Terry is a nationally registered dietetic technician with a degree in dietetics from Pennsylvania State University. She has written numerous articles, blogs and e-books on health and food-related topics.
The principles of a healthy raw food diet are based upon consuming a diet high in nutrient-dense, health-supporting foods, i.e., fresh fruits and vegetables, germinated nuts and seeds, sprouts, and superfoods. Superfoods contain an abundance of phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and may confer positive health benefits upon the raw foodist. Raw foods can be eaten without any preparation (other than washing) in their completely natural state or can be fermented, juiced, blended, dehydrated, or frozen (usually desserts). The enzyme theory behind the raw food diet proposes that cooking foods at a temperature that reaches or exceeds 118 degrees destroys the enzymes needed for proper digestion as well as certain nutrients.
The most popular account of the history of the raw food diet often credits Minister Sylvester Graham (inventor of the graham cracker) with introducing the diet; however, this is debatable. While Graham did promote eating simple fresh foods (uncooked), his diet also allowed certain grains and animal products; foods not accepted as part of a vegan raw food diet. Natural hygiene proponent Dr. Herbert Shelton is probably a better choice. Credited with advocating a whole body approach to health and not just diet, Dr. Shelton eventually, after going through some dietary transitions, promoted a diet consisting of all raw vegan foods in the early to mid-1900’s.
Once the raw foodist has familiarized themselves with the foods which make up the diet it’s a fairly easy one to follow. There is a large volume of companies that cater to raw foodists and take the preparation time out of the equation with ready to consume foods. For those who prefer a more hands-on approach there are a multitude of “uncookbooks” and recipes available on the raw food lifestyle.
Cost can be prohibitive. Buying packaged raw foods is costly as is purchasing the foundations of the diet. Raw nuts and seeds are not inexpensive and either are superfoods. Additional costs may include small kitchen equipment, e.g., a blender, juicer, and/or dehydrator.
The diet can be time-consuming if all foods are prepared from scratch. Time can be saved by including packaged foods in the plan.
The safety of a vegan raw food diet has been questioned primarily because of the need to supplement with B12 and the diet’s protein content. This is misguided. Everyone can benefit from B12 supplementation due to the drastic changes in our food production system, i.e., improved sanitation and factory farming. Protein needs are not an issue on this diet. It’s impossible to be protein deficient when eating the variety of foods that are a part of this lifestyle.
The vegan raw food diet definitely has as many opponents as it does proponents. Many nutrition professionals find the diet deficient while others view it as a positive approach to a healthy lifestyle. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics supports a healthy vegan diet; however, does not specifically address a raw vegan diet in its position paper on vegetarianism.
Benefits: A vegan raw food diet contains only nutrient-dense, health supporting foods. High in the micronutrients needed to be healthy as well as a good source of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats, these foods can be prepared in such a way that they are very satisfying and extremely delicious. The diet preserves specific nutrients which are lost through aggressive cooking methods.
Downsides: A diet consisting purely of raw foods just may not appeal to many individuals. There are also some concerns when it comes to digesting raw plants as well as the bioavailability of some nutrients. The digestive tract is incapable of breaking down the cellulose in raw plants and certain nutrients require higher temperatures in order to make them available to the body. The enzyme theory behind a raw food diet is highly debated. A healthy body provides the proper amount of enzymes needed for efficient digestion; however, over time, due to compromised health, the ability to generate these enzymes may be limited and another source may be needed. Can raw plants provide these enzymes? It depends who you ask. The jury is still out. While superfoods in general are healthy, attributing “super” benefits to one particular food is not advisable as health stems from eating a wide variety of health-supporting foods.
The Bottom Line: The vegan raw food diet has its shortcomings in terms of appeal and acceptance; however, that doesn’t take away from its value as a healthy diet. The foods that make up much of the diet are highly beneficial and provide many of the nutrients needed in a healthy lifestyle. A diet high in raw foods is desirable, but can be improved upon by incorporating a small amount of conservatively cooked foods too. Caution should be taken against consuming too many high-fat foods in the form of nuts and seeds and depending upon superfoods for the bulk of nutrient needs.