Raw food diets are frequently and often ardently promoted as a superior alternative to mainstream eating today. But are either mostly or fully raw diets better than other eating strategies for optimal modern health? Before you answer, we would point out a recent study of natural human eating by researchers at Federal University in Brazil, and published by the National Academy of Sciences. It suggests that our Paleolithic switch to significant cooked foods played a larger role in our evolutionary development, and was far more adaptive or health-increasing, than previously appreciated.
Photo Courtesy of Tree of Life
Widely covered in the scientific press – see ScienceMag and LiveScience as examples – the study does more than simply remind us that meat-eating and the eventual consumption of cooked starches are integral parts of our natural heritage. Using a novel analysis of fossil records, the study suggests that the rise of cooked meats and starchy plants in our diets, corresponding with the control of fire by our foraging ancestors, was fairly momentous – providing added nutrients essential to advanced human brain development, and enabling the precipitous evolutionary rise of our ancestral line in the last million years.
In essence, the research team’s finding is that the advent of cooked foods was pivotal to our ascent, allowing us to consume far greater proteins and fats, and calories overall, than otherwise would have been possible on the grasslands of Africa with a wholly raw diet. The change to cooked foods is therefore hypothesized to have been an essential factor or precondition in the development of, or selection for, the much larger human brains and more complex behavioral patterns of modern humans.
Given these new and quite important findings, as well as related prior research on natural human nutrition and key principles from modern dietary science we will discuss, let’s consider the health-based case for both fully and mostly raw diets today.
The Scientific Evidence
Modern raw food diets can take a number of forms, as outlined in this well-written summary article. Foods are usually considered raw as long as any heating does not exceed temperatures associated with sun-drying (~45C/115F).
Typically, the goal in raw eating is to make uncooked foods at least 80% and as much as 100% of our daily diet. Raw food advocates theorize that this change maintains the nutritional quality of the foods we eat, while favorably shifting our diet away from processed foods and toward more whole and healthier food choices generally.
Importantly, raw food eating is often employed or advocated today as part of vegetarianism and veganism, though it needn’t be. In any case, and if adequate nutrient and calorie levels are pursued, the approach produces a daily diet focused on: 1) raw vegetables and fruits, 2) raw seeds and tree nuts, 3) sprouted beans and grains, 4) unpasteurized dairy products, 5) raw eggs, and/or 6) raw or dried meats and fish.
If we consider the ideas that our natural human diet over the last million years increasingly included not just meats, but cooked meat and starches, and that significant human grain and legume eating did not begin until the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, raw diets cannot be seen as “natural” in a historical sense. But this does not mean raw diets cannot be healthy for modern humans (though 100% plant-based vegan diets, raw or not, will always lack a number of essential nutrients without significant care and some use of dietary supplements, reflecting the historical novelty of the approach).
Here is a brief summary of our reading of available research related to the health benefits and limitations of modern fully or mostly raw diets:
+ Healthy raw vegetables & fruits are encouraged – we know via extensive scientific research that diets rich in raw and raw-edible vegetables and fruits are both natural for humans and far healthier than eating practices that lack or marginalize these foods. For this reason, when fully or mostly raw eating promotes greater vegetable and fruit consumption, it can greatly increase dietary quality, especially among people eating predominantly low-fiber, high-sugar processed diets.
+ Excessive starches are avoided – although it is becoming clear through research, including the recent study we discussed above, that cooked roots and other starchy plants were an increasing part of our pre-agricultural diets in nature, and an important source of calories after the control of fire, it is not as clear whether this development significantly aided our physiological health or instead simply increased our survival potential and general adaptiveness on the periodically drought-stricken and food-depleted African plains. In ways that may be analogous to research questioning the optimality of red meats and saturated fats, a considerable body of science now suggests that cooked starchy plants, while natural to humans in a strict or historical sense, may be less desirable or healthy for us in large quantities – because of their high glycemic and insulin effects and resulting potential to promote blood sugar imbalance, insulin resistance, tissue inflammation, obesity, and related diseases. As such, a more raw diet that reduces or eliminates cooked starches may afford health benefits.
– Low protein, fat & nutrient intake is possible – especially in their vegan forms or when animal foods are significantly avoided, raw diets can lead to unnaturally and undesirably low protein and fat consumption, along with reduced levels of accompanying micronutrients. This idea is underscored by the research study we highlighted before, suggesting that not just meats, but more readily consumable cooked meats, may have been essential to our neurological development and thus perhaps also to our physiological health today. Though the pronounced leanness often achieved through raw diets and veganism in particular is prized and viewed as desirable by many people in our time, this outcome represents unnatural and potentially far from optimal physiological, metabolic, and hormonal states. As highlighted before, in addition to the potential for reduced essential proteins and fatty acids, other dietary risks from raw vegan eating include risks of chronically low levels of vitamin B12, vitamin K2, calcium, iodine, iron, and zinc.
– High grain & legume use may be promoted – unless eggs, dairy products, or other animal foods are consumed, and consumed in place of monocrop staple plants, raw diets will tend to perpetuate and even increase the relatively new human practice of significant grain and legume consumption – though in whole and sprouted rather than processed and cooked forms. Currently the focus of researchers investigating paleolithic or forager-based nutrition, the practice of intensive grain and legume eating is again a relatively recent change to our human dietary patterns, and it appears to have notable, if still largely unappreciated, negative health effects. These grain and legume engendered effects include unnaturally elevated blood sugar levels, increased tissue inflammation, and chronic allergic reactions – all a result of the elevated and unnatural carbohydrates, lectins, and other indigestible compounds contained these newly adopted foods (compounds that can occur at higher levels when these plants are consumed in raw or near-raw forms). In addition, and as discussed in HumanaNatura’s Food Ecology Overview, monocrop grain and legume food production is today a principal source of ecological damage and reduced human sustainability – and grains and legumes might be avoided entirely on ecological health grounds alone.
– Food pathogen risks are elevated – lastly, and especially in the case of raw animals foods, there is a greater natural risk of pathogenic infection with raw foods, compared with cooked foods, and one that literally recurs at every meal.
Our Natural Truth Rating
Given this pattern of evidence, HumanaNatura rates the proposal that fully or mostly raw diets are healthier a 6/10 (Notable Evidence) in our Natural Truth rating system.
We base our rating on two competing considerations. One is the likelihood that raw food eating will increase vegetable and fruit consumption, and displace processed foods, in both cases potentially leading to substantial health benefits.
But we temper this important point with the risks we have discussed that highly raw diets may lead to deficiencies in essential proteins and fats, reduced vitamins and minerals via overly narrow eating patterns, unnatural and undesirable grain and legume consumption, excessive or unnatural carbohydrates more generally, and greater exposure to food pathogens.
For these reasons, we encourage use of HumanaNatura’s OurPlate healthy eating guide – and its practices of mostly rather wholly raw food eating, cooking of all animal foods, and avoidance of grains and legumes – as a model for optimal modern nutrition. This approach is based on important Natural Eating principles contained in HumanaNatura’s Personal Health Program, some of which we have touched on in this discussion.
We hope this discussion of raw foods is valuable to you, and that it helps you to make more informed and optimal decisions about how you grow, purchase, prepare, and consume food.
You can click to learn more about our Natural Truth health information campaign and evidence-based 1-10 rating system. And we always welcome your comments and input on this or any other HumanaNatura Natural Truth review.
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