Pictured Recipe: Kale, Carrot & Apple Salad
The raw-foods movement took hold in the mid-1970s with the publication of Survival into the 21st Century, a book that purported the diet could resolve physical ailments and extend lifespan. Its unlikely author: Viktoras Kulvinskas, a former computer consultant for MIT. Three decades later, the diet still thrives.
Related: 25 Healthy Raw Food Recipes
High-profile devotees, such as actors Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson and Chicago chef Charlie Trotter, shun animal products and heat-processed grains; they eat nuts, seeds, sprouted grains, fruits and vegetables—ones that haven’t been heated past 118°F.
The theory is that consuming uncooked foods boosts energy, aids in weight loss and prevents disease. Heat-processing destroys digestion-aiding enzymes and creates tissue-damaging toxins—two reasons why raw foods are healthier, say the diet’s advocates.
Pictured Recipe: Pineapple Nice Cream
Supporting evidence for the “enzyme hypothesis” and reduced toxin loads are lacking, but limited studies do suggest some health benefits—and risks. A 2005 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that raw-foodists were far less likely than the general population to register high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. On the flip side, 38% of the study’s 201 subjects were deficient in vitamin B12, a nutrient that’s also important for heart health. A 2005 study in Archives of Internal Medicine reported that raw-foods-diet followers had significantly lower body-mass indices (a measure of body fat) than people consuming a typical American diet; they also had lower bone densities, a risk factor for osteoporosis.
Experts say: “There’s no doubt that plant-based diets have been linked with a lower risk of obesity and other chronic diseases, but because the raw-foods diet is so restrictive, its followers are at risk for deficiencies of vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids if they don’t take supplements,” says Andrea N. Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Los Angeles. “And the diet isn’t based on science: cooking destroys some nutrients, but it makes others (like the lycopene in tomatoes) more absorbable.”
Our Bottom Line: Our digestive systems have their own enzymes; we don’t need to get them from foods. The benefits of raw-foods diets—reduced cholesterol and weight control—can be achieved by eating more vegetables, fruits and whole grains, limiting foods high in saturated and trans fats, and using portion control.