Raw foodism is the idea that the healthiest foods are those that are uncooked and unprocessed so they're as close as possible to their most natural state. Proponents of raw food diets claim cooking with high heat destroys most of the nutritional content of foods and that natural enzymes found in raw plant-based foods are essential for good digestion and good health. A typical raw food diet includes mostly fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, sprouts and mushrooms, but may also include raw milk, cheese made from raw milk, and unpasteurized uncooked eggs.
Are Raw Food Diets Beneficial?
I think any potential benefit of this diet is due to the increased intake of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and sprouts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that most people need to eat more fruits and vegetables, and it's hard to imagine a raw food diet that doesn't consist mostly of fruits and vegetables.
The raw food diet is also much lower in saturated fat intake than a standard American diet because meat intake is reduced or eliminated. You'll also avoid the various artificial ingredients and enormous amounts of sodium found in highly processed foods. But be careful, natural ingredients aren't always better than artificial ingredients.
Raw foods are mostly nutritious, but I'm not sure all of the foods you eat need to be raw to be good for you. It's true that cooking depletes some of the nutrients found in fruits and vegetables, but many nutrients aren't affected by cooking, and some, such as lycopene and some polyphenols, are more concentrated in foods that are cooked or processed. I think it's a good idea to eat some raw fruits and vegetables every day, and some that are cooked.
Not all processing is bad. Eggs and milk don't lose any of their nutritional value after they're pasteurized, and they're safer to eat than their raw counterparts. I'm not convinced the enzymes found in raw plants offer any health benefits as claimed. Since enzymes are small proteins, they're probably just broken down and digested by stomach acid and pancreatic enzymes.
What About Deficiencies?
Any time you choose a restrictive diet you run the risk of nutritional deficiencies. A raw foodist who is also a vegan is at a risk for developing vitamin B-12 deficiency. Other potential deficiencies include vitamin D and iron, although iron from plant based foods is absorbed better when you eat vitamin C-rich foods at the same time.
How To Start?
You won't be cooking your foods anymore, but you can still eat foods that are dehydrated, fermented, or juiced. You'll need to find the best equipment for your kitchen since you won't be using your stove or oven anymore. Stock up on fruits and vegetables and markets that specialize in natural foods should have some raw products.
To learn more, read how to get started on a raw food diet by our About.com Guide to Alternative Medicine. Then check out Vegetarian Cooking at About.com to find recipes specifically made for raw food diets.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Fruit and Vegetable Benefits." Accessed June 18, 2012. http://www.fruitsandveggiesmatter.gov/benefits/index.html.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin B12." Accessed June 18, 2012.