Raw Foods Diet: The Good and the Bad

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With a growing number of Hollywood celebrities like Demi Moore, Pierce Bronson and Sting reportedly adopting a raw food vegetarian diet and celebrity model Carol Alt coming out with a book touting a raw foods diet this is a diet fad on the upswing. In many ways a raw foods vegan diet is the polar opposite of the now dying diet fad popularized by the late Robert Atkins, MD. Instead of eating a diet composed mainly of cooked meat and fats, most raw foods diet gurus tout a strict vegan diet consisting exclusively of raw foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouted legumes and grains.

Raw foods can be the basis of adequate nutrition for most people. Apes in the wild have nutritional needs very similar to our own. They do just fine nutritionally on diets consisting exclusively of raw foods. Human beings for most of their evolutionary history also survived on an exclusively raw foods diet, although their raw foods diet (like that of apes today) also contained insects, crustaceans, fish and the flesh of birds and mammals. There are some serious health risks associated with eating raw animal foods, although, as most sashimi lovers can attest, these risks can often be minimal. In truth, a raw foods diet with sashimi would actually supply the two nutrients most likely lacking in a vegan raw foods diet, vitamins B-12 and D. However, most raw foods gurus recommend a strict vegan diet.

What?s Good About Raw Foods Diets?
Raw foods vegan diets are generally low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and often salt, too. They are also high in fiber and other beneficial phytochemicals that lower LDL cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Vegans usually have a very low risk of atherosclerotic disease, and this would include vegans eating only raw foods. Web sites tout coconut butter and claim that only saturated fat from cooked animal foods raises LDL levels and promotes atherosclerosis. In fact, coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter and will markedly elevate LDL levels. Raw foods diets that emphasize fruits and vegetables can have a low calorie density and high fiber content and so should promote weight loss and reduce the risk of many types of cancer.

What?s Bad About Raw Foods Diets?
Raw foods diets are needlessly restrictive. Raw foods proponents claim enzymes and other nutrients are destroyed when food is cooked (heated above about 110 to 116 degrees Fahrenheit). The raw food philosophy seems to be derived in large part from Natural Hygiene. Natural Hygiene started as a healing cult back in the mid-1800s. In the 1980s it was popularized by the bestselling book Fit For Life by Harvey Diamond. Natural Hygiene talked about food combining but also the need to eat raw foods with their enzymes intact. Today?s raw foods faddists still talk about food enzymes being destroyed by heat, which they claim destroys the nutritional value of the food. Of course, heat can alter the structure of enzymes, which are proteins, (often permanently), but this is of no consequence nutritionally because ?live? enzymes from plants (or other foods) are simply of no proven benefit. The human body makes its own enzymes from the amino acids found in all plant and animal proteins. This simple fact belies the entire rationale for eating exclusively raw foods.

Bottom Line
Exclusively raw foods vegan diets are likely to be deficient in vitamins D and B-12. Adequate vitamin D can be obtained from sunlight, but a supplement containing B-12 may be necessary for those adhering strictly to a raw foods vegan diet. Most Americans have sufficient vitamin B-12 stored in their livers to last them at least several years, so it may take a few years for those on a raw foods vegan diet to deplete their stores. The high intake of folate on a raw foods vegan diet may mask the macrocytic anemia associated with a B-12 deficiency, making it more difficult to diagnose.

While most Americans would certainly be better off eating a more vegetarian diet with a lot more raw fruits and vegetables, even a good idea can be taken too far. The raw foods vegan diet is based on pseudoscientific or religious arguments that conflict with nutrition science and should not be endorsed by dietitians without a few caveats.

By James Kenney, PhD, RD, LD, FACN.

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