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Raw Food Diets Pros and Cons

If the abundance of raw food cookbooks, health books, websites, innovative food processing devices and even raw food restaurants is any sort of indicator, then it appears the raw food diet has established itself firmly in the realm of alternative diets. It looks like almost everyone knows someone who follows a raw food diet and that someone has never felt healthier and looked better in their life. You do not have to browse the web for too long to find sensational health claims associated with the raw food diet such as fast weight loss, boundless energy, greater resilience to stress and a long and disease-free life on top of all that. So, is the raw food diet a real deal?

Raw food diets are uncooked vegan diets made up of at least 50% of raw food and up to 100%. They are largely based on raw fruits and berries, vegetables, seeds, nuts, sprouted grains/seeds and roots. So what happens to people who follow a raw food diet? We should make it clear first that the numerous claims regarding the health benefits of raw food diets are based on water, with no real evidence to support them. The only exception is weight loss, for which a raw food diet seems to work. Evidence is showing that a raw food diet is associated with a high loss of body weight, leading to abnormally low body weight (body mass index below 18.5) in a substantial proportion of those following such a diet. As a matter of fact, 30% of women under 45 years of age following raw food diet experienced partial to complete amenorrhea, with those eating the most raw food (above 90%) obviously being affected the most.

Although the findings from some recent studies indicate that following a raw food diet might provide benefits for improving fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, the evidence is rather scant overall. This has to be weighed against the downsides resulting from a restrictive vegan diet such as a lower vitamin B12 status and, therefore, increased homocysteine levels, deficiencies of the health-promoting long chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, along with concerns over low bone density and dental erosion due to consuming excessive amounts of fruits.

As it is common with most other alternative diets, there is a sophisticated belief system built around to justify raw food diets, which may sound extremely convincing to the untrained ear. Let us have a closer look at some of their arguments:

Belief: Humans are designed to live on raw food because human kind’s original diet consisted of raw foods.

Counter: Cooking is essential for humans as the adoption of cooking led to a significant increase in energy availability and had major evolutionary significance for humans.

Belief: Raw foods are rich in enzymes and once released by chewing food, they support digestion and promote good health. Cooking food destroys this valuable enzyme content.

Counter: Food enzymes are proteins and many of them are denatured by stomach acid and digestive enzymes and, therefore, are becoming non-functional.

Belief: Raw food has a ‘life force’ or ‘vital energy’ that benefits us when we eat it.

Counter: This cannot be measured or quantified in any scientific way.

Belief: Cooking destroys all nutrients.

Counter: Some nutrients are even more bio-available from cooked foods (e.g. carotenoids, lycopene, etc.).

For those who have seen their fair share of alternative diets come and go, it is not difficult to recognise some classic symbols of faddism in raw food diets such as promises of rapid weight loss, rigid and restrictive food choices, distinct elements of ritual and sacrifice, promoting the quasi-magical properties of raw foods, all topped off with a heavy dose of pseudo-science. That is reason enough to get the alarm bells ringing. Sure, eat salad and eat plenty of it. Eat fruits, berries, nuts and seeds. They are all good. But forget the complicated rules, austere restrictions and unscientific basis of raw food diets, which are yet another example of nutritional nonsense.