Like folk stories of old, the raw food diet has been making the rounds for more than 100 years and continues to be buzzworthy today.
For followers, the diet is a lifestyle, not just a way of eating. They believe consuming mostly raw foods is a pathway to optimal health.
But health experts are raising red flags. They caution that sticking to a diet of raw foods could negatively impact your long-term well-being.
Let’s do a deep dive into the raw food diet basics, including its advantages, disadvantages, and more.
The raw food diet (aka raw foodism) consists of eating only or mostly raw and unprocessed foods. There’s some flexibility though. In a raw food diet, 70 percent or more of the food you eat is raw.
There’s some debate, but generally a food that’s never been heated above 104°F (40°C) to 118°F (48°C) is considered raw. For this diet, foods should also be unrefined, unpasteurized, and pesticide-free.
Several preparation methods jive well with the raw food diet. Juicing, (raw) souping, blending, dehydrating, soaking, and sprouting are commonly used techniques. Basically anything that doesn’t require heating the food.
Raw food diet staples include whole food, plant based fare. Unsurprisingly, raw foodies are often also vegetarian or vegan. So it makes sense that fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds dominate the raw grocery list. Soaked or sprouted grains and legumes can also make the cut.
Ultimately, you do you, some peeps include raw eggs, dairy, fish, and meat in their diets.
Check out this extensive list of raw-approved yumminess
- fresh, juiced, (raw) souped, or dehydrated raw fruit
- fresh, juiced, (raw) souped, or dehydrated raw vegetables
- raw and sprouted or soaked grains
- raw and sprouted or soaked legumes
- raw nuts
- raw nut butters
- raw nut milks
- raw seeds
- cold-pressed vegetable, seed, and nut oils
- fermented, marinated, or pickled foods (make sure the label says it’s “raw” or “unpasteurized”)
- raw dairy (if desired)
- raw eggs (if desired)
- raw or dehydrated fish (if desired)
- raw or dehydrated meat (if desired)
It’s also helpful to know what’s a no-no on the raw diet:
- cooked foods
- roasted seeds and nuts, including their butters
- refined oils, sugars, and flour
- baked goods
- table salt
- coffee, tea, and alcohol
- pasteurized juices and dairy products
- other processed foods and snacks
Advocates for the raw diet are usually against taking supplements. They assert that your body gets all the nutrients it needs from the wholesome food that you’re enjoying.
A raw diet doesn’t need to be a raw deal! It can be chock-full of flavor, texture, and complexity.
Let this sample raw, vegan menu inspire you. Adjust it to fit your needs and tastes.
- Breakfast: green smoothie
- Snack: clementines and mixed nuts
- Lunch: rainbow Buddha bowl
- Snack: jicama sticks and pepitas
- Dinner: raw lasagna
- Breakfast: carrot cake bites
- Snack: carrots and “cheese”
- Lunch: raw squash soup
- Snack: banana and raw nut butter
- Dinner: raw veggie sushi and chopped veggies
- Breakfast: overnight oatmeal with fruit and nut milk
- Snack: chocolate sesame truffles
- Lunch: raw squash noodle pasta with pesto
- Snack: freshly squeezed juice and nuts
- Dinner: kale and mushroom salad
- Breakfast: lavender berry bowl
- Snack: raw sweet potato chips with sprouted lentil taco dip
- Lunch: salad with figs and nuts
- Snack: strawberries and almonds
- Dinner: raw tomato soup with marinated veggies
- Breakfast: green smoothie
- Snack: chocolate snack bar
- Lunch: Waldorf salad
- Snack: broccoli cheese balls
- Dinner: raw vegetable pizza
- Breakfast: soaked oats with berries
- Snack: veggie sticks and sprouted hummus
- Lunch: salad with figs and nuts
- Snack: dried apricots with raw sunflower seed butter
- Dinner: raw zucchini noodle pasta with tomato sauce and basil
- Breakfast: raw banana pancakes and fruit
- Snack: apple and raw almond butter
- Lunch: salad with avocado and fruit
- Snack: Buffalo cauli “popcorn”
- Dinner: stuffed portobello mushrooms
The answer is both. Research shows both cooked and raw foods are good for you, and nutritional value varies by food and preparation method.
Raw foodies believe the process of heating destroys the nutrients and natural enzymes found in food, thus preventing you from reaching peak dietary wellness.
Science doesn’t support this. Cooking decreases some nutrients, but increases others. Cooking also destroys harmful bacteria and other undesirable compounds.
Here are the deets:
It’s true that high heat can destroy some enzymes. But the acids in your belly can do the same thing. Think of them as your gut’s DIY juices, they’re responsible for digestion and energy production.
Cooking lowers some nutrients in foods, especially water-soluble ones like vitamin C and B vitamins. But, cooking gives other nutrients a boost. For instance, lycopene and beta-carotene are more easily absorbed by your body when heated first.
Bacteria and other undesirables
Cooking foods eliminates a lot of “bad for you” stuff you, like bacteria. Heating grains and legumes also reduces dangerous levels of mineral-absorbing lectins and phytic acid. More on this in a second.
Some raw foods aren’t safe to eat — like that day-old sushi buffet in the airport.
Food safety’s a bigger concern for raw diets that include raw, unpasteurized, or undercooked animal products.
Even if you’re sticking strictly to plant foods, though, you need to be careful. Raw fruits and veg have been known to carry harmful bacteria like E. coli. Always wash produce thoroughly before eating it.
Cooking destroys toxins, bacteria, and other germs that may be lurking in your food. (Buh-bye food poisoning!)
Use caution when chowing down on these common foods:
- Kidney beans: These beans — more than other varieties — are very toxic unless thoroughly cooked. Cooking also cuts phytic acid levels so the body can better absorb those legume nutrients.
- Sprouts: Bean, lentil, and seed sprouts can be a breeding ground for bacteria such as E. coli and Listeria. Cooking kills these nasties that cause food poisoning.
- Eggs: Raw eggs may have Salmonella, which can make you super sick. When you cook your eggs, you destroy these bacteria. Use pasteurized eggs in recipes that need raw or undercooked eggs.
- Seafood: Raw seafood can harbor dangerous bacteria and parasites. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that people avoid raw seafood.
- Dairy: Raw milk may contain Listeria, which can cause serious infections and sometimes pregnancy complications. Pasteurized milk is equally healthful, but without the risks.
So how does the raw food diet stack up nutritionally?
A raw diet packs in tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, which means vitamins, minerals, and fiber galore. It features nuts, seeds, and oils that provide plenty of healthy fats. On top of all this, fresh raw foods are more hydrating than their cooked counterparts.
Because raw foodism emphasizes unprocessed foods, it minimizes the amount of nonessentials in your diet. “Manufactured” food often contains ingredients linked to poor nutrition. (Think sugar, excess salt, those weird chemical additives you can’t even pronounce.)
If you’re into volumetrics, you’ll like that the raw food diet tends to be low in calories. All those fruits and veggies give a lot of slow-burning bang for the caloric buck. This means you may be able to eat a bigger quantity of food than on other diets.
Despite all that loveliness, your system can take a real hit from being on a raw diet.
The diet tends to be low cal, so eating enough each day to satisfy your caloric needs can be challenging. This is partly because plant foods have fewer calories to begin with, and partially because raw foods are less digestible, so it’s harder for your body to grab the calories that are available.
In fact, studies show that you get way fewer calories from some foods when they’re raw.
That digestibility issue also means you leave many of the raw foods’ nutrients and antioxidants on the table, so to speak. Cooking boosts the digestibility and nutrient-absorbability of many foods.
Lastly, raw food diets can be unbalanced. They have a habit of going heavy on the fats (nuts and oils) and sugars (fruit) while being light on protein. So, raw diets risk being calorie- and nutrient-deficient.
If you take up a raw vegan diet, it just gets more tricky. In addition to the deficiencies common to the regular raw diet, you run extra risk of not getting enough calcium, vitamin D, or vitamin B-12.
Despite eating lots of nutritious foods on a raw foods diet, it’s often calorie- and nutrient-deficient. It can be even harder to have a nutritionally-sound raw vegan diet.
The raw food faithful believe this diet has many benefits. These include:
- weight loss
- more energy
- improved symptoms from chronic illness
- better overall wellness
- smaller environmental footprint
- smaller grocery bill
Research only supports some of these claims. Here’s what we know.
Lower body fat and being underweight
Research shows the raw food diet is linked to having less body fat and to losing larger amounts of body fat. The study found that 15 percent of men and 25 percent of women on the raw food diet were underweight. It also showed that, after switching to a raw diet, men and women lost an average of 22 to 26 pounds.
The study also revealed that low body weight from such a diet can mess with a woman’s menstrual cycle. From the same study, 70 percent of women on the raw food diet experienced period disruption and nearly a third stopped getting their periods, known as amenorrhea.
What goes in must come out, the basic GI formula. The high fiber and water content of raw diets can help your body’s digestive processes. This can reduce inflammation in your gut, improve your body’s ability to use food more efficiently, and help with waste elimination.
Weaker bones and teeth
There’s some evidence that the limited calorie and protein intake of a raw vegan diet may lead to low bone density or osteoporosis. Other research found that maintaining a raw diet for a long time can increase your risk of tooth erosion.
In addition to your nutritional wellbeing, the raw food diet impacts other important health markers. Following a raw food diet may lower your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. It can also drop your HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol), vitamin B-12, and iron to undesirable levels.
Improved environmental impact
A raw diet often has a smaller lifetime carbon footprint compared to other diets. This is largely due to its focus on plants rather than animals. Raw food dieters also tend to value other sustainability ideals, like eating locally sourced food and minimizing food waste.
Becoming a raw fooditatrian could potentially save you a wad of cash. Savings can be traced to:
- having a plant-centric diet
- using more efficient food prep techniques
- better personal health
By sparing all those animals from your chow line, your grocery costs may shrink. Studies have repeatedly shown plant based diets to be cheaper than meat based diets.
By not cooking your food (or having to refrigerate it as much), your energy bill is likely to downsize as well. Food prep and storage is a huge portion of home power bills. Depending on your cooking method, appliance type, and fuel sources, etc., going raw can reap major savings per year.
Though probably safe in the short run, it’s not a safe and sustainable practice long term.
Following a raw diet lifestyle is linked to nutritional deficiencies. If your raw diet is nutritionally lacking (chances are that it is), your body will burn through its vitamin and mineral reserves. These deficiencies can lead to health problems down the line.
Supplementation can help your body replenish nutrient stores. But it’s unlikely to fully compensate for your diet’s shortage of calories and protein.
People with certain health conditions should be wary of a raw food diet. For example, if you’re pregnant or have a compromised immune system this might not be a suitable regimen. Talk to your healthcare provider before jumping on the raw bandwagon.
Short-term raw food dieting is probably safe. In the long term it may lead to health problems.
Not gonna lie. The raw food diet lifestyle may be a challenge to keep up. Several things factor in.
First, food choices can be limited. Yes, there are lots of options to pick from on that list at the top of this article. But that might get old fast. Also, depending on the season and your location, it may be harder to get your hands on a variety of raw diet-compatible foods.
Even if you don’t find the food options limited, they may be limiting. Dining in restaurants or with friends can be tricky if cooked foods are a no-go. And it can be tough being that “hard to accommodate” person in your tribe.
As for food prep, nixing the cooking really limits your options. You have to get creative with the soaking, pickling, blending, and so on to ward off dietary boredom. This may take imagination, a willingness to experiment, and time to make it all work for you.
After all that effort, you may find that your cold food café is not so hot. (i.e., You’d give your carob-coated goji berries for a steaming bowl of ramen.)
Ok, you’ve read up on raw food diet. You want to give it a go. Cool. Now what?
Nutritionist and health coach Caitlin Fowler recommends easing into a raw food diet slowly. Sudden changes to your dietary regimen can lead to an unhappy tummy situation. Fowler offers these suggestions to help you be more successful:
- Think outside the salad bowl. A salad is technically any combo of raw foods. If you’re not into the leafy greens, try a variety of other ingredients. Beets and yams, for example, can add a pop of color and sweetness to any salad.
- Get saucy. Some of your fave dips and toppings are raw, or easily tweaked to be raw. Pesto (recipe below!), chimichurri, tapenade, and salsa are all great examples of raw or mostly-raw condiments that level-up your food.
- Be a smooth(ie) operator. This is a great place to start experimenting with raw foods, since the possibilities are endless. Along with the obvious fruits and berries, great raw smoothie ingredients include spinach, ginger, avocado, nut butters, and seeds.
Beginner recipe: Quickest, easiest, delish, raw pesto
- 3 cups packed leafy greens, any kind
- 1/3 cup raw nuts or seeds
- 1–2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup cold-pressed olive oil
- juice from 1/2 a lemon
- pinch of salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender. Blend until smooth, adding a little water if it’s too dry. Taste, and add additional salt, lemon juice, or oil to taste. Serve with veggies, toss with zoodles, or use as a spread on raw crackers.
Adhering to a raw food diet can be rough, especially if you have a hectic lifestyle. Fortunately, you don’t have to go full raw to see some positive impacts. Folding some of these foods, techniques, and habits into your routine can still benefit you.
As always, if you have health concerns you should talk with your healthcare provider before starting the raw food diet. Your dietitian may offer personalized advice that’ll up your chances of health and success.
A raw food diet consists of at least 70 percent uncooked and minimally-processed foods. Most raw foods are plant based, but some raw foodists eat raw eggs, dairy, meat, or fish.
Fans of the raw food diet believe it offers a bunch of health, environmental, and possibly financial benefits. Unfortunately, it can also be risky and negatively impact your health. In the long term, the “bad” may offset the “good.”
You’ll probably lose weight on a raw diet. But, you might also have trouble meeting your nutritional and caloric needs. This can translate into a host of health issues.
A number of foods are more digestible when cooked. Cooking also makes some nutrients easier for your body to absorb. Processing foods can also improve food safety.
There’s no doubt that raw foods bring nutrition, complexity, and variety to snacks and meals — you definitely need them to have a healthful diet. But, eating a combo of raw and cooked foods is likely even better for your health.