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

Are these extreme fad diets really healthy?

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Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
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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)


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