The newest popular diet is to eat uncooked foods, but is it as healthy as people say it is? Many high-profile celebrities think it is, including many athletes and movie stars. While there are many health benefits to eating raw foods, there are also some negative consequences that many are unaware of before trying the diet.
As a registered dietitian, I get plenty of questions about how to go about healthy eating, and the raw food diet is no exception. Here, the most important pros and cons you should know before trying out this lifestyle.
When you’re eating a fully raw or even partially raw diet, à la Brady and Bündchen, that means you’re taking in mostly plants. When you’re focusing less on things like dairy, tofu, eggs, fish, and meat, you naturally have more space in your diet for fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. “Typically, it is also a low-sodium diet and free from added sugars, preservatives, and unhealthy additives,” Sonya Angelone, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told SELF when discussing Brady and Bündchen’s diet. She adds that raw diets are consistently high in the superpower nutrient fiber, which most Americans actually don’t get enough of. Fiber bulks up as it digests, meaning it helps keep you fuller longer, which can help you make healthy eating decisions throughout the day.
Besides potentially helping you maintain or lose weight, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is excellent for your skin, your weight, and the environment, plus it lowers your odds of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, Dana Hunnes, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., explained in a previous SELF.com piece about why she loves her plant-based diet.
All that filling fiber is great for keeping your appetite in check, making sure you hit the bathroom often enough, and reducing your risk of issues like heart disease. But it can also lead to some pretty uncomfortable bloating and gas, especially since cooking vegetables helps break them down so they’re easier on your digestive system. Without that, your body can have a harder time processing them, leading to that oh-so-swollen feeling.
When trying to eat a lot of raw foods, you may also overdo it on the healthy fats, experts say. To be sure, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in foods like avocados, olives, nuts, and seeds, are good for you. They can help reduce LDL cholesterol (aka the “bad” one), plus boost your heart and brain health. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing—these foods are high in calories, so you can gain weight if you’re not aware of your portions. “Just because these foods may contribute to good health doesn’t mean they can be eaten all day,” Angelone says.
Fat isn’t the only potentially problematic macronutrient when you’re eating raw. Getting enough protein on an 80/20 raw diet is hard enough. “It’s not impossible, but may require some planning,” New York City-based R.D. Jessica Cording told SELF in a previous article. “Nuts, seeds, and even some veggies provide protein, but you may want to make sure that other 20 percent involves some protein-rich eggs, fish, meat, dairy products, or vegetarian sources of protein such as beans, peas, lentils, tofu, or tempeh.” But most of that is verboten when you’re eating as little cooked food as possible, which brings us to the real issue with raw food diets: If you try to go all-in, it simply isn’t sustainable.
Any time you take healthy eating to such an extreme, like trying to only eat raw foods, it’s not a very realistic way to live. Even if you could maintain this strict lifestyle, it would be very hard to do it while enjoying other important aspects of a healthy life, like social situations involving eating out or eating at someone else’s house. And for those with a history of disordered eating, a restrictive diet such as this one might not be a healthy choice at all. While raw food diets certainly have a good premise, it isn’t necessary to only eat raw foods to be healthy or lose weight, if that’s your goal. (And if it is, cutting out major swaths of the food groups may not be a healthy or sustainable approach, not to mention that there’s so much else that goes into weight loss, including physical activity, good quality sleep, stress management, and factors that may be out of your control, such as health issues and hormones.)
Finally, a word about what cooking produce does to its nutritional profile:
Someone recently asked me if cooking food breaks down important vitamins and minerals and whether that might be a good reason to adopt a raw diet. While many times it is true that the more heat and water vegetables are cooked in, the more nutrients are leached, this is not always the case. It depends on the food and nutrient in question.
In general, your body absorbs some nutrients, like vitamin C, better from raw food because they’re easily destroyed with cooking, according to Angelone. But other nutrients, like iron, are most beneficial after the food they’re in has been cooked. In fact, many veggies, such as tomatoes, increase their nutritional profiles of important nutrients, like the antioxidant lycopene, through the cooking process.
When in doubt, try steaming: It uses very little water and only a short time in heat, so veggies shouldn’t lose very many nutrients at all. For some vegetables, research even shows that steaming can potentially increase a food’s cancer-killing properties. A study done by some researchers at the University of Illinois found that when broccoli was heated through steaming, the number of sulforaphanes (a compound in broccoli that fights cancer) increased. Microwaving the broccoli also kept this beneficial compound intact, later research showed.
So, while I do recommend cooking vegetables in as little water and as little time in heat as possible (no boiling!) and eating lots of raw fruits and veggies, your entire diet does not need to consist of raw foods only. Most people need to eat more fruits and vegetables, yes—but even if they lose a bit of nutritional value via your cooking method, the overall health benefits of eating the rainbow are impossible to deny.
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