While the raw food diet has officially gained popularity in the last few years, the notion of eating minimally cooked or raw foods has been around for years. While some believe that consuming foods in their raw or ‘natural’ state will provide optimal nutrition, consuming some foods raw can actually be unhealthy and even detrimental to your health.
What is the Raw Food Diet?
The raw food diet is based on the idea that heat can damage nutrients - so it is important that food is hot heated above a certain temperature (ie, 47 degrees celsius).1 Often times this also means non-GMO, no pesticides, organic, etc. Typically this diet is vegan by design, but some choose to include raw milks (like goat, sheep, or cow) or cheeses and some even include eggs, meat, or fish in their raw state
Rather than cooking, raw food meals are often prepared in other ways like smoking, juicing, blending, or dehydrating.
A diet focused primarily on plant based foods seems logical, but the belief that cooking destroys the nutritional value is the basis of the raw food diet. While some proteins and enzymes can denature (break down) at high temperatures, different cooking methods alter nutritional profiles of foods in different ways.
Some people follow this diet because they believe it keeps the food significantly more nutritious, more easily digestible, can be more sustainable for the environment, and the vegan version is more animal friendly.
What can you eat on the Raw Food Diet
The raw food diet is pretty straight forward - raw foods are included, focused mainly on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Foods to Eat
- Fresh fruits
- Dried fruits
- Fresh vegetables
- Dried/dehydrated vegetables
- Nuts (raw, not roasted)
- Seeds (raw, not roasted)
- Nut milks
- Nut butters
- Raw grains (can be soaked or sprouted)
- Raw legumes (can be soaked or sprouted)
- Fermented foods (if no heat was used)
- Raw dairy (cow, sheep, goat) (optional)
- Smoked or raw meats or fish (optional)
- Raw eggs (optional)
Foods to Avoid
- Cooked fruits
- Cooked vegetables
- Cooked meats
- Cooked grains
- Cooked legumes
- Roasted nuts
- Roasted seeds
- Processed grain products (pasta, bread, etc)
- Baked goods
- Snack foods (chips, pretzels, etc)
- Pasteurized dairy products
- Cooked eggs
So is Raw Food better than cooked?
The thought that enzymes are broken down during cooking has some merit, but the acidity of the stomach does more damage to enzymes than heat.1 Our bodies are well equipped to digest most foods, and can still handle high levels of indigestible material (like fiber).
Some cooking techniques can cause the loss of nutrients - for example, boiling vegetables may lead to some loss of nutrients - like beta carotene from boiled tomatoes or carrots.2 This nutrient loss varies by type and cooking style - for example, boiling vegetables and throwing away the water loses more nutrients than roasting or sauteing. The levels of nutrient loss vary by type of food and type of nutrient.
The best way to ensure well balanced nutrition is to include some raw fruits and vegetables in your diet alongside any that you cook. Deep frying any food adds a lot of fat, and often we add too much salt to our cooking as well. However, eating raw meat, dairy, or egg products runs the risk of consuming bacteria that can make us very sick. A well balanced diet that takes food safety into consideration is your best bet.
Raw Food Diet Benefits
The primary food sources of the raw diet are very nutritious foods - fruits and vegetables. Often the high quantity of this high volume, low calorie foods can lead to weight loss, the primary benefit of this diet. The high fiber levels can also be helpful for heart health, and may lead to improvements in heart health.3 However, it can be hard to obtain all of your nutrition from only raw foods and it may not be sustainable for the average lifestyle.
While weight loss is one potential benefit, it may be difficult to obtain enough calories and protein on this diet to build muscle. The calorie deficit is likely the key that leads to weight loss on this diet.1
The benefits of avoiding highly processed foods and junk foods are very important and one reason that the raw food diet could seem appealing. However, cutting out these empty calorie, low nutrition foods can be part of any balanced eating pattern.
Raw Food Diet Negatives
There are a significant amount of risks or negatives to following the raw food diet.
One study of the raw food diet showed significant increases in tooth erosion in those consuming only raw foods. Highly acidic, high sugar fruits may play a role in this outcome.4
Menstrual cycle and hormone disruption
The significant calorie deficit and loss of body weight from following the raw food diet has been linked to ammenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle) in some research studies.5 Other hormones many also be impacted with severe calorie restriction.
Potential for food borne illness
Many meats, dairy products, eggs, and fish have to be cooked to a high temperature to kill any potential bacteria. Raw foods always run the risk of “food poisoning” from such bacteria.
Should you follow the Raw Food Diet
While eating more fruits and vegetables is good for most of us, a very restrictive diet like the raw food diet can be nutritionally inadequate. Even with taking a supplement, it can be hard to get enough protein and some of the essential nutrients that come from traditionally non-raw foods. The risk of food borne illness is high and the high volume, low calorie eating style can make it difficult to maintain lean mass.There are other ways to include nutritious foods in your diet without restricting so many others.
Take Home Message
While the raw food diet is focused on healthy foods, the overall eating pattern can leave some nutrients out. Focusing on a well balanced diet and healthy cooking methods can help you achieve your goals - whether they're weight focused or not. The risks of the raw food diet certainly outweigh the benefits for most.
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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you're concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.
- Cunningham, E. (2004). What is a raw foods diet and are there any risks or benefits associated with it?. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 104(10), 1623.
- Anjum, F., Khan, B. A., Noreen, N., Masood, T., & Faisal, S. (2008). Effect of boiling and storage on beta-carotene content of different vegetables. J. life soc. sci, 6(1), 63-67.
- Koebnick, C., Garcia, A. L., Dagnelie, P. C., Strassner, C., Lindemans, J., Katz, N., … & Hoffmann, I. (2005). 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. The Journal of nutrition, 135(10), 2372-2378.
- Ganss, C., Schlechtriemen, M., & Klimek, J. (1999). Dental erosions in subjects living on a raw food diet. Caries Research, 33(1), 74-80.
- Koebnick, C., Strassner, C., Hoffmann, I., & Leitzmann, C. (1999). Consequences of a long-term raw food diet on body weight and menstruation: results of a questionnaire survey. Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, 43(2), 69-79.
Claire is a Registered Dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board-certified Health and Wellness Coach through the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh.
Talking and writing about food and fitness is at the heart of Claire’s ethos as she loves to use her experience to help others meet their health and wellness goals.
Claire is also a certified indoor cycling instructor and loves the mental and physical boost she gets from regular runs and yoga classes. When she’s not keeping fit herself, she’s cheering on her hometown’s sports teams in Pittsburgh, or cooking for her family in the kitchen.
Find out more about Claire’s experience here.