Many non-vegans view a vegan diet as restrictive and limiting, even though there are lots of health reasons to go vegan. What then, would such nay-sayers make of the increasingly popular raw vegan diet? Here we take a look at what exactly a raw vegan diet is and the pros and cons of adopting such a programme. We also give some pointers towards following a raw vegan diet plan.
As we (hopefully) know, a vegan diet is one that is free from animal products, including meat, of course, but also eggs, animal milk and anything made from it, as well as other animal-derived products, substances and additives. As we discuss in our Things you Didn’t Know Weren’t Vegan article, animal derivatives find their way into lots and lots of foods, so sticking to a vegan diet is rarely straightforward. Those following a raw vegan eating programme take that up a level.
What Does ‘Raw Vegan’ Mean?
In simple terms, a raw vegan diet is one that adheres to all the same principles as veganism but allows no cooked or processed foods either. Essentially, it brings together two separate eating philosophies. Unsurprisingly, these are veganism and “raw foodism”.
We’ve got loads of info on the vegan diet, from our Is It Vegan? guides to information on vegan supplements, so we’ll assume we don’t need to go into any more detail about that here. The concept of only eating “raw” food may be less familiar though, so let’s take a closer look at that.
Rawism, eating raw, raw foodism, a raw food diet… call it what you will; it involves eating only, or almost only, raw and unprocessed foods. Whilst there may be many reasons someone follows a vegan diet, chiefly environmental reasons and ethical considerations, those following a raw food diet, vegan or otherwise, do so almost exclusively for health purposes.
The precise details of a raw vegan diet vary in much the same way people have different lines when it comes to veganism itself. Some people may describe themselves as “mostly raw” or “90% raw”, depending on how strictly they stick to all the edicts of this growing nutritional philosophy.
Whilst the strictest raw vegans won’t eat anything that has been cooked or processed in any way, others are more forgiving and may eat some sprouted and fermented food stuffs, as well as items that may have been lightly heated, cooked at very low temperatures or dehydrated.
Eliminating Cooked & Processed Foods
Almost all adherents of a raw food diet eschew fully cooked foods, mass-processed foods, pasteurised items, homogenised foods, products with artificial additives and crops grown using non-organic pesticides and fertilisers. Sadly, given the brilliant array of vegan wine and vegan beer, alcohol is also out, as is coffee, anything with traditional flour and anything that uses sugar, though some natural, raw sweeteners are allowed.
Advocates of a raw vegan diet argue that cooking food above between 40c-48c is damaging. It is claimed that above this temperature micronutrients in food are destroyed. In addition, rawists claim that such temperatures negatively impact the enzymes in raw food that help the body to digest them effectively. It is also claimed that cooking foods increases their toxicity and can lead to any range of long-term health problems.
The science behind much of this is highly debatable, to say the least, and there are many who criticise such diets. We will come to that later but, in short, a raw vegan diet tends to be mostly made up of the following foods, ideally organic (although see our feature on organic food for the issues that can throw up), and eaten in their most natural, raw, unprocessed form:
|Foods that Make Up a Raw Diet|
|Herbs & Raw Spices|
|Shrubs, Sprouts & Roots|
Pros & Cons of a Raw Vegan Diet
We like to be positive here at Vegan Friendly and to look on the bright side and there is no doubt that the raw vegan diet has lots of benefits. However, the biggest question many considering a raw vegan diet will want answering is whether or not this way of eating is safe and healthy.
What the British Dietetic Association Has to Say
At the end of 2017, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) listed raw vegan as number one on its diets to AVOID in 2018. That’s quite a damning indictment from the association of UK dieticians, a professional body and trade union that is “the only body in the UK representing the whole of the dietetic workforce”.
The BDA criticise the raw vegan diet for being unsuitable for children and pregnant women, describe it as a “challenge” that is time consuming and difficult to adhere to when eating out. They also correctly point out that some foods are actually more nutritious when cooked. In addition, they state that whilst it is probably fine in the short term, it “may damage your health… in the long-term if not balanced.”
For the number one diet on their avoid list, we’d actually say that their criticism is actually fairly mild. In many, though not all, instances, a raw vegan diet is challenging, with lots of time-consuming preparation needed. And yes, it is true that eating out can be a challenge. But isn’t this true of veganism in general? Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it should be completely dismissed.
However, there are certainly other issues with the raw vegan diet that are harder to ignore and chief among those is quite simply that most of the claims about it are not backed up by science. First of all, as the BDA argue, it is simply untrue to claim that food per se is healthier and more nutritious raw than when it is cooked.
Potatoes, for example, are almost inedible raw and can contain anti-nutrient compounds, as well as being likely to cause digestive issues. A 2002 study showed that some vegetables, including carrots, may actually be healthier cooked. Their findings were:
… in partial disagreement with the concept that processed vegetables have lower nutritional quality than the raw ones. Moreover, our results suggest that for each vegetable a preferential cooking method could be selected to preserve or improve its nutritional and physicochemical qualities.
This catchy study, called “Effects of Different Cooking Methods on Nutritional and Physicochemical Characteristics of Selected Vegetables” was reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and demonstrated that the bioavailability of beta-carotene in cooked carrots was greater than in raw. This picture is replicated with a number of other plants (fruit and vegetables), for example tomatoes and asparagus, where the cooking makes it easier for the body to absorb various nutrients.
However, it should be said that whilst cooking may be better for the absorption and availability of some nutrients in given foods, it may not be better when looking at all the nutrients a particular food offers. But this fact brings us back to the original criticism of the raw vegan diet: it is just far too simple to say that eating all foods raw is better.
Cooking Kills Bad Bacteria
One way in which cooked food is certainly better is that heat and other processes can be used to make food safer. Whilst we chiefly think of meat as being something that needs cooking in order to be safe to eat, taking any food above a certain temperature will kill many of the harmful bacteria that can exist on almost any item.
Various studies by medical and health bodies all over the world have shown that a huge range of infections can be caused by eating contaminated food. If food is only washed, microorganisms are often not removed or killed and this can lead to bacterial or viral infections.
Whilst well-produced and well-cared for fruit, vegetables and other elements of a raw vegan diet should in theory be less prone to being contaminated, a diet that solely consists of raw food does leave a lot of scope for a microorganism-based infection to manifest.
Nutritional Issues with a Raw Vegan Diet
One of the biggest potential issues with a raw vegan diet concerns its nutrient value. Whilst such a diet is incredibly nutritious in many ways, in others it is likely to lead to a deficiency. The most commonly noted issue with such an eating regime is the potential lack of vitamin B12.
There are vegan sources of this essential B vitamin and humans only need it in very small amounts. However, the body itself cannot make vitamin B12, all the richest sources of it are derived from animals and the most common vegan sources are processed (such as Marmite!). That’s because most vegans, certainly in the UK, get vitamin B12 from foods that have it added as a fortification. By definition, these products, items such as breakfast cereals, yeast extract and some vegan milks, are processed and therefore would not form part of a raw vegan diet.
However, one option that may be acceptable to some raw vegans would be nori, the type of dried seaweed used in sushi and other Japanese dishes. This is a good source of vitamin B12 – and also a good vegan source of iodine – and whilst it is processed to a degree, some raw vegans are happy to include it. Most nori is dried and then very briefly roasted but less strict raw vegans may be happy to consume this.
Fully raw nori can be obtained but this is far less widely available and is very expensive. That said, such nori is hugely nutritious, serving up iodine, protein and other vitamins beside the B12 for which we are highlighting it. For a committed raw vegan, it is a great way to get nutrients that cannot otherwise be obtained in such a diet.
There are other nutrients that raw vegans will struggle to get enough of too and again these are ones that are largely lacking from plant-based foods. There are a number of micronutrients that many vegans get via supplements or fortification and these are not options for a raw vegan.
That is not to say it is impossible for a raw vegan to get enough of key vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, vitamin D and vitamin B12. However, without great planning, knowledge and the investment of a lot of time and possibly money, the reality is that most raw vegans may find their diet is lacking in some of these things.
A Raw Vegan Diet is Packed with Nutrients
The limiting nature of a raw vegan diet means it is highly likely that some nutrients will be hard to obtain but there is no escaping the fact that a diet that is based on fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and herbs has lots and lots of other benefits.
Raw vegans are likely to get a wide range of antioxidants and very high quantities of lots of the essential vitamins and minerals, as well as lots of fibre. In many ways, the raw vegan diet is indeed very healthy and with an increasing focus on the role fibre plays in health the benefits of such a nutritional scheme are clear.
Moreover, because it avoids processed foods, a raw food diet is almost certain to be low in salt. An article published in 2019 in the Lancet showed that salt shortened more lives than anything else we eat with the Global Burden of Disease Study on which it was based claiming that an excess of salt in the diet was responsible for three million deaths in 2017.
In more good news for raw vegans, the BBC report of the Lancet article cited a lack of fruit, not enough wholegrains and “Low levels of nuts, seeds, vegetables, omega-3 from seafood and fibre” as “the other major killers”.
A Lack of Scientific Data
Ignoring the issue of omega-3, that actually paints rather a healthy picture of a raw vegan diet. Raw veganism has been around for a long time but has, like veganism in general, only become more mainstream over the past 10 years or so. Even now rawism remains a niche within a niche and overall numbers of raw vegans are low. This means that giving a conclusive scientific answer about the health or otherwise of such a diet is impossible.
Few, if any, reliable long-term studies have been done on the raw vegan diet simply because not enough people are available to study. It is obviously healthy in many ways but only in the same ways that veganism itself is. As already said, most of the claims about a raw vegan diet are simply not backed up by any robust science.
Raw vegan evangelists proclaim the diet as a panacea for just about all ills, both physical and mental. Followers will claim it boosts the immune system, fights cancer, improves digestion, lowers inflammation, provides more energy and better skin, improves the health of the heart and liver, reduces acidity in the body and so on. Some of these claims are quite vague and hard to quantify, whilst for others, as said, there simply aren’t enough raw vegans around for significant evidence to exist one way or another.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that a raw vegan diet is unhealthy or that the more valid claims about it aren’t true. It just means that at this moment in time we don’t know for sure. However, there are certain things that we do know.
Enzymes in Food Do Not Play an Active Role in Digestion
First of all, we know that there are major issues with claims that cooking food makes them less nutritious and harder to digest. According to Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us, the enzymes in food do not actually play an active role in digestion. Moreover, it is categorically untrue to say that raw food is more nutritious per se, with this varying from food to food and dependent on the cooking and preparation method. This means that holding up raw veganism as the gold standard for nutrition is false and a better diet could be obtained by cooking some foods.
Indeed, for most vegans we would argue that a standard vegan diet would be a healthier option. A full, non-raw vegan diet allows access to a wider range of foods and in general eating the widest range of plants possible is going to be healthiest as it gives you access to the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols and phytochemicals. Moreover, such a diet would also include fortified foods and allow the possibility of vegan supplements as and when deemed necessary.
It could be argued that a raw vegan diet that is executed perfectly may overcome many of the potential downsides of the regimen. However, the reality for most people is likely to fall some way short of this supremely planned ideal. As such, it seems probable that most vegans would be healthier by following a more traditional vegan diet, albeit one that follows many of the same tenets of raw veganism – chiefly the consumption of lots of delicious plants!
Raw Vegan Diet Plan
Whilst we feel the raw vegan diet should be approached with caution at the very least, if you decide it is for you then we have a few tips to help you on your way. The most basic starting point for any raw vegan should be the raw vegan pyramid:
In essence this gives you a very simple, visual guide to what form your diet should take, with green leafy vegetables being the mainstay. Other vegetables are also to be widely eaten, with fruits slightly less so, working up the pyramid through sprouts and legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs and seaweed before reaching the tip where cold pressed oils, nutritional yeast, algae and some other very lightly processed foods reside.
On a simple level, eating these foods more or less as they come is the most straightforward raw vegan diet going. It is quicker and easier to prepare and for those without a lot of time who like salads, nuts, seeds and eating fruit and vegetables as they come, this is a good option.
Raw Vegan Dish Ideas
Beyond that, however, the raw vegan diet has some incredible (though complex and time consuming) recipes. Raw lasagne, raw tacos and even raw pizza can be on the menu, whilst those with a spiralizer can enjoy courgette “pasta” or even Pad Thais!
If you have a sweet tooth fear not, because raw vegans have a huge choice of desserts. Raw cacao features heavily, so chocolate lovers need not miss out and whilst most of these sweet treats don’t pack the same sugary punch as a standard pudding, once you get used to them they can become quite satisfying… even a little addictive. Our vegan recipes section includes some raw vegan options so head over there for more information.
The History of Raw Veganism
The history of raw food and raw veganism is longer than one might assume. If you thought this was dreamed up by someone in LA at the start of the millennium you would be wrong. The person usually considered to be the founding father of the raw food movement is none other than Mr Muesli (that’s our name for him, anyway!), Maximilian Bircher-Benner.
If you’ve heard of Bircher muesli, you’ve essentially heard of the Swiss nutrition expert Maximilian Bircher-Benner, the man credited with popularising this healthy breakfast choice. Born in 1867, he was also a doctor and, according to a biography of him, Biography of Max Bircher-Benner, by the Zurich Development Center, he began feeding patients at his sanatorium, “Vital Force”, opened in 1897, a diet of raw fruit and vegetables.
Bircher-Benner, very much against the tide of popular and scientific opinion at the time, eschewed meat, whilst also banning his patients from alcohol, coffee, chocolate and tobacco. Whilst many of his ideas lacked scientific grounding, in many ways, he was ahead of his time, given the word “vitamin” wasn’t coined until 1912 and a fuller understanding of vitamins and minerals didn’t really exist until the 1930s when a number of the B vitamins were discovered.
Whilst some of his ideas have stood the test of time less well, for example, his belief in vitalism, the concept of eating a raw food diet persists, albeit that we may not fully understand or be able to prove it necessarily does all that is claimed of it.
Other Publications on Raw Veganism
It was not just Bircher-Benner singing from the raw food hymn sheet at the turn of the 20th century. There are a number of other publications from that time that espoused a similar nutritional approach. Eugene Christian’s Uncooked Foods and How to Use Them, published in 1904, contained chapters on “As a remedy”, “Effects of cooking on food”, “Fruits”, “Vegetables” and, somewhat oddly, “Melons”. In 1912, George Julius Drews published Unfired Food and Trophotherapy, in which he wrote “Unnatural (cooked) food and flesh are the dangerous sources of waste poisons”.
Drews’ work was said to be a big influence on John and Vera Richter, who as early as 1911 were following a raw vegan diet before the word vegan even existed! Amazingly, they would open probably the world’s first raw vegan restaurant in Los Angeles in 1918. Called the Eutropheon, it served “Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Salads…Uncooked Soups” and promised “No refined cane sugar, vinegar, salt or other condiments”.
According to the book Raw Foodism (Berry and Rynn, 2007), the Eutropheon was a meeting place for those who would shape California’s counter-culture and alternative lifestyles. It was also where LA’s bodybuilding community liked to hang out according to other sources. All this in 1918! So, if you think your town or city is hip and happening because a nice little vegan place has just opened, remember that John and Vera were doing raw vegan cuisine more than a century ago!