The Pros of a Raw Vegan Diet
Since plant foods are at the core of the raw vegan diet, eaters may reap some of the same benefits as those associated with a vegetarian or regular vegan eating style. Not only does following a diet plentiful in plant foods significantly decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, but since the dietary staples typically contain fewer calories than animal products, it can also lead to weight loss, says Caspero. (Related: The Beginner’s Guide to Adopting a Vegetarian Diet)
Plus, raw vegans cut most ultra-processed foods — think: packaged chips, store-bought cookies, and candy — from their diet, which may help curb the risk of chronic diseases. Case in point: a five-year study of more than 105,000 French adults showed that higher consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with higher risks of cardiovascular, coronary heart, and cerebrovascular (brain-and blood-related, i.e. stroke) diseases.
The Drawbacks of a Raw Vegan Diet:
Just because there are some perks to amping up your plant-food intake doesn’t mean following a diet containing only raw versions of them is a good idea. “There are numerous health benefits to eating more plants, and I’m a huge advocate of that,” says Caspero. “However, I am not an advocate of taking it to this extreme level.”
Her main issue: There’s not enough scientific research showing a raw vegan diet is healthier than other diets, which would potentially make it more worth its restrictive nature, she says. “We don’t have data showing a raw vegan diet is excellent in preventing chronic disease compared to a regular vegan diet or a plant-based diet, which I would argue are much more nutritious,” she explains. “Some people say they feel better, but we cannot make any dietary recommendations based on anecdotes.” (Related: Why You Should Give Up Restrictive Dieting Once and for All)
And the restriction involved in the diet alone can do some harm in itself. At the very least, social situations revolving around food (think: family feasts, restaurant outings) can make it tough to stick to your eating pattern, and eventually, you might end up avoiding those situations altogether, Carrie Gottlieb, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New York City, previously told Shape.
Beyond from the social difficulties that may arise, restrictive dieting can also have some serious mental health impacts; food restriction through self-imposed dieting has been linked with a preoccupation with food and eating and emotional dysphoria, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Aside from the mental and emotional effects, restricting your diet to raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains could make it difficult to get enough of — or completely miss out on — key nutrients. For example, it can be tough to get your daily fill of protein (at least 10 percent of your caloric intake) just by noshing on sprouted grains, nuts, and eating crudités all day, every day, says Caspero.
More specifically, raw vegan eaters may struggle to get enough lysine, an essential amino acid needed for growth and tissue repair that’s found in beans, legumes, and soy foods. The problem: “For most raw vegans, it’s going to be very hard to consume those foods in a ‘raw’ state, so you may not get enough lysine,” says Caspero. And if you’re lacking in the amino acid, you could experience fatigue, nausea, dizziness, loss of appetite, and slow growth, according to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Vitamin B12 is also tough to come by on a raw vegan diet, adds Caspero. The nutrient, which helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy, is primarily found in animal foods (i.e. meat, eggs, dairy products) and in some fortified foods, such as cereals — all of which are off-limits on a raw, plant-based diet. The same goes for bone-strengthening vitamin D (found in fatty fish, dairy milks, and many store-bought, plant-based alternative milks) and brain-boosting DHA omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish, fish oils, and krill oils), she says.
“That’s why anyone who’s interested in following a raw vegan diet should make sure they’re supplementing appropriately [with those nutrients], even if those supplements are not considered ‘raw,’” she says. (Head’s up: Dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, so be sure to talk with your doc before adding them to your wellness routine.)
Not to mention, some of the raw vegan “cooking” techniques are often linked with foodborne illnesses, particularly sprouting. The method involves storing grains, seeds, or beans in a jar with water for a few days and allowing them to germinate, says Caspero. While the process makes the raw food more easily digestible (since it breaks down some of the tough, starchy endosperm), the warm, humid conditions required create an ideal environment for the growth of harmful bacteria — including Salmonella, Listeria, and E.coli — that can cause food poisoning, according to the FDA. Yikes.
So, Is a Raw Vegan Diet a Good Idea?
Eating more fresh fruits and veggies does come with health benefits and taking on a raw vegan diet will undoubtedly increase your intake, says Caspero. But considering its restrictive nature and potential for creating nutrient deficiencies, Caspero wouldn’t recommend anyone start following a raw vegan diet.
More specifically, people who are in a growth period of life and especially need to hit their protein targets — i.e. teens undergoing puberty, children, and pregnant and lactating women — should definitely steer clear of the diet, she adds. “I’m not dissuading anyone from eating more raw foods,” she explains. “I’m definitely dissuading the idea of that being 100 percent of your diet.”
But if you *really* want to give a raw vegan diet a shot, Caspero urges you to meet with a registered dietitian or your doctor before you start loading up on Mason jars for your sprouting set-up and vow to never use the oven again. “I think it’s really important to see a professional,” she says. “I see so many influencers and people on Instagram who talk about doing this, but just because it works for them, that doesn’t mean it’s what you need to follow. It’s just really important — for whatever diet you’re following — to remember that anecdotes are not science.”