The raw food diet (or living foods diet) is a dietary regimen consisting of uncooked and unprocessed organic foods. Most of the foods consumed on this diet are fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Some followers of the diet also consume raw meat and dairy products, although most follow a vegan regimen. The exact definition of raw food varies, but the general consensus is that a food is considered raw if it has not been heated to more than 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius).
Proponents of the raw food diet believe it dates to prehistoric eras, before humans discovered fire. The earliest modern examples of the raw food diet date to the 1800s. It gained more prominence throughout the 1900s, as proponents such as Ann Wigmore and Herbert Shelton advocated the belief that a diet of raw fruits and vegetables could cure various diseases. The raw food diet continued to exist as a radical off-shoot of the vegetarian diet until 1975, when computer programmer-turned-nutritionist Viktoras Kulvinskas published Survival Into the 21st Century. It is considered to be the first modern publication that deals with the raw food diet.
The diet has enjoyed recent mainstream success. Several restaurants catering to the diet have opened up in California and New York City, and numerous all-raw cookbooks have been published. It has also received celebrity endorsements from entertainers like Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, who have been known to follow the diet.
Most foods in the raw food diet are simple in preparation, and can be eaten immediately. However, other foods can require hours, or even days, of preparation to make the food palatable. Rice, for example, must be soaked in water for more than a day to soften it. Depending on the recipe, some food may also need to be dehydrated. This process, which emulates cooked food, can take days.
Preparation of raw food recipes usually calls for a blender, food processor, juicer, and dehydrator.
The main idea behind the raw food diet is that cooked food is supposedly toxic, because cooking destroys the enzymes contained in food. This belief is based on the research of Dr. Edward Howell, an Illinois physician who researched how enzymes played a role in a person’s diet. The results of his research concluded that eating cooked food leads to health problems. In 1985, Howell conducted further research, and cited a study where laboratory rats that were fed cooked foods had an increased pancreatitis. Raw food diet proponents believe this shows that the pancreas is forced to work harder on a diet of cooked foods.
Additional research was conducted by Dr. Francis Pottenger in 1932, who conducted an experiment to determine the effect of cooked foods in cats. For 10 years, Pottenger fed half of the cats a diet of raw foods, the other half a diet of cooked foods. At the conclusion of his study, he reported that the cats who were fed raw foods appeared to be in better health.
Diet proponents believe a raw food diet consisting of enzyme-rich raw foods will reverse health problems and strengthen the immune system. The benefits of the diet are said to include clear skin, more energy, and the lack of common ailments such as the flu.
While current scientific research does not support the idea that enzymes in foods somehow survive the stomach, it does support that idea that foods cooked at high heat do contain toxins not found in raw or boiled foods. One of these toxins is acrylamide. Whether there toxins that are either introduced or increased in high-heat cooking is not in question. The question is whether the toxins introduced by high-heat cooking methods are cause for alarm.
The raw food diet has been criticized by the mainstream medical community as being too harsh and restrictive. Those who follow the diet ingest under 1,000 calories a day, which is below the caloric intake recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Additionally, the raw food diet lacks the recommended amounts of several important vitamins and nutrients, including Vitamin B-12, calcium, and protein. When followed for an extended period of time, the diet can lead to severe nutritional deficiency.
In addition, the raw food diet was blamed for the May 2003 death of a five-month-old baby in Florida. The baby died of malnutrition after being fed a diet of raw foods by its parents, who also followed the diet.
Much of the research advocating the raw food diet has also been criticized for being false. Critics point out that food enzymes cannot be fully utilized by the human body, since they are destroyed during the digestive process. Also, some foods must be cooked to utilize its nutrients, including tomatoes, which contain lycopene, and carrots, which contain beta carotene. Critics also note that the research supporting the raw food diet is out-of-date.