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Ask the Dietitians

What You Need to Know About Following a Raw Diet

Should you give up on cooking and stick to raw foods only? Here’s how it may impact your nutrition.

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Getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, and nutrient-rich whole foods in your daily diet is key regardless of whether you’re low-carb, high-protein, intermittent fasting, gluten-free, or trying any other eating approach. But should your diet be predominantly filled with fresh, uncooked foods? Raw diets have gained popularity – here’s what you need to know before you give this approach a try.

What is a Raw Diet?

A raw diet, or a raw food diet, is an eating approach that includes only uncooked and unprocessed foods. As the Cleveland Clinic notes, a raw diet is centered around eating foods in their natural state. Processed or heated foods are avoided, as it’s thought that these preparation methods can change the structure of those foods. 

As registered dietitians Tiffani Bachus and Erin Macdonald, co-founders and creators of URockGirl.com, explain, “The raw diet adheres to the belief that food loses nutrients when cooked over 118 ̊F.”  

So, while a raw foods diet doesn’t involve any cooking or heating, there are other food preparation methods that can be used. For example, blending, juicing, and soaking foods are all part of this eating approach.

There are also different types of raw diets, and this approach can be adapted for different dietary needs:

  • A raw vegan diet is limited to raw, non-animal based foods
  • A raw vegetarian diet excludes meat, fish, and poultry but does include eggs and dairy
  • A raw omnivorous diet includes all types of raw plant and animal foods

Can Cooking Produce Really Have a Nutritional Impact?

Is there truth to the idea behind the raw diet – that cooking food changes its structure and nutritional value?

Bachus and Macdonald note that “While it is true that cooking breaks down enzymes in plant-based foods, this only has a negative effect on foods with water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C. Other nutrients are actually enhanced or made more absorbable when cooked, such as fat-soluble vitamins and the antioxidant lycopene, found in tomatoes.”

Additionally, the Cleveland Clinic points out that it’s really only certain methods of high-heat cooking that may cause food to lose nutrients. Grilling, charring, boiling, and frying can reduce certain nutrients (like those water-soluble vitamins) – but typically only when cooked at a high heat for a long time. Turning down the heat and shortening cook time can help prevent this. 

So, if you’re sautéing, baking, steaming, or using your slow cooker or pressure cooker, the odds are your food isn’t losing any nutrients. In fact, cooking some foods via these common methods can even increase nutrient availability and absorption. According to a 2012 study, the beta-carotene present in carrots increased by 6.5 times when the vegetables were stir-fried versus uncooked. Another study found that eating tomatoes sautéed in olive oil increased blood lycopene levels 80 percent more than opting for uncooked.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Raw Diet?

So, is there really a benefit to switching from cooked foods to uncooked? As Bachus and Macdonald explain, “The primary benefit of the raw diet is the elimination of processed foods and increased fruit and vegetable intake, which leads to a diet low in fat and sugar and high in fiber and antioxidants.”

But there are some disadvantages that can come with a raw foods diet. “The downside is that the elimination of meat, fish and dairy can lead to deficiencies in iron, omega-3s, calcium and vitamin B12, as well as lycopene and fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin D,” Bachus and Macdonald note. “While we encourage you to incorporate the raw diet into your clean-eating lifestyle by opting to consume foods rich in water-soluble vitamins (such as bell peppers and broccoli) raw, stick to traditional methods for all other foods.”

A Raw Diet May Not Be Best for Athletes and Anyone Who’s Training

While trying a raw foods diet may encourage you to eat more fruits and veggies and cut back on ingredients like saturated fats, sugars, and processed additives, it isn’t necessarily the best fit for everyone.

As Rachel MacPherson, CPT and certified nutrition coach, explains, “The raw diet is not optimal for those who follow tough or intensive workout routines or anyone training for a goal or even such as a marathon or cycling race. Raw food diets are unable to provide enough energy for such high-level activity. Raw food diets are harder to obtain enough energy from since cooking foods helps humans break down and use nutrients.”

Additionally, you may find yourself missing crucial nutrients necessary for your sport, your physical recovery, and your sports nutrition. “The vegan nature of most raw food diets also puts athletes at risk of deficiencies of protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D; and are often not sufficient in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA,” MacPherson says. “Although there are plant-based sources of some of these nutrients, they are harder to convert when in plant form and especially in raw form. This puts female athletes at an even greater risk since their needs for iron are much higher than men’s and iron, vitamin D, and calcium deficiencies are extremely common in female athletes, even those who eat cooked food, including meats.”

What If You Want to Try a Raw Diet as an Athlete?

You can still give a raw foods diet a try if you’d like, even if you’re training or pushing through tough workouts. MacPherson recommends keeping nutrients in mind if you do so: “If you are going to try a raw diet, you will want to keep a close eye on your protein, vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, iodine, and vitamin D, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. You’ll also likely want to supplement with creatine and beta-alanine since raw vegan diets don’t supply much creatine, an important nutrient for muscle building and repair.”

Ultimately, though, MacPherson says, “There are no real benefits of trying a raw diet that can’t be found by simply increasing the amount of plant-based foods you eat.” Rather, it’s best to focus on the following nutritional staples: “Eating more plants is associated with better health outcomes, and one of the most vital foods for the health and performance of athletes is whole grains, which are commonly eaten in plenty on a plant-based diet. Protein is of particular importance as well, but if you’d prefer to avoid animal products, pea and other vegan protein powders can be equally as effective as dairy-based ones. “

And lastly, don’t forget that nutrition is personal – especially if you’re training! “If you do choose to follow a raw diet, it’s best to see a dietician or nutritionist that can help you craft a plan catered to your specific needs and health concerns. Be willing to make adjustments for your health, such as adding more cooked foods if you are experiencing deficiencies and adverse effects of your diet,” MacPherson recommends.  

Featured recipe: No-Cook Zoodles with Wakame Pesto