For those who love eating but absolutely despise cooking, the idea of never having to attempt to grill a steak to perfection or stand over a piping hot stove for an hour sounds like a dream. And with the raw vegan diet — which involves kicking your typical cooking techniques to the curb and filling up on uncooked items such as fresh, raw produce, nuts, seeds, and beans — that fantasy can be a reality.
But is ditching cooked food entirely all that good for your health? Here, a nutrition expert gives the DL on the raw vegan diet’s benefits and shortcomings, as well as if it’s worth taking on in the first place.
What Is a Raw Vegan Diet, Anyway?
Just by reading the name, you can get a pretty good idea of what the raw vegan diet entails. But to break it down more specifically, individuals following a raw vegan diet avoid all animal-derived products — including meat, eggs, dairy, honey, and gelatin — and consume only plant-based foods, just like regular vegans. The kicker: These foods can only be eaten raw (read: uncooked and unprocessed), dehydrated at low temperatures, blended, juiced, sprouted, soaked, or heated below 118°F, says Alex Caspero, M.A., R.D., a registered dietitian and plant-based chef. That means processed, heat-treated ingredients such as sugar, salt, and flour; pasteurized non-dairy milks and juices; baked goods; and cooked fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans are all off-limits. (In addition to, of course, all animal products.)
So what does a raw vegan plate look like? A whole lot of uncooked fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and sprouted grains, beans, and legumes, says Caspero. A raw vegan breakfast might contain a smoothie bowl topped with sprouted groats (whole grains that still have the endosperm, germ, and bran) and nuts. A lunch might feature a bowl of homemade gazpacho or a sandwich featuring a homemade sprouted bread — made solely with nuts and seeds and “cooked” in a dehydrator (Buy It, $70, walmart.com). A dinner might be a big salad sprinkled with raw nuts and seeds, she adds. (Related: The Raw Food Diet Facts You Need to Know)
Now, about that 118°F heat limit. Though it seems oddly specific, there’s a bit of science behind it. All plant foods (and living organisms, for that matter) contain various enzymes, or special proteins that accelerate chemical reactions. These enzymes speed up the production of compounds that give fruits and veggies their signature flavors, colors, and textures and offer some health perks, such as the beta-carotene that gives carrots their orange hue and is converted into vitamin A in the body. But when a food is heated, the enzymes in it are broken down, which helps make the food more digestible, explains Caspero. “The idea [behind the raw vegan diet] is that if these enzymes are intact, the food is purportedly healthier for the body,” she says. But that’s not exactly the case.
Research does show that enzymes break down at higher temps, with the process starting when the enzymes reach roughly 104°F. For instance, when chickpeas were exposed to 149°F heat for five minutes, one specific type of enzyme inside the legumes was completely broken down, according to a study in the journal PLOS One. However, that doesn’t mean cooked food always has a diminished nutritional value. A 2002 study found that boiling whole potatoes for an hour did not significantly reduce their folate content. And a separate 2010 study showed that cooking chickpeas in boiling H20 increased the amount of protein and fiber that was bioavailable (meaning the body could easily absorb the nutrient) but reduced the amount of bioavailable magnesium and vitamin K.
TL;DR — The link between enzyme breakdown and changes in a food’s nutritional qualities isn’t so straightforward.
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The Pros of a Raw Vegan Diet
Since plant foods are at the core of the raw vegan diet, eaters may reap some of the same benefits as those associated with a vegetarian or regular vegan eating style. Not only does following a diet plentiful in plant foods significantly decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but since the dietary staples typically contain fewer calories than animal products, it can also lead to weight loss, says Caspero. (Related: The Beginner’s Guide to Adopting a Vegetarian Diet)
Plus, raw vegans cut most ultra-processed foods — think: packaged chips, store-bought cookies, and candy — from their diet, which may help curb the risk of chronic diseases. Case in point: a five-year study of more than 105,000 French adults showed that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with higher risks of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular (brain-and blood-related, i.e. stroke) diseases.
The Drawbacks of a Raw Vegan Diet
Just because there are some perks to amping up your plant-food intake doesn’t mean following a diet containing only raw versions of them is a good idea. “There are numerous health benefits to eating more plants, and I’m a huge advocate of that,” says Caspero. “However, I am not an advocate of taking it to this extreme level.”
Her main issue: There’s not enough scientific research showing a raw vegan diet is healthier than other diets, which would potentially make it more worth its restrictive nature, she says. “We don’t have data showing a raw vegan diet is excellent in preventing chronic disease compared to a regular vegan diet or a plant-based diet, which I would argue are much more nutritious,” she explains. “Some people say they feel better, but we cannot make any dietary recommendations based on anecdotes.” (Related: Why You Should Give Up Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)
And the restriction involved in the diet alone can do some harm in itself. At the very least, social situations revolving around food (think: family feasts, restaurant outings) can make it tough to stick to your eating pattern, and eventually, you might end up avoiding those situations altogether, Carrie Gottlieb, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New York City, previously told Shape. Beyond from the social difficulties that may arise, restrictive dieting can also have some serious mental health impacts; food restriction through self-imposed dieting has been linked with a preoccupation with food and eating and emotional dysphoria, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Aside from the mental and emotional effects, restricting your diet to raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains could make it difficult to get enough of — or completely miss out on — key nutrients. For example, it can be tough to get your daily fill of protein (at least 10 percent of your caloric intake) just by noshing on sprouted grains, nuts, and eating crudités all day, every day, says Caspero. More specifically, raw vegan eaters may struggle to get enough lysine, an essential amino acid needed for growth and tissue repair that’s found in beans, legumes, and soy foods. The problem: “For most raw vegans, it’s going to be very hard to consume those foods in a ‘raw’ state, so you may not get enough lysine,” says Caspero. And if you’re lacking in the amino acid, you could experience fatigue, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, and slow growth, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Vitamin B12 is also tough to come by on a raw vegan diet, adds Caspero. The nutrient, which helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, is primarily found in animal foods (i.e. meat, eggs, dairy products) and in some fortified foods, such as cereals — all of which are off-limits on a raw, plant-based diet. The same goes for bone-strengthening vitamin D (found in fatty fish, dairy milks, and many store-bought, plant-based alternative milks) and brain-boosting DHA omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, fish oils, and krill oils), she says. “That’s why anyone who’s interested in following a raw vegan diet should make sure they’re supplementing appropriately [with those nutrients], even if those supplements are not considered ‘raw,’” she says. (Head’s up: Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so be sure to talk with your doc before adding them to your wellness routine.)
Not to mention, some of the raw vegan “cooking” techniques are often linked with foodborne illnesses, particularly sprouting. The method involves storing grains, seeds, or beans in a jar with water for a few days and allowing them to germinate, says Caspero. While the process makes the raw food more easily digestible (since it breaks down some of the tough, starchy endosperm), the warm, humid conditions required create an ideal environment for the growth of harmful bacteria — including Salmonella, Listeria, and E.coli — that can cause food poisoning, according to the FDA. Yikes.
So, Is a Raw Vegan Diet a Good Idea?
Eating more fresh fruits and veggies does come with health benefits and taking on a raw vegan diet will undoubtedly increase your intake, says Caspero. But considering its restrictive nature and potential for creating nutrient deficiencies, Caspero wouldn’t recommend anyone start following a raw vegan diet. More specifically, people who are in a growth period of life and especially need to hit their protein targets — i.e. teens undergoing puberty, children, and pregnant and lactating women — should definitely steer clear of the diet, she adds. “I’m not dissuading anyone from eating more raw foods,” she explains. “I’m definitely dissuading the idea of that being 100 percent of your diet.”
But if you *really* want to give a raw vegan diet a shot, Caspero urges you to meet with a registered dietitian or your doctor before you start loading up on Mason jars for your sprouting set-up and vow to never use the oven again. “I think it’s really important to see a professional [before taking on a raw vegan diet],” she says. “I see so many influencers and people on Instagram who talk about doing this, but just because it works for them, that doesn’t mean it’s what you need to follow. It’s just really important — for whatever diet you’re following — to remember that anecdotes are not science.”