What Happens When Rawfoodists Cheat on Their Diet

Thursday Mar 26 | BY |
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Woman Eating Cookies

This is a dilemma that every person who has seriously dabbled with raw foodism, fasting, juice cleansing and even other restricted diets — has experienced.

When one has lived on a restricted diet for a good period of time, reintroduction of previously perfectly digestible foods will cause extreme symptoms of indigestion and sickness.

It happens to raw foodists.

It happens to “low-carb” and “no-carb” dieters.

It happens after water fasting, juice “feasts,” and other forms of cleansing.

It also happens to those who try to follow calorie-restricted diets, or no-salt diets.

The more restricted the diet is, the more difficult the reintroduction of other foods will be.

Water fasting, which involves the temporary elimination of ALL sources of nourishment except water and the body’s own reserves, weakens the digestion so much that refeeding after a fast is extremely delicate. Improper refeeding after a long fast can even lead to death, as it has been the case in a few people who ate too enthusiastically after a long fast.

The weakening of digestive power after a long fast is understandable, as the body has not practiced digesting anything for days and weeks. Retraining it takes time and patience, and most importantly, careful monitoring.

Restricted diets also significantly lower digestive power, and make people sick when they “fall off the wagon” and occasionally cheat. This is actually the biggest reason people “feel like crap” when they eat a 100% raw diet but then later reintroduce some cooked foods.

At the extreme end, a pure fruitarian diet (eating only fruits; no vegetables, no fat) would weaken digestion the most, because fruits are very simple foods composed mostly of simple sugars, very low amounts of protein, almost no fats, and fiber. Therefore, the digestion of fruits is effortless for the body.

A pure fruitarian would find it very difficult to cheat on his diet, especially if he has been following it for quite some time.

A low-fat raw foodist is not too far from a fruitarian if he follows this diet 100%. Fruits are the main source of calories, fats (which require the most digestion in this diet) are kept to a minimum, and vegetables are easy to digest. There is no starch intake, and protein is very low. Eliminating salt completely also creates other physiological adaptation, and reintroduction of foods containing salt will quickly create symptoms.

Other raw foodists who are not as strict may include some salt in their diet, perhaps some oil, and more nuts and seeds. Going off the wagon will still cause them to feel sick, although not as much so as stricter raw foodists.

What Happens When Raw Foodists Cheat

To most raw foodists, being able to eat raw most of the time but occasionally eat cooked foods would be ideal. However, because of their weakened digestion, whenever they “cheat” on their diet, they feel extremely sick.

And the stricter the raw food diet is, the more extreme their body’s reaction will be after reintroducing cooked foods.

Here’s an example I found interesting. Steve Pavlina is a well-known blogger in the sphere of personal development. He’s also known for his commitment to a vegan diet, and his occasional eccentric experiments or “challenges.”

As part of a series of articles for his website, he decided to give the raw food diet a try for 30 days. But he didn’t just follow a regular raw food diet. He decided to go natural, and only eat raw fruits, vegetables, and minimal quantities of fat (less than 10% by total calories). He excluded all salts, spices, garlic, onion, oils, and seasonings.
He had good results in his 30-day experiment, even though he found it hard to maintain his diet. And at the end, he was looking forward to eating some cooked food.

But his first cooked meal made him extremely sick. Here’s his account.

“I decided to dive right in with a cooked meal of sautéed tofu. It’s a 14oz block of organic firm tofu with some tamari. I didn’t use oil. The tofu has about 16g of fat. I ate it with some hot sauce (pictured) and a little vegan sour cream (not pictured). The sour cream probably added about 7-8g of fat. The whole meal is about 400 calories, about half of which are from fat.

(…)

Even though my stomach felt full afterwards, I had the urge to scarf down at least another pound of food or a green smoothie. It felt odd to stop eating so soon.

Shortly after breakfast I felt a little loopy, almost like I’d had a couple glasses of wine. I swear my vision got a little blurry too. Those feelings passed after about 10 minutes, and then I felt very energetic and happy, almost euphoric. But I noticed my mind seemed cloudier than usual, as if a fog had just come down.

(…) Later this morning I had a couple slices of sprouted whole grain toast (Ezekiel 4:9 bread) with a little soy margarine. Again, it tasted better than I remembered. The flavors were so rich that it was like eating fresh baked bread right from the oven. The earthy flavors and textures seemed just perfect. It tasted so good that I ate two more slices right afterwards.
(…)
About an hour after eating the toast, I started feeling poorly. The first thing I noticed was that I was becoming very drowsy. I started sneezing a lot, and my nose was filling up. I didn’t have any stomach problems, but I felt like I was having some kind of allergic reaction. I didn’t want a complicated lunch, so I just ate 5 clementines (raw) and some pistachios (not raw).

Afternoon

A couple hours after lunch, I felt even worse, like I was coming down with a cold. I tried to nap for 90 minutes, although I probably only slept for 20. When I got up I had a mild sore throat, which I still have now.

Everyone else in my family has been sick lately, so I thought to myself, Crap… this is no good.

For the rest of the afternoon, I ate two green smoothies (one liter each, same kind I’ve been making for a while) and a Fuji apple. I started feeling a little better around 5pm but still under the weather.

For dinner I decided to brave some cooked food again, but I opted to steer clear of bread and tofu. I stir-fried some veggies (green pepper, zucchini, garlic, onion in 2 tsp olive oil), put them on a bed of steamed brown rice, and sprinkled some raw sesame seeds on top. It tasted good but no better than I expected. I ate all the veggies but didn’t finish all the rice.

Later in the evening, I started feeling worse again, which is where I am now as I type this. I keep having to blow my nose, I feel a lot of tension in my neck and shoulders, I have a mild headache, and my eyes are burning a little. I took my temperature at 8:15pm, and it was 99.5. Yesterday it was 98.2.

(…)

I was feeling poorly with a mild fever by the end of the day. I could barely sleep at all that night, and the next day my fever spiked to 103.2. I felt totally dilapidated and nauseous and stayed in bed most of the day. (…)

Steve’s example, I think, is typical of how extreme raw foodists’ reactions to normal foods can be, especially when these are reintroduced quickly after a long period of eating a very simplified diet.

A few things in his testimony stand out:

• The tofu portion. Steve had a huge portion of tofu by almost any standards. 14 ounces of tofu is a lot of tofu. Raw foodists, because they train their body to eat very large quantities of fruits and veg- etables to get their calories, have actually habituated their bodies and their minds to large volumes of food. It’s very difficult for an ex-raw foodist to understand what a “normal” amount of food is. For example, two ounces of tofu is a normal amount, about what Asians eat with their meals. Steve ate seven times that amount.

• After a long period without salt and spices, the body needs some gradual readjusting if they are reintroduced. Steve went right in and ate soy sauce and hot sauce! Not a good idea.

• The refeeding orgy went on for the rest of the day, with lots of other cooked foods his body simply wasn’t ready to digest, especially not in the quantities he tried to eat. After a long period of time eating no oil and almost no fat, he also had two tablespoons of oil (in addition to the other fat contained in the food that day), and more seasonings (garlic, salt, etc.).

• After being used to very juicy foods for a long period of time, his body got extremely dehydrated after eating salt. Again, the body really adapts to foods it’s given. A salt-free diet will lead to important physiological adaptations that take time to reverse. Sodium is something your body needs and salt concentration in the blood must be kept constant. If you do not take in enough salt, your body will drastically reduce its excretion of salt via urine and sweat. Then when salt is suddenly reintroduced, it increases secretion of water in order to maintain blood salt concentration and you get dehydrated. A quick change in salt intake can cause muscle cramps or weakness, or dizziness and exhaustion. But reintroducing salt after a long period of complete abstinence will also create symptoms of extreme dehydration, headaches, and more.

Steve’s experiment also reminds me of an experiment I did back in 2009.

I set myself the goal of eating a pure 100% raw food diet, with no salt, no seasonings and very little fat, almost exactly what Steve Pavlina did. I was familiar with this diet of course, and I was already following it at a maybe 60 or 75% level. But I decided to go 100% for 60 days in a row.

Toward the end of my experiment, I went on a trip to Thailand, where I met up with a group of raw foodists to do some cycling.

I continued my raw food experiment and took it to around 75 days. After that point, I got stuck on an island where I did not know where fruit was sold. So I decided to end my experiment with a couple bowls of Thai soup from a street vendor, without the meat but with some cooked yuka (a tropical root).

The next day, I had a little bit of vegetarian Pad Thai when going on a diving trip (less than a cup). I also had a few pieces of a Thai dessert consisting of coconut flakes mixed with cane juice and boiled together.

That night, I slept extremely badly. The salt and spices in the food made me sweat and feel dehydrated, and I was very uncomfortable. The next day, I met with my friends and we went on an all-day biking trip in hot sun. I felt unwell but pushed myself to keep up. That day, I should have taken it easy, but I ate the most delicious durian (a unique spiky tropical fruit grown in Thailand and elsewhere in the tropics) of my life, and the next day got convinced by my friends to go on yet another biking trip.

After that day, I felt feverish. I felt pretty sick, and I knew that I could not eat more cooked food in that state, because my body had not yet adapted to it. So I spent the last week of the trip mostly in bed in my hotel room, eating only very small quantities of fruit, trying to feel better. I only felt better toward the end of my trip, when it was time to leave.

My trip to Thailand was about three weeks long, and I wasted half of it feeling sick and unable to do anything. Upon my return, I slowly and carefully reintroduced cooked foods into my diet and was able to digest them without problems.

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

17 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Jennifer says:

    Very interesting. But it only leads to questions that haven’t been answered here: Why does this happen? And how do you avoid it happening?

    • Good question! I will cover it in my next article…

      • Jennifer says:

        Appreciate it! I’m on a carb-restricted diet (high fat, moderate protein) because I’m intolerant to more than 40 foods (the # keeps increasing). I’m reluctant to try to add questionable foods back in to my diet because I really want to avoid a reaction! But at this point I pretty much only eat meat, fat, macadamia nuts, cruciferous veggies and a few berries. Not sure how terribly my body would react if I was stuck somewhere without the foods I typically eat.

      • Liz says:

        I add another question to Jennifer’s – how do you recover from it if you’ve been badly affected? My experience is: I went on a water fast for 5 days and only came off it because my tongue swelled so much I couldn’t talk. I had been advised to gradually introduce (vegetarian) food back into my diet and no salt for a month after the fast. However, I went back to work; the first day ate at the work canteen – just a small plate of roast veggies – and within 2 hours my legs had swollen to the size of footballs – and I’d never had problems with my legs before. I had forgotten that canteen food would be loaded with salt!!

        That was 20 years ago and my fluid balance is still not right, despite lots of consultations with all sorts of medical and alternative practitioners, supplements, homeopathics etc. I still have excess water round my body, can’t assimilate water properly, no muscle tone despite exercise and my legs swell at the drop of a hat.

        I even saw a Belgian ‘hygienist’, who advised me to restart the fast and repeat it properly this time, but after 2 days I honestly thought I was going to die – I felt so sick, so stopped.

        I know you’re not a medico Fred, but I’d appreciate some insights on what happened physiologically, because I’m struggling to understand why, and if there is a way to reverse the harm done.

        Liz

        • It takes time to rebuild your digestion. You have to start slowly, eating small amount of a wider variety of foods, a little bit at a time. I’ll talk about it in my next article. As for your fast, it sounds like you had edema. Like you said, I’m no doc, but I know that re-feeding after a fast needs to be done in a very careful manner — and not everyone should fast. Probably in your situation a more trained health practitioner (with experience in fasting) would not have recommended another fast.

        • Jackie says:

          Hi Liz,

          I had a similar experience with a water fast about 8 years ago. I fasted 21 days on water, and afterwards I had very bad edema. And like you, I still don’t have correct fluid balance. Also, after the fast, to this day, I had to get up in the middle of every night to pee. That rarely happened before the fast. Water fasting can really mess you up.

          • Liz says:

            Hi Jackie, Yes water fasting can really mess you up – and I regret doing it. The symptoms I was having before the fast and which encouraged me to think the fast could be a good idea were chickenfeed when compared to the problems I caused by doing the fast. I’m disappointed that Fred doesn’t have any further insights as to WHY the oedema happened. What were the physiological steps that happened to cause it, and how to reverse them. It seems such a simple thing – but I’ve searched all the medical books I have and I can’t find the answer.

            It’s all very well to say now what should have happened – gradually introduce salt and other foods back into the diet etc etc, but what on earth to do now that the damage has been done.

            I refuse to give up simply because ‘experts’ don’t have the answers. And I hope you don’t also. Liz

            • Hi Liz,

              Honestly I simply don’t know about the edema. There could be a number of reasons. What did Dr. Goldhammer have to say about that?

              • Liz says:

                Sorry Fred, I’m not sure who you mean when you say Dr Goldhammer – and I certainly don’t mean to imply that you know and just aren’t telling. For me it’s a simple question and a medical practitioner should know the answer. No doctor has been able to answer that question – a bit of a worry when it’s got to be simple pathology and physiology.

                If I didn’t have oedema before the fast, then I fasted, and then re introduced salt too quickly back into my diet, then I had immediate and huge oedema problems – wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that it was the salt that caused the oedema, and therefore WHY did that happen? I want to understand the physiological steps that went from 1. no oedema to 5. oedema. We have electrolytes that regulate fluid, and they are designed to come back into balance after being put out of balance for any reason. So why have my electrolytes been apparently permanently deranged? Liz

                • Most doctor have no experience with water fasting. Therefore, they are rarely able to answer such questions. Mosseri, who conducted over 4000 fasts, talked about this issue in his books. I found the part in the book where he discussed it. He relates that fasters called him after the fast and reported “elephant feet”
                  He explained that they went back too quickly to regular foods containing salt. One must wait one month after a fast to “cheat” on the diet.
                  He said that if you go back to a strict natural hygienic diet (without salt), it will sort itself out within a few weeks.

                  So according to Mosseri, the odema is caused by breaking the fast too quickly with foods containing salt.

                  • Liz says:

                    Thanks Fred for the Mosseri input – that is very useful – this will be my last word on the subject, I promise. I would still like to know WHY it happens – WHY does introducing salt too quickly back into the diet cause oedema or elephant feet…………..if you ever come across the reason please just publish it with a pointer!! 🙂 Liz

        • Jackie says:

          Oh, and by the way, I did the water fast at True North, which is supposedly a “medically supervised” fasting clinic.

        • Michael says:

          Hi Liz,

          i was really touched by your story. I thought about replying for a while cause what i would like to share is not talked here much…. but finally had to follow my heart.
          I don’t know if you are open to this but this comes from my own experience and what i have seen with some others.
          So here it comes: I had crohns disease and have healed it…not with food or therapies but with emotional integration. I was into rawfoods for a lot of years (and natural healing therapies) and they could not help me. I have learned through my knowledge with raw foods, fasting etc and with my emotional integration practise that most diseases have their origin in the emotional realm and with things like fasting we bring a lot of energyi into these unconscious realms (i do not talk about conscious feelings, but the deeply suppressed ones) and when these are triggered the body will not come back into balance not matter what you do (or it takes very long).
          So if you decrease the charge in the emotional body (realm) the body follows with more health and your life experience will make a drastic change for the better.
          The book i want to recommend is “the presence process – revised edition” from Michael Brown. All is in this book that ones needs to decrease the charge in mature in ways not dreamed off.

          That is all i wanted to say.
          Wish you the best on your way!
          Michael J.

          • Liz says:

            Thank you so much Michael. I’m so touched that you opened your heart and shared your story, and it’s a story I resonate with a lot. I will research the book you mentioned. Liz

  2. Larkspur says:

    Interesting article. In 2005 (August) I was invited to Phuket for two weeks- post Tsunami to help in a professional capacity.

    I am a vegan and eat a broad-based vegan cooked and raw diet. I am also used to humid and hot temperatures.
    I ate the food at the beach complex where I was based, choosing local vegan dishes and plenty of fruit, mostly watermelon and pineapple.
    I also ate at street stalls – similar food. Tofu, mushrooms , boiled rice. I found out that a lot of salt and sugar was used together in the cooking.

    Within a week I was suffering from oedema (swelling) of the feet, legs, body, face etc. I was drinking plenty of plain water.
    The swelling did not subside until I was on the aircraft, and well on my way back to the UK. However, whatever caused my condition, did not hamper my work. – But I am sure it was the salt / sugar combination with acute change of climate.

    PS I do not restrict salt in my diet and eat much fruit, sometimes honey, but not a lot of starch.

  3. Zyxomma says:

    One of the problems with the experiments recounted above is the low-fat part. When I was eating 100% raw, I had some fat every day, whether it was olives, avocado, or soaked nuts/seeds. Also, breaking a fast should be done gradually; reintroducing food is a delicate process. Health and peace.

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