Are you cooking most of your foods? If you follow a raw food diet, you might be leaving as much as 70 percent or more of your diet uncooked. This concept, which has been around since the 19th century, purports that raw foods are healthier for the body. It’s also referred to as raw foodism or raw veganism.
While eating plenty of fresh, whole foods is a good health solution, some experts believe that focusing on raw foods exclusively may actually present health hazards.
Read on to learn about the good, the bad and the uncooked.
Defining the raw food diet
Foods are considered raw if they’ve never been heated over 104 to 188 degrees Fahrenheit. They also can’t be pasteurized, refined or processed. That doesn’t mean that you have to resign yourself to only raw fruits and vegetables in their original form when you’re on this diet—juicing, dehydrating, soaking, sprouting and blending are all acceptable preparation methods.
Most of the diet is plant-based, which can make it a good choice if you’re vegan or vegetarian. However, some people also eat raw eggs, dairy, meat and fish. (If you choose to go this route, it’s crucial that you get high quality food sources.)
Raw food aficionados avoid using supplements, since they believe that their food sources contain everything the human body needs.
Why do people eat raw foods?
There’s a prevailing belief among raw food followers that cooking destroys the enzymes and nutrients in foods. They may refer to this as the food’s “life force”—but you don’t have to commune with earth spirits to enjoy the benefits of whole, raw foods.
The raw food diet can promote weight loss, increased energy, improved overall health and help manage some chronic diseases. It also has a lesser impact on the environment, so if you’re trying to reduce your meat and dairy consumption to help the planet, adopting raw food diet principles can make a difference.
Finally, since raw food diets completely eliminate refined or processed foods, you are more likely to lose weight and consume healthier sources of nutrition.
What are the downsides?
While consuming raw foods can be a good source of nutrients, there’s no scientific evidence to support an entirely raw diet. In fact, cooking some foods improves the nutrient content and gets rid of harmful bacteria. For example, cooking increases the availability of lycopene and beta-carotene.
It’s true that cooking reduces water-soluble vitamins like vitamins B and C. It also does cause enzymes to denature. However, many enzymes in raw foods break down in the stomach acid anyway—plus, our bodies have their own enzymes for digestion and energy production.
There’s also a risk of not consuming enough calories on a raw food diet. They’re great for weight loss, since fruits and vegetables make up the majority of the diet. However, you might not find it easy (or even possible) to consume enough calories to fuel your body. That can lead to negative health effects, like fatigue and malnutrition. Long-term raw food diets can even lead to tooth erosion.
You may also find it difficult to get enough protein, which is important as an energy source and a way to build and maintain your muscle makeup. Vitamins and minerals may also be lacking.
Women on raw food diets may experience disruptions to their menstrual cycle, and may even stop menstruating entirely. That’s a consequence of low body weight, and is generally not considered healthy—even if you want to get rid of your period forever. For women who want to maintain their fertility, a raw food diet could do the opposite.
Aim for a healthy balance
It’s important that you shoot for a healthy balance between raw and cooked foods. If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, adding more raw fruits and vegetables to your diet is always a good thing. However, if you don’t consume enough calories, your body will go into starvation mode. That can have the opposite effect as intended.
There are plenty of ways you can incorporate raw foods into your diet. Boost your vegetable intake with more salads. Eat fruits and nuts or carrots and hummus as healthy snacks. Nut butters, sprouted quinoa and raw vegetable sushi can be a delicious way to satisfy cravings—and get nutrients.
But if you’re planning to switch to a raw diet entirely, make sure you get medical advice first. The downsides could be entirely counterproductive to your health goals.