I recently joined Instagram and began spending way too much time drooling over pictures of food (I’m a foodie, especially when it comes to dessert). I don’t know how people have the patience to do food photo shoots – I would eat the food before it even hits the plate! One thing I’ve noticed in my scrolling is a lot of raw fruit and veggie art.
Let me first offer the disclaimer that I am not a raw foodist. I tried it once and experienced a lot of digestive discomfort. While I believe it can work for some and am very impressed by the concoctions of raw food on Insta, I also believe a raw food diet could easily result in digestive issues and/or a deficiency in several key nutrients if not approached carefully.
What is the Raw Food Diet?
Basically, the raw food diet consists of uncooked food or food that is not heated above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. There are many variations out there but the main staples of this diet are fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Some raw foodists are vegans; however, some eat fish and sea vegetables, some eat eggs, and some may even consume raw meat and/or raw dairy. While it may seem limited to some (how many ways can you eat raw veggies?), raw food can be juiced, smoothied, fermented, dehydrated, spiralized, or sprouted. The raw food diet is free of processed and packaged foods.
Benefits of the Raw Food Diet
The raw food diet has been said to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease because it crowds out processed foods (no trans-fat or processed sugar) and has been correlated with lower LDL lipid levels and triglycerides (1).
For some (namely those with a robust gut), raw foods are believed to be easier to digest because the enzymes present in plants are not broken down by heat and therefore can help us digest our food better (however, humans do make their own enzymes to help digest food). It is also believed that uncooked foods are richer in phytonutrients. Yet there is limited research to back up the benefits of a raw food diet long-term.
Drawbacks of the Raw Food Diet
The same research that stated that raw diets are associated with low LDL lipid levels also found that they are associated with low HDL lipid levels. HDL lipids are known as our “good cholesterol” because they help reduce “bad cholesterol” in the body. Having low HDL levels could result in endothelial dysfunction and coronary heart disease (1).
Even though plant foods are chalk full of nutrients, eating a diet solely made of plants can lead to certain nutrient deficiencies; particularly iron, protein, vitamin D, DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids, and B12. While it’s true that you can get most of your nutrition from plant foods, it is difficult to obtain enough of these nutrients from a raw vegan diet. Vitamin B12, for instance, is only found in animal protein, a deficiency of which could lead to mood disorders.
Our bodies need protein, which raw food diets may be lacking in. Yes, you can get protein from plant foods, but the ability to absorb this protein may be impaired. Plant protein is not as bioavailable as animal protein because some plants (like soy, beans, oats) contain anti-nutrients that decrease protein absorption by up to 50% (2)! Yowza!
Animal protein is beneficial for hormonal health because it helps us build hormones and stabilizes blood sugar. Those who cut out animal protein completely may experience extreme weight loss, amenorrhea (loss of a period), brittle bones, and hair loss (3).
Besides some pretty important deficiencies, fibrous veggies are just plain hard to digest! The high-fiber nature of this diet could lead to irregular bowel movements which in turn could lead to malnutrition. In addition, raw cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower contain compounds called goitrogens, which block thyroid function. Cooking reduces the goitrogenic effect.
What is the Solution?
In my opinion, any extreme way of eating is going to result in some form of malnutrition or it’s going to be hard to sustain. I’m not saying that no one should eat a 100% raw diet because there are some people who thrive on it (and also make it quite tasty!). But it is important to take into consideration areas where this diet might fall short and to fill in the gaps (supplement with B12, for example).
I believe that consuming a combination of raw and cooked foods offers the best of both worlds – incorporating raw fruits and vegetables in your diet (such as a salad) as well as cooked vegetables every day will provide a variety of nutrients and will be easy on the gut. You also do not have to have animal protein with every meal, but it is important for maintaining normal iron and protein levels as well as optimizing hormonal function. If you feel tired and sluggish more often than not, you might consider incorporating some pasture-raised, organic meat and eggs. But the best advice I can give is to listen to your body – it will not lead you astray!
I want to hear from you! Have you tried a raw food diet? What was your experience?