Raw Food Diet: A Do or a Don’t?

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After writing about organic foods for the past two weeks, I decided to follow up with a somewhat related topic: the raw food diet. You may or may not be familiar with this type of eating plan. Perhaps you’ve come across it and wondered what it was all about. Maybe you’ve even wondered if it’s something you should try.

It All Started in Switzerland…
The raw food diet originated with a Swiss physician named Maximilian Bircher-Benner in the 1800’s. You can thank him for “inventing” muesli, by the way. Dr. Bircher-Benner ran a sanatorium in Zurich and believed that a diet of raw fruits and vegetables, as opposed to meat and potatoes, was the means for healing his patients. Apparently, the good doctor cured his jaundice by eating raw apples.

What’s It All About?
As the name implies, a raw food diet (also called raw foodism and rawism) means that one eats plant foods in their raw, or natural, state. So far, so good. But here’s what it “boils” down to:

• No cooking
• No microwaving
• No processing
• No irradiating
• No genetically engineering
• No using pesticides or herbicides

Raw foodism proponents believe that heating or processing foods destroys much of the nutritional benefits, such as vitamins, phytonutrients, and enzymes. The uncooked, unprocessed forms of foods are supposed to be more wholesome for the body.

What Does One Eat on a Raw Food Diet?
In theory, a raw food follower would eat nothing cooked or processed, and essentially be a vegan (someone who does not eat any animal products). The reality, though, is that most raw foodies don’t follow the plan 100% of the time, because a) it’s hard and b) it takes a lot of time to prepare food.

You don’t need a stove or oven if you’re a raw foodist because your foods are not to be heated above 115–118°F. But what you’d likely need to invest in is a food dehydrator, which makes your veggies crunchy and churns out plenty of fruit “leathers.”

Here’s a listing of what you might eat on a raw food diet: fruits, vegetables, juices, nuts, seeds, sprouts, raw almond butter, seaweed, grains, beans (yep, eaten raw), olive oil, virgin coconut oil, coconut butter, and herbal tea. If you’re not a vegan raw foodist, your diet might also include raw (unpasteurized) milk and cheese, raw eggs, raw fish, and even some raw meat. If you crave something sweet, you might make “cookies” with raw nuts, oats, carob chips, and maple syrup (instead of baking them in the oven, you’ll freeze them).

And here’s what you won’t be eating: refined sugar and flour, processed salt, caffeine, pasteurized milk, pasta, baked goods, conventional ice cream, most snack foods, soda, most juices, and most alcoholic beverages. Also, say goodbye to frequent dining out unless you happen upon a raw food restaurant or decide to scour the menu for something acceptable.

Here’s what you’ll do with much of your time in terms of preparing your food: dehydrating, juicing, blending, chopping, and sprouting. If you decide to make dehydrated kale chips, for example, plan ahead because that can take a few hours.

Benefits of a Raw Food Diet
If you’ve read this far, you might be thinking that a raw food diet actually seems rather healthy. And in many senses, it is, despite the time and effort you need to put into it. Unfortunately, there isn’t much scientific research or evidence to back up its claims. The handful of studies thus far have been rather small, in terms of subject size. But here’s what the literature says, in terms of benefits:

• A raw food diet can likely help you lose weight. In one study, people on a raw food diet lost 9% of their body weight over three months, which is nothing to sneeze at. Two other studies have shown significant decreases in BMI (body-mass index) and body fat.

• Another study found that out of about 200 people on a raw food diet, most had low triglyceride and cholesterol levels, which theoretically means a lower risk of heart disease.

• No studies have looked people with diabetes who follow a raw food diet, but it’s likely that, with a decrease in body weight, blood glucose and A1C levels would drop, as well, thereby improving glycemic control.

It’s not hard to argue the merits of a raw food diet. A raw foodie consumes plenty of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and fiber (more so than the average American) while consuming fewer calories, fat, saturated fat, and, of course, additives, pesticides, etc.

Is There a Downside?
Following a raw food diet doesn’t necessarily come without a price, however (be prepared for a higher grocery bill, for one thing). For example, one study showed a decrease in bone mass and bone mineral density. Depending on one’s food choices, a raw food diet can be low in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids. Not all foods are best eaten raw, either: Cooking tomatoes and eggs helps the body absorb their nutrients more efficiently. And some vegetables are potentially toxic when eaten raw, like potatoes, rhubarb, and cassava. Finally, nonvegan raw foodists who consume raw milk, raw fish, and/or raw meat are at risk for potentially serious food-borne illness.

If a raw food diet sounds appealing to you, talk it over first with your health-care provider and especially your dietitian. Your team can work with you to make sure that this way of eating meshes with the rest of your diabetes treatment plan. If you’re interested in learning more about foods that you can eat on a raw food diet, check out this Web site.

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