About a year into my vegan journey I began to wonder, what are the health benefits of eating a fully raw diet compared to a regular vegan diet? Are there any? This post is basically what I have learned since that question first started burning in my mind several years ago.
But before we get started, let's first clearly define what exactly being a "raw vegan" and a just a "regular vegan" entails.
Eats anything that doesn't come from an animal or contain things that have come from an animal.
Practically this includes all plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes), all processed plant foods (cereals, muesli bars, some fake meats, french fries, falafels etc) and all processed plant and chemical combination foods (Oreos and other sweets, most fake meats, coconut/soy ice creams etc) that don't contain additional animal derived ingredients (milk, whey powder, gelatin, honey etc).
Eats anything that doesn't come from an animal, or contain things that have come from an animal AND hasn't been heated above 42 degrees celsius.
Practically this includes all plants (fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes) as they occur in nature, and any combination of them. They can be cut, diced, blended, frozen, juiced, dehydrated, fermented or combined in any way you can think of, so long as they aren't heated above 42 degrees celsius.
The lifestyle ethics are the same for both. Which means neither raw vegans or regular vegans wear or use anything that came from an animal (leather, wool, silk, down, suede) or was tested on animals (personal and household cleaning products, cosmetics and beauty products etc). It's just what you put in your mouth that differs.
When you start going vegan it's common for your diet to temporarily feel quite restricted already, and I know that for me, for the first few months at least, the thought of restricting it further was out of the question!
But then I thought, "What are all these raw vegans doing then? Maybe they know something I don't." And I knew at least some of them were incredibly healthy, as they were world class athletes. So I began to realise I was slipping back in the same close minded thought patterns I was in as back when I was a carnist, eating everything that I could, only now it had been taken a step further.
So to address the question at the heart of this post, lets first figure out why a vegan diet is healthier than a standard western diet high in meat and dairy.
If you haven't heard, the vegan diet can be the healthiest on earth, although when it is, it's generally called a 'whole foods, plant-based' diet, not a vegan diet. Never-the-less, the reason vegans have better overall health than any other diet is because of two things:
1. The absence of animal foods (namely flesh and dairy) and especially processed animal foods (bacon, sausages, ham etc.) and the toxic things they naturally come with, including but definitely not limited to:
a) animal protein that can directly promote cancer growth
c) trans fatty acids, the single most toxic thing in our food supply today, that you should never put in your body.
2. The greater addition of whole plant foods and the incredibly healthy things they naturally come with, including but certainly not restricted to:
a) dietary fiber, an essential nutrient only found in plants which 97% of Americans are deficient in
b) potassium, another essential nutrient primarily found in plants that 98% of Americans are also deficient in, and
It is the replacement of these unhealthy (and deadly, eaten over enough time) animal foods with more healthy whole, plant foods that give vegans the extra edge in all these large nutrition studies.
So then, with that in mind, remembering back to my description earlier about the differences between a raw vegan diet and a regular vegan diet, which would be the healthier option? If you haven't guessed yet, keep reading to find out.
Even though anyone on any diet eats different - as a general rule - a raw vegan diet will have a higher consumption of whole plant foods, and a lower intake of all processed foods, so a raw vegan diet will be the healthier choice of the two.
Just like the switch to vegan immediately gets healthier because of the removal of meat products and most of the junk foods, so does the switch from regular vegan to a rawer vegan diet get healthier just by the removal of nearly all the processed plant foods, including mock meats. Even though fake meats are based on plants, most of them have many nutrients removed (and chemicals added) in the processing stages, which leave you worse off than if you just ate the plants that the fake meats were made from originally, like raw vegans do. (The exception to this is 100% mushroom or bean mock-meats, and tempeh, as these are all whole-foods.)
This, of course, will only actually be a healthy long term switch if you:
a) replace those foods you no longer eat (animal and processed food products) with the freshest whole plant foods you can get your hands on
b) you eat a variety of them , and
Not eating enough calories is a very common mistake for those new to a raw diet, and can leave people with a "bad taste in their mouth" in regard to raw foods. What happens is, because the high water content of fresh fruit and veg can leave you feeling fuller quicker when really you haven't consumed that many calories, people can end up unintentionally under-eating, losing too much weight and feeling really weak and low-energy all the time before quickly going back to their previous diet. This can then lead them to blame the diet itself, instead of their misuse of it.
Another common pitfall, on the other end of the spectrum, is eating too much fat. Getting too many calories from fat on a raw food diet can make you gain weight very quickly, which is the opposite of what most people want, plus eating this way (>60% fat) is not sustainable for very long. Simply getting nearly all of your calories from fresh whole fruits and vegetables will cure this. In addition to eating all the fruit and veg you can, eat just a handful of your favourite (un-roasted, of course) nuts every day, a couple avocados each week and preferably eliminate all processed fats such as coconut oils or olive oils. If you want to maintain a healthy body fat percentage - in conjunction with regular excercise - getting nearly all of your fat from fruit and veg is more than enough.
I talk about this topic at length in the chapter How To Get All the Nutrients Your Body Needs (And More) in my book Irreversibly Vegan, which is specifically designed to kick-start your vegan journey with everything you need to know from the latest nutrition facts to real, lasting motivation that works.
For me right now, making my diet healthier (which, if you want to do it right and have it actually last, is an on-going evolution, not just a snap change in diet) involves primarily the following three things:
1) eating a wider variety of fruits and more berries
2) replacing all processed fake meats with beans, lentils and tempeh
3) eating at least one large bowl of dark green leafy vegetables, the healthiest foods on earth, every day
I'm very interested to see how easy it is to keep up eating healthy during long-term world travel, and if you are curious too, chuck your email in the box at the bottom of the page to get notified of new articles like this before anyone else as well as exclusive insider content we at Vomad will send to you as we travel the world indefinitely, all while being incredibly vegan.
So to answer the question at the beginning of this post... Yes! Going raw can be REALLY healthy... so long as you eat enough of the right foods. Does this make going raw "a lot of effort"? No, I don't think so. But I do think that the little bit of extra effort you put in initially to change your habits will pay for itself many times over in better quality of life through living healthier.
I don't ever remember seeing a study that differentiates a raw vegan diet from a regular vegan diet, but if you've seen a published, peer-reviewed study comparing the two then please let me know in the comments below - I'd love to see it too!
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