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Is the raw food diet right for you?

The raw food diet is all in the name – raw. You can give your pots, pans, microwave, and oven a long break when it comes to this diet. The raw food diet is less of a “diet” and more lifestyle change to encourage healthy eating with foods in their more natural state.

Now, we're not suggesting you stalk an animal in the wild and begin gnawing at raw flesh. While the “raw” is literal in some sense, it's not cannibalistic!

No, this diet focuses on fruits and vegetables – raw and dried, as well as some fermented foods. Basically, it's organic and features natural, unprocessed foods.

Many people who follow the diet believe that cooked foods should be restricted and not cooked above 116°-118°F. Advocates of the raw food diet also find that heating food kills essential nutrients and enzymes, losing many of the food’s healthy nutritional benefits. [1]

The raw-to-cooked ratio can vary depending on the person’s lifestyle. Still, typically the aim is to be around 75% raw.

There are several types of raw food diets;

  • The raw vegan diet (typically the most popular) excludes all animal products and focuses solely on plant-based foods.  
  • The raw vegetarian diet also focuses on plant-based foods but allows raw eggs and unprocessed dairy.
  • The raw omnivorous diet includes everything on the raw vegetarian diet. Also, it allows raw animal products and raw or dried meat. [2]

What harmonizes the various raw food diets – and this is key – is eliminating foods that have been pasteurized, homogenized, or produced with synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. This means avoiding or drastically reducing packaged and processed foods. [3]

So, as you'll see, this isn't a Neanderthal diet. It is, however, a lifestyle change. We'll dive into specifics of a raw food diet – what you can and cannot eat – plus discuss benefits, risks, cancer and the diet, and alternative protocols that encourage this lifestyle choice.

Grab some almonds and carrot sticks, maybe a green smoothie (!), and let's see why the raw food diet may be the change your body needs …

Origins of the raw food diet

The origins of raw food vegetarianism date back to the 1800s when Dr. Maximillian Bircher-Benner came down with jaundice and claimed he cured himself by eating raw apples.

From that observation, he experimented with raw foods and observed the health effects it promoted in the human body. He believed that raw fruits and vegetables held the most nutritional value, and “raw foodism” was born. [4]

Benefits of a raw food diet 

It’s safe to say we could all use more raw fruits and vegetables in our daily diet, and the fact of the matter is that they are universally suitable for us.

With the raw food diet, you will, at the very least, limit processed foods and increase raw foods (fruits and vegetables) that are naturally high in nutrients and antioxidantsProtects cells from damage caused by free radicals (unstable molecules made by the process of oxidation during normal metabolism). Free radicals may play a part in cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other diseases of aging. Antioxidants include beta-carotene, lycopene, Vitamins A, C, and E, and other natural and manufactured substances.. Many foods high in antioxidants have phytonutrientsPhytonutrients give plants their pigments. Among the benefits of phytonutrients are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities, may enhance immunity and intercellular communication, repair DNA damage from exposure to toxins, detoxify carcinogens, and alter estrogen metabolism. that are sensitive to high heat temperatures and depleted of nutrients and enzymes, rendering them less beneficial. [3]  

Studies have shown plant-based diets (not necessarily raw) may help improve metabolic conditions, including lowering body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C, and cholesterol levels. This could have a positive impact on many different metabolic disorders, including heart disease and diabetes, along with preventing more dire situations like chronic diseases and cancer (more on cancer later). [5]

Fruit and vegetables are naturally loaded with dietary fiber. Fiber cannot be broken down by the body and mainly stays intact when it passes through your stomach, intestines, and colon. Fiber plays an essential role in maintaining good gut health (normalizing and maintaining bowel health). Fiber also lowers cholesterol levels, controls blood sugar levels, aids in achieving or maintaining a healthy weight, and may even help you live longer. [6] 

Risks of a raw food diet

The term “too much of anything” holds to the raw food diet.

Before, we talked about foods that lose their nutritional value when cooked, but there are always two sides to any story. There are certain foods that by cooking them enhances their nutritional value and digestibility. Research has observed that when you cook tomatoes, you strengthen their antioxidant levels by making them more bioaccessible (Ables the body to absorb the nutrients). [7]

Another published study in 2002 showed that by cooking carrots, you could increase the amount of beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is an antioxidant that gives carrots that beautiful orange color and gives other fruits and vegetables their red, orange, and yellow colorings. Your body converts beta-carotene into Vitamin A, which plays roles in regulating your immune system, vision, bone growth, and reproduction. [8-9] 

When you think of raw meat, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Food poisoning! As many people know, some foods are not safe to eat uncooked. According to the Center for Disease Control, raw or undercooked animal proteins are most likely to be contaminated with pathogens and bacteria. These foods include raw or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, raw milk, seafood, and shellfish.

While less likely, raw fruits and vegetables also may cause issues because of cross-contamination or contamination from farm to table. They can harbor germs such as E. Coli, salmonella, and listeria. The CDC recommends always washing your produce before eating it. [10]

The diet might also be problematic for people who have a sensitive digestive system, such as inflammatory bowel diseases, like ulcerative colitis. For these people, raw foods can be too hard to digest. [3]

Research shows that the raw food diet long term may be an issue. Raw foods tend to be on the lighter end calorie spectrum and are typically high in fiber, making you may feel full longer. This may result in not consuming enough calories daily, increasing your risk for nutritional and vitamin deficiencies.

A study done with 18 participants who followed the raw vegetarian diet found the participants compared to the control group had significantly lower calorie intake. This resulted in lower calcium, protein, and vitamin D intake. The people who followed the diet also had lower bone mass, possibly due to long term nutrient deficiencies. [11]

What can I eat on the raw food diet?

Now that we know the risks vs. the benefits, we can answer the million-dollar question. What can I eat on the raw food diet?

Advocates of the raw food diet typically try to keep 75% of their diet raw. What people consume on the diet can depend on the lifestyle or type of raw food diet they are following.

The following foods are suitable for most raw food diets:

  • raw fruits and raw vegetables
  • dried fruits and vegetables
  • freshly made fruit and vegetable juices
  • soaked and sprouted beans, other legumes, and grains
  • raw nuts and seeds
  • raw nut butter, such as peanut butter and almond butter
  • nut milk, including almond milk
  • coconut milk
  • cold-pressed olive oil or coconut oil
  • nutritional yeast
  • seaweeds
  • dried fruits
  • green food powder, such as dried wheatgrass or algae
  • fermented foods, including kimchi and sauerkraut
  • purified water, but not tap water
  • other organic, natural, or unprocessed foods

Depending on the type of diet, a raw food diet may also contain:

  • raw eggs
  • raw fish, such as sushi or sashimi
  • other raw or dried meats
  • non-pasteurized and non-homogenized milk and dairy products

Foods to avoid:

  • all cooked or processed foods
  • refined oils
  • table salt
  • refined sugars and flour
  • coffee, tea, and alcohol
  • Pasta [2]

Cancer prevention and the raw food diet

When it comes to cancer, things are always complicated, and with the raw food diet, there is no exception. There are science and research that is for and also against the diet. However, the further you investigate, one thing is clear: prevention is critical.

Lifestyle change is mentioned several times. It’s important to note if you are eating the standard Western diet, adding more fruits and vegetables likely is going to be beneficial.

One study found that in 2002 esophageal cancer was the 6th most common cause of cancer death worldwide, with 386,000 deaths, which had increased 350% from the previous 30 years. That same large-scale study found that total fruit and vegetable (not all raw) was significantly associated with reducing risk in developing esophageal squamous cell carcinoma. [12]

In another review of 206 human studies and 22 animal studies summarized the possible relationship of fruits and vegetables and the prevention for cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lung, oral cavity and pharynx, endometrium, pancreas, and colon.

 “The types of vegetables or fruit that most often appear to be protective against cancer are raw vegetables, followed by allium vegetables, carrots, green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes.” [13]

Protocols based on a raw food diet

When people choose to do an alternative protocol to treat their cancer, they are choosing to make a lifestyle change. Many alternative protocols encourage and recommend the raw food diet, such as the Gerson Diet, Vida Protocol, and Cellect Budwig diet. They all promote some form of juicing and typically have recommendations of raw-to-cooked food ratios depending on your needs.

Conclusion

The raw food diet may be a good short-term diet, and removing overly processed food is always a good thing. It may also help develop better eating habits by increasing the amount of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Studies support the fact that increased consumption of daily fruits and vegetables can be a great preventative for many metabolic disorders and even certain cancers. [5, 12, 13]

However, this diet is notably hard to keep up with long term, and buying mass amounts of organic raw food could become costly. Long-term exposure to a low-calorie diet might also lead to mineral and nutritional deficiencies. [11]

Anytime you make a dietary change, it is essential to speak with a nutritionist or physician, especially if you have cancer or a pre-existing condition.

FAQ

What is the raw food diet?

The raw food diet is most commonly a raw vegetarian type diet consisting of raw fruits and vegetables. This type of diet eliminates foods that have been pasteurized, homogenized, or produced with synthetic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.

Are there risks to a raw food diet?

There is always a risk when you change your diet. The raw food diet is not for everyone, especially if you have a sensitive digestive system. Talk with a nutritionist or physician about the risks and benefits of a raw food diet.

Can I eat cooked foods?

Many people who follow the diet believe that cooked foods should be restricted and not cooked above 116°-118°F. (Advocates say heating food kills essential nutrients and enzymes. The raw-to-cooked ratio can vary depending on the person’s lifestyle. Still, typically the aim is to be around 75% raw.

Will a raw food diet cure cancer?

No – but there is a possible relationship of fruits and vegetables and the prevention for cancers of the stomach, esophagus, lung, oral cavity and pharynx, endometrium, pancreas, and colon. Raw vegetables, allium vegetables, carrots, green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, and tomatoes appear to be protective against cancer.

Clinics

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References

  1. The Raw Food Diet. https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/raw-food-diet.aspx
  2. The raw food diet: should I try it? https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/7381#types
  3. Raw Food Diet: Benefits, Risks and How to Follow. https://draxe.com/nutrition/raw-food-diet/
  4. Maximilian Bircher-Brenner. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilian_Bircher-Benner
  5. Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-based diets. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3662288/
  6. Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/fiber/art-20043983
  7. Thermal Processing enhances the nutritional value of tomatoes by increasing totally antioxidant activity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11982434
  8. Fact or Fiction: Taw Veggies are Healthier than Cooked Ones. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/raw-veggies-are-healthier/
  9. Antioxidant Changes and Sensory Properties of Carrot Puree Processed with and without Periderm Tissue. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf9910178?prevSearch=S.T.+Talcott&searchHistoryKey=
  10. Foods That Can Cause Food Poisoning. https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/foods-linked-illness.html
  11. Low bone mass in subjects on a long-term raw vegetarian diet. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15795346
  12. Fruit and vegetable intake and esophageal cancer in a large prospective cohort study. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ijc.22993
  13. Vegetables, fruit, and cancer prevention: a review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8841165