Raw Food Diets: Striking A Healthy Balance

carrots, girl with carrots, raw food
Raw food diets are a way of life for some foodies.

Nothing compares to the satisfying crunch of carrots, the sweetness of sugar peas straight from the vine, or the leafy green goodness of a forkful of salad. For many of us, raw fruits and vegetables are largely seasonal pleasures associated with farmer’s markets, CSAs, and the hot summer months. Come autumn and winter, we welcome hearty soups and steaming casseroles.

For others, raw food is a year-round way of life. Endorsed by the likes of designer Donna Karan, model Carol Alt, and actors Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, “raw foodism” is becoming increasingly popular—and generating mixed media attention.

Proponents of the trend claim that consuming a diet consisting of 75 percent or more raw foods greatly enhances overall well-being and can improve or eliminate a wide range of health complaints. Critics say the regime is for dietary fanatics and can lead to a host of physiological imbalances. Seems like, between the two perspectives, there should be a healthy medium in there somewhere—we’ve outlined the raw facts below.

Dining in the Raw

As one might expect, the raw food diet consists primarily of plant foods, including fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouts, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, seaweed, and dried fruit. Raw foodists believe that heating food above 116 degrees F. destroys the naturally occurring enzymes that assist in digestion and absorption—and saps vitamin power to boot. Therefore, cooked foods are out, as are all processed foods, refined sugars and flours, caffeine, and acid-forming foods, like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy.

“Raw foods supply the body with important vitamins and minerals, which would otherwise be mostly depleted when cooking,” says Stella Metsovas, a certified nutritionist in Laguna Beach. “[They] contain beneficial living enzymes that help to digest foods naturally without pulling from your physiological reserves.” According to Metsovas, live foods also contain beneficial fibers that can help regulate blood sugar.

To make their meals more digestible and palatable, raw foodists employ preparation techniques including sprouting, juicing, soaking, blending, and dehydrating. In general, raw diners aim for a diet of at least 75 percent raw foods; hardcore enthusiasts shoot for 100 percent raw.

The Raw Benefits

Many people who’ve gone raw rave about the diet’s numerous health benefits, especially noticeable in the first few months or years.

“I saw weight loss, improvement in my menstrual cycle, better digestion and elimination, thicker and shinier hair, much better skin, and better emotional and mental health,” says Lenka Zajic, currently of San Diego. “I made the most fun, yummy things and totally indulged, and I still lost 25 pounds, had the energy of a 12-year-old, and was extremely happy.”

The raw diet has many apparent health boons. Because it is low in sodium and high in potassium, magnesium, fiber, and phytochemicals, it can help dieters to easily shed pounds and can also help fend off diseases like diabetes and cancer, particularly colon cancer.

“The raw diet is extremely cleansing,” says Jeanette Bronee, a Holistic Health Counselor and Nourishment Consultant from New York state. “That’s why it feels so good.” In particular, says Bronee, eating raw foods can help cleanse the system of toxins that can accumulate in the digestive tract due to eating too many starches, flour-based foods, meats, and dairy.

Studies show that the raw food diet, having little or no saturated fat and trans fats, can also be extremely heart healthy. A 2005 Journal of Nutrition study found that a long-term raw food diet can lower and balance serum LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, thus reducing the risk of heart disease.

The Drawbacks of Raw

In spite of its many seeming benefits, though, going raw may not be a wise choice for some.

“The problem with raw food,” says Bronee, “is that we can’t necessarily absorb it. Sometimes, to be able to absorb food, we need to cook it, and that varies from person to person really.”

According to Bronee, people with weak digestive systems, “which, by the way, is most people out there, people who eat excessive amounts of sugar and highly processed foods,” may simply not possess the digestive enzymes required to break down the nutrients in raw foods.

Genetics and culture can play an important role as well. “If you have lived your life thus far on traditional [cooked] Indian cuisine,” saysMetsovas, “your physiology has a blueprint to metabolize foods in a certain way.”

Both Metsovas and Bronee agree that a person’s digestive enzymescan slowly be “trained” to tolerate raw foods, but both advise a cautious approach. “Transitioning to a raw food lifestyle should be treated as a process and not as an instant switch,” saysMetsovas. “Beware of the detoxifying properties a live food dietis capable of producing.” Headaches, nausea, lightheadedness, and extreme cravings are all symptomatic of rapid detoxification and a good cue to take it slow.

Long term, the raw diet may have questionable benefits. The same Journal of Nutrition study that touted the heart-health benefits of dining raw also found that study participants had increased levels of homocysteine due to vitamin B-12 deficiency. Further, a Washington University study found that people following a raw food diet had lower bone mass, although apparently healthy bones.

Critics of raw foodism also warn against a host of nutritional deficiencies including low calcium, iron, protein, and insufficient calories. They point out that while it’s true some enzymes are destroyed when food is heated, the body in fact produces and uses ample digestive enzymes on its own. Further, cooking can actually make certain nutrients easier to absorb, as with the beta-carotene in carrots. As Bronee points out, “Not all cooked foods are created equal. There’s a big difference between deep fried and blanched.”

Bronee feels that the raw diet may not be for everyone. “The groundedness that you can get from cooked food you don’t really get from raw food. People with weak digestive enzymes might feel cold after a raw meal, especially in the wintertime. And some people get really spacey.”

And as it turns out, sometimes even the most zealous raw foodists may find the initial appeal of the diet can wear off.

“It was all great for about a year and a half, two years,” recalls Zajic, “Then I started to feel a decrease in metabolic rate and possibly some protein deficiency.” At that point, Zajic says she not only began to crave and overeat raw fats and carbs, but she also started gaining back some of the old weight, among other health complaints.

“That’s when I began to question how I could modify my diet to address these needs,” she said.

The Middle Road to Raw

In the end, as with so many things in life, a moderate approach maybe the answer.

“I think there’s a virtue to the raw food diet; it’s very, very nourishing,” says Bronee. “But I don’t necessarily think that everyone can be completely satisfied or nourishedby it.”

Zajic says that once she dropped her attachment to eating a specificpercentage of raw foods and started “tuning into” her body’sneeds, her physiology balanced itself once again. She now incorporates a small amount of cooked foods and fish into her largely raw diet, when her body “asks for them.”

“It’s really about balance, one word: balance,” she says. “I think it’s essential to eat a large proportion of fresh, organic, highly mineralized, hydrating foods, but even more importantly, to do it consciously, so you’re eating what you want when you want it, not following a book.”