A raw food diet involves eating mainly unprocessed whole, plant-based, and preferably organic foods. Some sources say that when following this diet, raw food should make up three-quarters of the diet.
People who follow the raw food diet believe that eating raw foods can improve their health, well-being, and possibly reduce the risk of medical conditions.
Weight loss is not usually the main aim of the raw food diet, but switching to raw food can lead to weight loss.
This article provides an overview of the raw food diet, including what to eat and avoid, how to prepare raw food, and the benefits and risks of this diet.
Most people who follow the raw food diet eat only plant-based foods, making it a type of vegan diet. However, some people eat raw animal products or raw or dried meat, too.
There are three broad types of raw food diet:
- a raw vegan diet excludes all animal products, focusing only on plant-based foods
- a raw vegetarian diet includes plant-based foods plus raw eggs and unprocessed dairy products
- a raw omnivorous diet includes plant-based foods, raw animal products, and raw or dried meat
People interpret the raw food diet and what it means in different ways. Some people will eat some cooked food, while others eat none. For some people, it is a way of life, and for others, it is simply a dietary choice.
The following foods are suitable for most raw food diets:
- raw fruits and raw vegetables
- dried fruits and vegetables
- freshly made fruit and vegetable juices
- soaked and sprouted beans, other legumes, and grains
- raw nuts and seeds
- raw nut butters, such as peanut butter and almond butter
- nut milks, including almond milk
- coconut milk
- cold-pressed olive oil or coconut oil
- nutritional yeast
- dried fruits
- green food powder, such as dried wheatgrass or algae
- fermented foods, including kimchi and sauerkraut
- purified water, but not tap water
- other organic, natural, or unprocessed foods
Depending on the type of diet, a raw food diet may also contain:
- raw eggs
- raw fish, such as sushi or sashimi
- other raw or dried meats
- non-pasteurized and non-homogenized milk and dairy products
Foods to avoid include:
- all cooked or processed foods
- refined oils
- table salt
- refined sugars and flour
- coffee, tea, and alcohol
Olives are usually too bitter to eat raw, and olives in tins have undergone a cooking process during manufacture. People on a raw food diet can eat olives if they are sun-cured.
When preparing food in a raw food diet, people tend to follow certain strategies, such as soaking, dehydrating, and juicing foods. The diet allows for chopping and blending foods.
The diet excludes any food heated beyond a certain temperature, usually 104° to 118°F, though figures may vary between sources. The only heating allowed is with a dehydrator, which is a device that blows hot air across food.
People can eat many fruits and vegetables with no preparation, while others need some additional steps. Common methods for preparing raw foods include:
- soaking beans and grains in water
- eating sprouted rather than whole grains
- drying or dehydrating fruits
- juicing fruits and vegetables or making smoothies
Examples of nutrient-rich meals suitable for the raw food diet include:
- Breakfast: “Rawnola” is a raw version of granola made from walnuts, pecans, dates, flaxseed, chia seeds, and old fashioned oats. Finish with a variety of colorful fruits, such as blueberries, mango, and kiwi. Try adding juices, nut milk, or cold-pressed oil.
- Snack: Raw green smoothies are a versatile choice that people can customize. Common ingredients include bananas, kale, spinach, blueberries, and many other fruits and vegetables.
- Lunch: Raw cauliflower “fried“ rice with cauliflower, broccoli, edamame beans, and peppers.
- Dinner: Raw pad-Thai salad with peppers, peanuts, and zucchini.
People can also make many desserts using raw ingredients, such as raw vegan lemon cheesecake using dates, coconut butter, and cashews. Raw chocolate chip cookies are a popular choice, made from dates, cashews, and cacao nibs.
Many people on a raw food diet believe that it makes the body better able to prevent and fight diseases, especially chronic conditions.
A 2019 reviewTrusted Source reports that following a plant-based (but not necessarily raw) diet has significant benefits for physical health and disease.
Following a raw food diet can have a range of benefits, including improved health and weight loss. The next sections discuss some possible benefits.
High in nutrients
A raw food diet tends to be high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes, all of which are staples of a healthful diet. Eating a range of these foods will provide plenty of vitamins, minerals, and healthful fats, and protein.
Fewer processed foods
Processed foods tend to be higher in salt, added sugars, and unhealthful saturated fats. They can lead to inflammation of blood vessels and cardiovascular disease. Reducing or eliminating processed foods can, therefore, have significant health benefits.
If a person wishes to lose weight, eating mainly uncooked foods can help. This is because raw foods are usually low in calories, and plant-based foods are high in fiber, making a person feel full for longer.
Retaining enzymes in food
According to some sources, the cooking process may destroy or alter the natural enzymes in foods, as well as some essential vitamins.
The idea is that nature has given each food its unique perfect mix, and these vital enzymes allow a person to digest their foods fully. Proponents claim that only raw food, therefore, is “live” food.
However, these enzymes present in food are mostly denatured by the acid in the stomach. Our bodies contain the enzymes needed to digest foods.
Some people believe that the raw food diet will lead to the following benefits, though these are not scientifically proven:
- more energy
- clearer skin
- better digestion
Some foods are not safe to eat uncooked. The cooking process breaks down toxic chemicals in some food, and others carry a risk of food poisoning.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)Trusted Source, uncooked animal products are most likely to cause food poisoning. This includes:
- raw and undercooked meat, including chicken
- raw or lightly cooked eggs
- raw (unpasteurized) milk and products made from it
- raw shellfish
People can also get food poisoning from raw fruits and vegetables. This is less likely with cooked fruits and vegetables because the cooking process kills bacteria. The CDC recommend always washing produce before eating it.
Nutritionists and dietitians suggest that people following a raw food diet should consume the following foods with caution:
Buckwheat: Buckwheat greens may be toxic when raw, though there is little research about its effect on humans. Juicing or eating buckwheat in large amounts may cause toxic effects, such as a sensitivity to the sun, or photosensitization.
Kidney beans: Kidney beans contain a chemical called phytohaemagglutinin. Raw kidney beans and kidney bean sprouts may be toxic. Most legumes contain phytic acid, which can block the body’s absorption of some essential minerals. Cooking reduces the level of phytic acid.
Raw eggs: Salmonella bacteria are present in some eggs, which can cause severe illness and even death. Cooking eggs kills the bacteria. The CDCTrusted Source recommend using pasteurized eggs when using recipes that call for raw or undercooked eggs.
Seafood and shellfish: Raw, seafood and shellfish can pass on harmful bacteria. The CDCTrusted Source recommend that people avoid raw seafood.
Milk: Raw milk may contain Listeria, bacteria that can cause serious infections and has links to pregnancy complications. According to the CDCTrusted Source, pasteurized milk contains the same health benefits without the risks.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that people on the raw food diet may experience clearer skin, more energy, sustained weight loss, and a reduction in cholesterol and lipid levels in blood tests.
However, the diet has some disadvantages:
- Cooking makes some foods safer. The cooking process kills some toxins, bacteria, and harmful compounds in food. People should treat raw animal products and some produce with caution.
- People should research which foods, including beans and vegetables, are safe to eat raw before trying them.
- Cooking may help release valuable nutrients, such as lycopene and beta carotene, from raw vegetables.
- Digestive problems can arise, such as gas or cramping, but this may improve after a while.
- Weight loss may not be healthful for everyone, and some people will have to work hard to keep up the number of calories they need.
- As with other diets, following a raw food diet requires organization and preparation to ensure an adequate intake of essential nutrients.
People following any plant-based diet must take care to get all the nutrients they need, as some nutrients are much more common in animal products.
Essential nutrients that people should consider include protein, vitamin B-12, iron, calcium, some omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. Followers of the raw food diet often discourage the use of supplements.
One small-scale study from 2005Trusted Source found that people on a raw food vegetarian diet had lower bone mass, although their bones appeared to be otherwise healthy.
Another 2005 studyTrusted Source found that although a long-term raw food diet can reduce overall cholesterol and triglycerides, it may also lower the levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol, and raise levels of homocysteine (tHcy) because of a lack of vitamin B-12.
High levels of tHcy can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. Females who followed the raw food diet for over 3 years experienced irregularities in their menstrual cycle.
Dietitians agree, however, that an increased intake of fruits and vegetables and a reduction in processed food would benefit most people.