Most of us recognize that processed foods with impossible-to-pronounce ingredients fail to provide the fuel our bodies need. But what happens if you take your diet to the other extreme and only eat raw, unprocessed foods?
In reality, very few people actually follow a 100 percent raw foods diet, according to the Best Overall Diets listing from U.S. News & World Report. Although there are endless variations based on personal preference, says the report, the typical raw diet consists of about 80 percent plant-based foods with nothing being heated above 115 degrees to ensure that no nutrients are lost during the cooking process. Research shows that a majority of people who adhere to a raw foods diet are vegan, although there are some followers who consume raw animal products such as unpasteurized milk and raw fish.
Some believe that 2018 could become the year of the plant-based diet, with online searches for “plant-based” products tripling in 2017, according to 1010Data. To get a professional take on the pros and cons of a raw foods diet, we spoke with a few Asheville nutrition experts and entrepreneurs, who say it can be extremely difficult and is not necessarily the best path for everyone.
Dr. Amy Lanou, chair of UNC Asheville’s Health and Wellness Department, says the benefits of raw food diets come from “being built largely from whole unprocessed or lightly processed foods, so they tend to be very high in antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals [plant chemicals], and for most people they are also usually entirely or mostly plant-based.”
Yet, people who adopt this food lifestyle must keep an eye on their intake of sugars and fats, because go-to foods in a raw foods regimen are fruits and nuts. Also, Lanou points out that “many people find many raw vegetables, raw grains and legumes are difficult to digest in their raw forms, and dietary variety often drops precipitously when people transition to a diet of all or mostly raw foods.” This lack of diversity can make it challenging to stick to a raw foods diet exclusively, not to mention the additional planning and preparation that comes with going raw.
For anyone ready to take the raw foods plunge, Lanou suggests a stepwise approach. “Start by increasing the raw foods eaten for meals and snacks — vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruit — while decreasing the highly processed foods — lunch meat, cheese, baked goods, salty, crunchy snack foods,” she says.
Lanou recommends that people first focus on moving to an all or nearly all whole foods eating pattern. “Then assess how you are feeling and whether you are meeting your health goals,” she says. If you’re feeling good and want to do more, she advises experimenting with consuming a higher percentage of your food in raw form.
People drawn to a raw diet are often looking for weight loss, improvements in gut function or management of a chronic condition. However, since the typical U.S. diet is omnivorous, switching to a whole foods, plant-based raw diet could have unexpected results, says Lanou.
“Surprising things that sometimes happen are things like fewer problems with allergies — food or environmental, improvements in skin conditions [such as] acne, eczema, etc. and decreased feelings of sluggishness and higher energy levels,” she says. “Many of these benefits have to do with removing the highly processed foods from the diet and increasing fiber and phytochemicals.” For others, a raw foods diet could have negative effects, such as a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms, discomfort or very quick elimination.
Acupuncturist Chad Johnson, who has studied in Japan and China in addition to earning his master’s degree from Tri-State College of Acupuncture, emphasizes that, in general, Chinese medicine does not advocate cold, raw foods. “We think of the digestion as a furnace, which transforms the food into blood and qi,” he explains. “The cold aspect of raw foods dampens the fire; it takes more fire to transform the raw food.”
However, Johnson says, there are times when consuming raw foods make sense, such as in the spring and summer, when yang energy is rising. “It can be helpful for cleansing — raw juices and raw foods can help detoxify the body,” he says. “They can transmit a tremendous amount of energy and uplift the spirit.” He cautions that his recommendation is not for a permanent change to a raw diet but for using it as a tool over short periods of time during the warmer months.
But regardless of whether someone adopts a raw foods diet year-round, seasonally or just for a cleanse, getting enough protein is a must. Some of the best raw sources of protein are “a wide variety of plant-based foods, including nuts, seeds, and green leafy vegetables — up to one pound per day,” advises vegan cookbook author Jennifer Murray in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Raw.
Brynda Bechtold, owner of raw cacao snack business Mannaplanet and organizer behind the Asheville Raw Matrix meetup, recommends that people interested in trying a raw foods diet start by making their kitchen a sanctuary. “If you prepare most of your food at home, you need to enjoy your kitchen time as you will have a lot of it,” she says. “But then the food lasts most of the week, and it’s easy after that.”
Bechtold’s tricks for staying on track include bringing food from home to add to restaurant salads and keeping presoaked, blended nuts on hand to make a variety of homemade milks, sauces, dressings and snack foods. She also urges raw food newcomers to start by cutting out store-bought items and making salads the foundation to meal planning.
Most members of the 938-member strong Asheville Raw Matrix eat cooked foods in addition to raw, Bechtold says, because “they are so delicious and wonderful in themselves.”
But for group potlucks, foods are required to be gluten-free, vegan, raw and as organic as possible. “So fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds comprise the basic ingredients, and that includes sprouted foods like microgreens and ferments,” Bechtold says.
Outside the kitchen
One local resource for easing the challenges that come with following a raw foods diet is Elements Real Food, a café and juice bar on Liberty Street just north of downtown. Owners Zack Bier and Jenni Squires started their business as a food truck that doled out fresh, glass-bottled, cold-pressed juices. The mobile venture quickly evolved into a brick-and-mortar vegetarian eatery and marketplace.
“Travel and social events can sometimes make it difficult to remain truly raw, and bringing your own food everywhere you go is certainly an option, but an inconvenient one,” says Squires. “Eating and gathering socially is also such a quintessential part of our society; sometimes it is better to practice balance and enjoy a meal without feeling guilty that it is not raw.”
One of Elements’ most popular offerings is the build-your-own six-pack, which Squires says is “for people who want fresh juices every day but don’t have time, energy or the equipment to make them for themselves.” Elements also offers three juice cleanses that are 100 percent raw and organic as an easy way to jump start a raw foods diet or take a break from meal prepping and planning.
One of the cleanse options, the Juice + Raw Food cleanse, comes with seven “meals” — five cold-pressed juices, a salad and “maca mylk” made from raw cashews. Each bottle of juice contains 2-4 pounds of vegetables and has a shelf life of three days.
“Our cleanses were created through experimenting with different combinations and portion sizes and experiencing them personally,” Jenni explains. Elements also serves raw dessert specials daily for those who want to get a sweet-tooth fix.
In the end, the decision to go raw needs to be well thought out and informed. Those considering following a raw foods lifestyle should first consult with a physician and do their research.