What is the raw food diet?
What exactly is a raw food diet? Nutritionist Kerry Torrens explains what a raw food diet is and assesses whether it's actually as healthy as it seems
There are many interpretations of a raw food diet. It can consist of only raw foods, or the majority raw foods, and it can be vegan, plant-based with unprocessed dairy products, or omnivorous in that it also includes raw or dried fish and meat.
How does the raw food diet work?
Following a predominantly raw food diet is not new: these eating patterns have been around since the mid-19th century, and typically include fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds as well as fermented and sprouted grains and beans.
Proponents believe that raw food contains additional health benefits, such as higher nutrient levels, and that cooking can destroy important enzymes in food. Read our guide to find out if raw food is healthier than cooked.
What can I eat on the raw food diet?
A raw food diet can be one that consists of 50-100% raw foods. Raw food is usually restricted to any foodstuff that hasn’t been heated or warmed above 48ºC. Processed or refined foods, including those that have been pasteurised and tinned, are usually forbidden.
The majority of a raw food diet will usually be plant-based, although with a lower grain content than a typical vegan diet. Some people consume unpasteurised dairy products, and others also include raw (and, sometimes, dehydrated/dried) meat and fish.
Is the raw food diet healthy?
Following a raw food diet means you are more likely to get your five-a-day and achieve the recommended levels of fibre. You’ll be cutting the added sugar and salt that so many of us eat too much of, too. However, the challenge for those on a raw food diet is getting adequate protein, vitamin B12 and iron, as these nutrients are typically found in foods most of us prefer to cook, such as meat, fish, eggs and grains.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women, the elderly, very young, anyone with a chronic illness, or who has or is recovering from an eating disorder should check with their GP before going on a raw food diet. If you choose to follow a raw food diet you need to understand exactly what to eat for a balanced intake of nutrients and be aware of the potential for food-borne pathogens that may put you at increased risk of food poisoning.
What’s the evidence for the raw food diet?
Studies looking at those who follow a raw food diet, although limited in number, suggest those who follow such a plan have a lower body mass index (BMI) than omnivores, and are more likely to fall into the ‘underweight’ category; they also tend to have a lower bone mass and, in the case of women, are more likely to experience disruptions to their menstrual cycle, including amenorrhea.
Claims about increased nutrient levels in raw food compared to cooked depend on the individual foodstuff and its nutrient content. Although some nutrients are more sensitive to heat, there are others, like the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), that are unaffected. There is no scientific evidence to support the idea that cooking destroys natural enzymes in the food, making it harder to digest. It’s actually more likely that cooking helps break down cell walls so we can digest cooked foods more easily (especially starches and proteins).
A nutritionist’s view…
Whether you choose to eat your fruit and vegetables raw or cooked, follow these tips to get the most out of them:
- Buy local produce, because some vitamins are lost during transportation and storage.
- Store fruits like tomatoes at room temperature – this optimises the ripening process and increases levels of valuable lycopene.
- Prepare your fruit or veg just before you need them.
- Avoid losing water-soluble vitamins like the vitamin B group, as well as vitamin C, by choosing cooking methods which use the minimal amount of water or preferably none at all. When you boil or steam save the cooking liquor for making sauces or soups.
- Choose cooking methods that use the lowest heat for the least amount of time. Microwaving, steaming and stir-frying are useful methods.
- Increase your absorption of fat-soluble vitamins by eating your veggies with a little oil. Enjoy a spinach salad with vinaigrette dressing, roast vine tomatoes with a drizzle of olive oil or quickly stir-fry spring greens.
- At certain times of year, it's worth considering frozen produce. This produce is quickly frozen as soon as it’s picked which means it retains more nutrients than some supposedly 'fresh' produce.
- Finally, and most importantly, balance your intake. Enjoy crunchy raw veg to top up on immune-supportive vitamin C, and cook others for their mix of protective antioxidants.
Does the raw food diet work?
Including plenty of raw food in your diet makes it more likely that you’ll consume a good amount of fruit and vegetables, and the health benefits that these bring. It also makes it likely that you’ll eat less harmful, ultra-processed foods. There are associations with a lower BMI probably due to the fact that a diet composed of mainly raw foods tends to be lower in calories which means, depending on your needs, you may have to eat a greater quantity of foods. This can be tricky because the base of a raw food diet are foods that are high in fibre and as a result very filling. The difficulty of including sufficient levels of protein, vitamin B12 and iron within a raw food diet means it’s especially important that the principles of a balanced diet are followed.
If you are considering any form of diet please consult your GP first to ensure you can do so without risk to health.
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Do you have experiences of following a raw food diet, or do you think it's just another fad? Let us know in the comments below...
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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