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Raw Food Diet: Benefits, Risks and How to Follow
June 15, 2017
Despite what you might have heard, a raw food diet is not another “fad diet” as we normally think of one. In fact, some experts on raw diets say that they’re essentially the opposite: “anti-diets” and more like a lifestyle that simply promotes eating more real foods in their natural state.
A raw food diet, also sometimes called “raw foodism,” is about eating mostly or all unprocessed and uncooked foods so you get all the nutrients without the dangerous additives. So are you ready to take part in the raw food revolution? Let’s take a look at what a raw food diet is, who can benefit from one and how to do it.
What Is a Raw Food Diet?
The goal of eating more raw foods is to obtain plenty of nutrients in an easy-to-digest manner, one that our bodies are naturally suited for. While there’s no need to go completely raw or to declare yourself a “raw vegan,” making sure to consume at least some raw vegetables and fruits every day is important for just about everyone.
Raw foodism has been around since the 1800s, and both studies and anecdotal evidence show the benefits of a raw food diet include:
- lowering inflammation
- improving digestion
- providing more dietary fiber
- improving heart health
- helping with optimal liver function
- preventing cancer
- preventing or treating constipation
- giving you more energy
- clearing up your skin
- preventing nutrient deficiencies
- lowering the amount of antinutrients and carcinogens in your diet
- helping you maintain a healthy body weight
Maybe you’re wondering how much raw food it takes to consider yourself someone who eats a mostly raw food diet. There isn’t one single type of raw food diet that you should strive to follow — rather there’s all sorts of different variations of raw food diets out there, all with different advice and degrees to which foods can be cooked.
Depending on the exact type you choose to follow, raw food diets can include far more than just fresh produce. In addition to raw fruits and vegetables, you might consume fish, sea vegetables, fermented foods, sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, eggs, and even some meat and raw dairy products. (2)
The thing that ties various raw food diets together is that generally no foods that have been pasteurized, homogenized, or produced with the use of synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, industrial solvents or chemical food additives are included. This means avoiding, or at least greatly reducing, most popular packaged and processed foods sold in the grocery store like breads, bottled condiments, cereals, crackers, cheese, refined oils and processed meats.
It can be hard to transition from the diet you currently eat to one with more raw foods — especially if you currently think you “don’t like” raw fruits and vegetables much, which are definitely a major proponent of a raw food diet. If you’re skeptical of raw food diets and worried about whether or not you can tolerate eating more raw foods, remember that it’s all about taking small steps. There’s no need to completely make over your diet overnight. In fact, you’ll likely maintain a healthier way of eating when you transition things slowly.
Studies show the more you rush into a new way of eating and the more you consider it just a quick-fix “diet,” the likelier you are to gain any weight you’ve lost back and to give up, which only sabotages your efforts. Plus, adding in more high-fiber foods and raw foods slowly might mean you experience less digestive problems and cravings, which can happen when you change up what you normally eat.
Related: Macrobiotic Diet Benefits, Theory & Foods
We can all afford to eat a healing diet with more raw fruits and vegetables, and here’s the primary reasons why …
While you might think otherwise, cooked foods are usually harder to digest than raw foods, plus cooking nutrient-dense foods tends to destabilize some of their valuable enzymes and destroy certain antioxidants and vitamins.
Raw foods also help alkalize the body, reduce acidity, and have less of a chance of fermenting in the gut and causing inflammation/autoimmune reactions. This applies to all of us, but some people who can especially benefit from eating more raw foods include those with:
- cancer (3)
- heart disease
- high blood pressure and high cholesterol (4)
- kidney disease
- gallstones or gallbladder disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- autoimmune disorders
- food allergies
- joint pain (5)
- muscle aches and pains
- hormonal imbalance
- trouble with weight gain/obesity
Let’s first take a look at how enzymes in foods are impacted when they’re cooked.
There’s some debate over this topic, but many experts feel that foods heated over about 112 degrees Fahrenheit retain less vital enzymes. Digestive enzymes are used by the body to break down foods to smaller and more operable nutritional units. This point shouldn’t be overlooked, because it’s not only how many nutrients a food has to offer that matters, but how we are actually able to absorb these nutrients. (6)
Within the human body, the pancreas and other cells produce enzymes to help with digestion (called endogenous enzymes) while raw foods also supply some enzymes (called exogenous enzymes). The greater our intake of exogenous enzymes, the easier time we have fully digesting nutrients without overly taxing our systems.
Each food is a bit different in terms of when it starts to lose some of its nutrients. Many high-antioxidant foods are sensitive to cooking because phytonutrients don’t stand up well to high temperatures. The temperature at which a food starts to be depleted of nutrients due to cooking is called the “heat labile point.” At this point, chemical configurations start to change within the food, enzymes are lost and the food becomes less beneficial.
Another reason to eat more raw foods is because of how they easily make their way through our digestive systems. The longer a food sits in our digestive tracts, the likelier it is to ferment and cause problems. Pre-fermented foods themselves are good for you (more on that below), but a food fermenting in your gut causes gas, inflammation and toxic waste to accumulate. During fermentation in the gut, proteins putrefy and fats go rancid, which negatively affects the mucosal lining of the gut and can lead to intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome).
Finally, raw foods have a big impact on the acid/alkaline balance in our bodies. Diseases develop more easily within the body when acidity rises, because acidosis lowers immunity. The body can become overly acidic due to environmental pollutants, stress, processed and refined foods, lack of nutrients, and mineral-deficient water. Cooked foods create even more acidity in the body, but on the other hand, raw foods neutralize acid and help alkalize the body.
While weight loss isn’t the primary goal, you’re also likely to feel full when eating lots of raw foods from consuming plenty of fiber and nutrients, so this can help you curb cravings and eat less overall if that’s one of your goals.
Raw Food Diet vs. Vegan Diet
Thinking of becoming a “raw vegan” and wondering how a raw vegan diet differs from a general raw food diet? The two have a lot in common, but eating a diet high in raw foods doesn’t necessarily mean you need to avoid all animal products, which vegans do.
Some raw food diets include raw fish, raw dairy products, raw meats or eggs, and even some cooked animal foods too. Again, there isn’t an ideal percentage of cooked versus raw foods you should try to live up to. The goal is just to move your food intake to one that’s more natural, nutrient-dense and unprocessed.
What do vegans eat? Raw vegans don’t consume any animal products whatsoever and very few cooked foods, which means this way of eating can be hard to keep up with and unattainable for many people. On top of that, there are plenty of nutrients available in animal foods and benefits to including some of them in your diet. For example, organ meats, like chicken liver or kidneys, are often called superfoods and are some of the most nutrient-dense foods there are, extremely high in things like vitamin A, B vitamins, phosphorus and iron.
Some nutrients are simply more easily obtained when you include some animal foods in your diet. For example, if you compare the nutrient density of organ meats to that of vegetables like spinach or carrots, the organ meats outperform many of them. Other animal foods make smart food choices, too: Eggs are a great source of choline, fish are the single best way to get anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and beef is rich in things like zinc and selenium.
I don’t recommend a raw vegan approach because it’s too easy to run low on critical vitamins and minerals, plus protein. It’s true that some plant-based foods have protein, but they aren’t “complete proteins” — meaning they don’t supply all of the essential amino acids that the body cannot make on its own like animals foods can.
The reason I recommend avoiding raw veganism and including high-quality animal products in moderation is to make it easier to obtain enough amino acids, healthy sources of saturated fats and omega-3s, iron, B vitamins (especially vitamin B12 and folate), zinc, and selenium. (7)
Vitamin B12 benefits red blood cell formation and improves cellular function; iron prevents anemia and fatigue; folate is important for converting chemicals in the body for proper cellular functions and cellular division; and omega-3s lower inflammation and improve heart health.
If you struggle with low energy, fatigue, being underweight, infertility, depression or neurological issues, loss of muscle mass, or weak bones, a vegan or vegetarian diet will likely make it harder to recover. I recommend, in addition to eating plenty of fruits and veggies, that you include some organic, pasture-raised or grass-fed animal proteins — calf liver and chicken liver, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, raw/fermented dairy products, and pasture-raised poultry are all great options.
Quality of animal foods is very important — and that’s one of the reasons I don’t promote a “Paleo diet.” The Paleo diet has some great things about it (and also usually includes plenty of raw foods), but in my opinion, people eating this way tend to consume too much meat and don’t stress eating organically as much as I do.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, it’s all about balance. You’ll likely feel your best when you consume plenty of raw foods in addition to some that are lightly cooked.
Here are some of my favorite raw foods to start eating regularly:
- Leafy greens
- Citrus fruits (several servings per day)
- Sunflower, sesame and pumpkin seeds
- Coconut kefir/raw and organic regular kefir
- Raw veggies like carrots, celery, peppers, tomatoes, etc.
- Raw yogurt
- Extra virgin coconut or olive oil
- Cultured veggies (like sauerkraut or kimchi)
- Watermelon and cantaloupe
In order to move your diet in the right direction, try taking these steps below, which will help you incorporate more raw and anti-inflammatory foods into your diet:
- At each meal, plan to fill half your plate with fresh, non-starchy veggies and fruit. Make a reasonable portion of those raw, but some cooked can be beneficial too (which you’ll learn more about below).
- Lightly cooking food at temperatures less than 100 degrees, steaming, juicing, sprouting and using slow cookers are ways to gently cook the food you aren’t eating raw. Remember that you have the power to individualize your diet and choose what works best for you. Typically on a mostly raw food diet, about 75 percent to 80 percent of what you eat each day will be plant-based foods that were never heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit, but here’s room for variation.
- Replace bad fats with good, healthy fats. Get rid of any hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, soybean oil, canola oil and vegetable oils. Replace these with good fats like extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed coconut oil, grass-fed butter, avocado and nuts/seeds, which are essential to hormone production, cancer prevention, brain development, weight loss, cellular healing and lowering inflammation.
- Focus on having quality animal products in moderation. This greatly lowers your exposure to pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones in meats while supplying important nutrients and fatty acids like arachidonic acid, conjugated linoleic acid and omega-3 fatty acids.
- Replace all sugary snacks and refined grains. This includes all white rice, white pasta, cereal and white bread, plus pizza, sugary sauces/condiments, soups, crackers, fruit drinks, canned foods and sweetened yogurt. Instead, have soaked/sprouted grain products (like sprouted beans, Ezekiel bread or sourdough bread) in moderation. The fermentation process turns the normally inedible (raw grains and legumes) into the edible. Also eat real fruit for a sweet treat instead of sweetened snacks.
You’ll find that roughly eating this way helps you easily consume lots of superfoods like fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouted seeds and nuts/nut butters, cold-pressed extra virgin olive or coconut oil, fresh herbs, freshly squeezed vegetable juices, fermented veggies, and herbal teas if you’d like. Plus, you’ll get to eat a lot of food and feel very satisfied since raw foods are large and so low in calories.
The Importance of Fermented Foods in a Raw Food Diet
A staple of nearly every civilization on earth in one form or another, fermented foods are some of the healthiest things about eating a raw food diet. Fermented foods are raw and naturally develop probiotics during the period when they undergo fermentation, which happens when oxygen converts some of their nutrients. Fermented foods have been eaten for thousands of years in the form of yogurt, kefir, sourdough breads, kombucha, and cultured vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi and kvass.
Probiotics supplied by fermented foods, which are “good bacteria” that reside in your gut, are responsible for nutrient absorption and supporting your immune system. They help you to repopulate your gut with beneficial microbiota after you’ve begun the process of clearing away built-up toxins and waste. Probiotic foods encourage a healthy microbiome, are great for your digestive system, improve immunity, help clear up your skin, and are even beneficial for maintaining hormonal balance and a healthy weight.
Regardless of whether you eat a raw food diet or not, you can benefit from including more fermented foods in your diet to prevent digestive disorders, skin issues, candida, autoimmune disease and frequent infections.
Risks and Side Effects
Why might an all raw food diet not be the best option? There’s merit for cooking certain foods to bring out more of their nutrients — plus cooking allows you to eat some animal products that many people would be hesitant to eat raw. In other words, cooking does degrade some nutrients, but it also makes others more digestible.
Cooking foods with antioxidants called beta-carotene and lycopene (like squash, sweet potatoes and tomatoes, for example) helps release their nutrients and make them more absorbable, plus it makes them taste a lot better! (9) Cooking is also useful for killing bacteria and pathogens that can live in some foods, like certain fish or eggs and meat.
In addition, some vegetables like those in the cruciferous vegetables family (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard greens and Brussels sprouts) contain goitrogen compounds, which in excess can block thyroid function and contribute to hypothyroidism, but these are mostly deactivated by heat and cooking. And some studies have also shown that peppers and mushrooms become more nutrient-dense when cooked.
Is there anyone for whom a raw food diet isn’t a good fit? Yes. Keep this in mind: While including more raw food in your diet has plenty of benefits, a raw food diet tends not to work so well for people with certain gut types. Raw foods diets aren’t for everybody, since raw fruits and vegetables can be hard to digest for some people lacking certain enzymes or digestive capabilities and because they’re high-fiber diets.
If you have a sensitive digestive system, such as inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis, cooking more of your food might be a better option. If we’re unable to digest the vitamins and minerals in foods, we risk nutrient deficiencies and other illnesses. This can happen when we can’t break down fibrous vegetable cell walls to unleash stored nutrients, so in some cases cooking with low to medium heat can help predigest fibers for us and release more essential vitamins and minerals. (10)
- A raw food diet is considered an “anti-diet” and more like a lifestyle that simply promotes eating more real foods in their natural state that’s about eating mostly or all unprocessed and uncooked foods so you get all the nutrients without the dangerous additives.
- Raw food diets supply more nutrients than vegan diets, because there are some nutrients and proteins you simply cannot get without consuming animal products. In addition, raw food diets sometimes include a few cooked foods.
- You can eat more raw foods in a balanced way by following the following steps: at each meal, plan to fill half your plate with fresh, non-starchy veggies and fruit; lightly cook food at temperatures less than 100 degrees, steam, juice, sprout and use slow cookers to gently cook the food you aren’t eating raw; replace bad fats with healthy fats; focus on having quality animal products in moderation; and replace all sugary snacks and refined grains.
- Fermented foods also play a key role in a raw food diet.