Why Eat Raw: Benefits of a raw food diet (and when not to go raw)

Why Eat Raw: Benefits of a raw food diet (and when not to go raw)

Eat Raw like a rabbit

Perhaps you’ve heard of the raw food diet and the raw food recipes that cater to it. I myself have sprinkled in the term raw here on this blog: just yesterday I posted my own raw vegan carrot cake cupcakes, an unbaked and unrefined version of the classic. And I temporarily put myself on a full raw vegan diet before I began treatment last year. So I decided to write a post that elaborates on the basics of a raw food diet.

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Raw foods are exactly as described – raw, unrefined and completely uncooked – and the raw foods diet is made up of just that: raw food only. Most of us are well aware that fruits and vegetables are healthy for us, and that we should probably eat salads on a fairly regular basis. And salads are generally comprised of raw veggies.

So as you might guess, a raw food diet takes this general wisdom and runs all the way home with it. You can expect to eat lots of fruit and loads of salads. Fortunately raw food cuisine has upped its game dramatically and is reaching new levels of sophistication, greatly expanding the appeal and options for raw foodies.

But what’s the real deal with the raw food diet – why do people go to this extreme? What do you actually eat on this diet? And is it actually healthy?

Why eat raw

The fundamental premise of a raw diet is that heating food destroys key nutrients and natural enzymes contained in the food. Enzymes boost digestion and fight chronic disease, so killing these enzymes through cooking diminishes the nutritional benefits of the food. Some raw foodists go so far as to claim that cooking makes food toxic.

Contrary to how it might sound at first glance, raw foodism is not just some passing fad diet. Rather, the raw food revolution is part of a shifting consciousness about lifestyle choices: eat more real foods in their natural state, and you’ll achieve real health, which means returning to our own natural state (of optimal health).

Our bodies are naturally suited to eating raw foods that are loaded with nutrients in an easy-to-digest package. So eating raw food promotes digestive health and supplies us with the nutrients many of us lack in our SAD Western diets (SAD actually stands for Standard American Diets…. aptly acronymed in my humble opinion because yes I find the state of our food system to be very sad indeed).

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What raw foodies eat

The raw diet is essentially comprised of unprocessed, uncooked, mostly organic food. There are two main camps in the raw food realm: raw vegans and, as I like to call them, raw generalists. Raw vegans stick to raw fruits and vegetables, and usually include nuts, seeds, and maybe sprouted grains. The raw generalists, on top of these foods, may also eat unpasteurized dairy, sea vegetables, and fermented foods, as well as raw eggs, meat and fish.

Either way, nothing pasteurized, homogenized or produced with synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, or additives are allowed, therefore eliminating any form of packaged or processed foods.

As for cooking and preparation, raw food may be warmed as long as the temperatures don’t exceed 118 degrees (some say 112), and the use of blenders, food processors, and even dehydrators feature prominently in raw recipes.

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The benefits of eating raw

Being primarily plant-based and extremely restrictive as to food choice, a raw food diet is low in calories and high in fiber which helps us feel full, so it is great for weight loss. The vast amount of fiber consumed on this diet will also aid tremendously in clearing out the digestive tract. Health experts estimate that roughly 60-80% of immunity is based in the gut, so any diet that promotes digestive health by extension promotes general health.

Furthermore, consuming so many fruits and vegetables will dramatically increase vitamin and mineral intake compared to the typical SAD Western diet for the vast majority of people. And nuts and seeds contain necessary minerals, healthy fats, and are an excellent source of plant-based protein.

As for enzyme and nutrient breakdown, it is true that many high-antioxidant foods are sensitive to cooking because at high temperatures, phytonutrients break down. When a food reaches its heat labile point, or the temperature at which nutrient depletion begins, its nutritional benefits begin to diminish.

Raw foods also neutralize acid and alkalize the body. When acidity levels in the body rise, diseases develop more easily because the state of acidosis lowers immunity. Many environmental factors can impact the alkalinity balance, but cooked foods create even more acidity.

In my own extensive research into nutritional healing for cancer, adopting a primarily raw plant-based diet was the most consistent, common theme. And when you begin to put the pieces of the puzzle together, this diet makes sense: it reduces inflammation and naturally eliminates all sources of refined sugars, and both sugar and inflammation are becoming widely recognized as key contributors to cancer growth specifically and poor health generally.

Below, in no particular order, are some of the health benefits that have been associated with and attributed to a raw diet:

  • improved digestion
  • increased dietary fiber intake
  • decreased inflammation
  • cancer prevention
  • improved heart health
  • liver function optimization
  • prevention of or reduced constipation
  • increased energy
  • clear skin
  • nutrient deficiency prevention
  • decreased antinutrients and carcinogens in the diet
  • healthy body weight maintenance

The risks and drawbacks of a completely raw vegan diet

At first glance, the raw diet might seem like the ‘perfect clean diet’ to achieve optimal health. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for most people to obtain the full spectrum of essential nutrients from following a raw food diet 100%, if only because it requires extremely careful monitoring. There is no doubt this is a difficult-to-follow, high-maintenance diet, and following it requires a lot of planning, preparation, and very careful research and guidance.

Furthermore, it’s not just what we eat that matters, but what the body actually absorbs that has a real, measurable impact on our baseline health and wellbeing. And the truth is that cooking actually increases the nutritional impact of certain foods by increasing their bioavailability, or the body’s ability to actually absorb the nutrients. This is the case for foods containing beta-carotene and lycopene, like squashes, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. Vegetables in the cruciferous family – think kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussel sprouts, mustard greens –  contain compounds that block proper thyroid function when consume in raw form, but these compounds are deactivated by cooking. There is also evidence that some foods like peppers and mushrooms actually become more nutrient-dense through heating.

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And then there’s the animal products. Many people simply do not do well on a completely vegan diet because it is too easy to become deficient in critical vitamins and minerals as well as protein. Most plant-based protein sources are incomplete, meaning they don’t supply all of the essential amino acids our bodies need from dietary sources because we do not produce them. And of course, for those who would consider including animal products on a raw diet, cooking kills off any bacteria and pathogens that may be present in certain foods like fish, eggs or meat.

Recovering from illness or from certain conditions that put the body into a weakened or sub-optimal state requires a nutrient-dense diet with the complete spectrum of amino acids, so following a strict vegan or vegetarian diet will likely make it more difficult to recover. While raw foods are a key component to optimal health, the healing process for any condition in the body must be closely monitored and must include sufficient amounts of the appropriate nutrients and building blocks. Anyone struggling from low energy, fatigue, infertility, depression, anxiety, being underweight, loss of muscle mass, or weak bones should seriously consider including in their diet some high-quality organic animal products such as grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs and chicken, wild-caught fish, and raw or fermented dairy, in addition to lots of fruits and vegetables.

There are also certain situations and conditions that require warm foods only to promote proper healing, as I learned when rebalancing my gut after treatment. It is also apparent that when it comes to health and food, we may not all be created equal; what works for one person does not necessarily work for the next. People with certain gut types, with sensitive digestive systems, or who lack certain enzymes or digestive capabilities would not do well on such a high fiber diet. Cooking can help pre-digest some of the fibers, thereby increasing the availability of the nutrients for proper absorption.

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The Upshot

I am a huge proponent of eating raw food as much as possible, and think the vast majority of us should adopt more raw, plant-based eating habits when suitable. When I ate fully raw for about six weeks before I began treatment, I literally felt lighter and more energetic than I had in quite a while. I also lost weight with little effort. This, of course, is a double-edged sword – not everyone needs to lose weight, and this is where the qualifiers start to come in.

Eating 100% raw can be an effective way to lose weight, cleanse the body, and reset the system in the short term. However, I would not advise anyone to continue this stringent diet for the long-term. This is a great example of when to apply that notorious 80-20 rule: aiming to eat roughly 80% raw will help strike the right balance between obtaining the nutritional and health benefits of eating raw while balancing out with foods that help fill in the gaps.

This is also not an optimal diet for anyone undergoing a healing regimen or for anyone with digestive sensitivities. I would not recommend a 100% raw vegan diet for most people, and anyone considering going raw or looking to shift their diet in a substantial way should seek guidance.

Where to start

The key to healthy living lies in the balance. Consuming plenty of raw foods on a regular basis is likely going to help you feel your best. It’s not always easy to transition your diet, especially if you don’t eat much raw food now or don’t think you like raw fruits and vegetables, but you can start slowly.

Raw vegetables and leafy greens, avocados, citrus fruits, seeds like sunflower and pumpkin, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, extra virgin olive and coconut oils, and even raw yogurt are all great foods to regularly include in your diet. Lightly cooking food at temperatures below about 100 degrees – by steaming, using slow cookers, juicing, blending, sprouting – expands your options to include foods you should generally lightly cook (like squash and cruciferous vegetables).

You should also eliminate sugars and refined grains, as well as all processed and packaged foods. Replace these foods with natural whole foods, soaked and sprouted products like Ezekiel bread and sprouted beans, and use fruits and spices to add sweetness and flavor. By eating this way, you’ll easily consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, and you’ll still feed satisfied.

If you’re ready to take your health to the next level, head over to my site to learn more about what steps you can take to reclaim your health and vitality and figure out what diet is best for you. And while you’re there, grab my free 3-day cleanse guide, which includes all the delicious, raw-friendly, veg-heavy recipes featured in this article!

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