In 1996, I was barely 20 years old when I decided to go raw.
My initial experiments on the raw food diet were arduous, hazardous, and—ultimately–a failure. My longest stretch of 100% raw was around three years, but after that I kept trying and trying. Now, 17 years later, I have not necessarily stayed raw the entire time, but I have learned a lot about raw food diets.
A raw food diet can be your friend or your crazy lover (the one that brings a stream of emotional ups and downs), depending on how you look at it.
Raw foods can be a tremendous tool for losing weight, detoxing, feeling better, and overcoming specific health problems. You can use a raw food diet as a short-term cleanse (lasting several days, weeks, or months), or as part of your overall health regimen. Some people choose to eat 100% raw and manage to maintain this strict lifestyle. But most people will use the raw food diet to achieve certain goals, as noted above.
If you wish to try a raw food diet as a cleanse or long-term program (50%, 70%, or even 100% raw), the following list will help you to avoid common problems.
1) Be Careful Combining Lots of Fat with Lots of Fruit
Many problems that raw foodists experience come from the fact that this diet removes all sources of complex carbohydrates and concentrated proteins. This means that calories on a typical raw vegan diet will come from either sugar (generally from fruit) or fat (oils, nuts, seeds, and avocados, etc.). Raw vegetables and salads, although rich in nutrients, contain an insignificant amount of energy. Consequently, a typical raw food diet may contain 60% or even 70% fat, by total calories. This is much more than the national average of 35% to 40%.
Fat is more difficult to digest and can leave you feeling sluggish. If it becomes your primary source of calories, especially when no concentrated sources of protein are consumed, you may not feel at your best.
Adding a lot of fruit to this mix can create additional problems. Because consuming more fat lowers insulin sensitivity and makes the blood more viscous, sugar consumed in the context of a high-fat diet (even from healthy sources like fruit) can lead to blood sugar imbalances and symptoms of Candida.
If you’re going to embark on a raw food diet, you should eat plenty of fruit and minimal fat, or be mindful of your fruit intake. In my experience, the latter option only works short-term. Because the calories on a raw food diet are restricted, if your consumption of carbohydrates is insufficient, eventually your energy levels will decline.
In my experience, a lower-fat, higher-fruit raw food diet works best if someone is going to follow this lifestyle for a long period of time.
2) Eat Enough Calories
Raw foods generally have a low caloric density. One pound of fruit typically contains only 250 calories, while most cooked foods have at least 500. Vegetables contain even fewer calories, at about 100 per pound, and most of these are not even absorbed. That’s why people can keep eating raw foods without ever feeling completely satiated.
It can be tempting to make up for the lower caloric density of fruits and vegetables by eating more avocados, nuts, and seeds. But over time, the excess calories from fat will take a toll on the body. And let’s not even talk about the problems associated with consuming excess omega-6 fats from too many nuts and seeds.
The solution is to eat more fruit. Whenever someone is following a raw food program and complains they don’t have enough energy, I have them dramatically increase their fruit intake. This solves the problem 90% of the time. Bananas, mangoes, and other high-calorie fruits are excellent choices. Blend them in smoothies to get even more calories in.
On a raw food diet, you can either be a sloth or a high-energy monkey. Most herbivore animals are very passive and sleep most of the day. Primates who live on fruit are more intelligent and active. So if you’re going to eat a lot of fruit, you need to burn off that sugar through exercise. Otherwise you will eventually gain weight or develop blood sugar imbalances.
If you’re quite sedentary and just want to try a raw food diet to lose weight, then you can go easier on the fruit.
4) Dental Hygiene
It is true that raw foodists generally experience more dental problems because they consume more acidic foods (citrus, fruit, lemons, dressings, etc.), sugar (fruit, dried fruit, etc.), and sticky, dried foods (kale chips, dehydrated foods, etc.).
Dental health is a war against bacteria, and bacteria will feed on anything: sugar, carbohydrates, and morsels of food stuck in the teeth. Eliminate the root of the problem. Keep the bacteria at a level where they cannot do much damage through a precise and disciplined hygiene routine. For me, this means four minutes of brushing (in a certain pattern) with an electric toothbrush after dinner, followed by flossing, tongue scraping, and water irrigation with my VitaJet.
I also brush in the morning and before or after lunch. The good thing is that once you’ve been able to keep your bacteria level low for a long time, plaque no longer accumulates.
5) Eat Blended Greens
Eating green vegetables on a raw food diet is necessary to obtain enough calcium and other alkaline minerals, which are lacking in fruit and nuts. However, greens can be hard for the body to assimilate when eaten raw, unless you chew them for a very long time. That’s why I recommend some form of blended greens. Try green smoothies or a blended salad (I like Roger Haeske’s www.veggiestews.com). Once or twice a day, a big bowl or tall glass is about all we need.
6) Take Supplements
The raw vegan diet can be lacking in some important nutrients, and it can be challenging to get sufficient amounts of others. I recommend taking the following:
• B12: 100 micrograms daily or 2000 mc twice a week. More if you’ve been on a vegan diet for more than 2 years without supplementing.
• Vitamin D: either 1000 IU of D3 or 2000 IU of D2 daily during spring, fall, and winter (less if you live in a sunny location).
• Calcium: 500mg to 1000mg daily, taken with vitamin D (there are supplements that contain both).
• Sodium: this is not a problem if you consume some salt, but if you don’t, increase the amount of celery you eat or add a pinch of salt to salads.
• Iodine: this can be lacking when someone avoids all sources of table salt (many of which have been supplemented with iodine). Iodine can be absent from certain soils, and you never know the exact iodine content of the foods you are eating. Try some powdered kelp on your salads (a type of seaweed that contains iodine) or a supplement.
• Selenium: include some Brazil nuts in your diet each week; this nutrient is often lacking in raw vegan diets.
• Protein: when a diet contains only fruits and vegetables and total calories are low, protein can be lacking. You will not become deficient, but a low intake of protein can cause other problems. If your diet doesn’t contain any concentrated sources of protein, I recommend adding one scoop of vegan, soy-free protein powder to your smoothie once a day, adding about 20-25 grams of protein. Rice-, pea-, or hemp-based proteins are all good choices.
7) Add some animal products to a raw food diet (if your principles allow).
No one said that a raw food diet had to be vegan. A lot of the nutrients I mentioned can be obtained by consuming just a small amount of animal protein on a daily basis. This protein source could be raw or cooked.
My top choices for supplementing a mainly raw food diet are as follows:
• Fermented dairy products (yogurt, kefir, etc.)
• Raw and organically raised salmon (not wild), or wild salmon (as long as you buy from a reputable dealer who can certify its origins)
• Other clean seafood or small amounts of other types of animal protein.
• Fish oil supplements
I hope you enjoyed these quick tips on how to make a raw food diet work.
Question of the day: What is your experience with the raw food diet and what have you found worked for you?