Raw Foods: The Good And The Not So Good

It wasn’t long ago that raw food bars were all the rage.  If you didn’t eat your food raw, you weren’t in with the IN crowd and you were out of the loop in the healthy rage. There are still some raw food bars around but pretty much the fad has died down and, I think, for good reason.

A lot of my patients ask me about the health benefits of eating raw food and I agree there are some foods that are of benefit eaten raw, some I question, and some I never would recommend without cooking. In case you were wondering about whether it’s more beneficial to eat all of your food raw, here’s some pros and cons you might want to consider.

What’s So Great About Raw Food?

To begin with, raw food is anything that has not been heated above 118 degrees. It’s reported by raw food enthusiasts that temperatures above that kill the natural enzymes present in food and make it harder for your body to digest them.  It’s true, that your body needs specific enzymes to digest your food. As we get older those enzymes decrease and don’t do the job of digesting as well which may leave us constipated and missing a lot of nutrients from our food.

Now, there are some great, high vitamins and mineral, fiber-filled foods recommended for raw food dieting that are all the things you should include in a healthy diet anyway. They include such foods as vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains and juices as well as monounsaturated fats from olives, avocados, coconut, and nuts.  As you can see, it’s mostly a vegetarian diet, but people who practice a raw diet exclusively say there are many benefits such as:

  • Lower cholesterol.
  • Lower/stable blood sugar levels.
  • Lower blood pressure (from decreased sodium intake).
  • May prevent stomach and oral cancers (overly cooked, barbecued food suspect).
  • High in fiber, helps maintain good bowel health and blood sugar levels.
  • Boosts immune system from higher glycoside levels in raw food.
  • Avoidance of wheat, dairy, sugar, alcohol, and table salt may help some allergies and aids the body in detoxifying itself.
  • Clearer skin.
  • Weight loss, sustained.

What’s Not So Great About Raw Food Diet

The raw food diet lifestyle, in its purest form, is mostly a vegetarian diet.  I become concerned about vitamin deficiencies, especially deficiencies in B12, which is common in vegetarian diets. This deficiency can result in anemia, and conditions of the nervous system, as well as neurological disorders of cognition problems and dementia. The best sources of B12 are from red meat, and secondly chicken, fish, and wheat germ.

In addition, not heating foods past 118 degrees allows food borne pathogens to stay intact and can result in serious illness. Take eggs for example. Many of my patients brag about how they put a raw egg in a blender with juice, etc, and drink it all down. I cringe and then tell them they’re lucky they dodged a salmonella bullet but may not always, as eggs can be carriers of bacteria.

Depending on how strict you are into a raw food diet, you may also include some fish (sushi, etc), red meat, and milk (non-pasteurized, non-homogenized only). Adding meat and fish works better from a nutritional standpoint, but from a food borne pathogen standpoint could pose some serious problems. Both fish and meat can carry bacteria, like salmonella and others. If you’ve ever suffered a Salmonella food poisoning event, you don’t want to go there again.  They can also carry viruses and parasites.  Non-pasteurized milk can also carry Mycobacterium bovis that can cause non-pulmonary type tuberculosis.  In short, these raw foods can result in some serious illnesses that you don’t want to subject yourself to.

And if vitamin deficiencies and food borne pathogens aren’t enough to scare you away from a raw food diet, some raw foods are included that are in a natural and uncooked state, many of which can be toxic.  Here is a short list of these foods:

  • Kidney beans and sprouts contain a chemical called phytohemaglutinin, which can be toxic.
  • Alfalfa sprouts contain canavanine.
  • Apricot kernels – contain amygdalin, which is raw cyanide.
  • Buckwheat greens are toxic if raw. They can trigger photosensivity.
  • Parsnips – raw, contain furanocoumarin which can be toxic.

In addition, time may be a factor in not choosing a raw diet. Since it is mostly all raw food, it takes a lot of buying and preparation time, as freshness would be of ultimate importance.

Convenience may be another negative, as it would make it hard to go out to eat. Also getting used to it may be hard for people who have eaten meat, sugar, salt and alcohol their entire life to switch to a raw diet.

Is There a Healthy Way To Eat Raw Foods?

The answer to that question depends on whom you ask, mostly.  But even many raw food enthusiasts say that the ideal raw diet is 75% raw and 25% cooked, and if I were going to “go raw” this is the way I’d likely do it as well.

  • Twenty-five percent of your raw diet could be cooked meat, fish or eggs, but I would add a good digestive enzyme to help digest these proteins especially if you’re past age 40.
  • The other 75% could be made up of raw vegetables steamed just enough to soften them and bring out their flavor.  Raw fruit and nuts are always great in their natural form and I wholeheartedly recommend eating several servings of these vitamin and fiber rich foods every day.
  • As always, drink half your weight in clean, filtered water a day to flush toxins out of your body.

This is what I tell my patients who ask about the health benefits of a raw food diet. There are a lot of positive elements involved, such as eating all the vegetables, fruit, and nuts, and staying away from sugar and alcohol and processed foods. These are healthy changes that anyone can incorporate into their diet whether it’s completely raw or not. To avoid serious illness however, stay away from sushi and steak tartare unless you really can vouch for where they came from and who handled them.


Mark Rosenberg, M.D.

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, MD is a Phlebologist in Boca Raton, FL. He is affiliated with Boca Raton Regional Hospital.

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