A quick search on the Internet for “raw foods diet” will yield multiple links to websites and blogs. Purported benefits include weight loss, better energy, and anti-aging. What exactly is a raw-foods-only diet? And is it mostly another celebrity-endorsed food hype, or is there any sound scientific basis to going raw?
Raw Foods Diet: Definition
Those who eat only raw foods believe that foods should not be heated beyond 118F. Raw foodists believe that higher temperatures destroy the naturally occurring enzymes and nutrients in the foods we eat, thereby preventing the body from obtaining the optimal health benefits of the food.
Typical staples of a raw foods diet include plenty of vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, legumes, sprouted whole grains and sprouted seeds, oils, herbs, seaweed, and some fermented foods such as miso and sauerkraut. There are many “versions” of the raw diet. Most of those who choose to eat raw avoid meat and dairy products and are therefore also vegan. Some eliminate additional foods completely, consuming only vegetables and fruits. Other raw foodists include raw (unpasteurized) dairy or cheese, as well as raw fish or eggs.
Because there is no “conventional” cooking in a raw-foods kitchen, raw foodists make use of food dehydrators to produce items such as fruit roll-ups or dehydrated vegetable “chips” without exceeding the 118F temperature limit. Not surprisingly, food processors and blenders are also popular gadgets.
Going Raw: Benefits
One obvious benefit of going raw is that the intake of plant foods (particularly the minimally processed type) goes way up. If you are eating plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit, and grains daily, you are way ahead of the bulk of the mainstream American population. Regular consumption of cruciferous vegetables, especially raw ones, is associated with lower risk of certain types of cancers.
Other staples of the raw foods diet, such as nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains are also high in the right kind of fats and fiber, and are more nutrient-dense than a typical Western diet of highly refined and processed foods. Sprouting grains or seeds has been shown to improve the bioavailability of some nutrients. In addition, the use of fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut (or kimchi, the Korean counterpart), or kefir means regular consumption of probiotics, or good bacteria, which help maintain the right balance of healthy microflora in the gut.
Our Take on the Raw Foods Diet
- Raw food enthusiasts believe that one needs to eat raw to obtain optimal benefits from naturally occurring enzymes in foods. However, the enzymes contained in raw foods are denatured by the hydrochloric acid produced by the stomach once the food enters your stomach, raw or cooked.
- While it’s true that cooking (applying heat) to foods can destroy or reduce the level of some nutrients, such as water-soluble vitamins, antioxidants, and some unsaturated fats, other nutrients actually become more bioavailable (better absorbed by the body) once the food is cooked. For example, lycopene in tomatoes and biotin in eggs are more available to your body once they’re cooked.
Going Raw: Nutrients to Watch
Some nutrients are usually found in meat and dairy. If you or someone you know is adhering to a plants-only raw diet, the following nutrients will need extra attention. Vegan food choices are suggested below.
- Vitamin B12: Nutritional yeast is a popular vegan source. Your body needs only a small amount of this nutrient, but it is required to maintain the health of your nervous system.
- Vitamin D: Your skin can make Vitamin D during exposure to sunlight. However, sun exposure may be unreliable during winter months. Vegans need Vitamin D–fortified non-dairy alternatives or extra supplements.
- Iron: Leafy green vegetables, whole grains such as quinoa, and beans can provide non-heme iron. Good vegan iron-rich food sources that may be less well known include pumpkin seeds, prune juice, and blackstrap molasses. Absorption of iron from plant foods is enhanced when consumed with Vitamin C–rich sources such as kiwi, citrus fruits, strawberries.
- Zinc: Good sources include whole grains, nuts, and legumes.
- Calcium: Try tofu made with calcium salt, calcium-fortified non-dairy beverages, tahini, almonds, and leafy green vegetables such as kale.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA are found mostly in seafood. Vegans will need to include plenty of omega-3 sources of ALA (precursor to DHA and EPA), such as walnuts, canola oil, or flax. There are now omega-3 supplements that provide EPA and DHA from marine algae instead of fish.
The Bottom Line
Raw or not, a mostly (or wholly) plant-based diet has been associated with lower risk of certain chronic diseases. While it is possible to get all the nutrients your body needs from a plant-based diet, it is important to keep the following in mind that any diets (not just the raw food diet) should incorporate a wide variety of plant-based foods that are minimally processed. Think whole grains, nuts (as whole nuts or nut butters), seeds, beans and lentils, vegetables, and fruit.