(Diet Review) The Raw Food Diet: Not Even Half-Baked
The raw food diet has been around for a while, so it goes without saying that I should have reviewed it already but just haven’t gotten around to it.
There’s something about giving up all cooked food in your life – birthday cake, freshly-baked bread, a nice tofu stir fry even – that leaves me cold.
To give it a fair shake, there are some good things about raw food, so let’s start with those:
Raw vegetables have fiber. So do cooked vegetables, but we knew that.
Raw food diets all but eliminate ultra-processed foods. That’s a good thing.
According to this Scientific American article (and yes, I reviewed the research they cite), raw vegetables have higher levels of vitamin C. I say this with a caveat though – because vitamin C is readily available in lots of foods (see anyone with scurvy lately?).
Raw broccoli has higher levels of an enzyme called myrosinase, which converts into something called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane may help prevent cancer. But cooked broccoli forms indole, which may also prevent cancer. What a trade-off!
Raw carrots have higher levels of polyphenols, which may have protective effects against cancer and other diseases. Cooked carrots, however, have more carotenoids, which, like polyphenols, are also antioxidants. (and play a role in anti-aging…bring it on)
We know from recent research that calories from whole foods are absorbed less efficiently than calories from foods that have been ‘processed’ in some way – blended, cooked, etc. So I suppose if you’re going for a low-calorie diet, that’s a plus for you.
People generally lose weight on a raw diet anyhow, because how could a person not? You can only stuff so much fiber into your poor stomach. Gulp.
The above being true, I don’t see those reasons as even close to being good rationales for never eating a piece of cooked food again….especially when raw food diets are based on complete and utter malarkey. Let’s take a look.
A day of raw eating looks something like this:
Breakfast: raw oatmeal or a green juice
Lunch: salad with nuts
Dinner: spiralized raw zucchini with fresh tomato sauce, raw cashew cheesecake
Most of the diet’s protein comes from..you guessed it! Nuts and seeds. Raw legumes can’t be consumed because they can be toxic if they’re not cooked, so say goodbye to chickpeas and beans. You’re not having tofu, because it’s heated during processing. So most of the vegan sources of proteins aren’t allowed on this diet.
Some people on a raw, nonvegan diet consume raw meat, eggs, fish (sushi?), and dairy products. Aside from a spicy tuna roll, I don’t recommend eating raw animal products on the regular – especially dairy, which can kill you with listeria. No thanks. Raw vegans claim that fruits and vegetables contain significant protein, but hello, no they don’t.
As a result of the raw diet’s limited protein sources, the diet itself contains around 10% of its calories from protein. For a 140lb person who eats 1500 calories a day on a raw diet, that equals around 38 grams of protein or 0.6 grams per kilogram. That’s even below the (very conservative and outdated) old-school recommendation of 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per kilogram that I learned a million years ago in nutrition school.
Raw diet followers will say that the diet contains more than enough protein, but this is false – especially for healthy, active people, women who may get or be pregnant, and anyone who might want to, you know, get out of bed in the morning.
Protein helps with muscle preservation and regeneration, hormone production, as well as satiety among other things. It’s important to get enough.
Aside from raw vegans, there are other groups of raw food enthusiasts, including fruitarians like Freelee the Banana girl, the (thankfully) defunct YouTube personality who claimed to eat up to 51 bananas in a single day. Holy constipation!! Insane.
Anyhow, fruitarians have a mainly fruit-based diet, which no reasonable person should even consider. Fruit has a ton of sugar in it, and an all-fruit diet can cause serious malnutrition as well as a raging case of pancreatitis. Just ask Ashton Kutcher, who got it while he was on a fruitarian diet in order to play Steve Jobs in a movie. Ouch.
Let’s take a look at some of the basic claims behind raw food diets.
I love getting the chance to debunk crazy old myths like ‘meat rots in your colon’!
Cooking Food Destroys Its Enzymes, Making The Food Harder To Digest.
Raw food advocates claim that heating food over 104-118 degrees Fahrenheit (the actual temperature is different depending on who you ask) destroys enzymes in the food, making it hard to our bodies to digest and therefore ‘overtaxing’ our systems.
It appears as though someone fell asleep in physiology class, and that person sure as heck wasn’t me.
Let’s go over what happens in your digestive system when you eat food, and I’m going to keep this really, really simple:
You eat anything – cooked or raw food. You chew the food, and salivary enzymes – lipase and amylase – start breaking it down. You swallow, and the food goes into your stomach, where digestive enzymes start working on it, then into the intestines, where even more enzymes break down anything that hasn’t been fully broken down yet. Those enzymes – pepsin, trypsin, protease, among many, many others – are from the lining of the stomach, the pancreas, and the linings of the intestines. Breaking down any sort of food isn’t ‘taxing’ on your body; that’s like saying your lungs get tired from breathing all the time.
Um. Doesn’t happen. Isn’t nature wonderful?
My point is: Healthy bodies contain more than enough enzymes to efficiently break down the food we eat – even if it’s cooked. Funny enough, cooked food is actually easier for the body to break down, since the cooking process starts breaking the food down even before we eat it.
So the ‘enzymes being destroyed’ claim? Makes zero sense.
Fruits, Nuts, and Vegetables Contain Enough Nutrients To Live Off Of Entirely – No Supplements Required.
One raw food website claims: “There is no essential nutrient in meat, grains, legumes, or dairy that is not also available in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and in a form that is easier to digest.”
Really? Because that’s just straight up false.Vitamin B12 is available only in animal products, and without it we can have serious neurological damage. So a claim like this is not only completely idiotic, it’s actually dangerous. If you’re choosing a vegan diet – which raw diets frequently are – you’ll need a B12 supplement. Yes, there’s vitamin B12 in fortified foods like nutritional yeast, meat alternatives, and some plant milks; but there are no unfortified plant products that will provide you with B12.
Cooked Food Contains ‘Toxic Residue’ And Creates Scary Health Problems and DEATH!
What is it with the ‘toxin’ claims and scare tactics? Are people at some point going to realize that fear mongering and the use of the word ‘toxins’ when associated with normal foods, is just over the top and unnecessary? I sure hope so.
I found this gem on a raw food website:
Eating cooked meat creates excess uric acid and ammonia in the body, both of which are toxic to the system. The proteins in cooked food become denatured, and, as a result, the polypeptide bonds cannot be broken down into amino acids. These polypeptides are treated as foreign invaders and must be excreted through the kidneys. The kidneys don’t allow for easy transport of these substances, causing the distress that leads to kidney stones and eventually to kidney failure. Cooked grains cause fermentation in the body that produces gas, alcohol, and acetic acid; protoplasmic poisons that kill every cell with which they come into contact.
What in actual heck is this. Protoplasmic poisons. Seriously? I love how these people use all sorts of science-y words to try and convince you that the BS they’re spouting is legit. Do not be fooled.
Sure, the byproduct of protein metabolism is ammonia, which certainly is toxic. But this is why we have livers to effectively detoxify it. And in healthy people, uric acid is excreted in the urine. See how smart your body is? It takes care of all those nasty ‘toxins’ all by itself! Yay for evolution!
While it’s true that proteins in cooked – and raw – foods are denatured, this is a normal process. It’s supposed to happen. Proteins are eventually cleaved into individual amino acids by a process called proteolysis. There are no amino acid chains whipping around your body, killing your kidneys.
It’s how digestion works…because science!
Telling people that cooked meat causes kidney failure and that cooked grains turn into ‘protoplasmic poisons’ – gas, alcohol (hmmm), and acetic acid – aka vinegar FYI – is not based in science, and is just disgraceful idiocy.
Who are these people, anyhow? AHH! I’m getting pissed just writing this!
And by the way – meat doesn’t sit and ‘putrefy’ in your colon for weeks. Nothing does. Even chewing gum passes right through us just like everything else we eat. By the time food gets to our colons, it’s already broken down…into poo.
Raw Foods Also Help Alkalize The Body And Reduce Acidity.
The acid/alkaline concept is not scientifically sound at all, and I can’t believe this myth still persists. Nothing we eat affects the pH of our blood, period. Read more about it here.
Cooking Food Leaves It Nutritionally Worthless.
Nope. While cooking food might slightly degrade some nutrients as I outlined above, it makes others more bioavailable to our bodies. A healthy diet contains a variety of foods that are minimally processed and that contribute a mix of nutrients to our bodies, from cooked and raw foods.
Processing raw fruits and vegetables (ie making them into a smoothie or cooking them), in case you’re wondering, does not significantly affect their fiber content.
I’m not advocating for ultra-processed food, but many foods are actually enhanced by cooking as well as made a lot safer.
Eggs, dairy foods, and some forms of meat (ie ground) are much safer after cooking.
Vegetables can be eaten raw, but if cooking makes them more palatable, then any nutrient loss (which is fairly negligible anyhow) pales in comparison to people actually eating their vegetables. Making people feel like they’re wasting their health and their time if they actually cook their food is ridiculous. Perfectly healthy people have been cooking and enjoying their food for centuries. Don’t be silly, please.
You do you. If you want to eat a raw food diet, please at least supplement with vitamin B12 and iron.
Watch your intake of calories and protein, because it’s easy to fall short of both on this diet. If you’re losing large amounts of weight rapidly, please start eating other foods to add some macronutrients to your diet.
A better option, if you want to eat raw food, is to incorporate some raw food into your diet, but not give up cooked foods altogether.
The claims that the raw food diet is based on are patently false. Do what you want, but please do not follow this diet because of its faulty science.
In my opinion, living your life with such a limited food repertoire is actually not healthy, physically or emotionally. You’re going to be missing out on a hell of a lot of events and enjoyable meals with friends if you can’t eat anything besides raw food. You’re also going to be hard-pressed to get enough calories and protein, and if you are a believer in the above claims that I’ve (hopefully) debunked, you’re also not doing your (credible) research. Not okay.