Raw Food Diet
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
Many people choose raw food for all their meals. Others prefer some meals raw – generally breakfasts and lunches.
Followers of 100% raw diets are usually those who have robust constitutions and good digestive systems; whereas for those with sluggish digestive systems who feel the cold more easily, it can be more of a challenge to eat all meals raw.
One of the main reasons to eat raw is because raw foods contain far more beneficial enzymes and vitamins that have not been destroyed by heat in the cooking process.
A Raw Food Diet gives you a multitude of great recipes to choose including yummy deserts, chocolates, great salads, and dehydrator warmed foods to enjoy. Eating this way can be a whole new adventure into a world of nutrient dense, enzyme rich, great tasting foods.
For instance, you might consider a delicious sustaining raw breakfast such as a chia seeds muesli with berries and crushed nuts, while for lunch a salad with nuts or walnut meat, or zucchini noodles with pesto and pine nuts (tastes great). Or have a warm soup or cooked meal for dinner if that suits you.
Raw food doesn’t always mean cold food because raw food is often warmed in a dehydrator or an oven at very low temperature. Provided the temperature isn’t too high to kill off the valuable enzymes in food, it is considered raw.
So give it a go and see how it feels for your body (and you can always vary your meals for different times of the day).
What exactly is a raw food diet?
‘Raw foodism’ as it is sometimes termed, has been around since the 1800s, and both scientific studies and anecdotal evidence show many benefits of a raw food diet. Advocates of the raw food movement say that eating more raw foods will give us plenty of nutrients in an easy-to-digest manner, full of natural enzymes in the way that our bodies were designed to eat.
Raw foodists claim that because cooking destroys many vital nutrients and enzymes, our digestion is adversely affected and we can’t digest cooked food properly, which means less nutrients for our bodies.
On the other hand, there are certain foods that we certainly can’t digest well unless they are cooked, like meats and particular grains – but a raw foodist would generally not eat these foods anyway.
While there’s no need to go completely raw or to declare yourself a ‘raw vegan’, it makes sense to eat some raw foods every day to benefit your health and vitality.
- may lower inflammation
- can provide more energy
- may improve digestion
- helps clear skin issues
- provides more fibre
- helps to maintain a healthy body weight
- improves heart health
- lowers carcinogens in your diet
- assists in the prevention of cancers
- may prevent or treat constipation
- helps support good liver function
- prevent nutrient deficiencies
- normalises white blood cells (more below)
Raw food diets include far more than just fruit and vegetables. In addition to raw fruits and vegetables, you can eat marinated fish, sea vegetables (seaweed, kelp, nori, wakame), fermented foods, nuts, seeds, raw eggs (think mayonnaise) and even some raw marinated meat and coconut products.
Raw food usually excludes homogenized, pasteurized, food produced with chemical fertilizers, synthetic pesticides, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives. This means avoiding most packaged and processed foods like breads, bottled condiments, cereals, crackers, dairy products, gluten foods, refined sugar, refined oils, and processed meats.
Raw food and our white blood cells
White blood cells are those that fight foreign invaders, pathogens, and foods we should not consume. Studies were done on white blood cells while participants ate food. The research showed that when we eat cooked foods, our white blood cells elevate for a while, as if there is an invading stranger that may need to be dealt with.
When cooked and raw foods are eaten together, the rise in white blood cells isn’t as dramatic. And most intriguing, raw foods do not elevate white blood cells, which suggests that raw food eating is more harmonious for us.
Who does the raw food diet suit the best?
While we can benefit from eating lots of fresh produce, many think that eating raw food is for the ‘stone age’ eaters who don’t know how to build a fire. But as mentioned previously, some cooked foods can be harder to digest than raw foods, plus cooking nutrient-dense foods tends to destabilize some of the valuable enzymes and destroy certain antioxidants and vitamins.
Raw foods help to alkalize the body which means there will be less chance of fermentation in the gut. Fermentation may contribute to inflammation and autoimmune reactions.
Some people can benefit from eating more raw foods than others, especially those with health conditions such as:
- food allergies
- autoimmune disorders
- hormonal imbalances
- muscle aches and pains
- high cholesterol
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- overweight issues
- kidney disease
- gallbladder disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- joint pain
Enzymes and raw foods
Digestive enzymes are used by the body to break down foods into individual nutrients. Your body’s ability to absorb nutrients is very important, and much of this comes down to how many enzymes you have available for digestion. Some digestive enzymes are made by the body (the stomach and pancreas for example) and others come directly from the foods we eat.
The more enzymes we consume from our food, the greater our ability to get the nutrients we need, without having to overburden our body to make more enzymes.
Each food is different in terms of when it starts to lose some of its nutrients when cooked. Many high-antioxidant foods, such as blueberries, are very sensitive to cooking because phytonutrients, anti-oxidants, and most vitamins, don’t tolerate high temperatures.
Foods heated over 44 Celsius (112 Fahrenheit) can lose vital enzymes, antioxidants, and many vitamins. Minerals seem to stay intact better with heat, but some can still be lost.
Of course, there are other factors, such as how fresh your produce is. The longer it sits around at room temperature or above, the less vital it is. We see when limp foods have lost valuable nutrients, so it’s not just cooking that can diminish the vitality of food. Fresh produce with good food storage is essential for your health.
Another issue relates to the length of time that food stays in our digestive system. The longer it takes food to pass through our digestive system, the more likely it is to ferment and cause problems.
Food fermenting in your gut causes gas, inflammation, and toxic waste which creates proteins to putrefy, and fats to go rancid. This negatively affects the mucosal lining of the gut and can lead to intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome). Raw foods are less likely to ferment in your digestive system.
Raw foods also have a big impact on the acid/alkaline balance in your body. Diseases develop more easily within a body that is more acidic because acidity lowers immunity. The body can become overly acidic due to environmental pollution, stress, processed and refined foods, sugar, lack of nutrients and poor water quality.
Cooked foods can create more acidity in the body, whereas raw foods can help to alkalize the body.
Fermented foods in a raw food diet
Pre-fermented foods are beneficial for you because they provide a way to get more probiotic rich ingredients into your body. The good bacteria in our gut are very important because they are responsible for one of the stages of nutrient absorption and help our immune system to look after us. About 70 to 80% of your immune system is in your gut, so you need to look after your good bacteria.
Fermented foods help to prevent digestive disorders, skin problems, infections, and support hormones, healthy weight, and auto-immune disorders. Eating fermented foods like sauerkraut, coconut yoghurt and coconut kefir can be an easy and loving way to look after your digestive system.
Gut fermentation vs pre-fermented foods
After reading about poorly digested foods fermenting and rotting in our digestive systems, and then reading about how consuming fermented foods can be good for us, some might find that contradictory and confusing.
If fermentation in our gut is bad for us, how can eating fermented foods be good for us?
The answer lies in the type of bacteria and the type of fermentation. Let’s take a step back and understand when something dies in nature, inside and outside must break down into its individual components so it can be of further use in another way.
Inside our bodies, this is the process of digestion (the breakdown) to obtain our vitamins, minerals, fats, and amino acids from food. In nature, it is the same when microbes and insects break down dead animals and plants into micronutrients.
Think of a tree or plant that falls and dies; insects and bugs break it down so it is absorbed into the humus layer of the ground, fertilising and feeding the living plants around it.
If we don’t have the proper digestive processes happening in our bodies via various acids, enzymes, and friendly bacteria, then other ‘bad’ bacteria, parasites, fungi etc will break it down instead. This is the process of fermentation we refer to in a poorly functioning gut.
There is also a difference between aerobic and anaerobic fermentation. I won’t get too ‘sciencey’, except to say that aerobic fermentation is the healthy process which uses aerobic bacteria such as acidophilus etc. Whereas anaerobic fermentation (meaning without oxygen) is basically the rotting process.
With fermented foods, bacteria partially pre-digest the food before we eat it, which can make it easier for us to digest certain foods, provided that ‘good’ bacteria are dominant. A good indicator of beneficial food fermentation is if it smells and tastes good.
This shows us that it has the ‘good’ bacteria that suits our body and in fact increases the ‘friendly’ bacteria levels in our gut, which helps our systems to heal leaky gut and breakdown certain nutrients into more absorbable forms.
Even fermented food can be wrong at times. For instance, if you open a bottle of sauerkraut and it smells disgusting, then you know the wrong type of bacteria has come into play and it is not healthy for us to eat.
Similarly, if we have foods inappropriately fermenting in our gut, then the foul-smelling gases (aka ‘farts’) that pass out of our body is a sign that all is not right with our bacteria, or what we ate, or how our body processed what we ate.
Cooking foods with certain antioxidants like beta-carotene and lycopene, found in vegetables like squash, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, helps them to release their nutrients and make them more absorbable.
Cooking is also useful to kill ‘bad’ bacteria and pathogens that can live in some foods, especially fish, eggs and meat, but cold ‘cooking’ with lemon, lime juice or vinegars on meat and fish can help.
However, fish and meat must be super fresh, often called ‘sashimi grade’. Eggs need to be organic pasture raised and very fresh to limit the possibility of salmonella poisoning. Raw egg (e.g. mayonnaise) should be avoided by pregnant women and young children to avoid any risk of salmonella.
Vegetables from the cruciferous vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts contain goitrogenic compounds. Excessive quantities of these can block thyroid function and contribute to hypothyroidism. Goitrogenic compounds are mostly deactivated by heat and cooking.
Raw foods diets are not for everybody because they can be hard to digest for those with weak digestive systems. Raw fruits and vegetables are high in fibre and are not advisable while there is inflammation in the gut, particularly for conditions such as diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, or Crohn’s disease. For these conditions, cooked food is a better option.
It is common when you first start a raw food diet to get extra wind/gas as your body clears out old debris from your digestive system. If this continues for more than a couple of weeks or is very uncomfortable, then you may need to consider if you have a bacterial overgrowth of your small intestine called SIBO.
Your health practitioner can help you find out if this is the case. If so, you may need additional support for a while from a SIBO diet before going back onto the raw food diet.
You may wish to have a 100% raw diet, but if this doesn’t suit or you can’t bear the thought of giving up some of your favourite cooked foods, then incorporate more raw foods into your diet so you can still gain many of the benefits. Here are some of the foods you can easily include in your diet:
- Leafy greens
- Sunflower, sesame, and pumpkin seeds
- Coconut kefir
- Raw veggies, especially salad type ingredients like carrots, celery, tomatoes, etc.
- Extra virgin coconut or olive oil
- Cultured veggies (like sauerkraut)
Before you commence your diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Client names and identifying information changed
I want to share a situation that happened many years ago in clinic when staff who worked at a raw food retreat came to see me. They all had ‘before and after’ blood and health screenings with me.
The ‘before’ tests were done at the beginning of their employment. The ‘after’ tests were run after they worked at the retreat centre for three months and had only consumed raw foods during this time.
Their ‘before’ results were quite good as they were all fairly health conscious. After three months, it was interesting to see that most of the group felt much better with more energy and vitality, and their blood was less sticky.
But there was a small group of staff who felt awful, sick, lethargic, and not their bright bubbly selves. They generally had weaker digestive systems to start with and sluggish elimination systems. I felt that a 100% raw food diet didn’t suit this group.
I gave them a trial to have two or three of their daily meals still raw, and to incorporate one meal a day as a bone and vegetable broth. I also recommended to stop eating sprouted legumes which may have been harder to digest.
After only two weeks they all reported feeling much better. One staff member felt it was important for her to eat two cooked meals a day and a raw salad for lunch, which worked well for her.
The point is that everyone may not benefit from a 100% raw diet – there are those who need to include some cooked food. Follow how your body feels. That’s important!
Bear in mind that during the first few weeks, your body may go through a detox and not feel too good. But then you should feel great. If not, introduce a small amount of cooked foods.
Or go the other way where you eat cooked meals and gradually introduce raw foods here and there, slowly increasing the raw foods as your body adjusts to this new way of eating.
Do what feels best for your body is the main motto.
Client name and identifying information changed
Many years ago, under my True Vitality naturopathic banner, I ran one-week raw food retreats bi-monthly in beautiful Byron Bay for three years which were loved by many people.
In the beginning I included juice fasting day during the week, and on those days many people would feel very sick, throw-up and get headaches. So I removed the juice days and solely focused on raw foods for the duration of the retreats.
Not many had reactions to the raw foods apart from some headaches from coming off caffeine for the first day or two. Apart from that, the raw foods were well received. Most participants were very excited to discover that there were so many delicious raw food options.
They were also happy to learn that raw foods did not have to be cold and can be served warm up to approx 48°C/118°F so enzymes are not denatured. We also included hot herbal teas which helped.
Some of the participants returned home and continued with a 100% raw food diet and found it really suited them, whereas others incorporated some raw foods into their daily diets.
For my family, we tend to vary it according to the weather and how we feel. In the warmer months (and we have plenty of these in Australia) we tend to eat more raw than cooked meals, whereas in winter it tends to be the other way around. Even in winter breakfast is raw, usually a salad for lunch, and at night we usually have a hot meal or soup.
It is important for your health to listen to your body and honour the seasons. I know when I’m feeling run-down or tired or feel like I’m coming down with a cold, then I feel more like warming soups and hot foods. But when I’m feeling good (which is most of the time) then more raw foods suit me.