In Depth Diet and Nutrition Trends, Part II: Eating a Raw Vegan Diet

By Jess Kolko – November 5, 2013

The landscape of the diet world is constantly changing, with new research and new fads popping up what seems like daily. Since I’m frequently asked about this topic, I decided that it would be good to explore some of the more popular diets and trends. In this series, it is my hope to explore diets and trends in depth to discover their effectiveness for the fitness-minded individual. This month, we will explore the raw diet: what it is, why people choose to eat this way, and whether or not it is possible to be an athlete on a raw diet.

The Basics
What is a raw diet? A raw diet—or, more specifically, a raw vegan diet—consists of all raw fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, grains, and vegetables. This style of eating avoids anything cooked to a temperature of more than 118 degrees Farenheit. Why? The thought is that heating causes the enzymes present in the food to begin to break down and deteriorate. Many raw foodies believe that this breakdown of enzymes causes humans digestive and health issues.

Raw foods are sometimes called living foods—the terms are used interchangeably. Those following a raw food diet generally eat uncooked, unprocessed fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, in whole or minimally processed forms. Many may use sprouting (the technique of soaking and germinating) to render beans, legumes, and grains digestible and delicious to the human body. Another more complicated and time consuming “cooking” technique used in the raw food community is dehydrating. Small plug-in dehydrators are available for home use; these machines work by circulating slightly warm air over mesh trays to dry foods over a period of a few hours to several days. Raw crackers, granolas, and fruit leathers—and a whole lot more—can be made this way.

The Father of Food Enzymes
Much of the research and thinking behind the raw food diet came from the research of Dr. Edward Howell. Dr. Howell spent his career studying enzymes and digestion; he put his theories to the test in his private practice, which he founded in 1930 in Illinois. His practice focused on treating advanced diseases, and his books are still very popular in raw circles—he is sometimes called the “father of food enzymes.”

Howell believed that, by cooking food, we are using up our own enzymes and causing ourselves harm, illness, and even shortening our life span. He believed that, “if the human organism must devote a huge portion of its enzyme potential to making digestive enzymes…there may not be enough enzyme potential to go around.” With this statement, it seems that Howell believed there was a finite amount of “enzyme potential” in the body.

The mainstream scientific community sees enzymes in a different way. Broadly speaking, it is generally accepted that our body produces the enzymes used to break down food—the enzymes in the food itself do not necessarily contribute to the breakdown in our digestive system. Whether the food is cooked or not, our bodies are continually producing enzymes that break down different types of food in different places. For example: We produce an enzyme called amylase, which starts the breakdown of carbohydrates in the mouth, and other enzymes, present in the small intestines and other locations in our digestive systems, which continue to break food down into absorbable forms.

Howell retired in the 1970s. Since his time, very little scientific research has been done on the long-term health effects of a raw vegan diet. A handful of recent research studies looked into a few health indicators; however, it is clear that more research would need to be done to discover these outcomes. For now, we must rely on anecdotal evidence and a few books by Dr. Howell.

Going Raw Beyond Vegetables
Beyond raw vegan diets, there is a world of other raw diets out there to explore. Some options may be very new and eye opening to more than a few of you. Raw vegetarianism, for example, is alive and well. The raw vegetarian diet incorporates raw dairy (e.g., raw, unpasteurized milk and cheeses) and, on occasion, raw eggs into the same foundation of a plant-based diet. A raw omnivore adds meat into the mix—from sashimi to beef (carpaccio, anyone?). I’ve even read a few rare (no pun intended) articles about some raw carnivore folks—people whose diet is based mostly on uncooked animal foods. Beyond a doubt, however, a raw vegan diet is the most prominent of the raw food diets.

The world of gourmet raw foods around the world is alive and well across the country—and the world, for that matter. Here in Austin and the surrounding areas, there are a variety of delicious options. Several restaurants are dedicated to preparing living raw foods, and there are many other restaurants and food trailers that have raw vegan options. Even more convenient are the myriad options popping up on grocery store shelves. From crackers to granola to energy bars, more raw foods are flocking to mainstream markets.

Getting the Nutrients You Need
There are a few things to think about when considering this type of diet. Consuming all raw food doesn’t mean that you are getting the most out of all of your nutrients; not all have the same bioavailability when consumed raw, and some are better processed and absorbed by your body when cooked. Lycopene and tomatoes are a prime example; there is more lycopene in cooked tomato products (such as tomato sauce) than found in a raw tomato.

Cooking can also provide a safety net, as it tends to kill most pathogens that can be found in the food supply. No matter what type of diet is followed, there is a risk of toxicity from food-borne pathogens and, although washing produce well is an important preventative step, cleaning may not remove all of the pathogens. Many of the recent food-related illnesses have come from produce items, so it is very important to wash these foods well when you are consuming them raw.

As with all special diets, it is essential to get enough daily calories to sustain your level of activity, and raw vegan diets are no exception. Consider all of the foods that are consumed raw even if you are not a raw vegan; these foods—such as fruits and vegetables—are lower in calories and high in fiber. If you move to a raw vegan diet, it may be necessary, therefore, to eat a large volume of food at frequent intervals throughout the day to get your necessary calories. Keep in mind that, when adding more fruits and vegetables to any diet (cooked or raw), there will be some shifts in your digestion as your system gets used to the added fiber.

Living on a Raw Diet
For athletes, maintaining a high level of performance on a raw diet can be especially challenging. Most athletes base their daily intake on carbohydrates, since this is the easiest fuel for our bodies to access. Although fruits and vegetables contain carbohydrates, they are not as packed with energy as are grains, beans, and legumes. It is important to have a solid base of these foods to fuel training. I suggest consulting a nutrition professional if you are going to try out a raw vegan diet while sustaining a high level of training and racing. That’s not to say that a raw diet can’t work—just look at Venus Williams—but it does need to be well planned and well executed. A raw vegan diet requires a lot of time to commit to food considerations in addition to what is required for training in a sport. For those who want to eat more healthily without making the commitment to a full raw diet, it can’t hurt to simply add a few more raw foods into their day.

Many people do choose a raw vegan diet for health reasons. However, a very restrictive diet can be a warning sign for an eating disorder or serious disordered eating behavior. It is very important for a dietitian or other health professional familiar with the raw vegan diet to take a look at your food log and provide consultation to make sure all is well and that your health is not compromised.

Raw vegan diets have been around for a long time and can certainly promote health, as several professional-level raw vegan athletes have demonstrated. However, there are pitfalls that can cause issues. First is the need to take in the appropriate amount of calories for your body and to sustain your level of training and racing. Second, as with all restrictive diets, it’s important to have the help of a health professional to ensure you are sticking to the diet for the right reasons and not heading down a road that could ultimately be self-destructive. Third, you need to be aware of your own body and what works best for it, as what is touted in a book or the media as “the next big thing” may not be right for you and your performance. Always be aware of how you feel, how you’ve raced, and how your training is going when you are eating a certain way. This is the best way to know whether a nutrition plan is working for you. afm


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