Could ‘raw food diets’ and ‘clean eating’ be detrimental to our health?

Are these extreme fad diets really healthy?


Emma Thornton
@AVogelUK


02 August 2017

What are the laws of ‘raw’?

Veganism has been around for years and is gradually becoming more popular, but with this trend, also comes with it some more extreme, tailor-made versions of this diet, including the ‘raw food diet’. So what exactly does this diet involve? Well as the name suggests – lots of raw foods!

This is a plant based diet which mainly consists of fruit, vegetables nuts and seeds, but as the name suggests, all to be eaten raw. But, as you can imagine this doesn’t leave much variety; dairy, meat and processed foods are omitted as a result of the vegan concept, but pulses, legumes and grains are also much more limited (some can be included if they are painstakingly soaked or sprouted before each meal – although we agree sprouts are fantastically nutritious, perhaps sprouting ahead of each and every meal may not be so practical) and many root vegetables aren’t so readily included either, as a result of the more extreme ‘raw’ concept.

And ‘clean eating’?

‘Clean eating’ is another obsession that seems to be taking over. Celebrity chefs and bloggers are everywhere promoting this apparently new ‘healthy’ diet and lifestyle.

Not unlike the raw food diet, it involves taking on a diet which includes nothing processed, so very much based upon a plant based diet, again often including lots of raw and very green components!

Is this the way forward or should we be weary? 

So, this is great, right? After all, we are often told that by cooking foods we ‘lose all the essential nutrients’, so everything should be raw instead then? Well, not so fast.

Although we eat certain fruits and vegetables raw, for many others, we need to cook them to make them more digestible. Think beans and pulses, potatoes and root vegetables, to name a few.

The problem is our bodies just aren’t designed to digest many hardy, raw foods. Many beans are toxic when raw for a start, so they need to be soaked in order to let certain toxic substances leach out. But actually, further to that, as we cook them, we can begin to gently break down some of the tough carbohydrate layers. Plant cell walls are particularly sturdy, and we often need to help break them down slightly to begin with, so our digestive enzymes can have a fighting chance of doing the rest! In potatoes for example, we need to break down a tough structure called cellulose so our bodies can successfully digest the starch content.

So, there are many plant based products we simply shouldn’t eat raw. Plus, there’s no denying the fact that this diet is pretty restrictive. Many legumes and beans are off limits unless they are safe to eat after soaking or sprouting, but then we have some good quality vegetables omitted too, not to mention the good quality dairy, meat and fish.

We also can’t help ignore the fact that ‘clean eating’ often means a noticeable drop in calories as well as a severe lack of good sources of protein and fats too. We need good sources of protein, including beans, legumes, and grains plus, oily fish, lean meats and good quality dairy products, in order to assist with repair and recovery processes within our bodies, as well as supporting our lean muscle mass content. Too restrictive, and we risk becoming too skinny as our muscles struggle to strive.

Fats are extremely important too, which unfortunately, far too many people fail to understand nowadays. We absolutely need healthy fats in our diets, including sources of olive oil, coconut oil, oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, in order make cholesterol and vital hormones in our body – from sex hormones, to the hormones that affect our mood – they are all vitally important and reliant on good quality fats!

Worryingly, another concern is, although these health regimes are perceived as healthy and vital to life, these trends in ‘clean eating’ often go hand in hand with the increasing prevalence of Orthorexia. 

Orthorexia is a condition which includes symptoms of obsessive behaviour in pursuit of a healthy diet. Often this involves people’s diet becoming more and more restrictive, as food groups become demonised one by one, until not much more than some raw fruit and veggies are left. Plus, it often comes with anxious, obsessive behaviours (which can involve over exercising) and can ultimately affect our mood and mental health, as well as our physical selves. Not good.

What’s the safe approach?

Recently, some celebrities, chefs and bloggers heavily promoting a ‘clean eating’ approach have started to come under dispute, with some suggestion that their approaches may be too extreme. It all goes back to the idea that a healthy balanced diet should include everything in moderation and too many restrictions or limitations can easily become obsessive and downright unhealthy. 

Raw food isn’t all bad of course and it does have a place in our diets, but generally, raw foods are harder to digest and warm, cooked foods are more preferable for your digestive system. Some foods actually benefit from cooking too – did you know that the content of bio-available beta-carotene in carrots increases with cooking? Yes, that’s right, some gentle cooking actually helps to break down some of those thick plant cell walls and makes some of these important nutrients more available1.

Then, talking about the bio-availability of nutrients – many of the essential vitamins and minerals we need are fat soluble. This means they should be included as part of a balanced, fat-incorporating diet to support absorption – this includes vitamins A, D, E and K, to name a few. So a diet restricted in fat could mean a diet restricted in nutrients, go figure!

So, my advice is to stick to unprocessed items, without necessarily having to restrict whole food groups unless specific dietary requirements call for this.

Often a good rule is to read ingredients lists, if the list has any more than 5 ingredients, or strange chemical names that you don’t recognise, then generally it is highly processed. Stick to a diet full of different fruit, vegetables, pulses, whole grains, nuts, seeds, oily fish, lean meats and so on. This can also include some good quality dairy products too (stick to that ingredients list). Also, please note that ‘low fat’ products will very often have a much scarier ingredients list which indicates they are much more highly processed – don’t be afraid of some naturally occurring fats. Be more wary of sugar! Low fat often means more sugar. 

So, a little bit of everything in moderation won’t hurt, just beware of strict, ‘clean eating regimes’ and remember, cooking from fresh, and eating a varied, colourful diet is key to good health – plain and simple.

 

1. Livny O, Reifen R and Levy I et al. Beta-carotene bioavailability from differently processed carrot meals in human ileostomy volunteers. Eur J Nutr, 2003, 42(6), (338-345)

 

14 Comments

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  • shirley's photo avatar
    shirley — 15.08.2017 09:03
    Thanks for that - very informative. Any tips on what to eat to help the gall bladder release stones and function better?

    Reply

    • Emma's photo avatar
      Emma — 15.08.2017 10:09
      Hi Shirley, thank you for your comments. For those with gallstones watching your fat intake is key. The gallbladder stores bile which helps breakdown fats, so we don’t want to put too much pressure on it during this time, however we don’t want to omit fat completely either – healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil should still be included in the diet in moderation. Be sure to include lots of fresh foods, this really is key, and avoid processed or fried foods as much as possible, as well as refined sugar and salt. Also drink plenty of water daily to help flush through the system, and avoid caffeine and alcohol too.

      Reply

  • Charlotte Moncrieff 's photo avatar
    Charlotte Moncrieff — 09.08.2017 15:01
    While I agree with the premise of your argument re too much raw and restricted diets I totally disagree with your recommendations which you say we need for protein i.e. Lean meats, dairy, fish etc. We do not need to have cow's milk in any shape or form it is unhealthy and where is your compassion? I am disappointed by this article and find your views out of date . P s Veganism is NOT a diet it is a belief system and while there are all kinds of Vegans it is compassion and do no harm that are at the heart of it all. Furthermore the sea is so polluted that eating any fish is a bit of a gamble with your health

    Reply

    • Emma's photo avatar
      Emma — 10.08.2017 07:33
      Hi Charlotte, thank you for your comments. Although we know that there are various plant-based sources of protein including your beans and pulses, for the vast majority of people, getting enough protein in their diet at all, is a struggle, so I’m simply explaining the importance of protein and fats in the diet and offering some options for the average person. I do not disagree with veganism by any means, and I do take your comments on board, however, to make it a sustainable regime, people really need to have a good understanding of how to approach it. For your everyday person, this is no mean feat and leads to too many processed foods and not enough fresh produce being consumed, which can of course be detrimental to health. Once people have mastered having a nutritionally balanced diet in the first instance, veganism may then be a more suitable option. I am of course only discussing from a nutritional point of view here and fully accept there are other issues to consider, but this would be a whole other blog topic.

      Reply

    • Pat Frey's photo avatar
      Pat Frey — 10.08.2017 09:17
      I thoroughly agree with Charlotte here. Meat eaters need to see what happens in a slaughter house.

      Reply

    • shirley's photo avatar
      shirley — 15.08.2017 09:53
      hmm, you sound a bit angry? Plants too have a life cycle so are alive - the land and air are just as polluted and what do plants eat and thrive on if not just that. Moderation is always the key. We do eat too much meat though!

      Reply

  • Avrilrand's photo avatar
    Avrilrand — 08.08.2017 07:15
    Hello Emma thanks for all this good advice on what to do eat I was just wondering I have a whole avocado on oat cakes nearly every day for lunch if I don't have avocado I have hummus is this okay to eat this for lunch every day I also have lots of other fruit and veg for evening meals.

    Reply

    • Emma's photo avatar
      Emma — 09.08.2017 09:36
      Hi Avrilrand, yes, avocado and hummus are nice options, lots of healthy fats in there, which also help to keep you fuller for longer. Alongside a good variety of fruit and vegetables, this sounds good to me!

      Reply

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