Do Raw Food (Living Food) Diets Promote Good Health?
“In nature all animals eat living foods as yielded up by nature. Only humans cook their foods and only humans suffer widespread sicknesses and ailments. Those humans who eat mostly living foods are more alert; think clearer, sharper, and more logically; and become more active. Best of all, live food eaters become virtually sickness-free! Cooking is a process of food destruction from the moment heat is applied to the foodstuff. Long before dry ashes results, food values are totally destroyed.”—TC Fry
These words of TC Fry, a passionate proponent of the raw foods diet, highlight the central beliefs of this eating style (also known as the living food diet). Fry later loosened his dietary restrictions to include cooked foods, a change that many raw foodists blame for his death.
What Makes Up a Raw Food Diet?
A raw food diet is essentially what its name implies—a diet consisting of raw fruits, vegetables, and grains. Although some warming is allowed, no foods can be heated above 116ºF (47ºC). Above this temperature, the natural enzymes in foods are destroyed. Raw foodists contend that these enzymes improve digestion and fight many chronic diseases.
This emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and grains is in line with expert nutrition recommendations. These foods are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals, while being low in calories, fat, and sodium. However, the severe limitations that accompany this diet make it difficult to follow and create a risk for malnutrition. Protein is a concern. Nuts and seeds provide protein and therefore must be eaten in great quantities to fulfill protein needs. Vitamin B12, which is only found in animal products, must be taken in supplement form. The low calorie content of the foods in a raw food diet make it necessary to eat a large quantity of food each day to meet basic calorie needs.
In addition, the enzyme concerns are unfounded. The human body creates and uses a variety of enzymes, and does not rely on those found in foods. During normal digestion, stomach acid breaks down food enzymes, rendering them useless. Therefore, you do not need to avoid cooking in the hopes of preserving enzymes.
Does Cooking Destroy Food?
Raw foodists believe that cooking not only destroys enzymes, but also renders food toxic. To support this belief, some raw food proponents cite the National Academies of Science 1982 report, Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer, which names acrylamide and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) as possible carcinogens. These chemicals are formed in foods during cooking. However, neither the American Cancer Society (ACS) nor the National Cancer Institute (NCI) goes so far as to recommend a raw food diet to reduce the risk of cancer from these chemicals. Instead, they stress that following a healthful diet—one rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, both raw and cooked—is still the best known way to reduce cancer risk.
Acrylamide has caused cancer in lab rats, but has not been shown to do so in humans. The foods with the highest levels of acrylamide are those that should be limited in a healthful diet anyway, such as potato chips and French fries. Experts see no need to avoid cooked potatoes entirely. Likewise, HCAs, which are formed when meat is cooked to greater than 480°F (249ºC), may increase cancer risk. However, HCAs can be reduced through minor shifts in cooking methods, rather than significant dietary changes. For example, varying cooking methods; microwaving meat before frying, broiling, or barbecuing; blanching potatoes before frying; and not making gravy from meat drippings.
The Advantages of Cooking
While cooking decreases the levels of certain vitamins (namely B and C), it also increases the body’s absorption of carotenoids like beta-carotene and lycopene, both of which have beneficial properties. Because of this nutritional “toss-up,” experts recommend a diet that is varied—both in foods and in means of preparation.
Another benefit to cooking is that it kills bacteria. Food safety is an issue for all foods, not just meats and eggs. People following a raw food diet must take extra care in washing their foods before eating, as many staples of the raw food diet have been linked to food borne-illness. These include cantaloupe, sprouts, raspberries, fresh juices (not pasteurized), green onions, and lettuce.
Is It Only About the Food?
More than just a dietary habit, the raw food way of eating is part of a greater life philosophy. Many people who choose to follow this highly restrictive diet are striving to be closer to nature. In fact, the diet has been traced back to early 19th century Europe, when it developed as a reaction to the rise of factories. Workers who once spent their days in physical labor on farms were moved to more sedentary jobs inside large, poorly lit factories. The appearance of canned foods also sent many looking for a way to reconnect with nature.
The raw foods diet has persisted, and continues to be associated with a variety of social, spiritual, environmental, and psychological ideologies. Some people even feed this diet to their pets.
Can a Raw Foods Diet Promote Good Health?
Raw foods are certainly very healthful, there’s no disagreement about that. However, there is no evidence that consuming only raw foods—as opposed to a diet of both raw and cooked foods—prevents sickness and enhances mental acuity.
The best supported nutrition advice comes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) dietary guidelines:
“Each basic food group is the major contributor of at least one nutrient while making substantial contributions of many other nutrients. Because each food group provides a wide array of nutrients in substantial amounts, it is important to include all food groups in the daily diet."
American Dietetic Association
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Dietitians of Canada
American Cancer Society. Heterocyclic amines in cooked meats. American Cancer Society website. Available at:
http://cis.nci.nih.gov/fact/3_25.htm. Accessed May 13, 2008.
Bratman S. Health Food Junkies. New York: Broadway Books; 2000.
Commission on Life Sciences. Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer [e-book]. The National Academies Press; 1982. Available at: http://books.nap.edu/books/0309032806/html/index.html. Accessed October 30, 2003.
Eating in the raw. In: Food Facts for You! University of Wisconsin-Extension website. Available at: http://www.wisc.edu/foodsafety/consumer/food_facts_archive/foodfacts. Accessed October 31, 2003.
National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide in foods. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/newscenter/pressreleases/acrylamide. Accessed October 30, 2003.
National Cancer Institute. Acrylamide in foods and cancer risk. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/risk/acrylamide-in-food. Accessed May 26, 2010.
National Cancer Institute. Heterocyclic amines in cooked meats. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/heterocyclic-amines. Accessed May 26, 2010.
The “raw food diet.” American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/Public/NutritionInformation/index_13313.cfm. Accessed May 13, 2008.
Last reviewed May 2010 by Maria Adams, MS, MPH, RD
Last updated Updated: 6/23/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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