This post might draw the ire of a few people who are passionate about a raw food diet, but for newcomers there are important lessns to understand about how far you ought to go with eating raw foods.
Before I begin I’ll let you know that mostly raw food diets tend to work very well. I’m not arguing against that. I’m talking about 100% raw food diets which can be very harmful over the long run.
In my experience people who adopt a 100% raw food diet fail eventually, and they’d be better off eating cooked food.
The reasons usually boil down to the following five flaws.
Flaw #1: Vitamin B12 and Iron Deficiency
I know many plant based diet evangelists like to emphasize the misperceptions about nutrients like vitamin B, iron, calcium, and protein provided by non-animal sources.
They’re mostly right.
However, the long term data on hardcore raw-foodists paints a fairly bleak picture about vitamin B12. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in October 2005 found that 40% of pure raw-foodists were vitamin B12 deficient. See also here and my own thoughts on long-term raw foodists.
That’s not good.
I agree that risking a little bit of vitamin B12 deficiency is better than risking the near certain chances of developing heart disease, cancer and diabetes that come with animal foods, but pure raw-foodists are unnecessarily subjected to certain nutrient deficiencies.
Flaw #2: Many foods are better digested cooked rather than raw
The thinking about raw foods is that they’re more enzymatically active and in their “pure” state, and thus more nutritous than cooked foods.
That’s true some of the time, but not all.
The truth is there are a lot of really great foods that are digested better when cooked.
The most obvious example is legumes, which have a lot of their nutrients blocked with phytic acid and fibrous outer shells. Their enzymes and phytochemicals break down when cooked, but so do the branched chain compounds that completely mess up your digestion and inhibit the absorption of other minerals.
The difference between raw legumes and sprouted, steamed legumes is huge. The latter is unedible, while the former is ridiculously good for you.
Flaw #3: Raw vs. Cooked Isn’t the Most Important Indicator of Diet Quality
Sometimes raw foodists will start eating raw meats or other animal products to compensate for the lacking components in their diet.
Here’s a hint: just eat the steamed broccoli.
That’s an extreme example, but the greater overall point is that many times there are more important dimensions than cooked vs. raw.
Certain phytonutrients and carotenoids are actually more bio-available when cooked because they’re locked up the cell walls of their foods which breakdown after being cooked. The lycopene is pasta sauce is actually more bio-available than in raw tomatoes for this reason.
Diet regimens like fruititarianism are almost certainly lacking in essential fatty acids, and one might gravitate towards raw meats and animal products to compensate, when they’d be better off with cooked plant alternatives.
Flaw #4: The Biggest Benefits of a Raw Food Diet Don’t Come From Raw Foods
Perhaps this point seems paradoxical, but the biggest benefit of a raw diet is that it’s exclusionary, and not necessarily raw. If you’re eating raw, you’re not eating processed foods, you’re probably eating mostly vegan, and your calories are almost certainly going way down.
That’s all great, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the food is raw.
Of course raw food does confer a lot of health benefits, but I’d wager that all by itself it accounts for 20-25% of the benefits of the raw food diet most of the time.
Flaw #5: The Raw Food Diet Can Impair Muscle Development and Athletic Activity
If you go 100% raw it’s almost certain that you’re going to reduce your calories drastically.
Bank on it.
That’s mostly good, except that it can have an inhibiting effect if you have difficulty putting on muscle or lead a particularly active lifestyle.
In my experience people with naturally light frames can be harmed by a purely raw food diet and can feel lethargic as a result. This is also true for athletes of various sorts.
Overall I like the raw food diet, but find myself hesitant recommending a permanent switch to a 100% raw lifestyle.
And for what it’s worth, I’m not alone. Even noted raw food evangelists like Jameth Sheridan have recommended against doing so.