A raw food diet may seem like an extreme way of eating, but many people believe it’s better for your health than eating processed or cooked foods. The general rule is that for food to be truly “raw”, it must not be heated above 104–118 °F (40–48 °C).
The theory behind the raw food diet is that during processing, food loses valuable nutrients, so by eating raw food, we can get the most out of it. However, while some vitamins can be leached out when heated in water or fat, alternative cooking methods can help reduce this loss of nutrients, so is it really necessary to eat completely raw meals?
Here we explore what foods you can eat on a raw food diet and whether it’s actually good for your health. We also spoke to some experts to get their opinion on the raw food diet and whether the raw food diet is safe for everyone.
On any diet, it is important to stay hydrated. Be sure to check out our roundup of the best water bottles to drink throughout the day.
What is a raw food diet?
The raw food diet, which is often combined with veganism, focuses on foods that have not been cooked. You can eat raw meat, dairy, fish, and eggs as part of a raw food diet, but caution is advised as there is a risk of food poisoning when eating raw animal products. Refined and highly processed foods are not recommended for a raw diet, although dried or dehydrated foods are sometimes acceptable as long as they do not exceed 104–118°F (40–48°C) during the drying process.
Dr. Deborah Lee Dr. Fox Online Pharmacy (will open in a new tab), tells LiveScience: “Raw eating was first introduced back in the 1800s, when nutritionist Oskar Bircher-Benner reported that eating raw apples cured his jaundice. He then opened a clinic to teach the importance of eating raw foods. A key tenet of the raw food diet is to only eat foods that have not been cooked above 104-118°F (40-48°C). Food should be as natural as possible, so it should not be cleaned, canned, processed, pasteurized, or treated with pesticides.”
Research in International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Sciences (will open in a new tab) found that cooking methods can change the amount of nutrients lost during processing. This study also showed that heating is not the only way to potentially change the nutritional quality of food, and that cutting, washing, and freezing also affect how food retains vitamins. Because the raw food diet allows food to be mixed and frozen, some degree of degradation during processing seems to be acceptable.
In addition, some processing actually increases the nutritional value of certain foods, according to a study in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (will open in a new tab). This study showed that fruits and vegetables can retain their antioxidant properties despite losing some vitamin C from cooking, and can actually increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients.
Another aspect of the raw food diet is the belief that digestive enzymes found naturally in certain foods, such as avocados or pineapple, make food healthier and easier to digest, as long as it is not destroyed during the cooking process. Cooking denatures these enzymes, changing their shape so they cannot function. However, according to a study in Physiological Reviews (will open in a new tab)that do the job of extracting nutrients from our food.
What can you eat on a raw food diet?
- raw fruits
- Raw vegetables
- Raw nuts and seeds
- nut milk
- Raw nut oils
- Sprouted/soaked beans and grains
- Dried fruits and meat
- Cold pressed olive and coconut oils
- Fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut
Food to avoid
- Cooked fruits, vegetables, meats and grains
- Refined sugar and flour
- Coffee and tea
- Roasted nuts and seeds
- Refined oil
- Pasteurized juices and milk card
Abi Rogers, nutritionist Gut Co (will open in a new tab), mentions that a raw food diet may offer some health benefits. “Eating right on a raw food diet can have health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity,” she says. “While you are at risk of being deficient in some nutrients, you are likely to have many more of some nutrients due to eating more fruits and vegetables. Research has shown that vegan diets, including raw ones, are often higher in fiber, antioxidants, and beneficial plant compounds that have a big impact on the gut.”
Review in Nutrients (will open in a new tab) The journal pointed out that eating ultra-processed foods may be associated with at least one or more negative health outcomes, including obesity, cardio-metabolic risks, cancer, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression. Since the raw food diet does not encourage any but minimal processing, eating raw foods can be beneficial to your health.
High in fiber
Alimentary fiber essential for good digestion and gut health, and a raw food diet provides this nutrient in abundance. Cooking does not reduce the amount of fiber in foods, so it’s not the low-temperature component of the raw food diet that contributes to the high fiber content, but the amount of fruits and vegetables you are encouraged to eat.
Is a raw food diet safe?
Rogers tells us that a raw food diet is not good for children. “It is not recommended that children participate in a raw food diet. Our brains require a lot of energy to grow and develop, so it is suggested that restricting calories and nutrient diversity can have a negative impact on children’s development. It’s extremely important to do research at any age if you want to go raw to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to survive and thrive.”
Rogers also mentions that there are foods that should not be eaten raw. “It is important to only eat foods that are safe to eat raw. For example, eating raw chicken is not considered safe as it can be contaminated with bacteria that are harmful to humans until it is cooked,” she says. “Potatoes should not be eaten raw as they contain starch which, if left uncooked, can lead to digestive problems. Green potatoes can also contain the poisonous toxin solanine, which can cause headaches and nausea when consumed by humans.
Eggplants also contain solanine, she adds, and solanine can limit calcium absorption, causing a deficiency that is harmful to humans.
“Be careful with rhubarb; while the stem is safe and edible raw, the leaves can be poisonous, causing breathing difficulties, burning in the mouth and throat, and convulsions in some. Lima beans are unsafe to eat raw due to a compound called linamarin, which breaks down into cyanide. This only happens when the beans are raw, making them unsafe on a completely raw diet.”
Dr. Lee also tells us that a raw food diet can affect your well-being on more than just a physical level. “Eating a lot of organic foods is expensive,” she says. “It can also make it difficult to eat out and interfere with your social life.” She also mentions that it’s hard to get enough calories. “It can be difficult to consume enough calories. There is also a risk of protein deficiency and deficiency of important vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron and calcium. The diet is also relatively low in sodium.”
This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide medical advice.
What is a raw food diet and are there any risks or benefits associated with it? (will open in a new tab) Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2004