Advocates of Raw Veganism, a diet where nothing is consumed except uncooked raw plant foods, claim that it is the healthiest diet. Is it?
First, we need to define what the healthiest diet would do for somebody. In many people’s minds, including mine, the healthiest diet would reduce incidences of colds and flus to almost nothing, dramatically decrease the risk of developing chronic or degenerative diseases, and, barring tragic accidents, allow anyone following the diet to live until at least the age of 100 with mind and body still intact.
What about the gurus?
With that in mind, let me play the devil’s advocate and look at a couple of the earliest raw foodists. If you are already into raw food veganism, you have undoubtedly heard of Ann Wigmore, one of the great pioneers in the raw food movement. She died at age eighty-five.
Then there is T.C. Fry. Heard of him? He is the pioneer in the fruitarian movement. He died at age 69 from a blood clot.
Doesn’t sound like a great track record, right? In fact, raw food skeptics use those kinds of stories to illustrate how unhealthy a 100% raw food diet is.
Well, what if I told you that Ann Wigmore died from smoke inhalation when her health institute caught fire? And that after being told by doctors that they didn’t expect him to live very long, T.C. Fry healed himself from a bad heart, obesity, and several other conditions of ill health in his mid-forties by going on a high-fruit, raw diet?
Seems like his diet did a good bit for his body, which maybe could never fully recover from his previous illnesses. Not only that, but people who were close to him revealed post-mortem that he sometimes fell back into eating the standard Western diet.
Then there is the fact that until very recently, there has been very little information about how to be a healthy vegan, let alone a healthy raw vegan.
But even though there is much better information available now, and easily available via the Internet, most people who try a 100% raw food diet eventually quit. How can any diet with such high recidivism be truly healthy? Well, there are several possible reasons that people leave the eating lifestyle.
Why people quit the raw vegan diet
Number one, the purist gurus argue that you can get all the nutrition you need on a raw vegan diet…no matter what you diet consists of. Want to eat bananas all day? No problem! You’ll get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs without taking any supplements.
In other words, they completely ignore what is known about the human body’s nutritional needs as well as the widely varying range of nutrients in different foods. If you want to be healthy on any kind of diet, you need to provide your body with all the macronutrients and micronutrients that it needs on a daily basis. But many people believe the gurus, then when they start to feel not so great they come to believe that raw veganism is the problem, and quit.
Then there is the whole vitamin B12 issue. Click here for a detailed article about it, but right now I am going to say this: any kind of vegan (and many non-vegans, as well, when it comes down to it) needs to take a B12 supplement.
For an entire year, I consumed nothing but raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. One year, then I began adding meat back into my diet. Why?
Six months into the gig, I started developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Six. Months.
I trudged on for another six months, and when the struggle to think of basic, everyday words only got worse, I added meat back into my diet and my mind started working again. I didn’t know it then, but I had developed a B12 deficiency.
And I’m not the only one. Author and former raw vegan Susan Schenck went for six years before her memory fell apart to the point that she went back to eating animal products. All because she was led to believe that she could get all the B12 she needed on a raw vegan diet.
So purist gurus with no background in nutrition screwing up other people’s lives with their misinformation is one reason people leave 100% raw veganism.
A second reason is fiber. If you eat a 100% raw food diet, you are not allowed to cook even the tough, fibrous leafy green vegetables. This is fine if you have a strong digestive system as some raw food YouTubers seem to have, being able to chew and swallow several pounds of dark, leafy greens at one sitting.
Of course, you need a of time to be able to chew food like that properly in order to get the nutrition out of it.
But what if your digestive system doesn’t handle that much fiber very well? Or what if you simply don’t want to spend hours of your life every day chewing raw kale and raw Swiss chard?
The glib, common answer is to drink green smoothies. Sure, using a high-speed blender will break down the fiber to the extent that most people can handle it. But frankly, to put enough greens in a smoothie to get enough of the vitamins and minerals you need to have optimum health on a raw vegan diet, you have to force yourself to get used to some pretty strong tastes.
Give me three cups of steamed kale with a sprinkling of salt and a dash of vinegar over a banana-kale smoothie any day. And I’m speaking as a person who made herself to drink two dark, leafy green smoothies every day for a year.
But most people aren’t as strong-willed as I am. Most people who jump aboard the raw veganism bandwagon eat what tastes good to them, not what will provide them the nutrition they need.
The third reason people leave 100% raw food veganism is related. If you allowed yourself some cooked whole grains and/or cooked beans, you wouldn’t have to work so hard to get your nutrition from vegetables and seeds. Seeds are not evil in and of themselves, but raw foodists who tend to avoid the dark, leafy greens end up eating too much fat in the form of nuts and seeds to get their nutrition.
If they included a cup or two of whole grains in their daily diet, along with a cup of sprouted and cooked beans, they would not have to work nearly as hard (or spend nearly as much money) to get the nutrition they need.
Bottom line: most people who become 100% raw do not stay 100% raw because the diet eventually fails them. Many leave the 100% plant-based eating lifestyle altogether.
That is not because the diet is inherently unhealthy or inferior to any other kind of diet. That is because the would-be raw food enthusiasts either don’t know how to get all the nutrition they need, or their body does not allow them to eat certain nutrient-dense foods, such as broccoli or collard greens, raw. Or, they try to follow a type of raw diet that goes against their biochemical needs and instead of trying to tweak it, they give up.
The answer to the first issue is obvious: get educated! Read The Raw Food Nutrition Handbook by Karin Dina. The answer to the second: don’t be a purist!
If you need to eat some cooked brown rice to keep your blood sugar levels stable or because you can’t afford to eat fruit all day, or if you’re like me and cannot eat more than a handful of raw broccoli without gagging, then by all means, cook the food that you need to cook!
As for the third issue, being ignorant of your biochemical needs, well, learn to listen to your body rather than the gurus who say that their way is the only way.
But let’s go back to 100% raw vegan. Is it the healthiest diet? Followers of this eating lifestyle say that it is the way the original humans ate, so yes, it must be.
While there is no scientific proof that nutrient-dense 100% raw veganism is superior to any other diet, many studies have born out the fact that eating plant foods in their raw states generally provides superior nutrition to produce that has been cooked. Long-term raw foodists who eat according to their individual biochemical needs report having more energy, improved sleep, and fewer viruses than they used to when they ate mostly cooked food.
My opinion is that, assuming that you are taking a B12 supplement and consuming enough dark, leafy greens in whatever form suits you to get the minerals you need, a 100% raw vegan diet could be the healthiest type for many people.
What if you don’t want to, or cannot, eat 100% raw? Remember that the preponderance of studies points to a whole-foods vegan diet as being the healthiest, whether raw or cooked. So if you are craving a quinoa and chickpea curry meal, or minestrone soup with whole grain bread; if you can’t stand green smoothies and can’t digest the dark, leafy greens without cooking them; I give you permission to get out your saucepan, get out your skillet, and cook to your heart’s delight.
Just be sure you’re not going overboard with fat, and that you’re getting the nutrition you need.