Raw Food Diet – Religion or Good Science?

by Brian on March 7, 2011 in Paleo Diet

This is the final post of my What and Why to Eat for Optimal Health series that explores optimal eating habits and compares the pros and cons of different diets including vegan, vegetarian, raw food, and the paleo diet.

Seemingly equal parts diet and equal parts religion, raw is the most restrictive diet I explored. Basically anything uncooked and unprocessed is on the menu. While raw foodists are typically also vegans, a fringe few include raw fish and raw meats.

Depending on what school you follow, uncooked means exposed to temperatures less than 112-120 degrees Fahrenheit. The rationale being that cooking and processing food destroys its natural enzymes and causes you to eat dead food rather than live food.

Good information about raw foods with solid scientific backing is difficult to find. Most of the popular works on raw foodism are written by gurus that built their diets around philosophies (not always good ones) rather than actual science.

We have to wade through a lot of bad news about raw foodism and myths before we get to the gold nuggets, but it was while reading about raw food diets that I started to find information that filled in some of the gaps on a possibly viable animal-free diet.

Myths and Realities

Raw food diet claims are even wilder than many fad diets. They range from curing cancer to reversing tooth decay to literally being the magic bullet that will make all your wildest dreams come true. The books on raw food also sometimes get lost in spiritual digressions about your vibrations and attempts to use the Law of Attraction to manifest things (The Secret seems to form the base of many raw foodists spiritual lives).

Raw Foodists also claim their diet to be the true evolutionary diet, that animals don’t get sick because they eat raw, and that animals who eat raw don’t brush their teeth so we don’t need to either.

To put all of these myths to rest; raw food is not the cure to cancer, it won’t make all your dreams come true, there is wide documentation for animal disease in the wild, and please don’t stop brushing your teeth.

Is Detox for Real?

“Detox” is a word thrown around a lot by raw foodists. Sometimes as a detox diet similar to a fast, or sometimes as a detox period experienced as toxins leaving the body when making a dietary change.

At first glance this sounds reasonable, but the facts here are somewhat maligned. Fasting as a practice has been given the boot by modern medicine and even most traditional religions no longer practice it. Detox diets are more likely a placebo than a truly cleansing experience, if not an outright danger to your health.

One account I read of a vegan going raw wrote about his “detox,” but then when he started eating cooked foods again suddenly he was “detoxing” again. If one diet were nutritionally superior to the other, detoxing should only happen in one direction.

Detox when changing your diet is probably better described as “adaptation.” Good, bad, or indifferent your body adapts itself to digest what you eat frequently as best it can. If you make radical changes to your diet, your body goes through an adaptation period to the new foods. Calling it detoxification is not really accurate.

At worst case, raw foodists say “it’s just detox” at any sign of catching a cold or developing a health problem. Take care of yourself, don’t write off the symptoms of ill health as “just detox.”

Liver and kidney cleanses are also often recommended using herbs such as Chanca Piedra. So far WebMD says they are all bunk. The best advice I have found on clearing out the liver and kidneys so far is simply to drink lots of water and avoid sugary sodas.

The jury is still out on whether or not cooking food is as harmful as raw food purists claim. It’s more likely true that some foods are healthier cooked and some foods are healthier uncooked. However, an interesting overlap between raw foodism and the Paleo Diet is that they exclude a lot of the same foods–dairy, grains, and soy based products–because they can’t be eaten raw.

Answers to the No-Meat (and No Soy, Egg, Legume, or Dairy) Protein Problem

Finally, answers to the non-animal protein problem. As you recall the problem with typical vegetarian and vegan diets is that they relied heavily on soy-based products like tofu and legumes for their proteins. Both of which were tossed out by the Paleo Diet because of their anti-nutrients and are also tossed out or miminized on the raw diet.

The king of non-animal based protein is the hemp seed (technically a nut). Depending on your product it may contain a whopping 10-12 grams of protein per serving (compared to 2 grams of protein in most vegetables). Hemp seed is great blended into smoothies or ground and put on salads.

Other easy to find protein options under the raw food diet are nuts (especially almonds) and avocados. Though these contain less protein per serving, and contain unfavorable Omega-3 to Omega-6 fat ratios.

Omega-3’s Explained

Contrary to popular belief, flax seed is not a particularly good  source of Omega-3s to right this imbalance. The type of Omega-3 in flax seed is alpha-Linoleic acid (ALA). In order for this to be useful to the body it has to be converted into EPA and DHA. ALA conversion happens at woefully low levels–less than 10% if at all according to most studies.

The best source of Omega-3s is fish oils. Though it turns out that fish don’t actually generate these fatty acids themselves. Smaller fish eat Omega-3 rich algae. Larger fish eat the smaller fish until the Omega-3s are concentrated in top predator fish. Then humans eat these fish reinforcing the food chain and circle of life.

While not strictly “raw” per se, there is good news for vegans/vegetarians on the Omega-3 front. A number of manufacturers have started making preformed DHA and EPA Omega-3 rich supplements based on algae.

High Fruit vs. High Fat Approches to Getting Enough Calories

The second major challenge of a raw vegan diet is simply getting enough calories. The majority of your remaining calories will essentially either come from fat from nuts or sugar from fruits. Vegetables alone are too low calorie to meet your needs.

This may seem a bit odd as we are typically taught that fat and sugar are bad, but there is actually no other place for the calories to come from other than protein. Fats and sugars are not all created equal, however. Eating nuts, seeds, and fruits can give the right fats and sugars.

The generally preferred method is to fill most of your remaining calories with fruits rathern than with fatty nuts. High fat diets, even good fats, bog down your system and can cause health problems. As we saw earlier, raw vegans also have to pay particular attention to their Omega-6 to Omega-3 fat balance.

Just make sure to keep veggie consumption a regular part of your diet to counteract the acidity of sweet fruits. People who go pure fruitarian often quickly run into cavities and tooth decay.

Potential Vitamin B12 Deficiency and Vitamin A Overdose

While researching raw food diets I also discovered two other potential nutrition problems–Vitamin B12 deficiency and Vitamin A overdose.

Vitamin B12 is generated by bacteria and usually makes its way into our diets through meat and vitamin enriched foods, neither of which are in a raw diet. Bacterial sources of Vitamin B12 are not absorbable by humans and there are no known plant sources. Our own guts do produce and recycle some Vitamin B12.

It’s not really clear how much Vitamin B12 we need to consume from food beyond what our guts generate or even if we need to consume it all. If not eating meat, the safe road is to take a Vitamin B Complex supplement once in a while.

Most vitamins taken to excess are simply peed out without any harm. However, Vitamin A (known to most in the form of beta carotein) overdose can cause diseases including cancer or even death.

When I first began researching superfoods such as Spirulina I was alarmed to discover they often contain over 100% of the RDA for Vitamin A in one serving. Then I took a look at more common foods like spinach and kale and discovered they often contain over 100% of the RDA for Vitamin A as well.

After three raw vegan meals a day plus super foods you could be eating 3-5x the RDA of Vitamin A! Needless to say this was cause for concern.

I looked into the matter further and it turns out that preformed Vitamin A (aka retinol) consumed through animal livers and Vitamin A supplements are usually the cause of Vitamin A toxicity. Explorers up north have found this out the hard way by dying shortly after eating seal and polar bear livers.

Vegetable sources of Vitamin A (carotenoids) are selectively converted into the active version of Vitamin A by our bodies. Fortunately our body is smart and appears to regulate the amount of beta carotein it converts into Vitamin A so as not to kill itself.

Basically all you need to remember is don’t over eat liver (which you wouldn’t as a raw foodist anyway) and avoid Vitamin A supplements as you’ll be getting plenty through your diet without them.

Go Raw if You Must, but Proceed with Caution

A properly executed raw food diet as I have described is the most nutritionally and scientifically sound alternative I have found to a diet with meat such as the Paleo Diet. Though if your main concern is just being animal food free, you probably wouldn’t hurt anything by just being vegan and eating some cooked vegetable dishes. There’s no merit badge for being 100% raw.

Unfortunately, I must still conclude that if animal based foods are a concern for you, ultimately you have to make a choice between optimal health and personal ethics. The food chain processes and brings nutrients to us in a way that is simply not possible by directly consuming 100% plant based foods.

I strongly advise you to research raw diet claims carefully, and don’t rely on raw food gurus to provide you scientifically accurate information.

The same goes for any nutrition claims made by other popular writers or health gurus. As we discovered from The China Study, even Cornell University credentials are not always what they are cracked up to be.

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