In recent years, we’ve seen a rocketing interest in vegan diets. The term plant-based is now used more than ever. We’re even bouncing on this undefined concept of clean-eating. And now Raw is here loud and proud – animals eat their food raw, so are we missing a trick with a raw food diet?
Veganism has grown in popularity all across the globe, largely due to interest spiralling from social media sites such as Instagram, which itself has been driven by celebrity endorsement.
The definition of veganism has changed, and many now use the expression plant-based to explain their diets to others. Inevitably, when interest in one diet plumes, then exploring others follows.
And for veganism, that’s very often Raw.
What is a raw food diet?
The raw food diet, or raw foodism, is often simply called Raw, has been around since the late 1800s in its modern form. The earliest proponent was probably Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss nutritionist credited for Bircher muesli.
His ideas on raw food consumption pre-date knowledge of vitamins, so the argument of vitamin loss in cooking wasn’t known then.
Raw foodism didn’t really take off until the 1970s when Norman Walker pioneered the concept of vegetable juicing and drinking raw juices for health .
Followers of Raw believe that eating food as nature intended is better for health and brings our weight to its optimal level for us as an individual.
There are a growing number of health retreats now that base their menu on raw vegan; one of the most popular in Europe is probably Amchara – set in a stunning Gozitan backdrop.
Health spas often use naturopaths and the raw food diet for what they call detoxification retreats – a strategy to kickstart you along to a healthy journey.
Being a raw foodist, according to the Living and Raw Foods online community, doesn’t mean 100% raw (although they believe that should be the goal); 75% is the bare minimum in order to consider oneself a raw foodist.
However, unlike other lifestyle diets (eg Paleo, Vegan, Vegetarian), there is no one leading society or association that clearly defines Raw.
Raw doesn’t necessarily mean completely uncooked, it simply means that no food can be subjected to temperatures beyond 40c (104f) – over this, the plant enzymes start to denature.
The maximum allowable temperature is 46c (116f).
It therefore excludes processed foods, pasteurised foods, or any food that has been subjected to high heat in order to be fit for market. This invariably includes supplements too for those on strict (100%) raw diets.
There are variations of raw food diets, some of which allow:
- Raw honey (honey is normally pasteurised (heated to temperatures above 40c) to kill off yeast and stop it from fermenting)
- Unpasteurised milk
- Raw meat, fish and eggs – although this is rather unusual and most followers of raw are vegan
- Cold pressed oils
As cooking at high temperatures is against the Raw way, there are various other food preparation methods that have become popular within this movement:
- Juicing: using juicers to remove the water from vegetables, plants (such as wheatgrass), fruits and roots
- Nut butters: making butters out of raw nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashew and macadamia
- Dehydrating: using specialised dehydration ovens that dry foods out to make a variety of raw products such as crisps and crackers
- Spouting: soaking beans to allow them to sprout so that they can used in salads just as they are starting to grow
- Fermenting: using raw vegetables and salt to create fermented products such as kimchi and sauerkraut
Raw foods vs. living foods
The raw food movement often use the term living foods when talking about the food items in the diet.
Raw simply means uncooked, and can include raw meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. However, living refers to foods with life – typically plants.
They have the ability to form new life (such as seeds, grains, nuts and legumes) and either have live enzymes or the ability to produce new enzymes or reactivate enzymes (such as soaking and sprouting) .
Therefore, all living foods are raw, but not all raw foods are living.
Does this matter?
In the Raw community – yes. Since one of the main fundamentals of raw foodism is that cooking kills enzymes, and eating enzymes in their natural form is essential to optimal health.
According to the Food Enzyme Institute, foods contain the natural compounds that aid digestion, and cooking foods hinders this process.
They believe that, although we produce enzymes ourselves (through our saliva, pancreatic fluids and excretions within the small intestine), this may not be enough to fully utilise the range of nutrients in food, particularly if digestive health is compromised.
Some old studies do suggest that plant enzymes can survive the human digestive system to act synergistically with our own human enzymes .
It is the living aspect of the raw food diet that often precludes animal products, and therefore, the modern raw foodist is almost always vegan.
Why follow Raw?
Raw foodism has become a movement more than a diet. Its followers purport to feel better, have more energy and experience better overall health.
However, this is anecdotal and the research behind Raw is very sparse. Many of the references I’m including here are based on small studies, some with no control or any scientific rigour.
These are the listed known benefits of following a raw (vegan) diet over cooked foods, but the following would not necessarily apply to all raw foods:
- Better blood cholesterol and lower heart disease risk – but only on a non-strict raw diet, the reverse is true for strict raw foodists 
- Better weight and blood pressure control [5,6]
- Some potential protection against a variety of cancers 
- Some foods retain their folate content better when consumed raw – folate is a vitamin (B9) often low in the British diet 
- Minimally cooked food (raw or lightly steamed) is associated with lower risks for type 2 diabetes and heart disease 
The downside of Raw
Unfortunately, most diets aren’t perfect and there are downsides to many of them.
In 2017, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) listed the Raw Vegan Diet as the number one celeb diet to avoid.
The reason listed for avoiding raw vegan is:
The human body can digest and be nourished by both raw and cooked foods so there’s no reason to believe raw is inherently better. Raw food can be time consuming to prepare, hard to find when eating out, and is not suitable for certain groups like children or pregnant women so family meals could be a challenge and you could miss hot food. (British Dietetic Association, Dec 2017)
The BDA is basically saying that going Raw could be irritating and constraining, but have not listed any health reasons for why the raw diet should not be followed.
It’s possible that the reason for this is that the raw food diet has not really been extensively studied. It’s also possible that, without nutrition knowledge, it would be too easy to fall foul of nutritional pitfalls and end up with deficiencies.
Where there are studies, the following long term pitfalls are associated with a very strict raw food diet:
- Body weight could drop to dangerously low levels, and cause amenorrhoea (absence of menstruation) in women 
- Vitamin B12 levels could become a problem if not monitored . A strict raw diet forbids supplementation and use of nutritional yeast (it’s pasteurised).
- Lycopene, a phytonutrient commonly associated with tomatoes, is found in lower levels in raw foodists . This is particularly important for men, as it’s associated with protection against prostate cancer 
- Subsisting on raw food juices exposes the mouth to too much free sugar, which could increase the risk of tooth decay 
- Possible risk of poor bone health on long term adherence to a raw food diet 
How to go Raw safely
If you’ve got this far and determined to follow Raw, I cannot and would not want to stop you.
Going Raw should be a gradual process, not one that is adopted overnight and followed rigorously (such as pure juice diets). The reason for this is that the body needs time to adapt to raw food, particularly dietary fibre.
It’s likely you’ll experience a change in bowel habit otherwise, and will be uncomfortable (and embarrassing) for some people.
One site I found that seems to offer use advice is The Rawtarian.com guide to starting Raw.
However, please do take a few simple points of advice, and follow your Raw journey safely:
- Don’t be a Raw Hero. Some people feel it’s all or nothing; do it properly or don’t do it at all! But going 100% strict Raw is not a great idea. 75% is probably OK, although I would feel more comfortable if it was lower than that! At least until you know what you’re doing
- Make sure you don’t fall down on vitamin B12. You do need it. Vegan animals (herbivores) get it from eating their own (or others) poop, and I suspect ancient humans did too as hygiene would have eluded them, washing their veg wasn’t a consideration and they’d have been exposed to many more bugs than we are
- Living-Foods.com states that a maximum of 10% of daily calories daily as protein is more than plenty. It is not – it’s the bare minimum, especially:
- if you’re elderly
- if you’re pregnant
- if you’re a body builder or someone with a physically demanding job
We should be aiming for 0.8g – 1g of quality digestible protein per kilogramme of our body weight. This is roughly 10-15% of daily calories
- Think about where your vitamin D is going to come from during winter months
- Where will the essential fats in your diet come from? Particularly omega-3
- Cook some of your tomatoes and add a little oil to maximise lycopene absorption
- Include fortified products in your non-raw foods such as bread, nutritional yeast and healthier breakfast cereals
- Don’t eat the following foods raw:
- potatoes – they’re high in starch that is difficult for the body to break down and can cause gastrointestinal distress. Green spots contain solanine, which is toxic
- aubergine (eggplant) – you might not want to eat this raw anyway, as it’d be tough as old boots. However, like potatoes, they’re a source of solanine
- be careful with sprouting beans – there have been instances of bacterial infections such as E Coli.
- cassava – contains compounds that can interfere with breathing unless cooked
- wild mushrooms. Many mushrooms are OK to eat raw, but some are not!
- kidney beans – must always be thoroughly cooked, they contain lectins that are toxic.
- Don’t go juicing all out. Juicing separates the dietary fibre, and you definitely need that for a healthy gut. Juicing can also increase the amount of free sugars you’re consuming, as it’s easier to drink a litre of vegetable juice per day than it is to eat all the veg and fruit used to create that juice!
And don’t go it alone. There are some online resources and books now to help you along your Raw journey, ensuring that you don’t miss out on essential nutrients.
But remember – going Raw is life-changing. Socialising will become slightly more difficult as restaurants are catching on to vegan, but not necessarily Raw!
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Seb is a writer and blogger of food and nutrition. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree in nutrition science, and has studied sports and exercise nutrition at postgraduate level. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and believes passionately that we can all live with a little less meat. He writes for www.veggieandspice.com and www.itsaboutnutrition.com