It’s been called both the path to optimal health and a recipe for undernourishment. The raw food diet is more of a way of life than a diet and its followers believe wholeheartedly in its benefits. A fundamental principle of a raw food diet is eating plant foods in their natural state. Most raw foodists are vegan, but a small minority eat raw eggs and unpasteurized cheeses. The diet also consists of seaweed, sprouts, sprouted seeds, whole grains, beans, dried fruits, and nuts, and restricts alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugars. The exact temperatures are somewhat disputed, but foods should never be cooked over a temperature of between 104 and 118 degrees. Most followers eat between 75 and 100 percent raw.
Enzymes, A Closer Look
Raw foodists believe that cooking destroys nutrients and enzymes in the foods we eat. Enzymes are made up of amino acids and their purpose is to digest and assimilate nutrients in the body. When they are cooked off, the body cannot get enough enzymes from its food and as a result, the pancreas, the gland organ that produces the pancreatic juice that secretes digestive enzymes, works harder producing enough enzymes for digestion.
Followers also believe that cooking causes chemical changes to foods that create acidic toxins including carcinogens, mutagens, and free radicals, which cause disease and aging.
Raw Food Diet Health Outcomes
While the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets have been studied extensively, this isn’t true of the raw food diet. But researchers in Finland found that raw foodists did have lower cholesterol and triglycerides but they also had low levels of B12, a vitamin found mostly in animal products. Vitamin B12 is essential to your genetic cellular makeup. It's critical for ensuring that red blood cells get enough oxygen to the body. Many vegans supplement B12 and supplementing is key to a raw food diet as well. There’s an overall concern that some foods are better absorbed in the body when cooked, in fact, while the American Dietetic Association supports a plant-based diet they
contend that some foods are more bioavailable or digestible when cooked. A German study, for example, found high levels of dietary carotenoids but lower levels of lycopene in raw foodists. Lycopene is found in tomatoes but it’s better absorbed in cooked foods. The raw food diet is undoubtedly high in nutrients and fiber and it provides ample protein choices. At the same time, it’s low in saturated fats and sugars. But concerns arise about getting enough B12 and healthy fats. While fats are available in the diet in the form of cold pressed oils, nuts, seeds, hemp, and avocado, raw foodists need to pay extra attention to getting their fill because drastic weight loss is another side effect. For some, the weight loss is a welcomed outcome but for others, it means undernourishment and ill health effects.
You have to be willing to spend some time in the kitchen as a raw foodist chopping, peeling, juicing, and preparing your foods. But from my perspective, healthy eating means learning how to cook for yourself either way. Cost is another consideration because equipment is an important part of the diet. It can include a dehydrator, juicer, and high capacity blender. All and all, there’s much to love about the raw food diet particularly the loads of nutrient dense fruits and vegetables and plant-based protein sources. It’s low in cholesterol, good for heart health, weight loss, and chalk full of antioxidants. But that being said, it’s not a diet that works for everybody. It can be much too regimented and too many raw foods may cause some bloating, discomfort, and fatigue. Raw foods should certainly play a major roll in your diet, but balance is key, and an entirely raw existence may not provide balance to all of us. From an Ayurvedic perspective, not cooking your foods can be bad for digestion. This is less true in the summer than in the winter, but it’s still a factor. Too many cold foods put out your digestive fire or agni in Sanskrit.
While the diet can be useful for some and life changing for others, not all of us fit into the raw food mold.