January 10, 2021/Nutrition

Raw Food Diet: Is It Healthier?

Extreme raw diets are tough to follow and can be risky

raw food diet

In today’s world of artificial flavors and ingredients you can’t pronounce, some people are taking a more natural approach to food. And what could be more natural than eating everything raw? This is the basis of the raw food diet.

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The raw food diet has some benefits, but it’s not perfect — and it can be risky. Registered dietitian Maxine Smith, RD, LD, explains the pros and cons.

What is the raw food diet?

A raw food diet includes uncooked, unprocessed foods. You can use a few preparation methods, including:

  • Blending.
  • Drying up to 118 F, though the exact temperature depends on the plan you choose.
  • Juicing.
  • Soaking.
  • Sprouting.

The goal is to eat foods in their natural state, without any kind of processing or heating that can change their structure.

Types of raw food diets

Some people follow a strict raw food diet, eating nothing but raw foods at every meal. Others focus on raw foods for the bulk of their diet but also include some cooked or processed foods.

The raw food diet has three main types:

  • Raw vegan diet: This is the most common type. It limits your food choices to foods that are both raw and vegan (not animal-based).
  • Raw vegetarian diet: Like other vegetarian diets, this type excludes meat, fish and poultry but allows eggs and dairy products. All foods are raw and unprocessed.
  • Raw omnivorous diet: On this diet, you can eat all types of plant and animal-based foods, including meat, but they have to be raw and unprocessed.

Raw vegan diet: Pros and cons

A raw vegan diet is generally rich in fruits and vegetables, which gives it some serious health points. But it’s not a cure-all diet solution — and not for the faint of heart.

Benefits of the raw vegan diet

Eating lots of fresh, raw produce means you’ll get plenty of:

  • Vitamins and minerals.
  • Phytochemicals, plant compounds that may fight cancer and other diseases.
  • Fiber, which improves digestion.

A raw vegan diet can help with weight loss because you:

  • Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which are low in calories.
  • Consume plenty of fiber, which helps you feel fuller, longer.
  • Avoid high-calorie processed foods like chips, cookies and fast foods.

“Everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and veggies,” Smith says. “The average American eats too many processed foods and too much flour, sugar and salt.”

Risks of going raw vegan

If you’re going hard-core raw vegan, you’re excluding a lot of foods — and that comes with health risks. “The raw vegan diet, in its pure form, is very restrictive and can lead to nutrient deficiencies,” Smith explains.

When you avoid dairy, eggs and meat, you may not get enough:

  • Protein.
  • Vitamin B12.
  • Vitamin D.
  • Calcium.
  • Iron.
  • Iodine.

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“The raw vegan diet can be a short-term way to clean up your diet,” says Smith. “But it’s too restrictive to be a lifelong diet plan.”

Raw vegetarian and raw omnivorous: Risky business

The raw vegetarian and raw omnivorous diets, which include raw animal-based foods, can be dangerous. “The risks outweigh the benefits with eating raw dairy, eggs and meat,” Smith says.

Steer clear of raw milk

The milk you buy in grocery stores is pasteurized, which is a heating process that kills bacteria. “Raw milk is not pasteurized, and it can harbor dangerous germs like E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria,” says Smith.

Stick with pasteurized milk, cheese and other dairy products so you can avoid the nasty illnesses that come with bacteria in raw dairy.

Choose pasteurized eggs or cook them

Raw, unpasteurized eggs aren’t worth the risk. Even eggs that appear normal can contain Salmonella and make you sick.

But maybe you make your own Caesar salad dressing with raw eggs. Or you love your yolks on the runny side. Luckily, you have a safe option: Buy pasteurized eggs. If they’re not pasteurized (or you’re not sure), cook them until the whites and yolks are firm.

Raw meats, poultry and fish: Don’t do it

Eating raw meats, poultry and fish can be dangerous to your health. When you eat these foods, cook them to the safe minimum cooking temperatures recommended by the government’s food safety experts.

Are raw fruits and vegetables healthier than cooked?

Cooking can decrease certain nutrients in food, especially water-soluble vitamins like the B vitamins and vitamin C. But you can tweak your cooking methods to preserve most of these nutrients.

“High-heat cooking like frying, charring, grilling or boiling can destroy some nutrients and create toxins in the food,” says Smith. “To avoid this, cook foods at a lower heat for the shortest amount of time.”

Cooking methods that may preserve nutrients include:

  • Microwaving.
  • Sautéing.
  • Slow cooking.
  • Steaming.
  • Pressure cooking.

In some cases, cooking can increase the availability of nutrients. For example, cooked tomatoes, asparagus and squash give you more antioxidants than raw ones.

Focus on whole foods, not restrictive diets

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables has proven health benefits, whether the foods are raw or not. But if you’re cutting out entire food groups or eating raw animal products, you could be risking your health.

And you don’t have to go to diet extremes to lose weight or improve your health. “Eliminating processed foods is great,” says Smith. “Excluding entire food groups or eating raw meat and dairy is not. A healthy diet is one you can follow for the rest of your life. The raw food diet doesn’t qualify.”

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