The Raw Diet: a raw-ing success or a hoax?

The raw diet is just one more diet in the host of nutritional nonsense out there. When very carefully managed, the raw food diet can be a path to good health by eating lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. But more likely it is just a highway to serious under-nourishment as the body is starved of sufficient energy, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Furthermore, it can be a massive impact on your social life, as friends worry about inviting you round for dinner as they don’t know what to feed you, and eating out is nothing short of a nightmare unless you only frequent special ‘raw food cafes.’ Constipation from a diet that is too high in fibre and embarrassing flatulence (farting!) can also be an unwanted side effect. In fact, the British Dietetic Association has named it one of the worst celebrity fad diets. So let’s get going on some myth-busting…

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Myth 1: enzymes in raw foods aid digestion but are destroyed by cooking

The truth: enzymes are proteins. Proteins are chains of amino acids, folded up into a ‘globular’ shape. It is the globular shape that gives enzymes their function, and yes, this can be destroyed by high temperatures.

The lie: there is absolutely no scientific evidence behind the theory that the enzymes in raw foods aid digestion. When we eat, food passes from our mouth where enzymes in saliva begin digesting carbohydrate, down our oesophagus and into our stomach, where proteins start to be digested. The food then passes into the small intestine, where 90% of absorption of nutrients takes part. Very little digestion occurs between our mouth and stomach as the time it takes for food to pass down the oesophagus is pretty short. When food enters the stomach, proteins (including plant enzymes) are destroyed as the protein begins to be digested so that the amino acids can be absorbed when the food reaches the small intestine. Taken together, this means that the effect of enzymes within raw food will be extremely small.

Myth 2: Raw food is easier to digest than cooked food

The truth: OK I’ll admit it, there isn’t one.

The lie: Ironically, digestion of cooked food often requires less enzymes compared to raw food. Cooking starts to break down the cell structure, so that nutrients within the cell become more accessible to our own body’s digestive enzymes.

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Myth 3: raw foods contain bacteria that affect the immune system by populating the digestive system with ‘good bacteria’

The truth: raw foods do contain bacteria and when good bacteria populates the digestive system, it can boost the immune system. The way in does this is by preventing ‘bad’ bacteria from being able to effectively colonise the large intestine.

The lie: the stomach is an incredibly well designed organ. It is highly acidic which not only helps the protease (the enzyme that digests protein) in the stomach to work most efficiently, but it is also a very important site for the immune system. If you think that the water we drink and the food we eat is crawling with bacteria, it is really a marvel that we don’t become ill more often. And this is thanks in part to the stomach, where the acid kills off the bacteria. Some of the bacteria will through, but not enough to warrant taking up a raw diet.

Myth 4: its a great ‘detox’

The truth: the body (predominantly the liver) detoxifies food we eat.

The lie: Detox is a popular ‘buzz word.’ It sells magazines and newspapers. The idea is that the body accumulates ‘toxins’ which we need to flush out and detoxing is the way to do this. But the whole idea of a detox is nonsense; the body is a well-designed system that has built in mechanisms to detoxify and remove waste. This is a constant process in the body and is not magically sped up by a ‘detox diet.’ Furthermore, a ‘detox diet’ does not necessarily contain less toxins. For example, our body needs protein to build and repair cells. Proteins are constantly broken down and remade in the body; this is normal and important to keep our bodies functioning. When proteins are broken down into amino acids, and these amino acids are further broken down, we produce ammonia, which is toxic in high quantities. Therefore, our livers work hard to excrete this ammonia as urea. Detoxification is normal and occurring even on a ‘detox diet.’

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I would never recommend the raw food diet. However, I would recommend eating more fruit and veg, getting in the grains in replacement of refined carbohydrate and enjoying nuts as a replacement to saturated fat. Crudités can make an excellent snack with some hummus. Salads, providing you put some effort into ensuring they contain some fat and protein, make an excellent lunch choice. So I have put together a delicious and very easy raw soup recipe. As the days are getting warmer (thank goodness!) it is nice to have a cold lunch. This counts to two of your 5-a-day, contains protein from the soya milk and the cashews make it deliciously creamy! Makes 1 very large bowl or 2 smaller ones.

INGREDIENTS:

2 large carrots, washed and roughly chopped with the skin on

A large bunch of coriander

A small mound of cashews (about 30g)

A cup of soya milk

Juice of half a lime

A thumb sized knob of fresh ginger (this makes is quite spicy so you could always use less!)

A few chilli flakes

METHOD:

Combine all the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth. You may want to add some water, depending on how liquid you like your soup. If you don’t follow a raw diet and want it hot, pop it in a sauce pan at this point and heat through. Tuck in!

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If you have any experience of the raw diet, any thoughts about it or more questions, please comment below. I love hearing from you! Especially when there is a diet that seems to spark such a polarised debate…

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