Veganism is gaining in popularity worldwide due to its purported health benefits, environmental benefits, and animal welfare benefits.
A vegan diet is characterised by avoidance of all animal-origin food products (beef, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy products) while consuming purely plant-based foods.
Raw veganism, also known as raw-foodism, is a branch of veganism.
Raw vegans only consume plant-based foods which have not been thermally processed, as they believe that valuable nutrients (vitamins and enzymes) are lost during the cooking process.
Raw vegans make use of cold-pressed juicing, blending, sprouting, fermenting and dehydrating in place of traditional cooking methods.
Animal products – meat in particular – have been seen as a symbol of wealth and status in Western society, for decades. Although meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, more recently we are learning more about the detrimental impact of red meat on our health.
Studies have shown that high intakes of red meat, and processed meat products have been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, and cancers (Pan et al., 2012; Song et al., 2016).
Raw vegan diets consist of uncooked, plant-based foods rich in whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables, while avoiding all animal-origin food products.
In this article we explain (in plain English!) the conclusions of scientific studies that have looked at raw veganism.
Drawbacks of Raw Veganism
In this section, we will discuss the drawbacks of a raw vegan diet.
It is important to consult with your doctor or a dietitian before choosing to follow a raw vegan diet.
Although raw veganism has numerous health benefits, an unplanned raw vegan diet may pose risks to your health.
It is essential to educate yourself on ways to eat a balanced, healthful raw vegan diet, and avoid falling into the trap of consuming more processed, plant-based foods (refined carbohydrates such as pasta, white bread, crisps, and sweets) with low nutrient densities. These foods are generally lacking in fibre and essential nutrients which can cause harmful effects to your health.
Potential drawbacks of an unbalanced, restrictive raw vegan diet are nutritional deficiencies in protein, iron, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, iodine, and vitamin B12 (Melina et al., 2016), low bone mass and increased risk of fractures, and amenorrhea.
Vitamin B12 is found mostly in animal-based food products (fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy products, and fortified cereals).
Raw vegans are particularly at risk of vitamin B12 deficiency, with plant-based products containing little to no vitamin B12 (Green et al., 2017).
Vitamin B12 is essential for the nervous system and blood. It plays an essential role in DNA synthesis, brain and nerve cell function, and red blood cells.
Deficiency may lead to neurological disorders, autoimmune gastritis, and megaloblastic anaemia (Stabler, 2013).
Vegans should monitor their vitamin B12 levels, and supplement where necessary.
Reduced Bone Mass and Increased Fractures
An unplanned, raw vegan diet could lead to lower bone mass.
Raw vegan diets are particularly low in calcium and vitamin D, both essential nutrients required for healthy strong bones.
According to a study by Iguacel et al. (2019), “vegetarians and vegans had lower bone mineral density at the femoral neck and lumbar spine and vegans also had higher fracture rates”.
Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine, Missouri, investigated the effect of a raw vegan diet on bone mass and vitamin D status on participants who had been following a raw vegan diet for 3.6 years.
Results indicate that bone mineral density of the hip and lumbar spine were lower in the raw food group, while vitamin D was higher “a raw food diet is associated with low bone mass at clinically important skeletal regions. However, evidence of impaired vitamin D status was not found”. (Fontana et al., 2005).
Although the raw food participants had reduced bone density, the researchers went on to suggest that bone quality also plays a role, and that raw food adherents with a low bone mass, but with good bone quality were not at an increased risk of fractures “It is therefore possible that raw food vegetarians with a low bone mass may not have an increased incidence of fractures because of good bone quality” (Fontana et al., 2005).
A further study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, backs up the claim that lowered bone mineral density does not necessarily mean an increase in risk of fractures “there is a modest effect of vegetarian diets, particularly a vegan diet, on bone mineral density, but the effect size is unlikely to result in a clinically important increase in fracture risk” (Ho-Pham et al., 2009).
It is recommended that raw vegans, monitor for deficiencies in calcium and vitamin D, and supplement if necessary.
Increased Risk of Amenorrhea
Raw veganism may lead to an increased risk of developing amenorrhea.
Amenorrhea is characterised by a loss of menstrual period.
Scientists from the University of Giessen, Germany investigated the occurrence of amenorrhea in participants adhering to a strict raw vegan diet.
They found that those consuming higher amount of raw foods were more likely to develop amenorrhea “30% of the women under 45 years of age had partial to complete amenorrhea” (Koebnick et al., 1999).
This could be due to lower body weight, lower calorie intake, low levels of iron and vitamin B12, excessive exercise, and stress.
When choosing to follow a raw vegan diet, it is important to consume a variety of plant-based foods to ensure that you are consuming enough energy, protein, vitamins and minerals from various sources, this will ensure that your body is receiving adequate nutrients and prevents deficiencies and potential health problems.
Benefits of Raw Veganism
Despite the drawbacks of raw veganism covered in the previous section, numerous studies have reported the many health benefits of a raw vegan diet.
In the sections that follow we highlight studies that have linked raw veganism with health benefits such as:
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics “An appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes” (Melina et al., 2016).
Raw versus Cooked: Nutrient Losses
Raw vegans believe that raw food is nutritionally superior to cooked foods, with cooking processes degrading essential, health-promoting vitamins and enzymes.
Cooking may lead to a decrease in essential nutrients.
Vitamin C, a water-soluble vitamin is particularly sensitive to heat “Vitamin C is easily destroyed by excessive heat and water” (Igwemmar et al., 2013).
However, vegetables containing fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and E, increased after cooking “Cooked vegetables were occasionally higher contents of fat-soluble vitamins, including α-tocopherol and β-carotene, than that of their fresh counterparts” (Lee et al., 2018).
Various cooking methods and times also have a negative impact on nutrient content of vegetables “The boiling method has a very adverse effect on bioactive contents, especially on ascorbic acid contents. Microwaving and frying have moderate effects on bioactive contents of vegetables” (Mehmood & Zeb, 2020).
According to a study published in the Journal of Food Quality, the vitamin C content of green leafy vegetables was diminished after cooking “the ascorbic acid content of the green leafy vegetables decreased under all cooking times of the two cooking methods employed” (Hailemariam & Wudineh, 2019).
Certain raw foods may contain higher levels of certain vitamins and enzymes, and may be healthier than cooked foods.
A vegan diet could aid in weight loss and weight management.
A study published in the journal, Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, investigated the influence of a long-term raw vegan diet on body weight.
Participants reported an average weight loss of 9.9 kg for males and 12 kg for females following a raw vegan diet “The consumption of a raw food diet is associated with a high loss of body weight” (Koebnick et al., 1999).
Lowered Blood Pressure
A raw vegan diet may help lower your blood pressure, and prevent or treat hypertension.
Scientists from the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, at Texas Women’s University, investigated the impact of a raw plant-based dietary intervention on overweight individuals with hypertension, and high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.
Participants followed a diet of raw vegetables, fruits, seeds and avocados for 4 weeks.
The results indicate that a raw plant-based diet was effective at lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels “Significant reductions were observed for systolic (−16.6 mmHg) and diastolic (−9.1 mmHg) blood pressure” (Najjar et al., 2018).
The authors also went on to say that a raw plant-based diet was effective in lowering the amount of medication patients required for cardiovascular health conditions “A defined, plant-based diet can be used as an effective therapeutic strategy in the clinical setting to mitigate cardiovascular risk factors and reduce patient drug burden” (Najjar et al., 2018).
Reduced Diabetes Risk
A raw vegan diet may reduce your risk of developing diabetes.
A 2009 study by scientists from the Department of Health Promotion and Education, at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, examined the influence of various dietary styles (vegan, vegetarian, and non-vegetarian) on type 2 diabetes incidence.
Data from the Adventist Health Study-2 (2002-2006), containing over 50 000 individuals was analysed.
They reported that in comparison to omnivores, vegans were less likely to develop diabetes “Increased conformity to vegetarian diets protected against risk of type 2 diabetes” (Tonstad et al., 2009).
The high fibre content, antioxidants, and low refined sugar content associated with a vegan diet are all factors aiding in its protective effects against diabetes.
Improved Heart Health
Raw veganism may offer protective benefits for your heart.
Raw vegan diets are characterised by plant-based foods low in saturated fats, and refined sugars, which aids in its cardio-protective benefits.
Walnut consumption, in particular could decrease your risk of developing coronary heart disease (CHD).
Nuts contain high levels of heart healthy, unsaturated fatty acids, and low levels of saturated fatty acids.
Scientists from the University of Munich Medical Centre, investigated the effect of walnut intake on cholesterol levels and glucose metabolism. Walnut intake substantially decreased total cholesterol levels and inflammation markers “Daily consumption of 43g of walnuts for 8weeks significantly reduced non-HDL-cholesterol and apolipoprotein-B, which may explain in part the epidemiological observation that regular walnut consumption decreases CHD risk” (Wu et al., 2014).
An additional study, published in the journal, Nutrition Research, evaluated the influence of nut consumption (walnuts, peanuts, and pine nuts) on metabolic parameters on Korean participants with metabolic syndrome, a condition characterised by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar, with a greater risk of heart disease.
Those consuming nuts for 6 weeks saw an improvement in total cholesterol levels “Total cholesterol and non-high-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels significantly improved in the Nut group compared to those in the Control group” (Lee et al., 2014).
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition, examined the long-term (24 months) influence of a diet high in raw fruits and vegetables on serum lipids. They found that a high raw food diet was beneficial in reducing total cholesterol levels “consumption of a strict raw food diet lowers plasma total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations” (Koebnick et al., 2005).
A raw vegan diet may reduce the build-up of plaque from cholesterol and fats on your artery walls. This plaque causes your arteries to narrow and increases your risk of stroke or heart attack.
Research conducted by scientists from the University of Kuopio, Finland, investigated the effect of an uncooked vegan diet on cholesterol levels. They reported a substantial decrease in total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) levels “The results suggest that the uncooked extreme vegan diet causes a significant decrease of the atherosclerosis risk factor” (Ling et al., 1992).
Raw Veganism may offer protective benefits against cancer.
A case-control study published in the journal, Nutrition and Cancer, investigated the risk of breast cancer occurrence among the German population, with the consumption of raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, and selected micronutrients.
Consumption of raw vegetables was associated with a lower breast cancer risk, while there was no substantial link between the consumption of cooked vegetables, and fruit with breast cancer risk “In this population of German women, components of raw vegetables and some micronutrients appear to decrease breast cancer risk” (Adzersen et al., 2003).
A study published in the International Journal of Cancer, evaluated the effect of dietary habits and the risk of developing gastric cancer on a Korean population.
The study found that participants who ate mostly fresh vegetables and fruit had a lower incident of gastric cancer “our study suggests that the risk of gastric cancer decreased with high consumption of fresh vegetables and fruits, whereas high consumption of foods rich in nitrate and carcinogenic substances produced during the cooking process increased the risk of gastric cancer” (Kim et al., 2001).
An epidemiological study published in the journal, Cancer Causes and Control, analysed multiple studies which looked at the association between vegetable and fruit intake and risk of developing various cancers (breast, lung, colon, prostate, ovary and stomach, to name a few).
They found that increased intake of fruit and vegetables, especially in its raw state was linked to a reduced risk of cancer “The association exists for a wide variety of vegetables and fruit with some suggestion that raw forms are associated most consistently with lower risk” (Steinmetz & Potter, 1991).
According to a review by Link & Potter (2004), “Possible mechanisms by which cooking affects the relationship between vegetables and cancer risk include changes in availability of some nutrients, destruction of digestive enzymes, and alteration of the structure and digestibility of food”.
Improved Mental Health
Raw veganism may improve your mental health.
Scientists from the Department of Psychology at the University of Otago, New Zealand, evaluated the effect of raw and processed fruits and vegetables on the mental health outcomes of young adults.
They found an improvement in mental health with those who consumed raw fruit and vegetables, while those who consumed processed fruit and vegetables did not benefit to the same extent
“raw fruit and vegetable predicted reduced depressive symptoms and higher positive mood, life satisfaction, and flourishing” (Brookie et al., 2018).
According to Brookie et al. (2018), “The top 10 raw foods related to better mental health were carrots, bananas, apples, dark leafy greens like spinach, grapefruit, lettuce, citrus fruits, fresh berries, cucumber, and kiwifruit”.
A study published in the journal, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, evaluated the influence of a raw vegan diet on the quality of life (QOL), anxiety, and stress in participants staying at a raw vegan institute for 1-3 weeks.
They reported an improvement in mental health outcomes, with a reduction in anxiety and stress levels, and better quality of life “Overall QOL improved 11.5%, driven mostly by the mental component. Anxiety decreased 18.6% and perceived stress decreased 16.4%” (Link et al., 2008).
Reduced Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease, where the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and leads to painful swelling and inflammation in affected joints.
Raw veganism could be effective at alleviating symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
A study published in the journal, Rheumatology, investigated the influence of a raw vegan diet on rheumatoid arthritis disease activity. They found that a raw vegan diet may induce a positive influence on the disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis patients, via altering the gut microflora “an uncooked vegan diet changes the faecal microbial flora in RA patients, and changes in the faecal flora are associated with improvement in RA activity” (Peltonen et al., 1997).
Improved Gut Health
Raw veganism may lead to improved gut health.
Scientists from the Department of Physiology, at the University of Kuopio, Finland evaluated the effect of a raw vegan diet on faecal compounds linked to colon cancer.
They reported that the raw vegan diet was linked to a reduction of microbial enzymes and carcinogenic compounds that are associated with colon cancer “Results suggest that this uncooked extreme vegan diet causes a decrease in bacterial enzymes and certain toxic products that have been implicated in colon cancer risk” (Ling & Hanninen, 1992).
A study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, investigated the differences in microbiomes of vegan and omnivorous individuals. They found that those adhering to a vegan diet had more health promoting compounds in their gut “Vegans had significantly lower abundances of potentially harmful (such as p-cresol, lithocholic acid, BCAAs, aromatic compounds etc.) and higher occurrence of potentially beneficial metabolites (SCFAs)” (Prochazkova et al., 2022).
A raw vegan diet may offer protective benefits to the environment.
A 2014 study published in the journal, Climate Change, set out to determine the quantity of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by various dietary styles (meat-eaters, fish-eaters, vegetarians and vegans)
Data from the EPIC-Oxford study, consisting of over 50 000 UK participants were analysed. Results for GHG emissions were displayed as kilograms (kg) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (CO2e) per day.
They reported that high meat-eaters (those who consumed more than 100g meat/day) produced 7.16 kgCO2e/day, while vegans (those who consume 0g meat/day) produced approximately 2.89 kgCO2e/day.
Based on the results from this study, it would appear that those who follow a vegan diet produce far less greenhouse gas emissions than meat eaters “In conclusion, dietary GHG emissions in self-selected meat-eaters are approximately twice as high as those in vegans” (Scarborough et al., 2014).
In conclusion, a vast amount of scientific evidence supports the fact that a raw vegan diet provides numerous benefits to your health, including:
A well-planned, balanced raw vegan diet, (consisting of at least 75 % uncooked food) rich in healthful plant-based foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds can provide you with the nutrition your body need to grow and stay healthy.
Remember to avoid highly processed vegan products. Processed plant-based foods are not always healthy for you. Many processed products contain additives and high levels of salt which are detrimental to your health. Try to opt for whole foods, in their most natural form where possible.
Lastly, it is important to always consult with your primary care physician when choosing to follow a new diet, in order to monitor for deficiencies and supplement where necessary.
How to Go Raw?
For more valuable information on your journey to raw veganism, check out the book Becoming Raw: The Essential Guide to Raw Vegan Diets (Davis & Melina, 2011).