As we pay more attention to the way our food affects how we feel, we see new diet fads catching on like wildfire. There’s something out there that appeals to everybody, or at least everybody’s curiosity. But do they really work? Whether a certain diet “works” depends on a few things. For example, is the dieter’s goal to lose weight, reduce certain health risks, build muscle or align with personal ethics? Some diet trends have little or no science-based evidence so success is often based on the subjective opinion of the dieter.
What is the Raw Food Diet?
The idea behind the raw food trend is that by eating foods in their most natural, raw state, we are making our bodies do more work to digest and extract nutrients. Another argument, which is true for some foods but not others, is that raw food is simply more nutritious than its cooked or processed counterparts.
This type of diet can be healthy and may even help you lose weight. But it’s also tricky to navigate. The rules are that you cannot eat anything processed or cooked over 118 F, or 47.8 C (x). Cooking, however, is what kills harmful germs that make us sick. So many raw dieters leave out the meat, dairy and eggs, essentially following a mostly vegan diet. On a raw vegan diet, protein comes from nuts, beans and grains. In other words, a raw diet doesn’t have to be vegan, but often is. Some brave souls might take on the challenge of eating some raw fish or eggs from time to time (x, x).
The Benefits of a Raw Food Diet
What makes raw foodism so “healthy?” First of all, it’s an excellent way to lose weight. It’s thought that by eating food in its most natural state, you ingest nutrients encased in more complex fibers that take you longer to digest. This means you will ingest fewer calories for the same volume of food (x).
Reduces Risk of Chronic Disease
If you’re following a raw food diet and are mindful of consuming enough nutrients, it can also help reduce the risk for chronic disease.
One reason for this is the high content of both water soluble fiber and insoluble fiber of raw diets. Most adults and children eating a standard diet don’t get the recommended amount. High fiber intake is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity and some gastrointestinal disorders (x).
The nutrient density of a mostly plant-based diet also contributes to health. One study found that raw dieters had favorable blood cholesterol levels compared to people eating average diets. Eating a plant-based diet like the raw food diet also helps reduce cardiovascular disease and cancer (x). Another study found that people on raw food diets also had high levels of carotenoids, which are nutrients thought to prevent chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, prostate cancer and lung cancer (x).
Manages Leaky Gut Syndrome
While research still emerges on “leaky gut” syndrome, it’s possible that diets high in health-promoting plant-based foods and low in processed, inflammatory foods like the raw food diet can reduce intestinal permeability (or leaky gut) (x).
Retains Nutrient Content of Some Foods
Roasted root vegetables, greens sautéed with garlic and oil and tender-crisp, stir-fried snow peas — we’ve found many ways to make vegetables taste amazing and digest easily. But does cooking vegetables destroy nutrients? The research shows that it depends on the vegetable, the nutrient and the cooking method. Vitamin B and vitamin C seem to be most at risk of breaking down through cooking while fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K do not. Cooking vegetables in water with methods like boiling or steaming preserves more of their nutrients than methods such as frying (x).
On the other hand, there are some advantages to cooking. The nutrients in some foods become more available for absorption by the body once the fibrous cell walls are broken down a bit. Tomatoes, for example, have higher levels of lycopene when cooked (x). Cooking also renders food easier on the stomach and more palatable, thereby increasing the amount of overall nutrients that people are willing and able to ingest.
Align with Personal Ethics
Finally, no matter what research may say about the health impacts of a raw, largely vegan diet, a commitment to considering all forms of life and the environment provides the motivation to adopt such a restrictive lifestyle. Studies show that of all popular diets, a vegan diet carries the smallest carbon footprint (x).
Potential Dangers of a Raw Food Diet
A raw foodie usually eats plenty of fruits and veggies, but getting other important nutrients like protein can be a challenge. Protein comes from limited sources when you’re raw dieting, and getting insufficient amounts can lead to numerous health problems. Sources of raw vegan protein include nuts, seeds and legumes. These foods, especially in the raw state, contain compounds that may make the protein harder to absorb. Subtle signs of malnutrition may include menstrual irregularities for females and skin changes in all genders (x). While heading to a nearby sushi joint may seem like a quick and easy answer, consuming raw or undercooked fish and meat comes with the risk of contamination (x, x).
Risk of Vitamin and Mineral Deficiency
Other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, like B12, zinc and calcium, can be linked to eating a limited vegan diet. Because of this, practicing long term raw veganism may require occasional “cheating” with eggs, dairy or meat. Experts believe it’s nearly impossible to be 100 percent raw vegan all the time and obtain all the nutrition that your body needs (x).
Roughage Can be Rough on the Stomach
A quick Google search of “vegan digestive problems” will produce tons of accounts of vegans (raw or otherwise) looking for solutions to their stomach issues that include gas, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea. Cooking breaks down the tough, fibrous cell walls of vegetables, which ultimately makes them easier to digest. Potatoes and cauliflower are two examples of foods that can be eaten raw, but have the potential to upset the digestive system.
Food Borne Illness
Sometimes there’s an assumption that only raw animal products carry the risk of foodborne illness. Raw meat and poultry (even when cooked) account for a significant number of foodborne illnesses and deaths every year. However, green leafy vegetables actually sicken more people than meat, according to the CDC. Cooking can kill many of the pathogens found on contaminated produce (x).
What about milk? Raw milk, meaning that which hasn’t been pasteurized or heated to kill germs, continues to be a health risk for people worldwide. Bacteria like Brucella, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella cause millions of cases of food poisoning and deaths each year, and experts believe it even contributes to the spread of deadly tuberculosis (x, x).
People who eat raw meat, eggs and dairy generally only do so when the products come from a trusted source, like a local farm. Freezing high-quality meat for two weeks may also reduce some of the pathogens.
Tips and Tricks to a Successful Raw Food Diet
Starting a raw food diet, whether it be vegan, vegetarian or contain small amounts of animal products, can be daunting if you go into it unprepared. How do you survive without cooking? Having a plan, prepping food in advance and having emergency snacks available in cases of hunger will go a long way in setting you up for success.
Quick Cleanse or Lifestyle?
Walking into the raw food world takes commitment and intention. Deciding how long you’ll stay can help. While it is a long-term lifestyle for some people, others like to do an occasional short-term raw veggie cleanse. Many variations of a “30-day raw food diet” exist. Having a clear understanding of your goals can help you construct a plan that will maximize your chances of success.
Juicing fresh fruits and vegetables is a quick and easy way to get your sustenance. You can make your own fully raw concoctions at home with a centrifugal or cold-pressed juicer, or pop into your local juice place for one of theirs.
Like milk, juice has the potential to carry pathogens that can make people sick. Most commercial juices are heat pasteurized, meaning it was warmed up enough to kill the germs. However, heat pasteurization also removes some of the nutrients.
Predictably, raw foodists take the risk. There is another option, though. Recently, juice companies that cater to those who want raw juice but can’t sell it due to state regulations or unwillingness to take on the liability have begun treating their juice with “high pressure pasteurization,” or HPP. This method of treating juice uses no heat, just heavy pressure that destroys some of the harmful germs. It also extends the shelf life of the juice.
A lot of nutrition can be consumed in a short period of time with juice. No chewing involved! The downside is that some juices also contain a lot of fructose (fruit sugar) and have the same glycemic effect of soda or liquid candy.
Fruits and vegetables contain many good things. They also contain oxalates, compounds that are considered “anti-nutrients.” In reasonable amounts, oxalates do not usually present a problem. In excessive amounts, or for people with certain kidney problems, they can cause kidney stones or renal failure. There have in fact been cases where excessive juicing was identified as the cause for acute renal failure (x).
The takeaway on juicing? It can be a useful part of a raw food diet as long as you’re aware of what you’re consuming and you know it jives with your individual body.
Getting Enough Protein
You’ll be wiped if you don’t get enough protein, and that’s one of the main challenges with a raw food diet, particularly a vegan one. Planning ahead will make all the difference. What constitutes “enough” protein? This topic is hotly debated, but the current recommendation stands at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for healthy adults (x).
Smoothies and Nut Butters
Like juice, smoothies and nut butters are a good way to get a lot of nutrition and caloric energy quickly. Light to moderate blending does not destroy the fiber in these foods but thorough blending can potentially break down the fibers a bit. This doesn’t reduce the overall fiber content of the final product, but it can make the nutrients more bioavailable (x).
Even though smoothies can contain a relatively high number of calories, they don’t necessarily contribute to a feeling of fullness. One study, for example, found that eating fruit in its whole form led to a greater sense of satiety than the fruit in a pureed form. The conclusion was that there seems to be something about the act of chewing that makes us feel full (x).
Use a Dehydrater
Then, there’s the dehydrator. Most raw cooks swear by this nifty kitchen staple. The dehydrator is exactly what it sounds like. It slowly warms food until all the water is evaporated from it. With this kitchen helper, you raw foodies can make endless creative recipes that adhere to the raw food rules.
“Cooking” With Acid
Have you ever had ceviche? This refreshing, cold seafood dish uses a technique of “cooking” without actually cooking. It lets the acids from citrus fruit juice modify the proteins in the fish without using heat. Aside from adding zest to seafood, the acid works to reduce potential microbes (x).
Create (and Stick to) Your Raw Food Shopping List
Did we mention planning ahead? Once you decide what type of raw food diet you’re going to shoot for, it’s time to create your menu. The specifics of your menu will depend on lots of factors like your personal preferences, allergies, health goals, the time you have to spend prepping food and your budget.
The sky is the limit to the beautiful, delicious creations that you can make. Join an online group or get an old-fashioned raw diet cookbook for endless inspiration. New creative recipes and food preparations like cashew milk, nutritional yeast mac and cheese and even raw cookies are popping up left and right on colorful blogger pages all over the world.
Generally, your shopping list should consist primarily of:
- Easy-to-eat-raw vegetables like bell peppers, kale, spinach, lettuces, snow peas, green beans and onions — other vegetables like carrots and tomatoes can of course also be eaten raw but offer more nutrition when cooked
- Herbs like parsley, cilantro and dill
- Fruit in a variety of colors
- Avocados, which contain a boatload of calories, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals — a superfood for some, however, they can irritate those who are sensitive to histamine, causing symptoms like migraines, diarrhea and skin rash (x)
- Raw tree nuts
- Raw nut butters and nut milks
- Seeds like chia, pumpkin and sunflower
- Oats, quinoa and other grains that can be soaked, sprouted, or cooked at very low temperatures
- Legumes like lentils and beans
- Cold-pressed oils
- Fermented foods like kimchi
- Dried meat or fish if you choose
- Raw eggs, meat, fish or dairy products if you choose
Leaving out all cooked food can be extremely restrictive. It’s tough and often inconvenient. You might find yourself in a pickle at a social gathering when everything on the menu is cooked. Suddenly many things you may have been used to eating are off limits. Burgers, stir fry, even birthday cake! That’s why people who follow the raw food diet are not expected to eat raw food 100 percent of the time. Life becomes easier if you choose to adapt to one of the popular mixed regimens in which you eat mostly, but not completely, raw.
Important Supplements for a Raw Food Diet
Despite the assertion by some raw food enthusiasts that dietary supplements are not necessary, raw dieting can put a person at risk for certain nutritional deficiencies. For one thing, the limited allowable foods make it harder to get certain nutrients. In addition, vegetarian and vegan diets are high in fiber, which may make it harder for the body to absorb the nutrients that are in the food (x).
Thus, it’s reasonable to at least consider using supplements to help cover nutritional gaps. Below are a few common vitamins and supplements that are popular among those following strict, plant-based or vegan diets such as the raw food diet.
Vitamin B12, also known as cobalamin, is a vitamin that we get from animal proteins, though it’s also used in fortified foods like cereals. This vitamin is important for making blood cells and for maintaining proper brain function. B12 deficiency is associated with certain dieting practices, especially long term veganism (x). Most B12 is obtained from dairy or meat, and only small traces can be found in vegetables such as broccoli and asparagus (x).
Vegans can increase B12 simply by eating fortified cereals or nutritional yeast (x). Oral supplements like powders, sublingual tablets and sprays are available as well, though it can be difficult to absorb. The RDA for B12 is 2.4 micrograms per day for adults, but it is pretty safe to take at higher doses because of its low absorption rate (x). Some people who have developed B12 deficiencies may actually need a prescription (x). But it’s always a good idea to be careful and follow the advice of your doctor. A health professional can easily monitor your level of B12 by checking your blood. This is important because excess vitamin B12 can be toxic. Some side effects include dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting and even feelings of anxiety (x). This vitamin may also interact with your medications.
Vitamin K refers to a group of compounds including K1, K2 and their subcategories. While green leafy vegetables are a main source of K1 and easily obtained through plant sources, K2, also known as metaquinone, is present in bacteria and mainly found in animal products like meat and cheese, as well as fermented foods. As a result, vegans may be at risk of a K2 deficiency. This vitamin plays a key role in bone and vascular health and is fat-soluble, meaning it is best absorbed when consumed with fat-containing foods (x, x).
There aren’t any specific recommendations in the United States for vitamin K2 intake. Supplements are available, however (x). Side effects with taking this vitamin are uncommon but can include decreased appetite, difficulty breathing, muscle stiffness, paleness and an enlarged liver. Studies show it may also work synergistically with other fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A and D (x). Vitamin K supplements can also interfere with medications, especially anticoagulants. Always check with your doctor if you’re on other medications before starting this supplement.
This fat-soluble vitamin helps with the absorption of calcium and promotes bone health (x). We usually get vitamin D from dairy, meat, fish and sunshine, and those following vegan and vegetarian diets may be at higher risk of deficiency (x). These diets offer little to no dairy, meat or fish, which results in lower dietary intake of vitamin D. One study found that the blood levels of vitamin D in vegans were about 1/3 less than people who eat meat. Compared to 80 percent of non-vegetarians, only 10 percent of vegans had enough active vitamin D levels to reach a level considered preventative against chronic diseases (x). This nutrient is incredibly important in maintaining our bone density and health, and also contributes to our immune system and cardiovascular health (x).
If you’re following a raw food diet, it’s a good idea to supplement with vitamin D. It’s recommended that a healthy adult take at least 600 IUs per day. There are some health risks with excessive intake, which can cause symptoms like loss of appetite, excess urination and even heart arrhythmias. Long-term excess can increase calcium in the blood, damaging blood vessels and kidneys (x). You can also find fortified foods enriched with vitamin D, such as margarine and enriched cereals.
Vegan and vegetarian diets tend to be lower in fat. While this can be a good thing, it’s still important to consume enough “healthy” fats. Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat that is very important to health, and unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians don’t get very much of it. The richest source of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids like EPA and DHA (the type that studies link to health benefits) come from animal sources like fish and eggs.
What are these benefits? DHA/EPA plays a huge role in the health of cell membranes, cardiovascular system, reproductive system, eyes and brain (x).
Some plant or nut-based foods that are high in these healthy fatty acids include flaxseed, walnuts, soy and hemp. The problem with the plant-based sources, however, is that they are short-chain fatty acids that need to be converted to long-chain forms. This process doesn’t always work efficiently. EPA/DHA supplements are an option, but come from fish or krill-based sources and therefore may be undesirable for vegans or vegetarians.
Side effects are usually mild and may include a bad taste, bad breath, headache, nausea, heartburn and diarrhea (x). Omega-3 supplements may also interact with anticoagulants and other medications. If you’re taking medications that affect blood clotting, it’s important to talk with your doctor before taking omega-3s.
Iron status among populations vary. In the U.S., for example, babies, children, teenage girls, pregnant women and older women are more likely to be deficient. But in general, iron deficiencies are not common. Red meat is an excellent source of heme iron (the well-absorbed type found in meat) but plant-based foods like green leafy vegetables, fruit and fortified foods can provide enough non-heme iron for vegans and vegetarians (x). Studies show that vegetarian diets were not associated with less iron intake than meat-eaters. Nevertheless, vegetarians still tend to have lower blood levels of iron stores. Though we aren’t sure of the importance of this finding, current research suggests that it may be beneficial for vegetarians to have a daily intake of iron 1.8 times greater than that of someone eating meat (x).
There aren’t any standard recommendations for iron supplementation for vegetarians without a clinical deficiency. However, it’s recommended to supplement 100-200 mg of iron per day in cases of deficiency. It’s best to take this supplement on an empty stomach, or with foods rich in vitamin C. Don’t take it with calcium supplements, milk, caffeine or antacids, because these substances can prevent proper absorption. Iron supplements are generally safe, but may cause side effects like dark stools, stomach aches and heartburn (x). Always discuss with your doctor before starting iron supplementation, as excessive amounts can lead to harmful toxicities and damage to your internal organs (x).
Calcium is an incredibly important nutrient for bones. Low calcium can lead to a higher risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture. A study on 18 raw food dieters found an association with lower bone mineral density compared to those eating typical diets (x). In general, calcium intake isn’t much lower for vegetarians, but may be lower in vegans (x). It may be a good idea to take a calcium supplement if you’re following a raw food diet (x). Besides animal products, some vegetables including broccoli, bok choy, collards and kale are good sources of calcium. For vegans, enriched products such as soy milk, fruit juice and cereals can be good supplements as well (x).
A healthy adult needs about 1,000 mg of calcium per day and many types of calcium supplements available. Calcium carbonate and citrate are both good choices and the most commonly used. When choosing your calcium supplement, look at the amount of elemental calcium. For example, calcium carbonate is only 40 percent elemental calcium. So 1,250 mg of calcium carbonate is only 500 mg elemental calcium. Some side effects include constipation and other digestive upset. There are some risks that may be associated with taking calcium, especially with high doses above 2,500 mg per day or if you have other health conditions that may increase your levels in the blood (x).
The majority of zinc in our diets come from animal foods. Because of that, it can be a challenge to get enough zinc on a raw food diet. Foods popular among raw dieters that include zinc are legumes, nuts and seeds. The issue, however, is that the phytate content in these foods may inhibit the mineral’s absorption. As a result, they may be at a higher risk of deficiency, though data is currently inconsistent on this. In any case, though zinc comes mostly from meat, there are many ways a vegetarian can absorb zinc from other foods, especially when eating enriched food products like cereals (x). Currently, there is no evidence to support supplementation of vegetarians or vegan diets with zinc.
If you choose to do so, zinc is a safe supplement to take. Some people take it to help get over a cold faster. Side effects of zinc supplementation include headache, stomachache, vomiting and diarrhea. If taken at high doses for long periods of time, you could be at risk of developing copper deficiency. This can lead to further health issues, including weakness and numbness in your body. Based on recommendations from the National Institutes of Health, you shouldn’t exceed 40 mg a day in a healthy adult. Zinc can also interact with certain medications, especially antibiotics or certain blood pressure medications (x).
The Bottom Line
The raw food diet is a creative way of healthy eating that can potentially provide many health benefits like weight loss and reduced risk of disease. However, the jury is still out as to whether this way of eating is good for you in the long run. Some people eat raw for a week or month as a type of “cleanse,” and others choose to eat small amounts of cooked food to supplement their otherwise uncooked diet. In addition, supplements can be used to cover any potential nutritional gaps. Vitamins B12, K2, D, as well as iron, calcium, omega-3s and zinc are a few popular supplements that can help prevent nutritional deficiencies. Always talk to your doctor about starting new supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions or are taking medications.