The raw food diet is a lifestyle diet where at least 75% of all food consumed is eaten raw and never commercially processed or cooked.
Raw food has its origins in prehistory. As humans gradually developed tools and learned to control fire, a raw food diet gave way to a diet of cooked food. Modern interest in a raw food diet began in the 1930s. Ann Wigmore (1909–1994) was an early pioneer in using raw or “living” foods to detoxify the body. Herbert Shelton (1895–1985) was another early advocate of the health benefits of raw foods.
Shelton founded a school and clinic in Texas that promoted the practice of Natural Hygiene. Natural Hygiene is an offshoot of naturopathic or alternative medicine. Shelton believed that conventional medicines were poison, that fasting would cleanse the body, and that only one type of food should be eaten at each meal. Shelton's philosophy has influenced both the raw food movement and Harvey Diamond, founder of the Fit for Life diet.
Since the 1980s, several raw food diets have been promoted as cures for cancer. However, although the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute support a diet high in vegetables, including raw vegetables, they do not support a raw food diet as prevention or a cure for cancer. Raw food began to develop a more high-profile following in the 1990s, as celebrities such as Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson embraced a raw food diet, and in the 2000s raw food restaurants and cafes began showing up in some trendy urban areas, especially in Northern California.
The raw food diet is more of a philosophy and lifestyle choice than a conventional weight-loss diet. A raw food diet is one in which 75% or more of the food a person eats is uncooked. Generally, raw foodists believe that the closer a person can come to eating a diet that is 100% raw, the better that person's health will be.
Raw food, as defined by many raw foodists, is unprocessed food whose temperature has never reached above 116°F (47°C). Some raw foodists make a distinction between “raw” and “living” foods. Raw foods, they define as uncooked foods, while living foods are uncooked foods that contain more enzymes because they have been “activated.” As an example, an unsprouted almond would be considered raw, but an almond soaked in water that has begun to sprout would be considered living. For discussion here, raw and living are used interchangeably to mean food that has not been processed or heated above 116°F (47°C).
Raw foodists can be vegans and eat no animal products; vegetarians, who eat dairy products and eggs but no meat; or omnivores who eat both vegetables and meat, so long as their food is raw. The majority tend to be vegetarians or vegans who prefer to eat uncooked, unheated, unprocessed organic food. Some go so far as to advocate that the raw foodist grow his or her food instead of purchasing it from commercial growers.
Some foods that are mainstays of the raw food diet include:
Although a raw diet eliminates the time it takes to cook food, food preparation can be quite time consuming. Meal planning is essential to get a proper balance of vitamins and minerals from this limited diet. Raw foodists may need to take dietary supplements to meet their nutritional needs. In addition, many raw foods need to be soaked, ground, chopped, mixed, or handled in other ways before being eaten. Raw food preparation often requires a blender, food processor, juicer, and food dehydrator whose temperature does not exceed 116°F (47°C).
Although weight loss is not a goal of a raw food diet, weight loss inevitably occurs because this diet is very low in fats, protein, and calories. More importantly, raw food tends to be part of a lifestyle choice that involves a desire for purity, rejection of conventional medicine, and an effort to be closer to nature.
Raw foodists believe that raw food contains enzymes that help digestion. In their views, cooking inactivates or kills (denatures) these enzymes, making it harder for the body to digest cooked food. Some raw foodists go so far as to claim that cooked foods are toxins. Raw foodists also believe that living food contains bacteria and microorganisms that are beneficial to digestion and that raw foods contain more nutrients than cooked foods.
Raw foodists claim that the raw food diet offers the following benefits:
For the most part, these benefits are what followers of the raw food diet report rather than benefits proven by research that would be accepted by nutritionists and practitioners of conventional medicine.
Some foods are unsafe to be eaten raw.
It is generally recommended that traditional eaters who wish to practice a raw food diet move gradually toward a higher percentage of raw food in their diet rather than making a sudden change. Initially, people switching to a raw food diet may experience what raw foodists called detoxifying symptoms— headaches, nausea, cravings, and depression.
This interest in correct eating only becomes an eating disorder when the obsession interferes with relationships and daily activities. For example, a person with orthorexia may be unwilling to eat at restaurants or friends' homes because the food is “impure” or improperly prepared. The limitations they put on what they will eat can cause serious vitamin and mineral imbalances. People with orthorexia can be judgmental about what other people eat to the point where it interferes with personal relationships. They may justify their fixation by claiming that their way of eating is healthy. Some experts believe orthorexia may be a variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
In addition to potential psychological harm, without rigorous meal planning, raw foodists are at high risk of developing certain vitamin deficiencies, depending on whether they follow a vegan, vegetarian, or meat-eating raw food diet. Vegans are at highest risk. The most common deficiencies are of vitamin B12 and protein.
The public does not generally accept a diet of raw food. Many medical practitioners and registered dietitians also express skepticism about the ability of people on the raw food diet to get an adequate balance of vitamins, minerals, and protein to maintain long-term health. However, this diet undeniably reduces many of the risks (e.g., obesity, high cholesterol, high triglycerides) associated with the development of cardiovascular disease.
Other research shown that some nutrients, such as carotenoids in carrots and lycopene from tomatoes, are absorbed into the body much more easily from cooked foods than from raw foods. The enzyme theory of digestion promoted by some raw foodists is also not substantiated by any scholarly research, nor are claims that a raw food diet will prevent cancer.
See also Detoxification diets ; Veganism .
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Tish Davidson, AM