This article is based on a study by VRG Nutrition Advisor Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, RD. It was published under the title “Attitudes, practices and beliefs of individuals consuming a raw foods diet” in the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 1 (4):272-77, July 2005.
Raw foods diets, which often are a type of vegan diet, are on the rise in the United States, alongside other vegan and vegetarian eating patterns. An increase in raw foods eating establishments and communities in recent years has drawn media attention to this lifestyle. Although raw foods diets have been around since the early 20th century, little is known about the practices and rationale of raw foods proponents because such a small amount of documentation and research has been done to date. A preliminary review of available research showed wide variation in the descriptions of raw foods diets and very little information on their associated attitudes and beliefs.
|Vegetarian||Diet does not contain meat, fish, poultry and their byproducts|
|Vegan (Type of Vegetarian Diet)||Diet does not contain meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, and their byproducts|
|Raw Foods Diet or ‘Living Foods’ Diet (Often a Type of Vegan Diet)||Diet generally consists of fresh (or uncooked) vegan foods and/or ‘living’ foods in their natural state|
This lack of scientific knowledge, combined with the relatively recent popularity of raw foods diets, has created a need for health and nutrition professionals to develop a fundamental basis for understanding raw foodists’ beliefs, attitudes, and practices if they are to offer effective education and counseling to clients adopting these eating patterns.
Discover the scope of dietary practices adopted by U.S. raw foods leaders
Explore the reasoning behind choosing and implementing a raw foods diet
Characterize other factors related to a raw foods way of life
The study gathered information through partly structured interviews of 17 individuals considered to be leaders in the U.S. raw foods movement. The interview process consisted of audio-recorded telephone interviews, each lasting an average of one hour. Also, a 24-hour dietary recall and food frequency summary was done to assess dietary practices.
The ages of the participants ranged from 31 to 69 years; 11 were male and six were female. Thirteen of the participants had college educations, nine of whom had master’s or doctorate degrees. Only four reported belonging to a spiritual or philosophic group.
When asked to describe their diet, participants gave answers that included “raw,” “raw vegan,” “100% raw, vegan, and living foods,” and “100% raw.” Twelve of the 17 participants reported a diet containing 85 percent or more raw foods. All participants followed a vegetarian diet, with 15 of them adhering to a vegan diet. The two exceptions were one occasional dairy consumer and one honey user. The major foods that made up the participants’ diets were fruit and fruit juices, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and added fats, such as vegetable oils and avocado. Typically, all participants refrained from consuming meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, eggs, commercially manufactured sweets, and alcohol.
|Percentage of Raw Foods Study Participants Consuming Selected Foods During a Typical Week|
The diet reported by the participants was compared to standard guidelines to determine whether intakes were meeting current recommendations. Comparison to the USDA Food Guide Pyramid showed participants meeting or exceeding recommendations for vegetables, fruits, protein-rich foods, and fats, but recommendations for dairy products and grains were not met. The Vegetarian Food Pyramid comparison showed a similar trend. Participants did not meet recommendations for calcium-rich foods, protein-rich foods, or grains. Recommended intakes for all food groups could be met by following a raw foods diet, but intakes of participants in this study fell short in one or more groups.
The diets reported by the participants supplied enough energy to maintain a healthy body weight and were generally devoid of low-nutrient-dense foods, such as alcohol and candy. Most participants did not consume supplements or animal products, thus putting them at risk for vitamin B12 deficiency. A reliable source of B12 may be necessary for long-term raw foodists.
Health benefits, such as disease protection and improved digestion, weight control, and increased energy levels, were stated as major advantages to the raw foods lifestyle. Although challenges to adopting the diet were few, 65 percent of the respondents reported being affected by social pressures that accompany an eating pattern outside of the mainstream. One study respondent noted that it is difficult to socialize with people in a culture when so much of this activity is done over a meal.
When asked to define the characteristics of a raw foods diet, participants had varying responses. Most agreed that cooked foods should not be included in the diet. However, four participants gave specific maximum temperatures, ranging from 108 to 120 degrees, at which food could be cooked and still be included in the diet. Several participants held the belief that raw foods keep enzymes intact and sustain the ‘life force’ or ‘energy’ of the food.
At what point is someone considered a raw foodist? Sixty percent of participants agreed that consumption of 70 to 90 percent raw foods would meet the criteria. Three participants thought there was no cut-off, while three others believed that 100 percent raw food consumption was necessary. Of the respondents, 41 percent thought the diet could be achieved by eating as much raw food as possible in a consistent manner.
Participants were also asked to define ‘living foods’ diets. The living foods diet was variously described as containing foods alive at time of consumption, sprouted foods, cultured foods, foods still growing, and/or foods with their enzymes intact. Some believed raw foods and ‘living foods’ diets were the same, while others thought ‘living foods’ to be a higher level of raw foodism because the living foods have a higher energy content.
Health advantages are associated with consuming raw foods.
Enzymes, ‘life force,’ ‘energy,’ and valuable plant components are destroyed at certain temperatures.
Beneficial components are optimal when food is closest to its living state.
Fifteen of the 17 participants were physically active on a regular basis, participating in activities that included weight training, aerobics, yoga, running, hiking, and walking. To determine whether the participants met requirements for healthy weight, Ideal Body Weight (IBW) and Body Mass Index (BMI) were calculated from self-reported weight, height, and frame size. Most participants were within a healthy IBW and BMI, and almost half stated they lost weight when they first implemented a raw foods diet, which is consistent with other studies. Although many claimed initial weight loss, regaining the weight was also common once the diet was established.
Fifteen participants noticed a difference in their health and well-being after making the change to a raw foods diet. More than half noticed an improvement in a health disorder, such as asthma, high blood pressure, allergies, and headaches. Health claims were consistent with other studies, but there is still not enough information to show whether raw foods diets provide more health benefits than a typical vegetarian diet would. More than half of the participants were self-sufficient when it came to their health, citing “nature,” themselves, or “none” as their main health care provider. Many described their approach to health care as “holistic,” “hygienic,” “preventative,” or “self-reliant.”
The findings of this study broaden the understanding of the dietary practices, attitudes, and beliefs of U.S. raw foodists, which health and nutrition professionals can utilize in practice. This study recommended nutrition assessment on an individual basis for raw food diets because substantial person-to-person variations in dietary intakes to meet current recommendations exist. Raw foodists may find dietary counseling advantageous because many face social difficulties when adjusting to and living with the raw foods lifestyle, and such counseling should encompass a fundamental understanding of beliefs associated with this choice.
Further studies should focus on larger populations of raw foodists to validate nutrition and health aspects of the diet and to gain a deeper understanding of purported health benefits, as well as food handling techniques related to raw food preparation.
Vrinda Walker is a dietetic student at the University of British Columbia. Suzanne Havala Hobbs, DrPH, MS, RD, is one of The Vegetarian Resource Group’s Nutrition Advisors.
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