I remember the first time I came across a rawtarian. My pre-vegan teen self was deep in a web of tumblr blogs, led by a trail of recipes for banana ‘nice’ cream. I paused to investigate the ‘what I eat’ page of a Danish girl’s blog and was immediately intrigued by her pictures of 10 peeled bananas lined up side by side labelled breakfast. Hooked, I continued to stalk her daily meals and found huge bowls of romaine lettuce with corn, avocado and tomato, 1.5 litre mango smoothies that contained even more bananas, and even more still in the form of soft peaks of banana ice cream with fresh berries sliding down the sides. It all looked as delicious as it did foreign to me at the time, and I questioned whether I could sustain a lifestyle that allowed no hot meals or drinks. Being vegan now, I can imagine the possibility slightly more than in my omnivorous days, but it still impresses me. And here’s where we find the motivation for this week’s weigh up: why be raw vegan over vegan?
What is a raw vegan diet?
Raw vegan diets are like they sound – raw and vegan. This means you don’t eat anything that has been heated above 48°C (118°F), or anything that contains animal products. It can be hard to wrap your head around how much of our food is heated above this temperature these days because so much of it is processed – cooked; preserved; canned; even frozen vegetables are pre-cooked before being packaged. Processed foods are getting a pretty bad rep in modern times because of their ill effects on our health: they are refined and easy to consume which cuts out their nutrients and replaces it with excess added ingredients like sugar, salt and fat. This is where part of the motivation for a raw vegan diet stems from – basically, it eliminates all the crap because you simply can’t eat it anymore.
Raw vegan diets are made up of mostly:
- Fruits (dried and fresh)
- Soaked and sprouted grains
- Nuts and seeds
- Fermented foods
- Some superfood powders and sweeteners
You might be thinking – hang on, why go raw when a vegan diet is based largely on fruits and vegetables as well? Think again my friend – vegans and vegetarians can be just as bad as omnivores when it comes to junk food. You could eat a diet purely of fries, coke, and 2-minute noodles and still be vegan. Does this mean you are healthier than an omnivore? Of course not.
Like vegan and vegetarian diets, raw vegans can also be motivated by spiritual and ethical beliefs. Many Hindu Indians for example are opposed to eating animals because it causes them harm. Raw vegans often believe that the food they eat has ‘life energy’ or prana that goes into their bodies when they eat it. This life energy translates to biophotin, or light energy, in scientific terms.
Ultimately, the argument for raw veganism is the fact that raw foods contain more nutrients, like antioxidants, enzymes and vitamins, in their whole form, and this makes them more digestible and less ‘toxic’ to the body. You are forced to eat more fruits and vegetables on this diet which has been shown to lower risk of heart disease and other illnesses, along with curing obesity.
A little cookin’ never killed nobody
So why not raw then? To put it bluntly – raw vegan diets have not been proven to be more healthful than whole food vegan ones, according to Christopher Wanjek of the Harvard school of Public Health. There are several reasons why this is.
It’s not what you eat, but what you absorb:
- Often, cooking makes the nutrients in raw foods more readily absorbable by the body by breaking down cell walls that keep those nutrients in
- For example, there is twice the amount of carotene absorbed when eating cooked carrots than raw carrots, and the same is true for lycopene and tomatoes
- True, there is 15% less vitamin C and folate in broccoli when it is cooked as these nutrients are destroyed by heat, but just eating one extra floret combats this effect. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are so abundant in these nutrients that the loss is minimal
Cooked foods like wholegrains actually improve health:
- For example, one study showed that eating an extra 1.5 slices of wholegrain pita decreased cancer mortality by 17% and heart disease mortality by 22%
- Claims that cooked foods cause immune responses have been refuted by research that shows by having as little as 10% of the food on your plate raw offsets this response
Raw vegan diets are actually more prone to nutrient deficiencies
- Low on calories, it is harder to get enough to eat on a raw diet. Furthermore, the majority of calories come from sources high in fats like nuts, oils and avocado which can have detrimental effects on health if consumed in large quantities
- For example, one study showed that 38% of participants following a raw vegan diet were deficient in vitamin B-12, which is vital for brain functionality. There are no raw vegan foods that contain this vitamin, unlike in vegan diets where sources include fortified soy milk, nutritional yeast, and marmite.
So, there you have it – raw vegan diets, although great for incorporating more lovely fruits and veges into our diets, are not more healthful than whole food vegan diets. However, I admire the innovative ways the ‘rawtarians’ have adapted to life without cooking and am always impressed at the recipes they come up with (raw cheesecakes are nuts – literally). It seems being a little bit raw and a little bit cooked is the best way to go.
Peace and science,
Images by Summer Gleeson.