What Is a Raw Food Diet?

In This Article

Foods to eat on the raw food diet
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The raw food diet is based on the belief that uncooked and unprocessed food can help you to achieve better health and prevent diseases like heart disease and cancer. Some proponents claim that cooking breaks down the enzymes in uncooked or "live food" which aid in the digestion and absorption of nutrients.

What Experts Say

"The raw food diet encourages people to eat only raw (never heated), unprocessed foods. While eating more produce is advantageous, experts say there’s no reason to avoid cooking it. This diet may put people at risk for food-borne illness if raw meat and dairy are consumed."
Chrissy Carroll, RD, MPH

Background

The raw food diet has roots as far back as the late 1800s, when a doctor believed he cured his own case of jaundice by eating raw apples. Since then, the diet has evolved into its current form, and has waxed and waned in popularity. Sometimes people shift from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one and then to a raw one.

How It Works

Typically, about 70 percent or more of the diet consists of raw food. Staples of the raw food diet are fruitsvegetables, sea vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouted grains, and beans. Gently heating food is considered acceptable, as long as the temperature doesn't go above 118 degrees Fahrenheit. While most people who are on a raw food diet plan are vegan, some eat raw animal products, like raw milk, cheese made from raw milk, or raw fish or meat.

What to Eat

Some foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are easy to identify as raw. Other ingredients, such as nut butters, agave nectar, almond milk, olive oil, soy sauce, and cocoa, aren't always raw, so you may need to read labels and take time to find brands that pass muster. Foods that have the words roasted, dry-roasted, toasted, cooked, or baked on the label are not raw. Neither are canned foods.

Compliant Foods

  • Whole, unprocessed foods

  • Organic fruits, vegetables, and nuts

  • Sprouted or germinated beans and grains

  • Recipes prepared from raw ingredients

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Foods heated above 118 degrees F

  • Refined, processed, or pasteurized foods

  • Foods treated with pesticides

  • Caffeine

Vegetables

Use vegetables in salads, smoothies, blended dressings, and soups. Vegetables can also be pickled or made into noodles. Frozen vegetables that have been blanched or boiled before being frozen are not considered raw.

Also look for sea vegetables, such as arame, dulse, kelp, wakami, and unroasted nori sheets.

Fruits

Fruits can be whole, dried, dehydrated, or used in juices or smoothies. Frozen fruit is considered raw. Superfoods such as raw cacao powder, cacao nibs, carob powder, and goji berries are all permitted on a raw food diet.

Nuts and Seeds

Look for raw and preferably organic nuts and seeds. Use them in smoothies, pesto, butters, non-dairy milk, cheeses, gravy, cream, and ice cream. You can also use a dehydrator to make raw chia or flax seed crackers.

Grains

Whole grains, such as millet, buckwheat groats, kamut, quinoa, oats, wheat germ, spelt, and wild rice are all permitted on the raw food diet, but will need to be germinated or sprouted.

Beans and Legumes

Some raw beans (such as chickpeas, adzuki beans, mung beans, and lentils) can be eaten after they have been soaked and sprouted, but others, such as kidney, soy, and fava beans, are considered unsafe to eat.

Fats

Raw sources of fat include avocados; raw coconut oil and butter; cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil; chia oil; raw flaxseed oil; and raw hemp seed oil.

Beverages

Aside from purified water, raw foodists drink barley grass juice, vegetable or fruit juice (freshly squeezed or frozen, unpasteurized), young coconut water, and wheatgrass juice. Caffeine is not permitted, so black and green tea and coffee are excluded from the diet. Herbal tea (even if it's made with water heated to less than 118 F) isn't considered raw because the leaves are usually heated during the manufacturing process.

Fermented Foods

Foods produced by fermentation are permitted on the raw food diet. These could include coconut kefir and yogurt, kimchi, miso paste, and sauerkraut.

Herbs, Spices, and Condiments

While table salt is not permitted on the raw food diet, Himalayan salt and Celtic sea salt is allowed, along with other seasonings:

  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Basil
  • Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
  • Cayenne 
  • Chives
  • Chocolate, raw
  • Cinnamon, ground
  • Cumin, ground or seeds
  • Curries
  • Dill
  • Ginger root
  • Nama shoyu (raw soy sauce)
  • Parsley
  • Vanilla beans, raw
  • Vinegars

Sweeteners

Most sweeteners are processed and not truly raw, but the following are permitted: raw agave nectar, coconut nectar, raw honey, mesquite powder, stevia powder, date sugar, and yacon syrup.

Recommended Timing

There are no particular guidelines for when to eat on this diet. Because it's low in calories, people following this diet might want to eat more often, although it is full of filling high-fiber foods.

Resources and Tips

Following a raw food diet usually means learning a whole new way to prepare foods. Common methods include:

Soaking and Sprouting

Raw beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds contain enzyme inhibitors that are normally destroyed with cooking. The nutrients can be released by soaking them (germination) or sprouting them.

Germination involves soaking in water for a specific amount of time. Although the recommended germination times vary from two hours (for cashews) up to one day, some raw foodists say that soaking overnight is sufficient and more convenient. It's important to start with dried, raw, preferably organic seeds, beans, legumes, or nuts.

Rinse beans, nuts, legumes, or seeds and place in a glass container. Add room temperature, purified water to cover. Soak at room temperature overnight (mung beans require a full 24 hours). Rinse a couple of times prior to use.

After germination, seeds, beans, and legumes can be sprouted. After they are drained during the final step of the germination process, place them in a container for sprouting. Leave them at room temperature. The seed, bean, or legume will open and a sprout will grow from it. Rinse the sprouted nuts or seeds and drain well. They can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Dehydrating

Foods can be gently heated using a piece of equipment called a dehydrator to simulate sun-drying. Dehydrators are enclosed containers with heating elements that warm food at low temperatures. A fan inside the dehydrator blows the warm air across the food, which is spread out on trays. Dehydrators can be used to make raisins, sun-dried tomatoes, kale chips, crackers, breads, croutons, and fruit leathers.

Blending and Juicing

Foods can be blended or chopped using a food processor or blender to make smoothies, pesto, soup, and hummus. Vegetables and fruit can also be juiced.

Fermenting

Fermented foods include sauerkraut, raw coconut yogurt, raw macadamia nut cheese, and kimchi.

Modifications

A raw food diet is compatible with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free diets.

Cooking protects from food-borne illnesses (such as E.coli). A raw food diet isn't recommended for pregnant women, children, older adults, people with weak immune systems, and those with medical conditions.

People with a history of eating disorders or those who are underweight should consult their healthcare provider before trying the raw food diet, because it tends to be very low in calories.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods

  • Low in saturated fats and sodium

  • Effective for weight loss

Cons

  • Too restrictive

  • Risk of nutrient deficiencies

  • Risk of food-borne illness

  • Impractical

Pros

Whole, Nutritious Ingredients

The raw food diet is lower in calories and sugar than the standard American diet. It is also higher in potassium, magnesium, folate, fiber, vitamin A, and antioxidants. The fiber in the diet may help keep you feeling full and guard against constipation.

Some proponents of the diet say that it may reduce inflammation because of the antioxidants in plant foods and fewer advanced glycation end-products in uncooked food.

Low in Saturated Fats and Sodium

The diet is also lower in sodium and saturated fat than a standard diet, because table salt, processed foods, and (usually) meats are excluded.

Effective for Weight Loss

This diet is very low-calorie and will almost certainly promote weight loss. However, it is often too effective and followers end up underweight. A study back in 1999 examined the relationship between long-term raw food diets and body weight and found that body mass index (BMI) was below the normal weight range in 14.7 percent of men and 25 percent of women. Approximately 30 percent of women under 45 years of age had partial to complete amenorrhea (the absence of menstrual periods), particularly those eating 90 percent or more raw foods.

This is one of the several drawbacks to the raw food diet. They tend to outweigh the positives.

Cons

Too Restrictive

Overall, this diet is very low in calories. And some foods are actually less nutritious when they're uncooked. Some foods become more digestible after cooking because the fibrous portion is broken down. For instance, cooked tomatoes contain three to four times more lycopene than raw tomatoes. Levels of compounds in broccoli called sulforaphanes are maximized when the broccoli is steamed at 140 degrees F.

Nutrient Deficiencies

One of the main concerns people have with the raw food diet is the risk of nutritional deficiencies, such as vitamin B12, vitamin D, iron, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.

Food-Borne Illness

Cooking helps kill harmful bacteria, so eating raw foods increases the risk of food-borne illnesses. This is especially true in people on a raw diet who eat raw fish, eggs, or meat, or unpasteurized milk or other dairy products. Fruits and vegetables can also carry bacteria. And there are a few, such as taro and rhubarb, that are toxic if consumed raw.

Impractical

It may seem easy to eat nothing but uncooked foods, but in fact, it takes a good deal of time and effort to prepare many foods to be eaten raw. It can also be expensive to purchase only whole and organic foods.

How It Compares

The raw food diet is a unique eating plan, but it shares some characteristics with other plant-based diets. In terms of macronutrient proportions (amounts of carbohydrates, protein, and fat), it falls within U.S. government guidelines.

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the raw food diet number 33 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 2.4/5.

USDA Recommendations

Food Groups

The USDA advises Americans to eat a balanced mix of fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy products. The raw food diet really only eliminates dairy products from this list (and some people on a raw food diet will drink raw milk). The diet is on the low end of recommended protein consumption. It is about 13 percent protein, and the USDA guidelines suggest that anywhere from 10 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat.

Calories

People on a raw diet will eat a lot of nuts and seeds, which can be higher in fat and calories. But so much of the diet is made up of low-calorie fruits and vegetables that it is hard to consume as many calories as the body needs (roughly 2000 a day for weight maintenance). If you are looking to lose weight, consider using this calculator to determine a sensible daily calorie goal.

Similar Diets

These diets are all predominantly plant-based and generally restrictive.

Raw Food Diet

  • General nutrition: Consume only whole foods which have not been heated above 118 degrees F.
  • Safety: This diet carries a risk of food-borne illness and nutrient deficiency.
  • Practicality: It's very challenging to prepare foods that meet the standard set by raw food advocates, and buying whole, organic foods can be expensive.
  • Sustainability: Following this diet for a long time could result in losing too much weight and other health consequences.

Okinawan Diet

  • General nutrition: The traditional diet of the island of Okinawa is mostly plant-based, with a little seafood. It includes lots of vegetables, seaweed, and legumes, and no sugar or refined carbohydrates.
  • Safety: This diet can be safe (scientists have long studied the Okinawan people because of their robust health and longevity) but it is quite restrictive. It is also high in sodium.
  • Practicality: Some of the main ingredients of this diet, such as seaweed and bitter melon, may be challenging to find and prepare. And its restrictiveness could make the diet tough to follow for people used to a standard American diet.
  • Sustainability: Of course, many Okinawans eat this diet for their entire lives. But for non-islanders, it may be too difficult to adhere to.

Ayurvedic Diet

  • General nutrition: People on an Ayurvedic diet eat according to their body type, or dosha, so included and excluded foods can vary greatly. There are many rules and guidelines about how, when, and what to eat.
  • Safety: This diet is generally safe and may have some health benefits.
  • Practicality: It can be difficult to determine your dosha and then complicated to understand which foods are okay for you and which aren't.
  • Sustainability: Many people can and do follow an Ayurvedic diet for a long time, once they are comfortable with its requirements.

Fruitarian Diet

  • General nutrition: Followers of a fruitarian diet get 50 to 75 percent of daily calories from fruit (sometimes even more). Nuts and seeds are considered fruits, and they may also eat some vegetables—but never animal proteins, grains, or any processed food.
  • Safety: This diet is risky. It could lead to nutrient deficiency, health complications, and/or disordered eating.
  • Practicality: Purchasing lots of organic fruit, and specialty products such as nut milks, could be expensive.
  • Sustainability: It's not wise to follow this diet for any length of time, due to the health risks.

A Word From Verywell

Getting more fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods into our diets may protect against certain diseases. However, the typical American diet is low in fruits and vegetables and has large amounts of animal products and processed food.

While most of us could benefit from eating a more plant-based diet, adhering to a 70 percent or more raw food diet can requires a lot of effort and has some serious drawbacks and risks. If you are thinking of trying the diet, consult your healthcare provider to see if it is the right eating plan for you.

If you'd like to eat more raw plant foods but don't want to go on a full-fledged raw food diet, start slowly by integrating one or more servings of raw vegetables into your meals and find the balance that works best for you.

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