If you open any magazine these days, you will probably get bombarded with plans and strategies that seem to be the magic ingredient that’s been missing in your life. And often times, these promises for a healthy and thin body come in the form of “cleanses”, just like a juice cleanse or raw food cleanse.
Supposedly, there are many cases in which people were able to heal minor or even major diseases, such as allergies, skin conditions, heart disease, or cancer, by drastically changing their lives and eating a raw food diet. While of course food is only one piece of the puzzle, setting up an alkaline, clean environment in your body gives your cells the chance to regenerate and fight any disease.
Don’t get me wrong – we were both very much into raw foods some time ago. Some people can make this diet seem so perfect, natural, and superior. Funny enough, our own results never seemed to match with what was promised, and we blamed ourselves for not being good or pure enough. So this article is meant to give a neutral perspective on raw food diets from someone who used to believe it all and would swear by it.
I think it’s understandable that people are trying out different diet and lifestyle changes in order to find the perfect key to radiant beauty, endless energy, easy weight loss, longevity, and the prevention of disease. But is eating raw foods the answer to all of them? And are cleanses the way to go in order to get your health back on track and lose a few pounds?
Raw Food 101
First of all, let’s figure out what raw foods are. More than just plain “fruit and vegetables”, it means that any food has not been heated above 115-118 degrees Fahrenheit. Usually, this excludes all products of animal origin – there are some raw foodists that aren’t vegan though and do consume raw milk or even raw meats.
There are different ways of eating a raw diet too: it can be a completely unprocessed one where you just consume the plain fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. On the other hand, there are processed food options in the raw world as well, such as raw (dehydrated) crackers and chips, chocolate bars, or an endless array of powders.
Another common form is called fruitarianism, which means these people eat exclusively fruits in a botanical sense – that’s even harder to sustain of course and is very likely to cause real nutritional deficiencies.
As we all know, the best way to eat foods is in their whole form, which includes fats only from whole food sources. This means eating nuts, seeds, and avocados instead of olive oil or coconut oil. These extracts are just as useless as refined sugars – stripped of their other nutritional compounds, they do more harm than good since they deplete the body’s reserves to get properly digested and assimilated.
Usually, raw foods are eaten fresh, dehydrated with low heat or fermented. There is this belief in the raw food community that heating food not only diminishes its nutrients but also makes the food toxic and less digestible. Many raw vegans speak of "live" foods versus "dead" foods.
In a nutshell
Raw food is more than just plain fruits and vegetables. It's any food that hasn't been heated above 115-118 degrees Fahrenheit, no matter if it's in the form of a cracker, cake, soup, smoothie, or a banana. All of these are supposed to be "live" foods.
High Carb Raw Vegan
Naturally, there are a lot more high carbohydrate than high fat foods in the raw food world. A low-fat diet is kind of built into our physiology, since all of our cells need carbs in order to function and thrive – the average recommendation is to get around 60 percent of your calories from carbohydrates, many plant-based doctors even recommend 70-80 percent.
Since you need some kind of main calorie source, fruit could be your staple on a raw food diet. It is made of simple carbs, which are different from starches (potatoes or rice) and don't keep you satiated for very long. This means you might end up eating a lot more calories from fruit in order to feel full than you would when eating potatoes (which is the most satiating food out there).
With all of this fructose running through your veins, your pancreas creates a bit more insulin than it normally does, to help your body manage all that extra sugar. Luckily, the high fiber content won’t allow drastic blood sugar spikes, though these levels fluctuate a lot more when eating lots of fruit than they would on starches and vegetables. This could mean the jittery highs and miserable lows of sugar highs and crashes if you’re sensitive to this issue.
Usually, these blood sugar spikes give you only short-term energy and you need to eat again after around 2 hours. The positive thing is that most people see an increase in their energy and endurance when eating lots of carbs, as well as great mental clarity and easy digestion. But it’s not necessarily worth the constant grazing you have to do throughout the day.
Some people on a raw food diet rely so much on fruit that their teeth begin to erode: from acids in the fruits that wear down the tooth enamel, from sugar promoting decay, from dried fruit (another raw vegan staple) sticking to the teeth and further promoting decay, and from a general mineral deficiency.
In a nutshell
Basing your raw food diet around fruit is easier since they are better available, more filling and easier to digest than nuts and seeds. However, they only offer short-term energy, give you blood sugar spikes and can rot your teeth.
High Fat Raw Vegan
Your second option would be to start eating more nuts and seeds for your energy and cut back on carbs (aka fruit). This often results in feeling sluggish and the dietary fat you consume will be transformed into body fat a lot easier than dietary carb from fruits. Nuts or seeds are by no means unhealthy, but we actually just need to eat them in tiny amounts. Even a handful has a lot of calories already while it doesn’t really fill up our stomach.
For most people, nuts are pretty hard to digest if they eat more than just a few at a time. This common side effect is because of compounds in nuts called phytates and tannins, which can cause gas and bloating, even diarrhea.
Overall, nuts and seeds are whole plant foods and therefore healthy choices. But it all comes down to quantity here: while we can eat other food groups like whole starches, veggies, fruit, and legumes in abundance, limiting high fat and calorically dense foods like nuts and seeds is always recommended.
Lastly, if you consume a lot of processed raw foods, like cakes, wraps, and chocolate, your amount of fat and processed sugar will get way too high. These treats aren’t any healthier than their cooked vegan counterparts.
What’s worse, if you eat a fair amount of both fruit and nuts (which means simple carbs and fat), then you’ll set up the perfect environment for type 2 diabetes to develop. High-fat foods increase insulin resistance, and paired with blood that’s full of simple sugars, you can get into trouble.
In a nutshell
If you eat a lot of nuts, seeds, and avocados on a raw food diet, you are a lot more likely to gain weight, have digestive issues and develop type 2 diabetes. When you don't eat enough carbs in general, you'll feel sluggish and out of energy.
Is a Raw Food Diet Optimal?
Typically, a raw food diet is made up of 100% raw foods. There are of course some foods that should be eaten raw like lettuce, cucumber, sprouts, and fruits. But where does the advantage of a completely raw food diet come into play?
We have to admit that there are many healthy foods which we cannot really eat raw: cruciferous vegetables (when eaten uncooked, they can block the production of thyroid hormones in the body, causing hypothyroidism), potatoes (contain hemagglutinins that disrupt red blood cell function), legumes, some mushrooms, and whole grains are some examples.
Cooking vegetables shrinks their volume, which means we can fit more of them into our stomachs! There are also a lot of nutrients, especially minerals that can be absorbed better when the food is cooked. One 2002 study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that cooking actually boosts the amount of lycopene in tomatoes.
Cooked carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers and many other vegetables also supply more antioxidants, such as carotenoids and ferulic acid, to the body than they do when raw.
The downside to cooking vegetables is that it can destroy the vitamin C by 10-30 percent, depending on the cooking technique since it’s a highly unstable vitamin that’s easily degraded through oxidation, exposure to heat and cooking in water. However, the trade-off is still worth it since vitamin C is prevalent in many fruits and vegetables so it’s not too hard to meet one’s nutritional needs. Other vitamins don't get lost during the process of heating.
Adapted from beyondveg.com - Most vitamins aren't affected when being exposed to heat
The process of cooking also breaks down cellular walls, making the digestion (and therefore assimilation of nutrients) easier for us. Since raw foods take more effort to digest and provide less energy as well as nutrients that are stored in tough fibers, they might not be the best choice if you want to be perfectly nourished.
In case you find it hard to eat enough to meet your caloric needs and don’t want to keep losing weight and energy on a purely raw diet, you need to add in some refined foods like agave syrup or oils in order to get enough calories and be satisfied. These processed foods are arguably less healthy than cooked vegetables or whole starches.
In a nutshell
Some vegetables are better eaten raw, while others should be cooked. Fruit is usually eaten raw which makes sure the vitamin C doesn't get destroyed by heat. There are many benefits to cooking and making healthy foods like root vegetables, whole grains, and legumes edible.
Raw Food Diet Myths
Most claims made by raw foodists are highly unscientific and unproven. They usually base on anecdotal evidence and natural fallacies, they play with people’s desires to be “pure, clean, and untouchable”.If this was true, why do people who eat a fully raw get sick too? If cooked food is so bad, why aren’t 99.99% of the people in the world who cook their food really ill and malnourished?
The answer is that raw food diets just aren’t impeccable and they aren’t superior. There are no good scientific studies that proof any of this. One thing is for sure though, when you start eating only (or mostly) raw foods, you automatically cut out so many processed foods that you feel healthier and better. But the same would be true if you cooked the veggies and added some rice to them.
It’s very understandable that people strive to have a lot of energy and beauty, and therefore trying to eat a raw food diet. But energy and beauty will only happen when we assimilate enough nutrients over a long period of time and since it’s harder to break down the cellular walls of raw food, hence getting to the calories, minerals, and vitamins, it’s also harder to nourish our body. Often times, raw foodists aren’t as radiant and energetic as the diet movement claims would be the case.
And even healthfulness when eating a raw diet is a challenge and not inherent. Though weight loss can be incredibly easy in the beginning, it’s solely due to the fact that it’s a lot harder to eat enough calories and therefore people involuntarily starve themselves. This, of course, cannot be sustained and it shouldn’t be.
It’s hard to always eat a variety of raw food year-round because of the seasonality. This causes the raw foodist to rely on a single food source at times since it’s hard to store fresh produce. The other option would be to either live around the equator or to buy a lot of tropical fruit that’s been shipped for thousands of miles.
Then, there is the argument about how “living foods” would still have all their enzymes when we eat them. These plant enzymes have never shown to be effective in human digestion, at least very minimal. Following the logic of cooked food being dead, there couldn’t be so many people on cooked food diets living very long lives (over 100 years), coming up with mind-blowing theories or running ultra-marathons.
In reality, our stomach acid denatures food and enzymes just as much as cooking would. The plant needs it enzymes, and fortunately, humans make their own through all their life. This myth is based on old research from 1920 and cannot hold up to today’s scientific standards.
A raw food diet isn’t even more “natural” as there isn’t one natural diet out there. It always depends on where different people and cultures live, what their traditions are. The natural fallacy doesn’t apply to things like taking medication when life is at risk or shutting down all electrical devices because they aren’t natural either. This logical nonsense is usually used by paleo fans and shouldn’t be connected with veganism.
Since cooking has made us human at least 200,000+ years ago, a raw food diet doesn’t suit us anymore. Looking at our raw-vegan cousin, the gorilla, it has three times the body size of humans, but one-third the brain cells; it grew muscular on plants, but not smarter. According to a study published in October 2012, the gorilla would have needed to eat raw plants for more than 12 hours a day to consume enough calories to evolve a humanlike brain.
In a nutshell
There are no reasonable scientific studies that show the benefits of a purely raw vegan diet. Cooking helped our brains develop and giving us enough energy so we didn't stay at the level gorillas are today. The plant enzymes that get lost in the process of cooking don't survive our stomach acid anyway and don't help with our own digestion.
Raw Food Cleanses
If you are already on a whole food plant-based diet, you have nothing to gain and much to lose by going totally or even mostly raw. Even doctors who prescribe and live by a vegan diet caution their patients against attempting a raw diet.
The one difference is that cleanses always have a start and end point, a set amount of time during which a certain diet is being eaten. They can be used when someone is very sick for example and needs to follow a specific diet in order to heal an ailment. These cleanses need to be supervised by a professional!
The other situation in which cleanses can make sense is when someone wants to jump-start a new and healthier lifestyle. A slow transition into a whole food plant-based diet works for most people, but some prefer a clear cut and drastic change.
With all these years of eating lots of junk food and only minimal amount of fruits and vegetables, it’s understandable that once someone understands the importance of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, they want to cram as many of these into their body as possible (keep in mind that some of these nutrients are better absorbed when cooking the food!).
In order to work as a clear cut and motivation to implement a healthy diet and lifestyle long-term, 7-day cleanses do have some value. But if you want permanent results, you need to permanently eat a predominantly whole food plant-based diet. Old dietary patterns mean old ailments.
A common misconception is that some types of food can “cleanse” your body and rid it of all the toxins. But the truth is that your liver, lungs, skin, and kidneys keep your body free of toxins day and night. The thought behind a cleanse is to not eat anything that would add to environmental or metabolic toxins, therefore giving your body room and time to heal anything else that’s not working right now.
But this can also be achieved by simply eating a very healthy diet of both cooked and raw fruits and vegetables, along with some whole grains and legumes. Healthy eating will always make you feel better in the long run. Any cleanse that comes with some powder, syrups, or pills should be treated very skeptically!
In a nutshell
Cleanses are short-term diet changes that serve a purpose like healing from a detrimental illness. They should always be supervised by a professional. If you are healthy and want to do it on your own in order to jump start a healthier diet and lifestyle, then there is still no benefit in keeping your diet 100% raw.
The Healthiest Diet
Like described above, there are advantages to both raw and cooked foods – if we choose them wisely. While raw foods have more volume and vitamin C, cooked food usually tastes better and are easier on the digestive system. In the end, we always want people to eat as many fruits and especially vegetables as they can – and when we cook kale, spinach, broccoli or mushrooms, we can eat so much more of these foods.
Not only that, human beings are actually evolved to thrive on cooked foods! Not only are our stomachs too small to eat huge amounts of raw foods in order to get enough calories, we also have the enzyme amylase which enables us to digest starchy vegetables and grains.
Our ancestors used to eat almost exclusively raw, but once they discovered fire and root vegetables, they were able to develop, travel to different (colder) parts of the world, and got larger brains. Before that, pretty much the whole day had to be spent collecting food and eating it, putting a lot of stress on the jaw and digestive system.
Our anatomy has become different since that, we have adopted to eating smaller portions of denser food with a better bioavailability. The reason why we became the species we are today is thanks to cooking our food. So why would we think there’s an even better way to eat? Why mimic the diet of a chimpanzee even though we only have this common ancestor from whom we evolved ever since?
A raw food diet seems unnecessarily restrictive. Science tells us that eating a variety of whole plant foods, eating when hungry and stopping when satiated, is the healthiest diet on the planet. Raw foods play a role within a healthy diet of course since most fruit and leafy greens are eaten uncooked – they are just not the end all be all.
So the real question is: Why has it become such a cult to many so that they can’t eat any cooked food? What are the benefits of being so radical? We’re in agreement that we should strive to eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, but we don’t want to go so far to think that any cooked food in the diet is poisoning us.
There aren’t any advantages, only a disadvantage to removing cooked vegetables, beans, and whole grains from the diet. They have a huge nutrient per calorie density and you can fit more cooked vegetables into your stomach, thus ingesting a larger quantity of nutrients. By eating both raw and cooked foods, we get the best of both worlds!
So, naturally, the healthiest diet consists of all the foods that have been proven to be very beneficial to our health and longevity: all whole plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. This diet is incredibly well-rounded, offers all the nutrients we truly need in abundance, it’s easy to follow and very satiating.
In a nutshell
Eating the whole array of whole plant-based foods, both cooked and raw, has been shown to prevent, treat and even reverse 14 of our 15 top killers in the modern world. Cutting out legumes, potatoes, and whole grains doesn't have any benefit usually and we should embrace the best of both the raw and cooked plant-based world.
What will you do?
In the end, we have to find a way of eating that we enjoy long-term. And eating potatoes or rice is healthier and more sustainable than eating lots of nuts or dried fruit for your energy. It’s also very satisfying, cheaper, and easy to get wherever you are. Starches release their energy rather slow compared to fruit, meaning you don’t have drastic blood sugar spikes or have to eat every 2 hours.
Do we recommend people eat a raw food diet? If the alternative would be an omnivorous diet or one filled with junk food, then yes, a raw food diet would be superior. But because it’s unnecessarily restrictive and cuts out many healthy foods such as sweet potatoes, beans, and whole grains, it’s not very sustainable. 99% of the people following a raw food diet at some point go back to eating cooked food again.
Some claim that a vegan diet just doesn’t work for them, albeit a well-rounded whole food plant-based diet wasn’t even tried, while others simply add potatoes, grains, and legumes as well as cooked vegetables into their diet, just like we would recommend. So make sure you create a diet and lifestyle that suits you and becomes effortless after a while. Because anything else won’t make you healthy or happy either.
Have you been trying to eat a raw food diet before? What did you eat and how did it make you feel? Have you had bad experiences with cleanses? Let us know in the comments below.
Alena has been eating a plant-based diet for 6 years and is passionate about sharing her learnings in the fields of nutrition, wellbeing, and vegan ethics. She is the co-creator of nutriciously and loves music, reading, nature, traveling, yoga & good food. Alena received training in the fields of nutrition, music therapy, and social work.