, most of the food consumed in a raw food diet is naturally low-calorie, so a significant drop in weight results in a short time after embarking on any type of raw food diet.
A study of participants on a high-carb lacto-ovo diet lost 6% of their starting weight over 6 months.(11)
Participants on a low-carb vegan diet lost slightly more (7%) over the same period.
That may not seem dramatic enough for people looking to gain a significant amount of weight.
However, this is actually right on track with long-term weight loss provided participants continue with their raw food diets.(12)
Of course, these studies monitor the calorie intake of participants closely to ensure they take in a reasonable amount to sustain their particular lifestyle.
You can lose a lot more weight if you restrict your calorie intake more than the recommended, but it can lead to health consequences.
For one thing, you might gain back more weight if you go back to your regular eating habits.(13)
You should also note that diet composition is only one part of a successful weight loss strategy.(14)
Most people are not aware that the human body has to be at a slightly alkaline pH level (7.35 to 7.45) to remain healthy.
At this optimum level, you can avoid chronic diseases associated with a pH imbalance such as duodenal ulcers, acidosis (which can lead to diabetic ketosis, chronic obstructive lung disease, and renal failure), and bone diseases.
Fruits and vegetables have a negative acid load, which means it does not add to the acidity in the body at the very least, and may actually decrease acidity.
In addition, many fruits and vegetables are rich in potassium, which can help older people retain muscle mass, and magnesium, which helps prevent chronic back pain.
Finally, proper body pH may increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy for cancer patients.(15)
Some raw food advocates claim that an acid-rich diet will cause cancer, and an alkalinizing diet can help prevent it.
There is not enough evidence to support these claims.
While it is true that some cancer cells thrive in an acidic environment, an alkalinizing diet will not actually help prevent it because it does not affect the blood pH.
At most, it may help prevent urinary tract cancers because a raw food diet may affect the urinary pH.
Higher Nutrient Retention
People take most of their nutrients from the food they eat.
Cooking can have a significant effect on some minerals and vitamins present in the food, particularly water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C and folate.
One exception is potatoes, which did not lose any significant amount of folate despite boiling.
It is best to consume spinach, broccoli, and lettuce raw to preserve vitamin C, although steaming spinach and broccoli did not result in the reduction in folate content.(16)
Less Salt, Less Sugar
While there no specific restrictions for either salt or sugar in a raw food diet, you consume less anyway.
Since raw food diets tend to be raw and prepared at home, you avoid raw food diet in your food present in fast food and processed foods.
Excess amounts of salt intake are associated with many health problems, particularly cardiovascular diseases.
Meat and baked goods often require a lot of salt that is not present in uncooked foods.
Refined sugar and other sources of added sugar, which also has cardiovascular implications, is another substance you can avoid with a raw food diet.(18)
It is usually present in high amounts in baked goods, not only in actual sugar but derived from energy-rich -rich carbohydrates such as refined wheat-based flour and corn syrups.
Since cakes, pies, and other sweets are usually heat-treated, they are ineligible for a raw food diet, thus automatically reducing your intake of different types of sugars.
The best thing about the raw food diet is it provides you with a lot of dietary fiber.
Also known as roughage, the body cannot break down or absorb these parts of fruits and vegetables.
They pass through the digestive system relatively whole.
There are two types of dietary fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber turns into a gel when introduced to water, and makes up the bulk of apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, oats, flaxseed, peas, beans, and psyllium.
It helps in lowering your blood cholesterol and glucose levels by absorbing some of them on their way out.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, is not water soluble and passes through the intestinal tract like a broom to sweep up any bits and pieces left behind that can lead to health problems if allowed to accumulate.
It is a good way to regulate your bowel movements and avoid constipation.
Among the benefits of high dietary fiber diets include:
- Normal bowel movements – avoid constipation and loose bowel movement by adding bulk.
- Better bowel health – avoid developing the diverticular disease (small pouches in the colon) and hemorrhoids.
- Lower cholesterol levels – lower cholesterol levels with soluble fiber by reducing the levels of “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein); it may also reduce inflammation and blood pressure.
- Lower blood sugar levels – avoid developing insulin resistant (type 2) diabetes by reducing the absorption of sugar in the blood; this also benefits people with diabetes.
- Weight loss – avoid feelings of hunger and excessive eating because high fiber diets have fewer calories tend to make you feel full with less.
As you can see, the benefits of a raw food diet are well established in scientific studies.
However, you may suffer a reversal if you are overzealous.
Moderation is the best way to reap the benefits of a raw food diet.
Disadvantages of Raw Food Diet
Even if you do practice moderation, you can still suffer some drawbacks from the raw food diet over the long term.
The biggest problem encountered by raw foodists is lack of “enriched” foods that contain part or all of the daily nutritional requirements because they are processed, which is contrary to the premise of the “living” diet.
They have to get it naturally, and that is not always easy.
Here are some of the consequences.
You can get more nutrients from some foods by not cooking them, but some foods require the application of heat to release other nutrients.
Stir-fried carrots yield more than 6 times the amount of beta-carotene compared to raw carrots, and sautéed tomatoes in olive oil increase the amount of lycopene in the blood by 80% compared to consuming raw tomatoes.(21)
It is better to sauté, stir-fry, boil or steam food instead of frying, which can produce free radicals.
Raw foods may also make it harder for the body to digest and absorb the physical and chemical properties of the food eaten.
Cooking breaks down tough animal and plant fibers that may provide nutritional value that the body needs.(22)
Cooked meat, for example, has more antioxidants than raw meat.(23)
If you are on a lacto ovo diet, cooking eggs doubles the amount of protein you can digest and absorb.(24)
Lower Bone Mass
Raw foodists have low protein and low-calorie consumption, so they have a lower body mass index (BMI) and fat content.
While this is good if you want to lose weight, there is a strong association with low BMI and low bone mass in the spine and hip area, which increases your risk of fractures.
However, if you have good bone quality when you start on a raw food diet, you may be more able to tolerate the decrease in protein and calorie intake and avoid fractures.
On the other hand, if you are predisposed to osteoporosis, the raw food diet may not be your best option.(25)
Humans have evolved to live on cooked food, so a raw food diet may be a little harder on the teeth than you may expect.
More than 97% of participants in one study who have been on a raw food diet (95% raw) for a median of 39 months shows significantly more eroded teeth than those on regular diets, ranging from moderate to severe erosions in at least one tooth.
It does not appear to be due to any nutritive or oral hygiene deficiency.(26)
It is likely that the added stress of chewing uncooked vegetables may be responsible.
You need dietary fiber, but too much of it may create health problems.
Since dietary fiber has no calories, you may not be getting enough for your daily needs.
A small deficit is fine if you are trying to lose weight, but you should reduce your fiber intake once you have achieved your ideal weight.
Too much dietary fiber can also result in feelings of discomfort, bloating, and gas.
The worst offenders are cabbage, kale, broccoli, and other cruciferous vegetables.
Excess fiber may also cause cramps and constipation if you are not drinking enough water to move it along.
This can lead to an intestinal blockage, which is not a good thing.
Finally, excess amounts of fiber in the diet can result in the inability to absorb essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.(27)
Not Enough Vitamins
Ironically, raw food diets can lead to deficiencies in some vitamins, particularly B-12 and vitamin D.
This can have some serious health problems, as vitamin B-12 deficiency can lead to lower serum HDL (good) cholesterol and higher homocysteine concentrations, which can lead to plaque formations in the arterial walls and clots.(28)
Insufficient vitamin D is more serious because it serves an important function in practically all the systems of the body.
Vitamin D deficiency can increase your risk of:
- Cardiovascular disease, orthostatic hypotension, and aortic dilatation.
- Respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchiectasis, bronchiolitis, cystic fibrosis, and obstructive sleep apnea.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as chronic hepatitis, inflammatory bowel disease, pancreatitis, and liver cirrhosis.
- Neurological issues including depression, myasthenia gravis, multiple sclerosis, and meningomyelocele.
- A musculoskeletal disorder resulting in muscle weakness, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and juvenile arthritis.
- Metabolic concerns like chronic kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, diabetic nephropathy, metabolic syndrome, and infertility in males.
- Colorectal, breast, ovarian, prostate, and lung cancers.
- Skin diseases such as eczema, systemic lupus erythematosus, and psoriasis.
Lack of vitamins can pose serious health threat especially if this goes on for a long period of time.
One of the best benefits of cooking food is it destroys bacteria and other pathogens that may be lurking in your food.
You might think that if you avoid meat and other animal-based products, you are safe, but that is not necessarily true.
Raw fruits and vegetables, even when washed thoroughly before eating, may not be safe from food pathogens.(29)
There will always be the risked of food poisoning not only because food preparation was not handled well, but also because there might have been microbial contamination such as using contaminated water during the agricultural process.
A strict vegan diet is not for everyone.
It is not advisable to do get into a diet program just because it seems to be the latest thing that people are trying these days.
Just because something worked for somebody else does not mean that it is going to work for you.
Hence, it is critical that people with health issues need to consult with their physicians before making any drastic changes to their diets as this could adversely affect an ongoing treatment protocol.
Healthy people should also consider their dietary needs before embarking on a raw food diet.
Some people believe children should be given healthier lunches with more fruits and vegetables and less meat, which is fine up to a certain point.
However, a strict vegan is not appropriate for infants, young children, and older people because it impairs growth and decreases bone mass in the long term.
Many people are convinced that a raw food diet is an answer to all weight and health problems.
It is understandable as doctors encourage people with lifestyle and other chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity to eating more fruits and vegetables.
However, this does not mean you should go full-tilt on a strict vegan diet.
It will certainly help you lose weight and perhaps increase your sense of well-being and energy levels in the short term, but in the long term may not work so well for you.
Based on the research, it is clear that many factors will affect the efficacy of any type of raw food diet.
Health benefits will vary depending on the composition of the diet, age, lifestyle, and overall health of the consumer, and adherence to the chosen raw food diet type.
Drawbacks appear to be mainly due to a strict vegan diet that restricts access of the consumer to certain nutritive elements present in animal-based and cooked foods.
There are many benefits to increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, but beyond a certain point, it has considerable drawbacks as well that can seriously impair your health.
A strict vegan diet can do you or your family some permanent damage.
You should consider these before you attempt to make such drastic changes to your diet and find yourself even worse than where you initially started.
Is it worth trying a raw food diet, then?
Provided you are reasonably healthy and have your doctor’s permission, you may want to try a modified raw food diet.
Start slowly by increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, raw or cooked, and cutting down on processed foods and refined sugar, and take it from there.
This enables you to slowly gauge and measure what works for you and what doesn’t.
The goal is to find the right balance of plant- and animal-based products to keep you healthy and happy.
Once you find it, stick with it.
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