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Is a raw food diet all it’s cracked up to be?

Benefits cited by supporters include lower risk of disease, improved energy and better looking skin. But health experts warn a mostly raw diet can lead to some unintended health consequences.

A raw food diet has some positive aspects.
A raw food diet has some positive aspects.
Dreamstime/TNS

Raw foodism has been circulating for more than a century but has seen surging popularity in recent times.

This movement defines raw food as not having been cooked to temperatures over 118 degrees. The diet allows several “no-cook” alternative preparation methods, including juicing, fermenting, dehydrating, soaking and sprouting.

Not surprisingly, raw foodists typically are vegan, though some also consume raw fish, meat and dairy.

Why raw?

Proponents say it’s healthier than our usual diet of cooked meals, that foods in their natural form are more nutritious.

Benefits attributed to raw food include a lower risk of disease, improved energy, better looking skin and less body fat.

Health experts warn, though, that eating a mostly raw diet could lead to some unintended health consequences.

Key benefits include that a raw food diet often is high in fresh fruits and vegetables, which often are lacking in a standard American diet. That means it can supply higher amounts of certain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and disease-fighting dietary fiber.

Some evidence also suggests that going raw helps promote weight loss. When someone switches from a mostly cooked diet or one dominated by calorie-dense, processed foods to a mostly raw diet, calorie intake is likely to decrease, often resulting in weight loss.

Also, cooking increases the digestibility of foods, making it easier for your body to obtain the calories from them.

Raw food is costly, metabolically speaking, to eat and digest. So the calories your body takes from raw carrots could end up being less than that what you’d get from the same amount of cooked carrots.

And a study found that a strict raw food diet can lower levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, which can benefit heart health (but HDL “good” cholesterol also fell, which is not ideal.)

Cooking can decrease certain nutrients in food, especially water-soluble ones like vitamin C and the B vitamins. But the act of heating increases the availability of other nutrients and antioxidants, such as lycopene and beta-carotene. Cooking grains and legumes reduces so-called “antinutrients” including lectins and phytic acid to help bolster nutrient availability.

A concern is that a poorly executed no-cook diet can leave people deficient in protein and nutrients like zinc, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin B12, leading to health issues like poor bone health and menstrual disturbances. Research suggests that a raw food diet can raise the risk for dental erosion versus a standard diet.

Another concern is that, with lower energy intake, those who are physically active might struggle to get enough calories to support training.

A core belief behind the raw food diet is that cooking destroys the health-giving “live” enzymes in foods. Enzymes are proteins. When we eat proteins, they are denatured by our gastric acids, rendering their biological function useless.

Cooking our food has another advantage — it kills harmful bacteria and viruses that can be present in raw and uncooked food items.

A raw food diet can be challenging to keep up for reasons including boredom with limited food choices and being hard to follow.

You could argue that it’s important to eat a variety of raw and cooked foods for optimal nutrition. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that cooking somehow makes food bad for you.

Environmental Nutrition is an independent newsletter written by nutrition experts on health and nutrition.