Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The Whole Food and Raw Food Diets

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on May 31st, 2012)

In the ninth and final week of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review we will be combining two more lifestyle diets; The Whole Foods Diet and The Raw Diet. Let’s first take a look at the Whole Foods Diet. This diet is fairly simple. No foods that have been processed are allowed and foods that are still similar to their original form are encouraged. Foods that have been cooked as they would at home are allowed, so breads from the grocery store are allowed but chicken nuggets are not. Organic food sources are usually included but are not necessarily part of the Whole Foods Diet depending on the source of guidance.

The idea behind the Whole Foods Diet is the avoidance of all of the additives and by-products produced during the refining processes used with various foods. This eliminates sources of Trans Fats, Artificial Sweeteners, and all the other hazardous chemicals we hear about in the news. By only eating organic foods this also eliminates sources of pesticides and herbicides.

The Whole Foods Diet suggests the majority of our nutrients should come from fruits and vegetables with limited grains, dairy and meat. This does not necessarily mean that we have to give up meat entirely, just that it should not be the primary source of protein in our diet. Lean meats like poultry and fish are still encouraged.

This leads to the other benefit from the Whole Food Diet is the rich nutrient pool the diet provides. With most carbohydrates coming from vegetables and fruit the body’s daily energy requirements will be being met with complex carbohydrates which keep the blood sugar level and help maintain a healthy colon. The nutrient profile of the Whole Foods Diet is quite comprehensive and as long as a balanced diet is maintained, is complete. Through nuts, vegetables, and fish good, healthy fats are present in the diet and bad fats are avoided through the dietary restrictions.

The second lifestyle diet we will be looking at today is the Raw Diet which is commonly combined with both the Vegan Diet and the Whole Foods Diet. The Raw Diet is based around the idea that the human body will digest/absorb/use more nutrients from raw food that has not been or has very lightly been cooked (<40oC) because there are enzymes and co-factors (substances, either proteins or minerals, that increase the rate at which or allow a chemical reaction to occur) within the foods that we need to get the proper nutrients. The Raw Diet maintains that any cooking processes that raises the temperature of the food over 40oC (104oF) will destroy these proteins.

The cooking process is also employed to kills off any itty-bitty critter that are riding around in our food so this makes incorporating meat into the Raw Diet fairly difficult. This is one of the reasons that the Raw Diet is often paired with a Vegan or Vegetarian diet. If not opting for the vegan or vegetarian option uncooked meats such as sushi or smoked meats are allowed and some sources even allow cooked fish and poultry.

I have not been able to find any evidence to support this idea of enzymatic function in nutrient absorption or digestion. Also, the stomach is the part of the digestive system where the majority of protein breakdown happens making it unlikely that any enzymes would reach the intestines to influence absorption. That being said, there is significant research showing that certain proteins survive the acid environment of the stomach on a fairly consistent basis. Add to this the high rate of occurrence of conditions leading to decreased stomach acid in Western society. So it is conceivable that there is something behind this theory but I would need to see more evidence before I am convinced.

There is also significant research linking the Raw Food Diet to significant health problems but all of this research is limited to raw Vegan/Vegetarian diets to this date. This makes it difficult to determine if the problems stem from the uncooked nature of the food or the common food choices between the diets. Last week’s blog of the Vegan Diet covered in detail the common nutrient deficiencies associated with the food choices which most likely lead to the health problems including decreased bone density, menstrual difficulties in women, and unhealthily low body weight.

Some health benefits are linked with the Raw Diet such as decreased triglycerides and cholesterol and decreased risk of diabetes but these are the same benefits of other diets that do not have the associated health risks.

Overall, I think the Whole Foods Diet is very good but the Raw Diet needs more evidence to support its claims before it gains my endorsement. There is nothing wrong with eating raw foods (as long as they are bacteria and parasite free) but an entire diet of them may be pushing it a bit. The health risks associated with the Raw Diet outweigh the benefits in my opinion. Many raw food meals are quite delicious and I highly recommend eating some portions of your diet raw.

The Whole Foods Diet provides a broad array of nutrient sources and has also been linked to many improvements in health. Some sources even suggest that a Whole Foods Diet can be tailored to help combat specific conditions.

Thanks for joining me on the last week of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list of the diets out there so we will occasionally revisit the Diet Reviews to add more. If anyone has any requests for diets they know of that they would like reviewed, please e-mail me at drroffey@gmail.com or leave a comment below and I’ll put it in the blog.
Dr. Ben

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