Raw Food Diet Overview

Scorecard

Overall
Weight Loss Short-term
Weight Loss Long-term
Easy to Follow
Nutrition
Safety
For Diabetes
For Heart Health

Scores are based on experts' reviews

Pros & Cons

  • Fruits and veggies dominate the menu
  • Nearly guaranteed weight loss
  • Tedious meal prep; equipment required
  • Lots of rules

Do's & Don'ts

Do: Make lots of freshly-squeezed juice See more Do's & Don'ts

Overview

Type:

Low-calorie.

Resembles these U.S. News-rated diets:

Vegan Diet, Vegetarian Diet

The aim:

Depends, but may include weight loss, improved health, and helping the environment.

The claim:

Raw food is packed with natural enzymes and nutrients that help the body reach optimal health—and you’ll shed pounds.

The theory:

Raw foodism traces back to the late 1800s, when Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a doctor, discovered he could cure his own jaundice by eating raw apples. Thus began a series of experiments testing the effects of raw food on human health, and the diet has continued to evolve. Raw food hasn’t been cooked, processed, microwaved, irradiated, genetically engineered, or exposed to pesticides or herbicides. It includes fresh fruits, berries, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and herbs in their whole, natural state. Proponents say cooking obliterates most of the vitamins in food and nearly all of the immune-boosting plant nutrients (though scientific evidence to support these claims is lacking). Most who follow the plan consume only half the calories they would eat on a cooked diet.

How does the Raw Food Diet work?

There are numerous variations of the raw food diet, and you have the power to shape your own. Typically, though, about 75 to 80 percent of what you eat each day will be plant-based foods never heated above 115 degrees Fahrenheit. (Very few people follow a 100 percent raw diet.) Most followers are vegan, but some choose to consume raw animal products, like raw (unpasteurized) milk, cheese made from raw milk, sashimi, raw fish, and certain kinds of raw meat. You’ll eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, sprouts, seeds, and nuts, including cashews, sunflower seeds, and raw almond butter; some foods are marked as raw and sold at grocery stores, while others require home-prep. Grains are also OK, as are dried organic legumes (think lentils, chickpeas, adzuki beans, and mung beans) eaten raw. Other common choices include cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil; raw virgin coconut oil; and raw coconut butter. Freshly-squeezed vegetable juice and herbal tea are also staples.

What’s off-limits? Anything pasteurized, all processed foods, refined sugars and flours, table salt, and caffeine. Say goodbye to pasta, baked goods, junk food, and most store-bought juices, drinks, and milks. (Homemade juices using fresh fruits and veggies are OK.)

You’ll need to learn how to properly prepare your food. Raw foodies become expert at juicing, blending, dehydrating, sprouting, germinating, cutting, chopping, and rehydrating. A dehydrator, for example, uses low temperatures and a fan to dry out food. Dehydrate peeled and sliced sweet potatoes for five hours, and you’ll have crunchy sweet potato chips. To make chocolate chip cookies, grind raw cashews and oats in a food processor or blender to create dough; then mix coconut oil, carob and cocoa powder, maple syrup, and vanilla to make chocolate chips; and then combine the two and place them in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Will you lose weight?

Very likely, provided you follow the rules. Research suggests that raw food dieters tend to eat fewer calories and weigh less than other types of dieters.

  • In a small study, 32 people adopted a diet that got at least 62 percent of daily calories from raw food (and the rest from cooked foods). That’s pretty standard, since most raw foodists go 75 to 80 percent raw. After nearly 7 months, the participants had lost an average of 8.3 pounds, according to findings published in the Southern Medical Journal. And in a three month study reported in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 43 people following a raw food diet lost 9 percent of their initial body weight. If you’re overweight, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help stave off some diseases.
  • In another study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2005, researchers compared 18 people on a strict raw food diet with 18 on a typical American diet. After 4 years, body mass index—a measure of body fat—and mid-section fat were lower among those in the raw food group than those in the other group. BMI, for example, was 20.7 among men and 20.1 for women on the raw food diet vs. 25.5 and 25.4 in the other group—the difference between “normal weight” and “overweight.” And total body fat in the raw food group was 13.9 percent for men and 24.1 percent for women, compared with 20.8 and 33.5 percent among the non-ra`w food dieters.
  • In a study of more than 500 people who followed a raw food diet for nearly 4 years, researchers found that body weight decreased as percentage of daily calories from raw food increased. By the study’s end, body mass index was below the normal range for 14.7 percent of male participants and 25 percent of females, according to findings published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. The researchers also found that roughly 30 percent of the women under age 45 developed amenorrhea, which means their menstrual period stopped due to insufficient calories. Participants eating high amounts of raw food (more than 90 percent of daily calories) were most likely to be affected. Since many raw food dieters were either underweight or experienced amenorrhea, the researchers concluded they would not advise a strict raw food diet on a long-term basis.

Does it have cardiovascular benefits?

Unclear, but the raw food diet could have a positive effect. An eating pattern heavy on fruits and veggies, but light on saturated fat and salt, is considered the best way to keep cholesterol and blood pressure in check and heart disease at bay.

  • In an observational study, researchers examined 201 adults who’d been following a raw food diet for at least two years. They found that the majority had low triglyceride and cholesterol levels. (Triglycerides are a fatty substance in the blood that, when high, can increase the risk of heart disease.) Only 14 percent of the participants had high “bad” LDL cholesterol, while none had high triglycerides, according to findings published in 2005 in the Journal of Nutrition. Dietary cholesterol intake was also low among all participants, which helps keep cholesterol levels in check.

Can it prevent or control diabetes?

No good evidence suggests a raw food diet accomplishes either, but by promoting weight loss, it could help.

  • Diabetes experts emphasize that weight gain from excessive caloric intake, regardless of where those calories come from, increases the risk of insulin resistance—a precursor to type 2 diabetes—in which the body does not respond as it should to the sugar-processing hormone insulin. Losing weight and keeping it off, whatever the diet, will almost certainly reduce your risk of developing the chronic disease.

Are there health risks?

It’s up to you to create a sensible plan and avoid risks like food poisoning that could stem from eating raw or undercooked meat, fish, milk, or eggs. Since extremely restrictive diets have been associated with growth problems for people of all ages, raw food plans are inappropriate for infants and children, according to the American Dietetic Association.

  • Following a strict raw food diet can cause menstrual periods to stop, typically because of extreme weight loss and insufficient calories, research has found. The condition, called amenorrhea, has been linked to complications like uterine cancer.
  • Research suggests that raw (unpasteurized) milk often harbors pathogens; it’s banned for human consumption in more than 20 states. Despite raw milk’s purported virtues—advocates say it can cure asthma and ear infections, for example—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has no health benefits and is dangerous.
  • Most fruits and veggies are edible in their raw state, but some are potentially toxic. Steer clear of raw taro, rhubarb, and cassava. And avoid potatoes that have turned green or have sprouts, since they contain solanine, a toxin that can cause harm even in small amounts.
  • In the Archives of Internal Medicine study cited above, researchers found that people who’d been on a strict raw food diet for at least 10 years had lower bone mass and lower bone mineral density than did those on a more typical American diet. But that didn’t necessarily reflect an increased risk of osteoporosis, the researchers concluded, and may have been due to the dieters’ low body weight.

How well does it conform to accepted dietary guidelines?

Fat. Thanks to the raw food diet’s emphasis on fruits and veggies, you’ll likely stay on the low end of the government’s recommendation that between 20 to 35 percent of daily calories come from fat. And the fats you do get will be the healthy unsaturated kind.

Protein. The diet’s in line with the recommended amount of protein. Green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans, and grains are all good, raw protein sources.

Carbohydrates. It’s within the acceptable range for carb consumption.

Salt. The majority of Americans eat too much salt. On the raw food diet, however, you shouldn’t have trouble staying within the government guidelines. Those guidelines recommend a daily maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium, but if you’re 51 or older or African-American, or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease, that limit is 1,500 mg.

Other key nutrients. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines call these “nutrients of concern” because many Americans get too little of one or more of them:

  • Fiber. Getting the recommended daily amount—22 to 34 grams for adults—helps you feel full and promotes good digestion. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, and legumes are generally high-fiber, so you should easily meet the recommendation on the raw food diet.
  • Potassium. A sufficient amount of this important nutrient, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, counters salt’s ability to raise blood pressure, decreases bone loss, and reduces the risk of developing kidney stones. It’s not that easy to get the recommended daily 4,700 mg. from food. (Bananas are high in potassium, yet you’d have to eat 11 a day.) The majority of Americans take in far too little. How much potassium you get on a raw food diet depends entirely on which raw foods you eat, but because you’re almost certainly eating more fruits and veggies than you were before, you’ll likely get more potassium than most people.
  • Calcium. It’s essential not only to build and maintain bones but to make blood vessels and muscles function properly. Many Americans don’t get enough. Women and anyone older than 50 should try especially hard to meet the government’s recommendation of 1,000 to 1,300 mg. per day. Meeting the goal is difficult on a raw food diet, and whether you succeed depends on your meal choices. A 2-cup serving of homemade sesame milk (sesame seeds blended into raw milk), for example, packs 70 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium. Other good sources include kale, dandelion greens, dates, dried apricots, wheat berries, and quinoa that’s been sprouted and soaked.
  • Vitamin B-12. Adults should shoot for 2.4 micrograms of this nutrient, which is critical for proper cell metabolism. Getting enough can be difficult on a raw food diet, since B-12 is mostly found in animal products. Nutritional yeast will help you satisfy the recommendation, but a B-12 supplement might be necessary.
  • Vitamin D. Adults who don’t get enough sunlight need to meet the government’s 15 microgram recommendation with food or a supplement to lower the risk of bone fractures. It can be difficult to get enough on a raw food diet; a supplement may be necessary.

Supplement recommended? Given the possibility of nutrient deficiencies on the raw food diet, taking a supplement could provide a benefit.

How easy is it to follow?

It’s difficult to follow this diet, partly because raw foodism is a vague concept interpreted differently by each dieter. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’ll eat any cooked food and how to plan and prepare your meals. Raw food diets often require tedious preparation, such as blending foods to make smoothies and sauces, and dehydrating ingredients to make crackers and “cookies.” Learning those techniques could prove challenging.

Convenience:

Low. Raw dishes aren’t standard fare at restaurants, so expect to spend a lot of time scouring menus. Organic or raw food grocery stores are your best bets for shopping. And meal prep can be a lengthy process, especially if it involves juicing and blending, sprouting seeds, germinating nuts, and dehydrating and fermenting other types of food. Preparing apple-cinnamon maple-pecan granola, for example, is a 3-day ordeal that involves soaking raisins and dehydrating the entire mix.

Recipes. Just scour the Internet and you’ll find an abundance of raw food recipes.

Eating out. All but impossible, since you can’t control exactly what’s in your food and how it’s prepared—and not all chefs and waiters understand a raw diet. You could order a salad, but the dressing might contain ingredients that aren’t raw or natural, so bring your own.

Alcohol. Because wine doesn’t go through a heating process, it’s OK. But forget beer, which is boiled, and liquor, which goes through a distillation process.

Timesavers. None, unless you hire somebody to plan your meals, shop for them, and prepare them.  

Extras. None.

Fullness:

Nutrition experts emphasize the importance of satiety, the satisfied feeling that you’ve had enough. Hunger shouldn’t be a problem on a raw food diet. Beans and other legumes, veggies, and whole grains, which are emphasized, are believed to take longer to digest, meaning they’ll keep you feeling fuller longer. You’re also free to choose how many calories you want to take in, and can increase your level if you’re getting too hungry.

Taste:

You’re making everything, so if it doesn’t taste good, you know who to blame. There’s no reason the diet can’t be palatable, you just have to put a different spin on your favorites. Try a crunchy, nutty buckwheat sunflower seed pizza crust, topped with herbed pine nut macadamia cheese; it’s uncooked and made with a food processor and a dehydrator. For dessert, try papaya-pineapple pudding topped with Tahitian vanilla sauce. Or vanilla cupcakes with lime frosting, which are made of almonds, macadamia nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almond butter, agave nectar, dates, and mashed avocado. You prepare these uncooked treats with a food processor and blender, and then chill them in the fridge.

How much does it cost?

A raw food diet can be pricey. Organic ingredients tend to cost more than other types, and not every grocery store carries a wide array of raw and organic products. Plus, you’ll need appliances: High-end blenders range from $300 to $600, for example, and food processors capable of slicing, grating, and shredding can go for $700. Dehydrators cost about $100 to $200.

Does the diet allow for restrictions and preferences?

Raw food diets can be easily adapted—choose your preference for more information.

Vegans and vegetarians will have perhaps the easiest time following this diet, since it revolves around plant-based protein.

People with celiac disease, who can’t tolerate gluten, will have no problem sticking to a raw food diet. Gluten-free protein sources like nuts, beans, and lentils are staples.

Doable. Table salt is off-limits, and eating lots of fruits and veggies generally keeps the sodium count low.

Yes, you can make sure your diet is kosher.

Yes, you can make your diet conforms to halal guidelines.

What is the role of exercise?

Although the raw food approach deals only with diet, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. No matter the diet, the more you move, the quicker you’ll see the pounds come off—and you’ll reduce your risk of developing diabetes, heart problems, and other chronic diseases. Adults are generally encouraged to get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate-intensity activity (like brisk walking) each week, along with a couple days of muscle-strengthening activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers tips to get you started.


Last updated by Angela Haupt | December 12, 2013

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