Is a Raw Vegan Diet Healthy?
Like many people today, I am constantly trying to keep an eye on my weight and am always looking for healthier food choices. As one who currently adopts a flexitarian lifestyle, with my eating habits leaning more on the vegan side of the spectrum, I wanted to take a closer look at the Raw Vegan Diet. I decided it was time for a little research into the topic and get into the nuts and grains of the subject, so to speak.
Is a raw vegan diet healthy? A Raw Vegan Diet can be healthy if properly balanced and supplemented with a few key nutrients not naturally available in the raw vegan diet. However, this lifestyle can be restrictive and difficult to monitor, and proper supervision by a licensed professional is recommended.
Google the term “Raw Vegan Diet”, and you’ll get 128 Million results. Clearly, this is a more popular concept than I had realized. Who knew there would be so much interest in eating nuts and berries and legumes, oh my!? Apparently, there is much more to the Raw Vegan lifestyle than I knew. Time for more research.
What is a Raw Vegan Diet?
Basically put, a Raw Vegan Diet is a hybrid of the Vegan Diet and the Raw Foods Diet. Clear as mud, right? For a clearer understanding, we need to look at each of these diets separately, then put them back together into the Raw Vegan concept.
Think vegetarian on steroids. As you probably know, vegetarians don’t eat meat. Vegans, on the other hand, eat nothing that is animal-based. No butter, milk, cheese, eggs, and so on. Due to rising concerns over the health of our environment and the ethical treatment of farm animals, the Vegan lifestyle is increasingly popular in the United States. A 2017 report indicates that 6% of the population identify themselves as vegan.
The most balanced vegan diet plan includes the following daily:
- 6 servings of grains
- 5 servings of a protein-rich plant, such as legumes, nuts, chickpeas, tofu or plant-based milk like almond or coconut milk
- 4 servings of vegetables
- 2 servings of fruit
- 2 servings of healthy fats, like avocado, sesame oil or coconut oil
These foods can be prepared in just about any way the practitioner chooses, so long as no animal-based preparation methods are utilized. Frying, baking, sautéing, all these methods are fine assuming the oil utilized is plant-based, like sesame or coconut oil.
Here is a good place to start if you want more information on the Vegan diet.
Raw Food Diet
This dietary focus is exactly what it sounds like. Its proponents believe eating their foods raw increases the health benefits. Food is considered to be “raw” if it is never heated over 104-118° F or 40-48° C. Also, it shouldn’t be pasteurized, refined, or processed.
In fact, proponents talk about uncooked food as being “live” and cooked food is considered to be “dead”.
Due to the preparation limitations of the diet, foods are prepared via juicing, dehydration, soaking, sprouting, or blending. Of course, they are also eaten as naturally produced.
Though most Raw Food practitioners are vegetarian, the Raw Food diet does not limit its practitioners to only vegetarian options. Some practitioners will include raw eggs, unpasteurized milk, and other dairies, even raw fish or meats.
No specific servings for each food type are provided in this dietary choice. For nutritional purposes, you would probably want to stay pretty close to the nutritional guidelines of the vegan diet, with the alternative of the animal-based proteins, like eggs, cheese, and so forth, to offset the legumes, chickpeas or tofu previously mentioned.
Most Raw Food practitioners discourage the use of nutritional supplements, believing that their food choices will meet all their nutritional needs. Also, they prefer all-natural, non-processed food choices, nutritional supplements do not meet this guideline.
Check here for more information on the Raw Food Diet.
So, to summarize, the Raw Vegan Diet practitioner eats nothing that is animal-based and eats everything “raw”, as previously defined, meaning heated to no temperature above 104 – 118° F.
What are the benefits of a Raw Vegan Diet?
There have been many studies on the benefits of the Vegan dietary lifestyle and the Raw Food dietary lifestyle. Fewer have included the Vegan Raw food combination. However, there is no reason we can’t consider the published benefits of each type and assume it carries over to the Raw Vegan concept.
There are many health benefits to these dietary choices. We are going to look at a few.
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May Lead to Weight Loss
Scientific studies have shown weight loss associated with both vegan AND raw food diets independently. Few studies have directly included raw vegan diets, but the results of the diets independently certainly would be applicable.
One study found followers of raw diet plans lost over 3.5 years lost an average of 22-26 lbs. (10-12 kg). Also linked, the participants with the highest levels of raw foods had the lowest BMI (body mass index) figures.
A different study found that followers of a raw vegan diet had a body fat percentage of 7-9.4% lower than those individuals following a traditional American diet.
Yet another study compared medically obese (BMI > 25) people who were assigned either a low-fat vegan diet or work cafeteria options. After 18 weeks, the vegan dieters had lost an average of 2.9kg (6 lbs., 6 oz), while the work cafeteria group lost an average of 0.06kb (about 2 oz).
May Improve Heart Health
Diets high in fruits and vegetables have been shown to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, and improve overall cardiac health.
Since the Raw Vegan diet is heavy on legumes, sprouted grains, nuts, and seeds, one can infer it will also improve blood cholesterol levels, which is also heart-healthy.
Additionally, there have been several scientific studies that determined that a vegan diet is particularly helpful in lowering “bad” cholesterol levels and triglycerides, which is good news for your heart!
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr. conducted a study of 198 people with documented cardiovascular disease. Of 177 individuals that followed a strict plant-based diet, only 1 had a recurring stroke. Of the 21 who didn’t follow the diet, 13 experienced recurring cardiovascular events.
May Decrease Risk of Developing Diabetes
The fruit and vegetable focus found in a Raw Vegan diet, particularly when coupled with a large amount of fiber, may also help reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A person’s dietary choices have been found to be the primary contributor to the development of type 2 diabetes in adults and are a crucial component in the management of that disease.
Fruits and vegetables in the diabetic diet have been shown to reduce overall blood sugar levels, particularly those lowest on the glycemic index.
As they are generally low in calories and high in fiber, fruits and vegetables also tend to help with weight loss or maintenance and obesity is a big secondary issue in diabetes.
The high fiber content involved in a Raw Vegan diet is believed to improve overall digestion.
The insoluble fiber adds bulk to the stool, allowing it to move more efficiently through the digestive tract, much like the addition of a fiber supplement to your diet does.
The soluble fiber helps feed the good bacteria in your gut. This aids with absorption and decreases inflammation. This reduction in inflammation could help with issues like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s Disease.
As a minor drawback, many people do develop increased body gas when eating large amounts of raw vegetables. This increase in flatulence can subside as the body adapts to its new internal environment, just a little something to keep in mind.
What are the risks of a Raw Vegan Diet?
As with all things, there is a flip side to the Raw Vegan Diet concept. We’ve examined some of the potential benefits, so now let’s look at some of the identified risks.
Potential Nutritional Deficiency
Due to the limited nature of the Raw Vegan Diet plan, there is a risk of not obtaining key nutrients. Working with a licensed and qualified dietician/nutritionist is highly recommended when making this transition.
- Overall Caloric Intake. Given the high levels of fruits, vegetables, and nuts involved in this dietary concept, the overall caloric intake tends to be much lower than most of us are accustomed to. This is great when weight loss is the goal but can become significant and can post a true health hazard if not taken into consideration.
This concern is significant, as it is common for women following the Raw Vegan Diet to develop amenorrhea, or an abnormal loss of menstrual cycle, over time. One study found that women that eat only raw foods are 7 times more likely to experience amenorrhea than women with a regular diet.
- Reduced Bone Mass. A limited study analyzed 18 proponents of the Raw Vegan Diet, ages 33-85 for an average of about 3.5 years. They found that these individuals had a much lower bone mass compared to comparable individuals eating a standard American diet. This reduction is probably related to inadequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D, which can certainly be found in certain whole foods, and adequate body exposure to sunlight. So, adequate preparation and professional consultation are key when considering this lifestyle choice.
Along with reduced bone mass comes a concern for increased tooth decay. The high acidity found in berries that form a substantial portion of this lifestyle has raised concerns in dental communities about tooth decay.
Coupled with reduced bone mass, tooth loss becomes a concern. One study found 97.7% of participants on a raw vegan diet had some form of tooth erosion compared to 86.8% in the traditional dietary group.
- Insufficient amounts of key nutrients. Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble (it dissolves in water) vitamin found primarily in animal products, such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk. It is not generally found in plants.
A common misconception is that animals contain this key nutrient organically. However, this bacteria is not found organically in animals OR plant-based foods. Animals raised for human consumption obtain this nutrient either by supplementation or through the consumption of bacteria-laden manure or unsanitized water.
As most practitioners of a Raw Vegan Diet eschew supplements, getting adequate amounts of this critical nutrient is a challenge. It is necessary to obtain this key nutrient by either consuming foods that have been fortified with B12, considering supplementation, or adding adequate amounts of nutritional yeast to meals.
Inadequate B12 can lead to anemia, infertility, heart disease, poor bone health, and nervous system damage.
Other key nutrients to consider are zinc, iron, and selenium. Not receiving the recommended daily allowance of these nutrients may result in anemia, increased shortness of breath, impaired immune function, hair loss, and a host of other side effects.
- Protein. Protein is always the elephant in the room when discussing anything Vegan. How do you get enough protein on a Raw Vegan Diet? How much protein is “enough”?
The Mayo Clinic recommends 20% of all calories come from a protein source for the best nutrition. We all know that meat and other animal products have always been considered to be protein sources. However, Vegans utilize beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, and other whole-food plant-based sources to obtain their daily protein needs.
Raw Vegan practitioners also have these options, but raw. Legumes may be soaked or sprouted until they soften and expand. Then, they can be pureed, blended, or mixed into a variety of meals.
Nuts and nut butters are also valid options. An ounce of almonds holds 6 grams of protein, with peanuts and pine nuts weighing in at 7 grams protein per ounce. These sources are also high in fat, so consume sparingly. A serving of nuts the size of your thumb is usually a good rule of thumb, literally!
Seeds or seed butters also meet this need, particularly for individuals with nut allergies. Good choices include flaxseeds, with 7.5 grams protein per quarter cup; sunflower seeds with 5.5 grams per cup, and pumpkin seeds which boast 8.5 grams of protein per ounce. Remember…these are to be eaten raw, not roasted.
Due to demand, there are also raw vegan protein powders available commercially to address this need. However, this does challenge the no processed foods concern.
As the food that is eaten is not to be cooked, it must be very carefully and thoroughly cleaned before being eaten. Potential contamination issues include:
- Farm, with contaminated water, animal, bird or insect waste
- Processing plant, with contaminated surfaces or workers, other contaminated food and/or the presence of pests
High-risk raw vegan foods include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Pre-cut or pre-washed fruits and vegetables
- Unpasteurized fruit juices
- Raw sprouts
Fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly organically grown, are expensive and highly perishable. To maintain this dietary lifestyle will require frequent trips to the market. Then there is the preparation. Washing, slicing, dicing, dehydrating, and juicing. The equipment involved, blender, dehydrator, juicer, food processor, can be a significant expense to consider.
Preparation and maintenance can be time-intensive and must be added to your weekly food prep schedule. This lifestyle can be a challenge to maintain, especially in social settings. Alcohol is also off the menu.
Finally, due to the low caloric intake and nutritionally limited options, your personal health goals may need regular monitoring. It is advisable to find a physician with additional training in whole-foods. plant-based nutrition.
If the Raw Vegan lifestyle is your choice, how can you make it more sustainable? Plan, plan, plan.
Invest in a good food dehydrator and juicer, to help reduce some of your workload. You can juice and freeze if you like. You can also invest in a hot plate. The food isn’t supposed to exceed 104-108°F, but it can still be warmed. This gives you several different soup options.
If you’re fortunate enough to live in an appropriate area, you can choose to grow some of your own foods. That will certainly reduce the expense and the time involved in going to the market.
Due to the highly perishable nature of fresh fruits and vegetables, you probably don’t want to prep for an entire week at a time, but you can certainly prep your entire day in advance. Again, this reduces the total amount of time you must spend and makes the program more feasible to follow.
What is the thought process behind the Raw Vegan Diet?
Raw Veganism is more than a simple dietary concept. There is a philosophy, of sorts, surrounding the lifestyle. Some of which are scientifically supported and some are more ethically focused.
Destruction of Enzymes
One of the key points of the Raw Vegan diet is the concept that heating food destroys the enzymes in that food. That is 100% correct.
So, what are enzymes and why do I care? According to LiveScience.com, “Enzymes are biological molecules (typically proteins) that significantly speed up the rate of virtually all of the chemical reactions that take place within cells. They are vital for life and serve a wide range of important functions in the body, such as aiding in digestion and metabolism”.
Basically speaking, enzymes are proteins that break down the foods we eat and allow us to digest them properly. Every living organism, including humans and plants, have enzymes within their body. While it is true that cooking our food destroys their enzymes, our own enzymes are still in our body, allowing us to break down our food.
Furthermore, enzymes in the foods we eat are naturally broken down by the acids in our stomach and intestinal tract. So, protecting the enzymes in our food is impossible. That’s why we have our own.
Cooking Food Makes It Toxic and May Cause Cancer
Again, there is some accuracy to this statement. While there are a variety of studies on the association of various types of cancer with the consumption of animal products, we will keep to the scope of this article and focus solely on the process of cooking meats.
According to CancerCenter.com, “Meats cooked at high temperatures form chemicals that may cause changes in your DNA, which may lead to cancer. Eating a large amount of well-done, fried, or barbecued meats has been linked to an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer”.
That’s some scary stuff. Further research found that this statement is focused on charring or burning the meat. Broiling, baking, and other methods of preparation do not share this same characteristic and are considered to be safer alternatives.
Cooking food can also help break down fibers, allowing for increased nutrient availability. For example, cooking tomatoes increases the bioavailability of lycopene by five-fold.
Other foods that cooking improves the nutrient value of are squash and sweet potatoes, both of which contain beta-carotene. Cooking these vegetables allows for a greater amount of this nutrient to be released for absorption into our body.
Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables contain goitrogen compounds. These have been linked to hypothyroidism. Cooking these vegetables deactivates the compound.
Additionally, Vegan Raw Food proponents argue that cooking destroys the life force of the food. By eating it as created, they believe they are adding its life force to their own. There is beautiful elegance in this concept. I’m not sure if this concept can be proven or disproven given the current science, so I’ll just go with it.
In your body, toxins are removed by the liver, filtered, broken down and excreted primarily in urine and stool. The primary body organs most people think of when thinking detoxification are the liver and the colon.
The colon, itself, is surprisingly clear of toxins. The natural flora and fauna, also known as gut bacteria, present in the body help keep the colon clear of most toxins. Assuming your gut bacteria are in balance, you have no real concern in this area.
The liver, as the “filter” in the body, is of obvious concern. Toxins caused by prescription or over-the-counter medications, chemicals, solvents, and alcohol can build up over time, leading to a condition called hepatotoxicity or toxic hepatitis.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, the liver doesn’t require frequent detoxification. Instead, they recommend a good “liver-friendly” dietary lifestyle. That would include avoiding drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, maintaining a BMI between 18-25, avoid risky behaviors like drug use or unprotected sex, and knowing your risk factors.
With the focus on living with our planet, rather than on it, the ethics involved in the Raw Vegan Diet lifestyle should not be overlooked.
Though few would question that vegetarianism is more ethical than a more traditional “meat and potatoes” lifestyle, where do you stand?
Raw Vegan dietary supporters point out the cost of processing, use of fuels to cook and process foods, chemicals utilized in the manufacture of plastic bags or cans to hold the foods, use of fuels to transport these items across distance and other, perhaps unconsidered consequences of a traditional diet.
The Raw Vegan Diet has also been touted as a “natural” diet. In truth, it is a very natural diet, with all the foods being eaten in their primary and most natural form.
What foods can I eat on a Raw Vegan Diet?
The focus of the Raw Vegan lifestyle is on preparation, as much as on food type. That being said, here is a list of foods that would be perfectly acceptable for this lifestyle.
- Fresh, dried, juiced, or dehydrated fruits. Just about any way you want them excluding cooked, processed, or pasteurized. Organic is preferred, for obvious reasons.
- Fresh, dried, juiced, or dehydrated vegetables. Like fruits, these are preferred to be organic and the preparation method is key.
- Raw nuts and seeds.
- Raw, unpasteurized nut milks – coconut milk, cashew milk, almond milk, etc.
- Raw nut butters – almond butter, cashew butter, or others.
- Cold-pressed oils.
- Fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi.
- Uncooked grains or legumes (these may be sprouted or soaked)
- Some sweeteners, such as unprocessed maple syrup, honey, or stevia, if not processed.
Foods to avoid include:
- Cooked fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes.
- Any form of animal-based protein, including secondary forms like butter, milk, or cheese.
- Baked goods
- Pasteurized juices
- Coffee or tea
- Chips and pastries
- Refined oils
- Roasted nuts or seeds
These are suggestions only. As with any dietary lifestyle, you can make your own choices. Many good resources are available online.
Though the list of “cans and cant’s” may seem exhaustive, remember….this is your body. Your body is your decision. If something doesn’t work for you, modify it and make it your own. I promise, no Raw Vegan police are going to show up to arrest you. Just be careful what you post on social media . . . the barrage of comments from the peanut-gallery can sometimes be harsh.
Sample Raw Vegan Menu
You can find many different recipes online, certainly enough to keep you busy for a while. Be aware, some have fairly exotic ingredients, which could be a problem if you live in a rural area or are without access to specialty grocery markets or farmers’ markets.
I’ve put together a sample daily menu that meets Raw Vegan guidelines. There are many options on the Internet for menu suggestions and Raw Vegan recipes. You can follow the links below to find the full recipe.
● Breakfast – Vanilla Coconut yogurt
- Morning Snack – Green smoothie
- Lunch – Lettuce Wraps
- Afternoon snack – Vegan Cheese
- Dinner – Seaweed Salad with dressing
- Dessert – Raw Chocolate Cake
If done correctly and utilizing appropriate supplements, the Raw Vegan Diet can be healthy. It can reduce blood pressure, control weight, improve digestion, and make you feel more in tune with yourself and your planet.
However, there are risks to be considered. The risk of excessive weight loss is clear. The risk of nutritional deficiency is easily avoided with the judicious use of nutritional supplements and a conscientious application of good nutritional guidelines.
Additionally, this lifestyle takes a significant amount of time and prep work, but so does preparing any healthful meal. The cost of the food itself, especially if you go organic, can be costly. Cost of the equipment, including blenders, dehydrators, food processors, juicers is also a significant consideration. These factors should all be taken into consideration when opting for this lifestyle, as well as family adherence. It’s not an easy lifestyle to undertake alone, especially if you are living with a large family.
Personally, I don’t think this is a suitable choice for me, given my current on-the-go lifestyle in New York City. I’m gonna stick with trying to eat sensibly, and include a rainbow of colors on my plate . . . both cooked and uncooked. But that’s my choice. What are your thoughts?
Richard A. Lehman, LMT, CSCS