The dirt on raw food diets

For as long as I’ve been practicing medicine, raw food has always been a topic of great interest to both me and my patients. But as with most “alternative” fascinations, it’s taken a good three decades to work its way into mainstream health conversations, and into most folks’ sphere of awareness.

You can probably credit the diabesity boom for this newfound popularity in dieting. As Americans have gradually gotten fatter and fatter, we’ve devoted plenty of discussion to what, exactly, led us here. Our addictions to sugar and fast food are, of course, among the most obvious explanations.

But raw food devotees have other theories — pinpointing modern cooking and processing techniques as the real Pandora’s Box behind bad health. They believe that by switching mainly to uncooked and unprocessed foods like our ancestors, we could restore our health and undo the damage triggered by the modern day diet.

But needless to say, not everyone — myself included — agrees.

Eat your enzymes at every meal

While I would like to blame Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, this “fad” started way before her. Raw food-ism, much like low carb dieting, dates back as far as the late 1800s. The idea then, as it is now, is that cooked foods would have less nutritional value than raw ones.

You’ll find various forms of this eating preference. Some avoid animal products completely and eat only uncooked produce. Others focus on consuming raw, unpasteurized dairy.

Despite the specific type of raw diet, the concept behind it is this: Cooking above a certain temperature (about 104° to 118°F) strips food of its natural enzymes. This, in turn, could impact digestion, and lower the amount of nutrition you’re getting out of what you eat.

None of this is wrong, of course. Our over-processed food supply has left a lot of people enzyme-deficient. And struggling with any number of chronic health problems — from IBS to arthritis — because of it.

But that doesn’t mean that everything you eat should be perfectly raw and untouched. In fact, raw food diets have a number of noteworthy pitfalls — namely, higher risk of foodborne illnesses. And what always seems to surprise raw food advocates is that their diets don’t contain nearly as many key nutrients as other healthy diets.

A vegan diet by another name

In case you haven’t guessed, uncooked vegan diets — featuring fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds, sprouted grains, and beans — are the most popular form of a raw food diet. And yes, eating this way will indeed lower your cholesterol.

But it mostly lowers levels of healthy HDL cholesterol. And without targeted supplementation, this style of eating often leads straight to a deficiency in vitamin B12.

And that’s not all: One German study of raw food dieters revealed a variable level of antioxidants, including high levels of beta-carotene, but low levels of lycopene — a critical cancer-fighting phytonutrient that’s most abundant in cooked tomatoes.

That’s right. While leafy greens are definitely going to deliver more antioxidants when you eat them raw rather than cooked, letting foods like tomatoes and carrots simmer actually boosts their antioxidant content.

Don’t get me wrong — raw vegetables and low-sugar fruits will always be the cornerstones of a healthy diet. But eating them exclusively is probably a bridge too far.

These types of diets are a nightmare for a lot of other reasons. Among the more serious unintended consequences, research links them to reproductive problems in adults and deficient neurological growth in kids.

As for pasteurization, well… I’m not sure how I feel about it. Yes, it kills lethal bacteria — but it takes beneficial nutrients, including probiotic bacteria, along with it. Studies note lower rates of allergies among farm kids raised on raw milk, and it’s no wonder why.

There’s even a raw water movement out there these days — and I’m sorry, but I definitely can’t get behind that. Unclean water has and continues to kill millions of people, even in modern times.

If you want my take on the best way to maximize enzymes in your diet, I invite you to check out the August 2014 issue of my monthly newsletter, Logical Health Alternatives. Subscribers have access to all of my back issues in the archives—so if you haven’t yet, what are you waiting for? Sign up today.