Debunking Diets: Raw Pros and Cons

Debunking Diets: Raw Pros and Cons

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The amount of dietary do's and don'ts bombarding us on a daily basis may make sifting through bogus nutritional claims seem impossible. But have no fear - the Greatist sleuths are here to decode the latest, greatest, (and not so great) diets in our Debunking Diets Series. This week, we're digging deeper into the raw food diet.

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The Breakdown

What you can eat: Raw or slightly heated plant-based foods. A raw diet relies on uncooked fruits and vegetables, sprouted grains, unroasted nuts and seeds, seaweed, dried fruits, and beans. Some variations include fermented foods (which, like sprouted grains, are considered “alive”) like miso, sprout milk yogurt, and raw soy sauce.

What you can't eat: Anything heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit, which includes nearly all processed food, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. That means pretty much anything outside the produce aisle of a grocery store is off limits - except packages specifically labeled “raw.” Good news for snackers: Nibbles like kale chips, seaweed, and dried fruit mixes are a-okay as long as they're sun-baked or prepared in a dehydrator.

Exceptions: Most raw foodists avoid all dairy, eggs, and even honey. But there are also omnivorous raw diets that include raw eggs, fish, meat, and cheese made from unpasteurized (i.e. unheated) milk have gained popularity in the raw food world. Proponents believe the addition of some uncooked animal products - basically a cross between raw and Paleo - is actually healthier and provides more complete nutrition.

The Theory: The raw food diet - sometimes called a living food (LF) diet or “rawism” - claims that cooked foods are harmful to human health. To get the most out of food and avoid toxins, raw foodists try to keep their diet as natural and “alive” as possible. Proponents of the diet argue that humans are the only animals that cook their food. They believe this is why animals that eat cooked food (humans, household pets, and other domesticated critters) are the only species with health issues like cancer, diabetes, and genetic diseases. Studies have shown eating the rainbow consistently reduces the risk of cancer, but the results for raw versus cooked fruits and veggies are inconclusiveVegetables, fruit, and cancer. I. Epidemiology. Steinmetz, K.A., Potter, J.D. Division of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis 55455. Cancer Causes Control. 1991 Sep; 2(5): 325-57Raw versus cooked vegetables and cancer risk. Link, L.B., Potter, J.D. Cancer Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, New York 10032, USA. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2004 Sep;13(9):1422-35..

According to raw foodists, heating food above 115 degrees breaks down natural enzymes in fruits and vegetables that make digestion easier. Cooking some foods can also release carcinogens and free radicals that may contribute to health problemsInfluence of cooking methods on antioxidant activity of vegetables. Jimenez-Monreal, A.M., García-Diz, L., Martínez-Tomé, M., et al. Dept. of Food Science, Veterinary Faculty, Univ. of Murcia, Murcia, Spain. J Food Sci. 2009 Apr; 74(3): H97-H103.

The first modern proponent of a raw diet for better health was Swiss doctor Maximillian Bircher-Benner (fun fact: He also invented muesli!). In 1897 Bircher-Benner claimed to have cured his own jaundice with a regimen of raw apples. From that point on, he set about convincing others that raw food was the secret to optimal health.

Apples and Bananas - What the Science Says

A raw diet contains extremely low levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium because of the lack of meat, dairy, and processed food. It is notably high in fiber, vitamins, and nutrients like beta-carotene and vitamin A found in fruits and veggiesLong-term strict raw food diet is associated with favourable plasma beta-carotene and low plasma lycopene concentrations in Germans. Garcia, A.L., Koebnick, C., Dagnelie, P.C., et al. Institute of Nutritional Science, University of Giessen, Giessen, German. British Journal of Nutrition. 2008 Jun;99(6):1293-300. Epub 2007 Nov 21.. The antioxidant-rich diet often results in significant weight loss and has also been shown to help bring relief from diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgiaVegan diet in physiological health promotion. Hänninen, O., Rauma, A.L., Kaartinen, K., et al. Department of Physiology, University of Kuopio, Finland. Acta Physiol Hung. 1999;86(3-4):171-80.Fibromyalgia syndrome improved using a mostly raw vegetarian diet: an observational study. Donaldson, M.S., Speight, N., Loomis, S. Hallelujah Acres Foundation, Shelby, NC, USA. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2001;1:7. Epub 2001 Sep 26.. Because fat produces molecules that trigger inflammation throughout the body, a diet extremely low in fat can reduce those reactions (simply because there's less fat hangin' around). Raw foodists also claim the diet increases happiness, reduces anxiety, promotes a feeling of connectedness with the planet, and grants eternal youth (just kidding about that last one)Change in quality of life and immune markers after a stay at a raw vegan institute: a pilot study. Link, L.B., Hussaini, N.S., Jacobson, J.S. Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health, 722 West 168th Street, New York, NY 10032, USA. Complement Ther Med. 2008 Jun;16(3):124-30. Epub 2008 Apr 8..

So why hasn't everyone thrown out their pots and pans and embraced this magic diet? It's no joke. A raw food diet is requires a serious commitment - no conventional banana bread, veggie burgers, or pizza - and it also can have some serious health drawbacks.

According to some nutritionists, a raw food diet is no better than a healthy, balanced diet that includes cooked food. Many of the supposed benefits aren't backed by research. Raw foodists claim that cooking food destroys vital plant enzymes that drive biochemical reactions in the body. But the digestion process (chewing, stomach acid, the works) breaks up many of those enzymes regardless of whether the food was cooked or raw to begin with. In fact, some nutrients, like lycopene in tomatoes and antioxidants in carotenoids such as carrots, spinach, sweet potatoes, and peppers are actually amplified when cooked.

A raw food diet can also be dangerously low in essential nutrients like calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids. Dedicated rawists often have low bone mass due to the extreme nature of the diet, which reduces body mass and can lead to osteoperosis and increased risk of fractures (though some researchers believe the low bone mass is simply due to low body weight, not weak bones)Low bone mass in subjects on a long-term raw vegetarian diet. Fontana, L., Shew, J.L., Holloszy, J.O., et al. Section of Applied Physiology, Division of Geriatrics and Nutritional Science, Department of Internal Medicine, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, MO 63110, USA. Arch Intern Med. 2005 Mar 28;165(6):684-9.Osteoporosis prevention, diagnosis, and therapy. NIH Consensus Development Panel on Osteoporosis Prevention, Diagnosis, and Therapy. JAMA. 2001 Feb 14;285(6):785-95..

And those who consume raw meat, eggs, and unpasteurized milk products (especially children, the elderly, and sick people) put themselves at risk for food poisoning and foodborne illness. If opting to try a raw omnivorous diet, be careful about food safety and always scope out the source before digging into that steak tartare.

Should I Go Raw? - Diet Decision

Incorporating more fruits and veggies into any diet is always a good idea, but consider your everyday routine and dietary needs carefully before committing to a totally raw diet. Because of the extremity of this eating plan, rawism is more of a lifestyle choice than a temporary weight loss program. Swearing off the stove can lead to higher energy levels and easier digestion, but going totally raw has some big disadvantages too.

A raw lifestyle takes planning, nutritional knowledge, and some seriopus willpower! Plus, processed raw food is pricey - not to mention controversial. Die-hard raw foodists claim packaged raw foods and the eats at trendy raw food restaurants are not “100 percent raw.” Nutrition labels show that going raw doesn't always mean going healthy; for example, raw pili nut butter has almost the same nutritional content as regular ole' PB. As always, speak with a nutritionist or doctor before making any drastic dietary decisions.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Lindsey Joe and Elizabeth Jarrard.

Have you gone raw? Tell us about your experience in the comments below or tweet the author @sophbreene.