Raw Food Diets are often touted as the healthiest, but is there a dark side?
|Ask the average person to define a “raw food diet” and they will probably conjure up visions of carrot sticks and lettuce leaves. Ask about the benefits of such a diet, and you’re likely to receive a mystified expression.
Ideally, the raw food diet is one that promotes the consumption of an inordinate amount of fresh fruit and green leaves, along with a moderate amount of fatty protein foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds, and their derivatives. It excludes all food cooked above a very low temperature, and generally most animal products. On a day to day basis, this means blending up colourful batches of smoothies, preparing fresh fruit platters, munching through mineral rich salads, making nut butters and a variety of creative dishes.
One may think that the danger of such a diet lies within its exclusion of the major food groups, not just meat and dairy, but also many carbohydrates and protein sources. Raw food advocates argue in turn that though the range of food available to them is reduced, the quality and nutritional benefits are massively increased, because their fruit and vegetables retain all the vitamins and minerals largely destroyed by the cooking process.
It would be easy to forgive the uninitiated for thinking that the raw food movement has little to argue about when it comes to dicing mangoes and blending nut butters, but unfortunately, the raw food movement is full of vehemently defended misinformation that can cause serious health problems. Many raw food advocates believe that far from being healthy, fruit should be seriously limited due to its high sugar content–the inevitable result is a diet mainly comprising on low-calorie vegetables and huge quantities of the fatty protein foods. Although acceptable as a short-term diet, it is highly questionable whether health can be sustained in the long term. The main issue is the severe lack of calories coming from eating raw vegetables alone. One could spend an hour eating a huge green salad and only consume tens of calories.
To make this more palatable, the introduction of avocados and nuts, and especially oily dressings, means that the raw food eater can suddenly find themselves on a diet containing 60% fat or more in terms of calories. Although moderate amounts of fat and protein are essential for health, this level is dangerous in the long run, leaving the raw foodist exposed to the same diseases and diet related conditions as someone on a regular bad diet.
There is considerable tension between the “low-fruit, high-fat” side of the movement and the alternative “high-fruit, low-fat” camps. The sensible side of raw foodism includes healthy amounts of fruit, often balanced out with green leaves in green smoothies and drinks. When consumed in large quantities—we’re talking up to 20 bananas a day or more, plus other fruits—adequate calories is an easy target, and the fruit provides almost all the body’s requirement for glucose and carbohydrates.
However, these raw foodists aren’t entirely off the hook. They often promote very small quantities of fatty protein foods. Whilst a low-fat diet prevents the sugars in fruit becoming a problem in the blood stream, as it allows a quick exit of sugars from the blood and into the cells, it is questionable if restricting fat and protein to 10% of total calories is enough for everyone. Children are a particular concern, as their needs for fat and protein are more important as they grow significantly in short periods of time, and their brain is rapidly developing. Thankfully, many well-known figures in the movement, such as Frederic Patenaude and Kevin Gianni, do not recommend the same diet for children and pregnant women, and make this clear to their followers.
Women, whose reproductive system may be particularly sensitive to hormonal disturbances, also need to be careful and keep a close eye on their menstruation cycles. This is because to sustain regular ovulation and normal fertility the body requires a certain amount of fat and protein in the diet. It is possible that in the long term such a low-fat diet may not be the best option for young females in particular, who tend to be more sensitive to cycle disturbances.
In my own experience with the raw food diet, I have come across advocates who have claimed the lack of menstruation is normal and preferable. This is a potentially damaging claim, especially if susceptible young women dismiss the sudden lack of periods as acceptable and fail to talk to their doctor. Although high fruit and vegetable consumptions tends to produce lighter periods—which is normal—absent and irregular cycles due to diet must be addressed.
Not everyone will respond in the same way, of course. People with a history of certain conditions, or of certain ages however, need to go into any kind of lifestyle regime with their eyes wide open. During experiments with the raw food diet, it became clear to me that both sides of the raw food movement need to be careful not to fall into a fundamentalism of their cause, when they fail to take on board undesirable results as the fault of the diet, and focus instead on arguing with the “dietary infidels”.
Ultimately, raw foodism can be healthy for many people, but calories, macronutrients such as carbohydrates and proteins, and micronutrients from vitamins and minerals require balancing for the needs of the individual, instead of raw foodists succumbing to an unhelpful hard-and-fast, anything-else-is-evil dogma.
To learn more about the raw food diet and its benefits and risks, visit:
Frederic Patenaude: www.fredericpatenaude.com
Kevin Gianni: www.renegadehealth.com
For information regarding nutritional percentages in the typical raw food diet, read The 80/10/10 Diet, by Dr. Douglas Graham or visit www.foodnsport.com