Raw Food Diet – the pros & cons
I mentioned in a previous blog that I was going to do a review about the latest fad diet, Raw Food. I say fad diet because like many other diets I have seen over my 15 years as a naturopath, the Raw Food Diet will have a boom in popularity followed by a slump with only the “true-believers” continuing on. Do I sound cynical already? Well I don’t mean to – I am writing this article primarily to stimulate comment. But first, just a little bit of cynicism, a list of the fad diets I have lived through, either via my own experience or vicariously through students and patients over the years:
- The Pritikin Diet – eliminated all fats from the diet including good sources such as nuts & avocado. Can I just say that Pritikin himself had a severe essential fatty acid deficiency later in life and suffered depression as a result. Later
versions of this diet include good fats – thank goodness (fat tastes so delicious!)
- Anti-Candida Diet – do you remember when EVERYONE had candida, when every symptom of tiredness was due to an overgrowth of yeast in your body? So out the window went all foods that could feed this yeast overgrowth – all sugars, fruit, vinegar, yeast, bread, biscuits etc. Yes this is one I suffered through in the 90′s for many months only to come out the other side still tired (sleep may have helped) and with a dislike of fruit juice (I still hate it) and fruit (I only eat in limited amounts). Scarred? Yes I am!
- The Zone Diet – I didn’t try this one mainly because just reading the book made me tired and overwhelmed. It was so militant and my attitude to food is that, yes it should be healthy but also enjoyable. Nonetheless, I did learn some great tips from this diet one of which is the palm measurement for protein portions: eat only the size and thickness of the palm of your hand (chicken, tofu, fish or red meat) at any one sitting. This does exclude 500g T-bone steaks but that was no loss for me.
- High Protein Diets (including Atkins) – yes I did try this one as well including the chocolate coated peanut butter protein bars that looked so good and tasted sooooooo much like dried cardboard. I also had problems going to the toilet
for the entire 3 weeks of the diet (I know, too much information). The problem with this diet is that it is too open to interpretation e.g. a friend of mine interpreted a high protein diet as follows: breakfast – scrambled cheesy eggs, lunch – 2 x lamb chops, dinner – cheese platter….and so on. With such a lack of anything resembling a vegetable, I am not surprised it didn’t work for him. While this diet may be useful for short term weight loss, it may not be so good for bowel health in the long term.
- Sally Fallon’s Whole Food Diet – I actually LOVED this one. It is based on eating a wide variety of whole (ie food that hasn’t been processed) and fermented foods. It also included butter (organic & unsalted but still butter) – in moderation of course! The whole food trend is growing along with Slow Food and so I don’t think we have seen the last of this type of diet. This trend is certainly aligned with my way of thinking so I will state my bias up-front!
And so this leads me to the dietary fad of the 2010′s – Raw Food. Firstly I want to say that there are many positive aspects about this diet. For a start, the diet is based on fruit, vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, seaweed, and dried fruit – foods that most Australian’s don’t eat enough of and certainly not over 75% of the diet as advocated by raw foodies. If you ate 2 serves of fruit and 5 of vegetables yesterday, which is considered the minimum daily intake, I bet you feel fabulous today. However, most of us didn’t. Raw Foodies also believe that heating above 116 degrees F. destroys the naturally occurring enzymes that assist with digestion and absorption of nutrients. In addition that cooking food can reduce certain vitamins such as vitamin C and B group.
The raw food diet is highly alkaline and very cleansing and so the health benefits can be extensive and include weight loss, detoxification and bowel cleansing. While this all sounds good, and don’t get me wrong, I think most of us could do with a good clean out, in the long term a raw food diet is not a good choice for all.
I see the biggest issue with a primarily raw food diet is the issue of absorption. Many nutrients need to be cooked to be absorbed effectively. One example is lycopene from tomatoes which is released when in the presence of oil and heat. More importantly is the strength or effectiveness of most people’s digestive systems. This varies from person to person however, many people do not have the necessary digestive enzymes to break down the nutrients in raw food.
To illustrate this point, if you imagine the gut is like a small campfire, burning (processing) firewood easily and generating heat as a result. If you pour petrol on the fire, it will turn into a raging inferno (petrol in food terms equates to
excessive consumption of foods such as alcohol, coffee, fats and hot, spices). If you feed the fire leaves, it will burn quickly and then go out (leaves = processed, sugary foods which are full of energy but empty in nutrition). If you put green wood on the fire it will also eventually dampen down and die out (green leaves = cold foods such as those straight from the fridge, cold drinks, too many raw foods.). The gut is rich with capillaries that bring a supply of warm blood to the stomach so it can produce digestive enzymes. Too many cold and raw foods will constrict the blood supply and reduce the body’s own supply of digestive enzymes. And no matter how raw the food is, the enzymes supplied will never match the body’s own ability to produce its own enzymes.
So for those who have weak or poor digestion in any way (loose stools, IBS, bloating, indigestion etc), a raw food diet may be actually harder on the digestion that fresh, warm, cooked foods. You can consume the same types of foods that the raw food diet focuses on, veges, nuts, seeds etc but prepare them differently. Have a veg stir-fry, soups, stews, steamed veg or fresh fruit & veg juice instead. Warm foods are particularly important in Winter when our body is using a lot of energy to stay warm. Eating a raw salad mid-Winter means our body has to warm up the food to digest it properly as well as keeping our body warm. Summer is definitely the season for more raw foods and indeed the thought of eating hot vege soup on a hot day is not appealing.
Genetics play a role in how we digest and process food as well. If you come from a culture where cooked foods is the norm then it may be a shock to the system to suddenly change over to a raw food diet. Our body’s adapt to the food we eat and the way it is cooked so in this case, gradual inclusion of more raw foods is a good way to proceed.
Over time, a strict raw food diet may also lead to nutritional deficiencies such as protein, calcium, iron, B12 and zinc. These nutrients are commonly found in animal products and can be hard for the body to process from vegetable sources. While not impossible impossible to maintain good levels of these nutrients by any means it does require planning and deliberate inclusion of raw food sources that contain these nutrients.
My philosophy about food is one of moderation: good quality food, a majority whole foods – both raw & cooked, enjoyment of that food and the occasional treat. Maybe why I think the raw food diet will be another fad is that it is at the extreme end of the dietary spectrum. However, as with any diet, there will be some that absolutely thrive eating raw foods. I also stress that most people need to eat more fresh fruit & veg in general and if the raw food message is the way for this to occur then I for one will jump on the bandwagon. And I can’t stress enough how much people need to move away from processed, empty calorie foods, however, I suspect that like the other fad diets around, the raw food diet will have its day and I for one will stick to more moderate eating habits.
I would love to know what you think about raw food and if you have gone down this path, what your experience is.