Health Concerns About Raw Food
The risks and health concerns about raw food diets are easily mitigated, but require some education. In this article, we will cover the various nutrient deficiencies that can show up during the raw food diet, and how to manage them.
If you think about it, food has three components: calories (macronutrients), micronutrients (vitamins, etc), and fiber. The place where raw foodists, vegans, and some vegetarians get into trouble is with the micronutrients. While raw foodist get plenty of exposure to some nutrients like lycopene and vitamin C, they tend to be deficient in others. And these nutrient deficiencies can create serious disease risks.
Health concerns about raw food: Vitamin B12 deficiency
The largest study of raw foodists to date showed that 38% of the subjects of a raw food diet were deficient in vitamin B12, which is available mostly from meat and eggs (1). While vitamin B12 is essential for a wide array of metabolic functions, sufficient folic acid can make up for some deficiencies. The cases where folic acid cannot make up the gap are where vegans get into trouble. Unfortunately, these symptoms tend to be fairly severe and can create lasting neurological damage. Other symptoms of B12 deficiency are anemia and gastrointestinal dysfunction.
Health concerns about raw food: Vitamin D deficiency and low bone mass
Vitamin D deficiency is actually a
While the original cause is inadequate solar exposure, severe symptoms have been avoided by fortification of milk and other dairy products. With highly restrictive diets, raw foodists and vegans can easily miss out on these supplements (not to mention on the high vitamin D content in meat) and fall into deficiency. Accordingly, long term adherents to a raw food diet are at risk for low bone mass (2). While severe symptoms are related to bone dysfunction, more marginal cases typically involve increased susceptibility to common cold, infections, and other diseases. If you are a vegan or raw foodist with immune health issues, get your vitamin D level checked.
Health concerns about raw food: Iron deficiency
While vegans will typically get enough iron from high intake of leafy vegetables, raw foodists can run into iron deficiency problems. This problem will typically show up in the form of severe weight loss and cessation of menstruation (3). Other symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, irritability, hair loss, and immune dysfunction. These symptoms can mean a number of things besides iron deficiency, but if you have them, get yourself tested by a doctor immediately. A good way for raw foodists to avoid these issues is to eat tofu or drink juices from green vegetables like kale and broccoli.
Health concerns about raw food: Omega-3 deficiency
By limiting the consumption of meat and animal products, vegans and raw foodists are limiting intake of omega-3 fatty acids. While DHA and EPA are derived from fish oil, ALA from flaxseed oil can still provide a source (albeit a less efficient one LINK) of omega-3s. A study of strict vegans found extremely low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in vegans (4). While this deficiency may be related to lower cholesterol and other benefits of these diets, these deficiencies can become problematic over the long run. Vegetarian DHA supplements are a useful solution here.
Other Suggested Supplements: Carnitine and CoQ10
CoQ10 and carnitine are two important compounds for metabolism, energy, and bone mass. Additionally, they both function as antioxidants, limiting oxidative stress. Although both of these compounds can be made in your body, it is difficult to get enough without meat in your diet. While I wouldn't recommend supplementing these compounds every day, taking a few hundred milligrams twice weekly is probably a good idea.
Best supplements for Vegans and Raw Foodists
1. Vitamin B-12
2. Vitamin D
3. Vegetarian DHA
Health concerns about raw food can be dealt with adequately with these supplements and an adequate intake of iron from the right vegetables (remember: spinach and collard greens contain iron, but also oxalates, that bind up the iron, so it's not a good source). The only other thing to consider is if you're getting enough protein.
Still have health concerns about raw food? Get informed here.
References for Health concerns about raw food
1. Garcia, AL, Koebnick, C, Dagnelle, PC, et al. "Long-term strict raw food diet is associated with favourable plasma beta-carotene and low plasma lycopene concentrations in Germans." Br J Nutr. 99 (2008) 1293-1300.
2. Fontana, L, Shew, JL, Holloszy, JO, et al. "Low bone mass in subjects on a long-term raw vegetarian diet." Arch Intern Med. 165 (2005) 684-9.
3. Koebnick, C, Strassner, C, Hoffmann, I, Leitzman, C. "Consequences of a long-term raw food diet on body weight and menstruation: Results of a questionaire survey." Ann Nutr Metab 43 (1999) 69-79.
4. Agren, JJ, Tormala, ML, Nenonen, MT, Hanninen, OO. "Fatty acid composition of erythrocyte, platelet, and serum lipids in stric vegans." Lipids. 30 (1995) 365-9.