As people become increasingly thoughtful about what they are putting in their mouths and bodies, the raw food diet has come up on the radar as a healthful style of eating. Whether you are looking to lose weight, considering a natural approach to a health issue, or seeking to minimize your exposure to chemicals and artificial ingredients in processed foods, a diet composed partially or entirely of raw food may be worth considering.
As the name implies, on the raw food diet, the food you eat isn’t cooked. The only “cooking” allowed is delivered via dehydrator, juicer, or blender. Foods aren’t allowed to reach temperatures higher than 104 to 118 Fahrenheit in order to preserve naturally occurring enzymes and other nutrients. Although there is no formal definition — and there are many variations — the raw food diet is generally described as an uncooked vegan diet, although some people consume raw (unpasteurized) milk and cheese, raw eggs, raw meat such as carpaccio, and raw fish such as sashimi.
Despite its renewed popularity, the raw food diet is not new. The concept was developed in the United States in the 1830s by Sylvester Graham (inventor of the graham cracker) as a response to chronic diseases, particularly cholera. Years later, Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss physician and nutritionist, promoted raw food as a health treatment after he recovered from jaundice while eating apples. In 1897 he opened Vital Force, a clinic where he promoted the benefits of eating raw fruits and vegetables.
Over the years, raw foodism has been re-interpreted and advocated for everything from supporting general good health and improving blood profiles to treating fibromyalgia and cancer, but there are few high-quality studies to back these claims. As a result, the diet remains controversial. Although there is plenty of evidence that eating more unprocessed foods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, is beneficial, it’s usually in the context of what most people consider a balanced diet — including low-fat dairy, lean meats, fish, and other seafood — not a diet composed entirely of raw, mostly vegan, food.
On this diet you’ll eat lots of berries, fresh fruit, veggies, and nuts. The diet also relies heavily on sprouted beans, seeds, and grains. Advocates claim one advantage of a raw food diet is that it preserves nutrients that are diminished or destroyed by cooking. A common example is enzymes. Enzymes are needed for digestion and occur naturally in many foods. Raw food proponents claim that cooking destroys these enzymes making foods harder to digest.
Critics, however, point out that the body produces its own digestive enzymes, and the enzymes in food are actually destroyed by gastric juices when food is eaten. Additionally, the nutrients in some foods actually increase during cooking, for example lycopene in tomatoes. Other foods can be toxic when consumed raw, for example certain mushrooms, peas, and beans.
Proponents of the raw food diet also point out that cooking meat, poultry, and fish over high heat or for prolonged periods can create chemicals — heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — that can cause changes to your DNA, possibly increasing your risk of cancer. In epidemiologic studies using detailed questionnaires to determine participants’ meat cooking methods and consumption, researchers have found that eating large amounts of well-done, fried, barbecued, or smoked meats was associated with increased risk for prostate, colorectal, and pancreatic cancer. Although no guidelines exist for the consumption of meats prepared by these methods, you can minimize your exposure to HCA and PAH by certain cooking methods and techniques.
An additional concern is difficulty getting adequate nutrients from an all-raw diet, particularly vitamins B12 and D, selenium, zinc, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, making supplementation nearly a requirement, which brings into question the whole idea of eating unprocessed foods.
Some dietitians and nutritionists have expressed concern about whether the raw food diet is safe for vulnerable individuals — the elderly and very young and those with weakened immunity. The concern stems from the fact that there is an increased risk of exposure to illness-causing bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Additionally, some foods have toxins in their raw form, which are eliminated by cooking.
The diet has also been criticized as a potential contributor to health risks such as loss of bone density (osteoporosis), causing women to stop having regular periods (amenorrhea), and greater incidence of cavities (dental carries). Aside from potential health risks, the diet has been criticized for being overly restrictive and hard to follow.
There are specific techniques that you’ll want to investigate and become familiar with before getting started, for example dehydrating a batter to make a wrap or fruit leather, and sprouting beans and nuts to make them more easily digestible. There are plenty of websites and books on the subject, so be sure to do your homework ahead of time. Search for terms such as raw foods, living foods, sprouting, juicing, and dehydrating.
If you decide to give a raw diet a try, in addition to a dehydrator, you may also want to invest in a good blender, a juicer, a thermometer, and a food processor. A good set of knives is important to make the process of prepping your food safe and efficient. Having large jars and containers for sprouting is also helpful.
Because you’ll be primarily eating fruits and vegetables, make sure you have a reliable source of quality, organic produce. In addition, choose recipes with familiar ingredients that are readily available in your area.
If you already eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, going raw may not be a huge leap for you. Likewise, if you spend a lot of time in the kitchen and enjoy preparing most of your food from scratch, a raw food diet might be a good fit. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the requirements ahead of time so you can make an informed decision about whether this diet is right for you. You might consider trying the diet for a limited time at first to determine how you do and how you feel. Alternatively, you might consider eating a diet that is 60 to 80 percent raw, and incorporating limited amounts of cooked foods the make up the balance, for convenience and to ensure you get adequate nutrients.
September 21, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN