Imagine never again savoring the smell of baking cakes or charbroiled steak. Could you? Why would you? Yet some people worldwide are turning away not only from meat and processed food, but also from cooking.
Welcome to the raw food diet.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects nearly 35 percent of the population of the United States, over 29 million people have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and heart disease is the number one killer.
Most scientists would agree that less saturated fats, lower sugar and salt intake, and more fresh fruit and vegetables go a long way to avoiding a range of “lifestyle diseases.”
National health guidelines recommend at least five portions, or 400 grams, of fruits and vegetables a day. Some studies suggest that one extra portion of fruit or vegetables daily could lower the risk of ischemic stroke by 6 percent.
Others go further. To be healthy, they say, a person should eat only raw food.
The principle of a raw food diet is that, just as the human body cannot tolerate temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit, neither can food. Whatever we eat, say advocates, should not be heated above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
In the raw food diet, foods may be eaten fresh, dehydrated with low heat, or fermented.
This, say the raw food dieters, leaves the food “live,” and “live” food is full of life energy. Cooked food is “dead.” It has no life energy.
A person on a raw food diet eats between 70 percent and 100 percent of their food raw. Some raw food dieters eat some food cooked, but mainly food is eaten raw. A raw food diet is not “all or nothing.” It is about eating as much raw food as possible.
A raw food diet can be quite sophisticated, using blenders and smoothie makers to make green smoothies, or dehydraters that blow air through food at a temperature below 115 degrees Fahrenheit, to make it crispy.
In 2010, the U.S. already had over 100 raw food restaurants. High-profile personalities who follow the diet include Demi Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow. Mainstream magazines provide recipes. The message seems to be: You can fit more raw food into your life.
Elsewhere, people live simply in raw food communities or “eco-villages.” Members cultivate their own food, without chemicals. They allow “weeds” such as dandelions to grow for consumption, and they harvest wild food in the mountains. For some, making the raw food diet a total lifestyle choice is more satisfying.
Beetles, worms, insects, and wild bird’s eggs are considered “very tasty” by one writer, although he goes on to ask if it is really right to kill and eat animals. He notes that this question is “very disputed in the raw food scene,” and he calls on people to respect each others’ differences.
Some “fully raw” dieters eat only whole foods, without chopping or juicing, to maximize fiber and nutrients. Studies have shown that the body may metabolize juice differently from whole foods.
There are also recommendations about mixing foods, for example, not mixing sweet and acid fruits. Fasting is recommended in some circles.
A raw food diet does not have to be only fruit and vegetables. Raw vegans eat no animal produce, but a mixed raw food diet can include meat, fish, liver, and eggs. Clearly, these must be consumed fresh, to avoid disease.
Raw food dieters may be:
- Mixed raw food dieters, consuming small amounts of meat and fish, mostly uncooked
- Ovo-lacto-vegetarian raw food dieters, eating no meat or fish
- Vegan raw food dieters, avoiding all animal products.
A raw food diet, then, is not a single entity.
Foods in their natural state are suitable. Popular foods include fruit, vegetables, nuts, water-soaked and sprouted seeds, beans, and grains. Some recommend fermented foods, such as kimchi and yogurt.
“Sprouts” provide protein. They are prepared by soaking and sprouting beans or seeds in large glass containers or “sprouters.”
Raw nuts provide oil, and dried fruits give energy.
Wild foods such as mushrooms, plantain, and dandelion can be harvested freely, but wild food harvesters are warned to learn what is safe and what to avoid.
Some say that water should come mostly from fruit and vegetables, but if extra is needed, it should be purified through distillation to eliminate additional chemicals.
In one study, a group of 201 “raw fooders” were found to eat 95 percent of their food raw. They consumed between 1,029 and 1,313 grams of fruit a day, and 411 to 457 grams of vegetables. Overall, 97 percent of food consumed was of plant origin, with minimal bread, cereals, rice, legumes, and dairy products, such as unpasteurized milk and raw yogurt.
Their diet was high in fiber and low in energy. Most of the energy was from carbohydrates.
Organic produce is preferable where possible, to avoid toxic pesticide residues. However, advocates concede that may nonorganic foods may be appropriate if limited availability would mean going without essential nutrients.
Foods should be locally produced to reduce transportation and storage time, as this will start to “kill” the food.
Raw food dieters say that eating only raw food relieves the body of toxins, as toxins enter the body more slowly than they are eliminated. Websites include testimonials of individuals whose chronic disease disappeared once they started the raw food diet.
One website claims that cooking removes electrons from the food, detracting from the energy it provides.
Expressions such as “light,” “energy” and “life force” may be used. Sprouts, for example, as the start of a plant, are said to contain all its “life force.” Eaten “live,” this goodness is supposed to be passed on to the consumer.
Adherents claim that reducing protein intake is beneficial, because too much protein causes fermentation in the digestive system. Moreover, since the body naturally produces enzymes, some say, protein is not really needed.
On the other hand, say raw food experts, cooking kills the enzymes in food, so that the body is unable to benefit from them anyway.
Not all of these claims are supported by scientific research. Some, for example, regarding “life force,” are not verifiable by scientific means. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have previously questioned some of the health claims for bean sprouts on one website.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are undoubtedly healthy, but a raw food diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies if not followed with care.
Some raw food proponents urge individuals to make their own diet plan, to avoid nutritional problems. People who are prone to deficiencies may need to adjust their diet, eat some cooked food, or take supplements. Each raw food dieter should be sensitive to their own body and needs.
Let’s look at some of the issues.
Vitamin B12 is needed to keep red blood cells healthy, prevent anemia, and potentially protect against CVD. Animal produce is a good source of vitamin B12. One study found that 79 percent of raw food dieters had low or marginal levels of B12. Some successfully avoided this by using B12 supplements.
B12 deficiency was most likely in vegan raw food dieters, and least likely among mixed raw dieters, suggesting that B12 deficiency stems from the lack of animal produce rather than not cooking, although eating only raw food also implies eating less meat.
Triglycerides and cholesterol
A diet rich in fruit and vegetables is generally associated with low levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. In one study, 90 percent of raw food had healthy levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides.
However, 46 percent also had low concentrations of HDL (good) cholesterol, and the more raw food consumed, the lower the level of both types of cholesterol. HDL is seen as useful in reversing the effects of LDL, but since LDL levels were low anyway, this was not considered a major problem, especially as all the participants had a lower risk of CVD than the general population.
The intake of calcium, needed for healthy bones, can be low in a plant-based diet. Raw food dieters can get calcium from tofu, mustard and turnip greens, bok choy, and kale. Spinach is high in calcium, but it can oxalate, which inhibits absorption. Careful planning is needed to ensure sufficient calcium.
Carotenoids, and vitamin A
Dietary carotenoids and vitamin A are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases. Raw food diets are said to be healthy because they provide high levels of carotenoids, but there has been little research to confirm this.
In one study, where 95 percent of dietary intake was raw food, mostly fruits, 82 percent of participants had normal vitamin A levels, and 63 percent had concentrations of b-carotene that are linked with the prevention of chronic disease.
The team concluded that very high consumption of fruit and vegetables in a raw food diet can provide enough vitamin A to protect from disease, as long as it is consumed with fat in the same meal, as, for example, by eating fruits with nuts and seeds.
It is true that certain nutrients, notably vitamin C, are lost in cooking. The National Cancer Institute warn that charred food can produce carcinogenic substances.
However, cooking can make food more suitable for human consumption.
Not only does heat kill bacteria, but it also breaks down fibers and substances that release more nutrients and help digestion. Root vegetables, for example, provide a range of nutrients, but they are hard to digest unless cooked.
Some scientists have found that cooking tomatoes makes more lycopene available for the body to use. Lycopene may help to protect against cancer, although this has not been confirmed. One study has found that levels of lycopene were below the recommended levels in 77 percent of raw food dieters.
Some chemicals in food prevent the absorption of minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium, and magnesium, but heat reduces the levels of these substances. Cooking spinach, for example, makes more iron and calcium available.
Cooking also makes food safe. Not only meat, but also sprouts can carry salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. Food Safety.gov recommends not giving raw sprouts to children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with a weakened immune system.
Claims that cooking damages or destroys “most” nutrients and leaves “mostly empty calories,” do not, perhaps, help the raw food cause, since people have been cooking, eating, and thriving for at least 200,000 years.
“Detoxification” is a popular concept, but there is little scientific evidence that a raw food “detox” eliminates toxins from the body.
For one thing, a detox tends to focus on the gut and the liver, but toxins can collect anywhere in the body, not just these two places.
As the Mayo Clinic point out, “Detoxification (detox) diets are popular, but there is little evidence that they eliminate toxins from your body.”
In the British Medical Bulletin, Dr. E. Ernst notes that the benefits of “detox” are unproven. There is a lack of serious research, he says, and it could lead to malnutrition.
Dr. Ernst concludes that currently, “Alternative detox is biologically not plausible, and clinically unproved. We should warn our patients from using it.”
Raw food advocates often note that people did very well before fire was invented. Animals do not cook, they say, so why should we? But the discovery of fire, up to 1 million years ago, radically transformed human life.
Eating raw means less damage to the environment from cooking fuels. But how much of the world’s population can be sustained on wild, raw food, straight from the source? And how much transportation and refrigeration would be needed if everyone were to require raw food?
As one skeptic notes, “In a natural setting, without electricity, anyone located outside of a narrow belt of land near the equators, which have year-round growth potential, would need to dedicate their entire day to growing, gathering, preserving, and storing food.”
The raw food diet can be controversial. Few would disagree that more fresh food is good.
Dr. Simon Capewell, of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, told MNT recently that, as a doctor, he would recommend “almost unlimited” fruit and vegetable consumption.
But not everyone finds the “raw” argument convincing.
As Cornell University researcher Rui Hai Liu points out, cooking makes vegetables taste good, and if they taste good, people are more likely to eat them.
One research team suggests abandoning terms like vegan and vegetarian, and talking instead about eating healthy, whole, plant-based foods and minimizing the consumption of animal products.
Raw food specialists point out that a raw food diet is not healthful in itself. It must be used in the right way. People must be aware of their own body, how to avoid deficiencies, and how to keep healthy. A raw food diet needs planning, discipline, and a good understanding of what one is eating. It does not have to be extreme: People should just eat as much raw as they can.
Any radical dietary change should be discussed first with a doctor.
“Meenhard,” from a raw food community in Southern Spain, stresses that eating raw is not about dogma or ideology; it is about being healthy. Making raw food an ideology damages relationships between people. That is not what eating raw is about.
Perhaps one day scientific research will prove that raw food really is the healthiest option.
Then again, would we really turn away from the smell of freshly baked bread?