Inside 'Raw Veganism': Is This Extreme Diet Worth the Effort?

Raw veganism is one of the most extreme diets out there. But do the benefits outweigh the dangers?

Being a vegan is plenty tough.

Not only does it mean you can't eat meat, you can't eat animal products such as butter, milk, eggs or cheese. Animal products are in a surprisingly huge number of foods, so vegans must even stay away from seemingly innocuous items like marshmallows, Worcestershire sauce, refried beans and pesto.

But if being a vegan isn't quite challenging enough for you, perhaps you'll be interested in an even more extreme diet trend—raw veganism. Raw veganism is similar to traditional veganism, but it allows only raw foods. That means raw vegans cannot eat anything that's been cooked at a temperature above 118 degrees fahrenheit.

Yeah, it's pretty hardcore. But dedicated raw vegans swear by the diet's benefits. Tennis star Venus Williams went raw vegan in 2012 after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. "Once I started, I fell in love with the concept of fueling your body in the best way possible. Not only does it help me on the court, but I feel like I'm doing the right thing for me," Williams recently told HEALTH.

But is this extreme diet really worth the effort? STACK investigates.

Why Would Someone Become Raw Vegan?

Veggies over Burger

Simple—they think it will help them live a healthier life.

According to the popular raw vegan site FullyRaw.com, the benefits of becoming a raw vegan are nothing short of miraculous.

"At this moment in time, you may be searching for health inspiration rather than giving it. The best way that I know how to describe what someone feels like when they go 'FullyRaw' or adapt to a 100% raw foods lifestyle is that they simply want to jump on top of the world and yell, 'I am free! I found happiness!'" the website reads. Alright, then.

Obviously, focusing on fruits, vegetables and plant-based foods is great for anyone looking to clean up their diet. They're lower in calories and higher in nutrients than highly processed foods. If you eat more of them, you'll feel better.

"Plant-based foods are usually very nutrient dense," says Ryan Andrews, nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. "One hundred calories of vegetables, for example, contains a huge amount of nutrients compared to 100 calories of many other foods. And from a chronic disease standpoint, a plant-based diet is great. One of two people in the United States dies from heart disease or cancer. Plant-based diets reduce your risk of both, while also lowering your blood pressure, improving your blood lipid profile and reducing your risk of Type 2 diabetes."

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Replacing meat with things like lentils, chickpeas and legumes can also offer benefits. "Legumes are the great underutilized food in North America," Andrews says. "The average American eats 216 pounds of meat and fish per year and only seven pounds of beans. This is out of balance. Lentils, peas and beans taste good, are inexpensive and are high in nutrients such as fiber, protein, folate, zinc, iron and magnesium."

That all makes perfect sense. But why can't a raw vegan eat food that's been exposed to temperatures above 118 degrees? That's where things get interesting.

Why Do Raw Vegans Avoid Cooked Foods?

Roasted Fruits and Vegetables

According to FullyRaw, here's why cooked food is a no-go:

Applying heat to foods provides no nutritional benefit to the food and is detrimental to the person ingesting the cooked food. There are reported instances where, by heating food, certain nutrients are more easily released, like lycopene from tomatoes. However, this ignores that hundreds of other nutrients in that heated tomato that were damaged or destroyed; and also assumes that more of a specific nutrient is better, instead of trusting that the body has learned to extract just the right amount that it needs for optimal health. Many nutrients are deadly toxic if we overdose on them;  more is definitely not always better. Many foods that are cooked would otherwise be unappetizing or inedible to humans, such as meats and grains, thus bypassing sensory safeguards that would normally protect the body from ingestion of unnatural and unhealthy substances. Studies have shown that the immune system often reacts to the introduction of cooked food into the bloodstream the same way it does to foreign pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Cooking food denatures the proteins, carcinogizes the fats, and caramelizes the carbohydrates; most other nutrients are damaged, deranged or destroyed by the heating process, leaving mostly empty calories.

Sounds pretty serious, right?

When you factor in the many anecdotal reports that say a raw vegan diet leads to better digestion, better sleep, clearer skin, more energy and significant weight loss, the diet seems like a no-brainer.

Whoa. So Why Shouldn't I Go Raw Vegan?

Apple Weight Loss

Although raw veganism has its advantages (namely that it forces people to drop almost all highly processed foods in favor of plant-based ones), not being able to cook any of your food introduces a host of potential problems.

Let's look at some research on the topic.

A 2005 study found that a raw food diet lowered total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations in participants. When these levels are too high, they can lead to cardiovascular disease. However, the study also found that 38 percent of the participants were vitamin B-12 deficient. Vitamin B-12 deficiency in adults is defined as having blood levels below 170-250 pg/mL. Many other participants likely had low levels of vitamin B12 but didn't quite qualify as "deficient."

Vitamin B12 (also known as cobalamin) is a very important vitamin. Along with the 7 other B vitamins, B-12 helps produce energy, maintain healthy skin, hair, eyes and liver, and optimize nervous system function. According to the Harvard Health Blog, vitamin B12 is also needed to make red blood cells, nerves and DNA. So, why might a raw vegan diet lead to a vitamin B-12 deficiency? The Harvard Health Blog explains:

Plants don't make vitamin B12. The only foods that deliver it are meat, eggs, poultry, dairy products, and other foods from animals. Strict vegetarians and vegans are at high risk for developing a B12 deficiency if they don't eat grains that have been fortified with the vitamin or take a vitamin supplement.

A 1999 study found that a long-term raw food diet did help subjects lose weight. However, many of the subjects showed symptoms indicating that they weren't consuming enough calories. About 30 percent of the women under 45 involved in the study had "partial to complete amenorrhea," defined as the absence of menstruation. According to the Mayo Clinic, women who miss at least three menstrual periods in a row have amenorrhea. Symptoms include acne, headache, hair loss and vision change. One of the biggest causes? Excessively low body weight. "Since many raw food dieters exhibited underweight and amenorrhea, a very strict raw food diet cannot be recommended on a long-term basis," the study's authors wrote.

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A different study looked at the relationship between a raw food diet and tooth decay. Researchers found that subjects living on a raw food diet had a much higher rate than the control group. Only 2.3 percent of the raw food group had no erosion while 13.2 percent of the control group had no erosion. 60.5 percent of the raw food group had at least one tooth with severe erosion compared to 31.6 percent of the control group. These results are likely due to the raw vegan's reliance on fruit and dried fruit for many of their calories. Fruit is good for you, but extreme amounts can be bad for oral health. "The results showed that a raw food diet bears an increased risk of dental erosion compared to conventional nutrition," the study's authors wrote.

Additionally, a study in The British Journal of Nutrition found that 198 subjects who followed a strict raw food diet had solid levels of vitamin A and relatively high levels of beta-carotene, an antioxidant found in certain produce. However, the subjects had low levels of lycopene—the antioxidant that gives foods like tomatoes, watermelon, red bell peppers and papaya their reddish pigment.

The heat from cooking can help break down certain nutrients (such as lycopene) and enhance their bioavailability. In fact, one study found that the lycopene content in tomatoes increased by 35 percent after the tomatoes were cooked for 30 minutes at 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

"There's a misperception that raw foods are always going to be better," Steven K. Clinton, a nutrition researcher and professor of internal medicine in the medical oncology division at Ohio State University, told Scientific American. "For fruits and vegetables, a lot of times a little bit of cooking and a little bit of processing actually can be helpful."

Boiling vegetables can cause loss of the nine water-soluble vitamins, but it can boost carotenoid content. Steaming veggies like mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers and carrots has been found to increase a number of antioxidants. It's also good for retaining cancer-fighting compounds in cruciferous veggies. Baking vegetables like Brussels sprouts, carrots, peas, zucchini, celery, beets and garlic reduces their nutrient levels. But baking the likes of green beans, eggplant and spinach actually increases their antioxidant levels. The healthiest approach may be mixing it up. You shouldn't be afraid to boil, steam, bake, grill, microwave and go raw with your vegetables. By changing your preparation method frequently, you'll ensure your body is always receiving a great blend of plant-based nutrients.

RELATED: The Healthiest Ways to Prepare Your Veggies

Isn't Raw Veganism More Natural Than Eating Cooked Foods?

Baby Monkey Eating Fruit

This is an argument you hear from certain proponents of the raw vegan diet.

It sounds good, but it doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

Scientific American examined the topic and concluded that no known human culture has ever survived solely on raw plant-based foods. "No known human culture has ever attempted to survive solely on raw plant foods. It is the raw-only diet that is unnatural, because it is impossible to survive on this diet without modern conveniences such as refrigerators, storage devices and easy access to packaged foods—such as the aforementioned shelled nuts. In fact, a child raised on a raw, vegan diet without proper supplementation would likely develop severe neurological and growth problems due to a lack of vitamin B12 and other nutrients," the author writes.

It's hard to get enough energy from raw plant-based foods. For one, you don't have a ton of options. Two, the options you do have are mostly low in calories. Three, chewing and digesting raw foods takes more energy than chewing and digesting cooked foods. Four, cooking allows us to eat high-energy foods we otherwise wouldn't be able to.

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that cooking may actually have been the reason for the development of mankind's large brains. The human brain has more neurons than any other primate. The average human brain contains 86 billion neurons compared to 33 billion in gorillas and 28 billion in chimpanzees. If we came from primates, how did we end up with such bigger brains?

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We discovered cooking, which allowed us to drastically increase the amount of calories we could consume in a given day.

"If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain," says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, co-author of the report and a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. "The reason we have more neurons than any other animal alive is that cooking allowed this qualitative change—by cooking, we managed to circumvent the limitation of how much we can eat in a day."

If cooking allowed us to become human, what's more natural than that?

Is Raw Veganism Worth It?

Mixed Fruits and Vegetables at Organic Fair

Based on the facts we've outlined here, probably not. Most people could benefit from eating more plant-based foods. That much is true. But the idea that the food must be raw to reap the full benefits simply isn't backed up by research. Boiled, steamed, microwaved, grilled and baked vegetables are all plenty good, too—they're just different.

Does raw veganism work for some people? Of course. Those people have found a way to make it work, and their bodies seem to be capable of adapting to the diet. But similar benefits could likely be reaped from a traditional vegan diet or possibly even a vegetarian diet.

For others, a raw vegan diet can leave you dangerously short on calories and potentially lead to nutrient deficiencies and other health issues. That's how we end up with headlines like "How Raw Veganism Almost Killed Me."

When you consider the risks along with the fact that a raw vegan diet is wildly restrictive and inconvenient for most people, it just doesn't add up. Should you occasionally eat like a raw vegan? Sure. But doing it every single day for a significant amount of time probably isn't a great idea for most people.


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Topics: DIET | PERFORMANCE NUTRITION | HEALTHY EATING | WEIGHT LOSS | FRUITS AND VEGETABLES | VEGETARIAN | FAD DIETS | VEGAN