Most diets stipulate the foods you can eat, not how they’re prepared. Meanwhile, the raw food diet—a trendy, plant-based eating plan that often overlaps with veganism—focuses specifically on cooking: It consists of mostly or all raw and unprocessed foods.
But is the raw food diet actually healthy? On one hand, it’ll force you to eat a ton of plants, replacing processed ingredients with whole foods. On the other, you won’t be able to safely enjoy many dietary staples.
If you’re considering giving the plant-based, uncooked lifestyle a shot, make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into. Here’s everything you need to know about the raw food diet, according to dietitians.
What is the raw food diet?
The raw food diet is composed of plants (and sometimes raw animal products) that have not been heated past a certain temperature, explains Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., director of nutrition education at Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The exact definition of “raw” varies from person to person, she notes, but 118°F seems to be the upper limit for most people.
In its strictest form, the diet is entirely made up of raw, unprocessed foods; some people allot a certain percentage of their food intake for non-raw foods, Levin says. Raw veganism is the most common form of the diet, but you can also consume raw, unprocessed animal products, including fish, eggs, and milk.
“The goal is to eat foods in their natural state,” explains Pam Fullenweider, R.D., M.S., a registered dietitian. “The theory is that heat in cooking destroys enzymes needed for digestion and creates toxins in our bodies. There is no scientific evidence that supports this idea.”
You can eat vegetables, fruits, sprouted beans, sprouted grains, nuts, and seeds on the raw food diet. Blending, juicing, drying, fermenting, pressing, and soaking are all acceptable methods of preparation—meaning that oils, nut butters, nut milks, cold-brewed drinks, and dried fruits are all fair game.
What are the benefits of the raw food diet?
Obviously, eating more plants comes with a slew of health benefits. “Because the diet is generally a plant-based diet, it includes fresh, raw fruits and vegetables which contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which help reduce inflammation in our bodies,” Fullenweider says.
Because plants are high in fiber, they digest slowly and help you feel more satisfied for longer, cutting down on cravings between meals. They’re also lower in calories, meaning this diet will likely spur weight loss, Fullenweider explains, especially if you give up processed foods entirely.
And it’s long been known that plant-based diets are linked to lower likelihood of chronic disease, Levin adds. One 2019 study, for example, found that plant-based eating was associated with lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality, and even all-cause mortality in middle-aged adults.
What are the drawbacks of the raw food diet?
It’s not all good news, though: The raw food diet also poses some serious risks. Fullenweider calls the diet “very restrictive,” noting that it could lead to calcium, iron, protein, and vitamin B12 and D deficiencies. This is backed up by a 2005 study, which found that while a raw vegetarian diet led to less body fat overall, it also was linked with lower nutrient intake and low bone mass.
Also, there’s a reason most people cook their meals: “The consumption of raw animal-based foods is dangerous and never recommended,” Fullenweider says. (All meat should be cooked to internal temperatures between 145°F and 165°F, depending on the type, to avoid food-borne illness, per the Food and Drug Administration.)
Some people might not know how to make the most of their food, too, Levin explains: If you don’t soak and sprout beans and grains, for example, you might not eat them at all, leaving you without a calorie-dense option. Plus, she adds, “cooking some foods actually makes their nutrients more available when consumed.”
Should you try the raw food diet?
This is a complicated question. Fullenweider doesn’t think the diet is worth trying. Instead, she recommends the Mediterranean diet, another plant-forward approach to eating that prioritizes whole foods, but allows you to cook your meals. It’s also associated with heart health and weight loss, and it runs a much lower risk of nutrient deficiencies, Fullenweider explains.
Levin, meanwhile, is more optimistic. “I’ve seen people thrive on a raw food diet, so I hesitate to write it off as a bad idea,” she says. However, she stipulates that if you’re going to give it a try, you need the right tools at your disposal: Invest in equipment like a dehydrator and a blender, and educate yourself on food safety and the risks of soaking and sprouting food.
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