Monday, August 19, 2013

Part 8: What About the Raw Foods Diet?

The raw foods diet originates from Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner, who in the late 1800s discovered that he could cure his own jaundice by eating raw apples. The theory is that cooking foods removes all the nutrients and vitamins from it (but this claim has not been supported through scientific evidence).

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Summary of Diet Recommendations:
The raw foods diet consists of uncooked (not heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit) vegetables, fruit, sprouts, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs, and cold-pressed oils. Although not shown in the above pyramid, a "raw foodist" may not necessarily be vegan, but may also consume raw fish, meat, unpasteurized milk, cheese, and other dairy products.

What's Good?
Those that avoid consuming all animal products (vegan raw foodists) also avoid the over consumption of animal protein, which is very beneficial for a person's health.

Furthermore, eating a diet full of plant foods is very healthy, but a strictly raw foods diet lacks certain plant foods that are inedible in their raw state (i.e., rice, potatoes, beans). In other words, Michael and I eat raw foods some of the time, but we do not eat raw foods 100% of the time, because we know it's also important to consume whole grains and starches (which require cooking to become edible). I'll explain more about this shortly.

The raw foods diet is also low in processed and refined foods, which is a healthy trait.

What's Bad?
The main drawback to a raw foods diet is that it is extremely difficult to consume an adequate amount of calories from whole, plant-based foods because certain high-calorie plant foods are inedible in their raw state. Many whole grains and starches are automatically eliminated from a raw foods diet because no foods can be heated above 115 degrees.

This point brings up a common question or concern that I have heard from friends. I usually hear something like this: "But I have a friend who went vegan for a time and became so skinny/weak/emaciated that he/she had to stop." My response is usually, "I'm not surprised," which puzzles the person. I then go on to explain that it is entirely possible (and I would argue, common) to technically be vegan, but not eat a health-promoting diet. As I mentioned in Part 7: What About the Vegan Diet?, a vegan is commonly found in one of two ways: the junk food vegan or the starving vegan.

As I discussed in Part 7, a junk food vegan is common because there are so many convenient high-fat, highly-processed vegan food options that are available.

The starving vegan is the result of the person trying to live on vegetables and fruit alone. The problem with that is that vegetables contain about 200 calories per pound and fruit has about 300 calories per pound. Though these two food groups are very healthy and should be consumed often, they should not be the largest food group consumed because it is difficult to consume enough of them to get all the calories you need each day (recall from Part 7 that you would have to eat 10 lbs of vegetables and 6-7 lbs of fruit each day if you needed 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight, and athletic/active individuals often require 2,500 or more calories). This is why I recommend that whole grains and starches make up the bulk of your diet, and then supplement with vegetables, fruit, and other plant-based foods.

I'm not surprised the person's friend "who went vegan" and tried to live on vegetables and fruit alone ended up so skinny, weak, and emaciated...because they slowly starved themselves into poor health. I usually end the conversation by posing the rhetorical question, "Do Michael or I look emaciated and sickly?" The answer is no, because we eat mostly whole grains and starches, coupled with vegetables and fruit.

A raw foods diet is essentially a starvation diet, unless the person intentionally eats higher-fat raw foods. But this is not a good solution either.

If the raw foodist consumes large amounts of high-fat raw foods in an attempt to consume enough calories each day, the person will eventually end up in an unhealthy state. The cold pressed oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olives are very high in fat, which would help a person avoid starvation, but is not beneficial for one's health in the long run.

Fun Facts about Fat

Our bodies store fat easily to ensure survival in times of famine.
But famine in the U.S. is not a reality,
so fat and more fat continues to be stored in the body.

Eating carbohydrates does not result in weight gain because your body
burns off excess through body heat and energy before storing as fat.

Only with extreme over-consumption will your body convert carbohydrates to fat,
but it is a very inefficient process that requires 30% of the calories
consumed just to complete that process.

But fat is easily stored by the body,
requiring only 3% of calories consumed to complete the process.
The fat you eat is literally the fat you wear!

The over consumption of fat can lead to obesity, type II diabetes, and arthritis.

80% of the calories in nuts and seeds are from fat.
1 oz of walnuts (a small handful) contains 183 calories, 153 from fat (84% fat content)
Eating just 1 oz of walnuts every day would result in consuming
5,490 calories -- or more than 1.5 pounds of body fat -- each month!

Eating a diet that requires you to consume large amounts of high-fat foods to eventually maintain your weight is not sustainable in the long term. For example, if an overweight person needed to lose 20 lbs to reach their optimal weight, they could easily achieve that eating a raw foods diet by eating mostly raw fruits and vegetables and little to no high-fat raw foods. But after the person reaches their optimal weight, they would be required to consume more calories to prevent additional weight loss. By restricting themselves to raw foods only, they would be "forced" to consume high-fat raw foods to get more calories. It would be a bodily experiment on one's self to determine the exact amount of high-fat raw foods that must be consumed each day to maintain the person's weight. This is impractical and unnecessary. Why not eat a whole foods, plant-based diet consisting of naturally low-fat carbohydrates (whole grains and starches) and vegetables and fruit? Unlike nuts and seeds, whole grains and starches have lots of fiber that help a person regulate how much food to consume, without having to monitor how much body fat is constantly being accumulated. Isn't effortless weight loss and maintenance more appealing?

The final point I want to make is that food is meant to be enjoyed. If you choose the right kinds of food, then you should have the freedom to enjoy every bite to satiety. I think I would become miserable eating nothing but unseasoned, raw foods every day. Sure, I enjoy the occasional raw broccoli florets for a snack, but I do not want to only consume raw vegetables. Salads? Delicious, but I tend to get tired of salads if I eat them everyday. Fruit - that makes more sense to eat raw, but I still enjoy cooking fruit on occasion. For instance, this summer we discovered the simple, yet delicious dessert of sauteing some sliced peaches in water with cinnamon and oats. A raw foods diet seems very limited to me.

Bottom Line:
Though raw foods can be very healthy, eating a 100% raw foods diet is not. Whole grains, legumes, and starches, which are necessary for adequate calorie intake and proper weight maintenance, are inedible in their raw state. Eating an entirely raw foods diet either leads to starvation or too much fat intake in order to consume enough calories -- neither result is health-promoting or beneficial for losing/maintaining weight. A whole foods, plant-based diet (centered around cooked starches, legumes, and whole grains) is the most health-promoting and results in effortless weight loss and maintenance.

Next -- Part 9: What About the Mediterranean Diet?
Previous -- Part 7: What About the Vegan Diet?
Introduction to the 10-Part Series 

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