In summer, the farmers’ markets are a real feast for the eyes, a treasure trove of fresh fruit and vegetables. A large part of the population associates good health with raw fruit and vegetables. In practice, however, things look rather bleak. Most eat far too little raw fruit and vegetables. On the other hand, there are people who advocate an exclusive raw food diet. Others advocate a moderate raw food diet, with a proportion between 70-100%.
In the last hundred years, numerous raw food diets have been developed. The majority of them come from lay people who had to struggle with health problems and were treating themselves by changing their diet to eating exclusively or partially raw food.
Raw Food Types
The raw food types are often based on idiosyncratic nutritional concepts that are not explained scientifically. Some take a very one-sided approach and simply reject certain foods. That is why it is very difficult to make a general assessment of raw food diets. You have to consider them individually. Most raw food types are named after their “inventors”: Evers diet, Waerland diet, raw food after Walker, Dr. Nolfi, Schnitzer or Wandmaker. But then there are also fantasy names like Rainbow Diet, Hallelujah Diet or “Fit for life”.
The majority of raw food diets are vegetarian. Almost half abstain from meat altogether. Some allow raw or lightly smoked meats. Milk and cereal products usually have a bad reputation. Most people don’t manage to stick very long to a 100% raw food diet. Many give social reasons, such as isolation, for discontinuing the diet. A third cite health reasons: feeling cold, problems with teeth, bloating and weight loss.
Body Weight on a Long-term Raw Food Diet
Being overweight is unknown among raw foodists. Three quarters have a BMI in the normal range. There’s no obesity. On the other hand, there are a number of underweight people on the other end of the weight curve, especially those with a very high proportion of raw food. Weight plays a subordinate role for raw foodists. They care more about their well-being.
The underweight could probably be reduced to a large extent if more nuts and avocados, i.e. high-fat foods, were eaten. However, when the majority of calories are consumed as fat, it takes complicated metabolic reactions to convert that fat into the proper form of energy. This is not ideal for our health.
With most raw foodists, carbohydrates and proteins are neglected, since cereals and legumes can only be consumed raw to a limited extent. Raw grains and legumes contain a number of phytates that cause bloating and prevent the absorption of a number of minerals. These phytates are greatly reduced during cooking.
Sprouting is another way of reducing phytates. Grains and legumes are therefore often consumed in sprouted form by raw foodists. When sprouting, the vitamins contained in the grain are potentialized, making sprouted seeds an interesting addition to our diet. However, if they are consumed in large quantities, this can lead to an excess of vitamins.
Convictions of Raw Foodists
Most of the time, it is health reasons that proponents of the raw food diet give as to why they chose this alternative diet. For others, ethics play a role or the good taste of the raw food. Two thirds are convinced that cooking leads to a reduction food in value and even to the creation of harmful products. Digestive leukocytosis, enzymes in raw food and the formation of Maillard products are cited very often. These are browning products that result from the combination of sugar types and amino acids when food is heated.
This term describes the temporary increase in the number of white blood cells, the leukocytes, after eating. This is a physiological condition and does not indicate a disease. This increase is repeatedly seen by raw foodists as a reaction to unsuitable foods. Supposedly, cooked foods are considered by the body to be a foreign substance that need to be attacked by the immune system. They claim that there is no increase in leukocytes if you only eat raw food or at least eat something raw before you eat cooked food.
The medical background was provided by the physician Kouchakoff in 1930, who found an increase in leukocytes after ingestion of cooked food, but no increase in uncooked food. Subsequent, more detailed investigations showed that his observation period was much too short and that any food intake caused an increase in leukocytes, especially neutrophilic granulocytes. However, why this increase is happening needs to be researched more closely. Maybe it’s simply a matter of fighting germs that may be smuggled in with food and possibly cause illness.
Kouchakoff’s thesis that leukocytosis only occurs when food is cooked has turned out to be wrong. Leukocytes increase by 50-140% after eating, whether the food is cooked or eaten raw. It is interesting, however, that most people have their highest leukocyte count after eating meat.
The enzymes are another reason that raw foodists often cite as a benefit of their diet. The raw food should contain live enzymes that are lost during cooking. Therefore, raw food products are supposed to be living foods, while cooked products are already dead and supposedly have very little nutritional value.
What are enzymes? They are chemical structures that are vital to a variety of metabolic functions in our body. They have important functions in digestion, body metabolism, DNA replication, cell signaling and countless other processes within the body.
So it’s true that raw foods contain a lot of enzymes. Since these enzymes consist largely of proteins, they are broken down into amino acids in the stomach and therefore do not benefit the body. Some people need enzyme supplements to help with digestion. However, these must be packed in specially developed capsules, which are resistant to stomach acid and only release the enzymes in the intestine. Without these protective capsules, the digestive enzymes wouldn’t get to the intestines. The enzymes that the body needs it can usually produce by itself.
When it comes to vitamins, however, the raw food diet is a step ahead. Vitamins are largely lost upon heating and are normally found in much higher concentrations in raw products. There are, however, exceptions here as well. For example, steamed kale has a higher vitamin C content than raw, and the beta-carotene in carrots is easier to absorb when cooked. If you want to cook vegetables, then careful steaming is usually the gentlest form of preparation.
Raw Food as a Treatment
Nutrition is a key factor in the development of chronic diseases and the maintenance of good health. The WHO agrees with that. Of course, lifestyle also plays an important role. In addition to lack of exercise and tobacco consumption, the changed diet is mentioned in first place.
The traditional plant-based diet has been replaced by a calorie-dense, high-fat diet with a high proportion of animal products. Low fruit and vegetable consumption and low fiber go hand in hand. In numerous developing countries, which are adapting their lifestyle and diet to industrialized countries, precisely those diseases that go hand in hand with this lifestyle are increasing: cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and obesity.
Is it any wonder that alternative doctors are increasingly turning to raw food! When changing from a typical Western diet, success is inevitable. However, the raw food diet must be adjusted individually, because there are a number of contraindications. And in most cases, a well-balanced healthy diet that includes some cooked grains would probably perform better than a restrictive raw food diet.
Raw Food as a Permanent Diet: Yes or No?
As the raw food studies show, it is not easy to eat exclusively raw. It might make sense for a short time, whether it’s to lose weight or regain your health. When it comes to raw food as a permanent form, you should never eat a restrictive diet. One should not arbitrarily avoid some foods that are important for a balanced diet.
Everyone has to decide for themselves how high the proportion of raw food should be in their diet. Eating about half of everything raw, as recommended by Whole Foods Diets, is certainly a good way to go. It is well justified in terms of taste, socially, scientifically and from a health point of view. But cooking makes sense too.
Cooking kills harmful microorganisms, destroys harmful food components, such as in legumes, and increases the absorption of some nutrients, such as beta-carotene. Cooking changes the texture and taste. Cooking, roasting and baking contribute to palatability. Let’s just think about potatoes! Boiling is often increasing durability, helps to preserve food in canning, and adds convenience. We quickly have a meal on the table from pre-prepared menus, supplemented by fresh raw vegetables.
Everyone has to decide for themselves how much raw food is good for them. The fact is, most know they should be eating more of it. If one wants to increase the amount, he should do it gradually, remembering to chew well. Only then can the digestive tract can adapt to the changed circumstances.
Incidentally, there are no scientific findings available – for a better physical and mental performance of the raw food compared to the usual mixed diet. But if someone feels more comfortable with a raw food diet, they should choose a balanced type that also optimally provides them with everything they need for life.
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Esther Neumann studied Nutrition at the University of Vienna. Since then she served as an author for the health magazine “Leben und Gesundheit” and conducted health lectures in various locations of Austria.
Martin Neumann was trained for Lifestyle Interventions in 1998 at Wildwood Lifestyle Center & Hospital. Since then he has lectured in different parts of the world about a healthy lifestyle and natural remedies. He is the founder of the Abundant Health website.