Ask long-term raw food enthusiasts to explain the benefits of their diet, and they will gush about increased energy, mental clarity, a leaner body, clearer skin and a lower risk of disease. Not to mention that eating foods that don’t come in packaging or require energy to cook is gentler on the environment. But what exactly is a raw food diet, and is it doable for everyone?
Like many prescriptive eating styles, there is a range of different raw food diets out there—everything from a fruit-only plan to one that incorporates raw eggs, unpasteurized dairy products and raw meats. However, the majority of raw foodists do not eat animal products, and their diets consist mainly of uncooked, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains—which have not been heated to more than 114 degrees Fahrenheit and have not been frozen.
“A food’s natural enzymes are killed at 114 degrees,” says Brigitte Mars, herbalist, raw food chef and author of Rawsome! (Basic Health Publications, 2004). “Heating food beyond that changes its chemical structure and robs it of its energy.”
Whether a raw food’s enzymes actually survive the journey from the stomach to the intestines is debatable, but Artturi Virtanen, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, did show that enzymes in uncooked vegetables are released in the mouth when chewed. These enzymes then work with others produced by the body to maximize the digestive process. And many raw food devotees believe that since this natural process of digesting mainly raw, vegetarian food is easier on the body and produces fewer toxins than cooked food, it can stave off both aging and disease.
The Science of Raw
There is no guarantee that eating raw fruits and vegetables will keep you from getting wrinkles, but according to a 2009 article in the journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice, it can reduce the risk of oral, pharyngeal, laryngeal, esophageal and gastric cancers. Even a few helpings a month of raw cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale deliver enough cancer-fighting isothiocyanates to significantly lower the risk of bladder cancer, according to a 2008 article in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. And a 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that a strict raw food diet significantly lowers cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
There’s no denying that a raw food regimen has a lot of checks in the “healthy” column: It’s rich in fiber and antioxidants, low in sugar and usually devoid of alcohol and caffeine. But for a raw food diet to be completely healthy, it needs to be well thought-out—blueberry and date smoothies morning, noon and night won’t provide all the necessary vitamins and minerals. In fact, getting adequate amounts of certain nutrients that generally come from animal products, such as vitamin B12, iron and calcium, can be a challenge. Taking supplements can help, as can loading up on vegetables rich in these nutrients.
“Leafy greens should be the foundation of the diet,” says Mars, whose own diet is currently about 85 percent raw. “There was a time when I was eating over 95 percent raw, but I want to be able travel and eat at people’s houses and not feel so restricted.”
The key to success in any eating plan—raw food diet included—is to not restrict yourself so much that you feel frustrated and deprived. Simply adding more raw fruits and vegetables into your daily meals is a great way to ease into a raw food lifestyle. Play around with different techniques such as juicing, sprouting and dehydrating and see what works for you and your lifestyle. “There is no one way to do this; people should find what works for them,” says Mars.