All About Diets Series: What is the Raw Food Diet?
"Diet" fundamentally describes typical food intake. That's it! Somewhere, somehow though, "diet" came to represent rules and restrictions and evolved into "dieting". Our society framed a healthy way of eating as something that excludes rather than includes certain foods.
"Diet" and "dieting" are truly not the same though. We need to talk about our diets but should be looking at them from a place of abundance, not scarcity. It's also important to note that specific diets can be beneficial short-term tools for long-term health (think gut healing)!
In this mini-series, we're going to break the tie between "dieting" and "diet." We'll take a look at the core concepts behind some popular diets (Keto, Paleo, Raw Food, and Whole30) and we'll go through the major pros and cons of each.
As always, it's important to remember that we all have different nutritional needs. These blog posts aren't intended to promote a certain way of eating but rather shed some light on often-talked-about diets! If you're interested in taking things further and learning more about what your specific needs are, working with a Registered Dietitian might be the right next step for you! Complete our 1:1 Dietitian Nutrition Coaching Application today -Gretchen will reach out to schedule your complimentary call after you complete the coaching application.
What is it?
Just as it sounds, the raw food diet is focused on uncooked foods (1). The idea behind it all is that raw food is the "ultimate unprocessed food," full of nutrients and free of refined sugar, fillers, and other additives (3). Overall, this diet promotes the idea that eating foods in their uncooked, unheated form will improve health and prevent certain diseases, such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer (2,3).
Just as with many of the other diets we've discussed in this series, the raw food diet may seem like a more recent development, yet it's been around for quite some time. This diet was originally promoted by Sylvester Graham in the mid-19th century, during the Natural Hygiene movement in the United States (1,3). While this approach to eating may not be new, it's important to note that there is still limited research and evidence on the long-term effects of consuming mainly fruits and vegetables when it comes to the risk of certain diseases, like CVD. (3).
There are some benefits to the raw food diet, from a dietary pattern perspective: it is well known that fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy dietary pattern. The variety of vitamins they provide are well-associated with a decreased risk of several diseases (4).
While it is rich in some foods that are key for good health, it's important to call out that the raw food diet is restrictive. Much like the other diets we've talked about in this series (Keto, Paleo, and Whole30), there are some health risks involved with limiting food variety (1,2,3). Additionally, the idea that you're getting more vitamins out of your foods by eating them raw is misleading. Yes, vitamins are sensitive and can be destroyed with certain cooking methods (4). However, some vitamins actually become more available for absorption in our body, with proper cooking (1,4)!
Let's take a closer look at some specifics:
What is food intake like?
There is no single definition of the raw foods diet (1,3,5). Various versions exist, such as a raw vegan diet (only plant-based foods), raw vegetarian diet (some eggs and dairy products), and raw omnivorous diet (plant and animal-based foods) (5). In addition, there are varying degrees to which people follow a raw food diet - some may eat nothing but raw foods and others eat mostly raw foods while also incorporating some processed and cooked items (1,5).
Overall, the majority of someone's food on the raw food diet is uncooked, unprocessed, and possibly dried via dehydration up to 118 degrees F (1,3,5). Foods can also be blended, juiced, soaked, or sprouted (6). The major players are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some cold-pressed oils, like olive oil (1,2,3). Protein mainly comes from sprouted grains, beans, nuts, and seeds (2). Obviously, cooked and processed foods are not included so items like flour, sugar, cooked meat, cereals, pasteurized dairy products and eggs, etc. are left out (1,2,3).
What are the pros?
· Vegetable and fruit intake is high, leading to a high intake of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, all of which play important roles in health and the prevention of disease, such as CVD (2,3,5).
· There are some studies that suggest a mostly raw food diet, specifically raw vegan, may reduce the symptoms of fibromyalgia (1).
· This way of eating is high in fiber, which can potentially help with weight loss by keeping you fuller, longer. Not to mention, fiber is nature's broom (2,5)!
· The focus is placed on whole foods that are high in nutrients, rather than ultra-processed foods that are often high in calories but low in nutrients (2,5).
What are the cons?
· The restrictive nature of this diet can lead to deficiencies in certain key nutrients such as protein, calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, and iodine (3,5).
· The consumption of raw fish, meats, milk, and eggs can present a food safety hazard: they can harbor dangerous bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria (1, 2,5).
· This way of eating can be quite limiting, making it difficult to eat out with friends and family and prepare meals for others in your household that may not follow a raw foods diet (2).
· Research has indicated that consuming a strict raw food diet lowers serum HDL cholesterol (this is our "good" cholesterol that has protective effects) and can also increase plasma homocysteine. Together, these factors can actually increase the risk of CVD (3).
Wrapping it up:
The pros and cons listed above are not an exhaustive list - they're just some of the major highlights of the raw food diet. This way of eating may provide some health benefits because it is focused on nutrient-dense foods while minimizing high-calorie foods with little nutritional value (2,5). However, the raw food diet is restrictive by design and has been shown to increase the risk of nutrient deficiencies, increasing the risk of complications and certain diseases (1,2,3,5). Overall, some components of the raw food diet may have a positive impact on health but getting all the nutrients you need can be done in a more sustainable and abundant manner. A Registered Dietitian can assess your situation and needs to best help you meet your goals in a healthy and plentiful way!
1. Cunningham E. What is a raw foods diet and are there any risks or benefits associated with it?. J Am Diet Assoc. 2004;104(10):1623. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2004.08.016
2. Stafford R. A skeptical look at popular diets: Hurrah for raw foods? Standford Medicine. Scope 10K Web site. https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2019/02/28/a-skeptical-look-at-popular-diets-hurrah-for-raw-food/. Published 2019. Updated 02/28/2019. Accessed 3/14/2021.
3. Koebnick C, Garcia AL, Dagnelie PC, et al. Long-term consumption of a raw food diet is associated with favorable serum LDL cholesterol and triglycerides but also with elevated plasma homocysteine and low serum HDL cholesterol in humans. J Nutr. 2005;135(10):2372-2378. doi:10.1093/jn/135.10.2372
4. Lee S, Choi Y, Jeong HS, Lee J, Sung J. Effect of different cooking methods on the content of vitamins and true retention in selected vegetables. Food Sci Biotechnol. 2017;27(2):333-342. Published 2017 Dec 12. doi:10.1007/s10068-017-0281-1
5.Cleveland Clinic. Raw Food Diet: Is It Healthier? Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials Web site. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/raw-food-diet-is-it-healthier/. Published 2021. Updated 01/11/2021. Accessed 03/15/2021.