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Extreme eating: is completely raw diet healthy?

by Kelsey Grobbel
Dietetic Intern
In this modern day of convenience with appliances and gadgets assisting us in all areas of our lives, imagine living without a stove, microwave, or toaster. As difficult as it may seem to survive and particularly, to eat without these appliances, many people are choosing to steer clear of cooking entirely and are opting for a completely raw diet. Proponents of this lifestyle believe that a raw food diet can increase energy, ease digestion and improve health.
Critics argue that a completely raw diet doesn’t necessarily improve health and can actually lead to nutritional deficiencies while posing some food safety concerns.
The raw food diet consists of unprocessed and uncooked plant foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts, sprouted grains, and seaweed. Other foods permitted within the diet include young coconut milk, raw honey, and raw dairy products like milk and yogurt. Advocates of the raw food diet believe that heating food above 116 degrees Fahrenheit destroys enzymes in food that can assist in the digestion and absorption of food. Cooking also is thought to diminish the nutritional value of food by leeching or destroying vitamins and minerals. A completely raw diet contains fewer trans-fats and saturated fat than the typical American diet. It also is low in sodium and high in potassium, magnesium, folate, fiber, and phytochemicals; which may ultimately reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
One study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that long-term consumption of raw foods lowered both total cholesterol and plasma triglyceride levels. In addition, environmental benefits to eating raw may exist. Proponents of the raw diet have suggested that the lower people eat on the food chain, the less impact they will have on the earth’s resources. Plus, all waste materials from a raw diet are biodegradable and great for composting.

Despite the many benefits of the raw food lifestyle, this diet is inarguably extreme and comes with two major concerns: food safety and nutritional deficiencies. First of all, the raw diet poses food-safety concerns with some foods, such as sprouts, which can grow in environments that promote harmful bacterial growth. Also, when foods are not cooked to above 160-degrees, or are not pasteurized (as is the case with raw dairy products and honey), possible bacteria goes undestroyed and can lead to food-borne illnesses. The other major concern, especially to nutrition experts, is that the raw diet is restrictive and may lead to some nutritional deficiencies and unintentional weight loss. For example, vitamin B12 and zinc are nearly impossible to obtain from dietary sources when eating all raw, since animal products are the main food source of these nutrients.
Claudia Gonzalez, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association (ADA), said that it’s difficult to consume more than 1,200 calories a day in raw foods. While this might be great for weight-loss, Gonzalez said that once the weight comes off, it might not be enough to sustain a person’s energy.
Meanwhile,  raw food diet philosophy is gaining popularity and is making its way into the restaurant sector. The first completely raw restaurant in the United States opened up in California in 1917, but the trend didn’t gain momentum until the late 1980s in New York. Now, a raw restaurant, Sprout, has opened in Mount Pleasant.
Very few research studies have been conducted to assess the effectiveness of this type of diet, but as more studies are completed, the public will have a clearer idea of how a raw diet may be beneficial. If you choose to follow a raw diet, research and be aware of the possible risks associated with it. “As with any diet, when evaluating the ‘raw foods’ approach, ask questions,” the ADA has urged. This extreme eating philosophy warrants exploration and just might open the door to a variety of tastes, textures and innovative recipes.


Friday, Jan. 16, 2009

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