Fad dieters face drawbacks

Raw food and Caveman dieters face risks of nutrient deficiency, local dietitian says

Raw vegans stick to a diet of mainly fruits and vegetables.
Raw vegans stick to a diet of mainly fruits and vegetables.
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Raw food dieters eliminate grain products from their diet, one of the recommended food groups in Canada’s Food Guide.
Raw food dieters eliminate grain products from their diet, one of the recommended food groups in Canada’s Food Guide.

With an increasing awareness of additives and chemicals, some take extreme measures and opt to only eat food raw.

A raw food diet allows for uncooked and unprocessed foods, excluding any food heated beyond 46 C.

“It promotes eating lots of fruits and vegetables and leaner meats and fish,” said Public Health dietitian Heather McMillan.

There are different kinds of raw food diets, but raw veganism is a common choice.

Those on a raw vegan diet only eat unprocessed, raw plant food.

It’s a movement that’s gaining prominence in popular culture. Several specialized restaurants in Canada accommodate raw food dieters, and celebrities ranging from Demi Moore to Jason Mraz have publicly spoken out in favour of the diet.

But what possesses people to voluntarily subsist on a diet of solely raw food?

“People think it’s the more natural way to eat. That’s the draw of it,” McMillan said.

The elimination of processed foods is a major benefit of undergoing a raw food diet.

“Processed foods are higher in saturated fat and sodium … and have little to no fruits and vegetables,” McMillan said, citing prepackaged microwavable meals and canned pasta as examples.

While one might try the raw food diet to experience food in an organic form, the diet has its drawbacks.

Raw food poses risks of food poisoning and nutrient deficiency, McMillan said.

Because a raw food diet excludes grains, McMillan said raw food dieters often don’t ingest enough carbohydrates or fibre.

In addition, many raw food dieters face risks by drinking raw milk, which hasn’t been pasteurized.

Milk pasteurization involves heating and cooling milk to remove bacteria. In Canada, the sale of raw milk is prohibited.

“In terms of food safety, there are issues with raw milk,” McMillan said. “It might be contaminated … you’d want to have it pasteurized, which isn’t allowed.

“If you don’t drink milk at all, you’re not getting enough calcium.”

But raw milk isn’t the only type of raw food that poses a risk.

“With eating raw meat, you increase the risk of contamination,” McMillan said, adding that ground meats have a higher risk of contamination compared to whole cuts of meat.

Raw meat contamination can cause food borne illnesses like salmonella, which can manifest through fever and dehydration.

Despite these issues, I decided to try the raw food diet myself. I lasted two days, but it felt like a lot longer.

While I appreciated the break from processed foods, it’s difficult — and somewhat frightening — to fathom living long-term with these kinds of restrictions.

McMillan said raw food dieters rely on several key methods of preparing food, and I can see how this is necessary to avoid boredom in the diet.

“You can blend and juice anything … and people on raw food diets often dehydrate food,” McMillan said.

I wasn’t so creative and out of pure laziness, simply ate any available fruits and vegetables in their given form. However, the limited selection quickly became monotonous and I can understand a raw food dieter’s need to switch up meals.

Ironically, McMillan said there aren’t many health benefits to eating food raw as opposed to cooked.

While proponents of the raw food diet claim cooking food decreases its nutritional value, McMillan said it’s not by a significant amount.

“Cooking food decreases vitamin level by a little, but certainly not enough,” she said.

Vitamin B12 levels can decrease by heating food, but eating solely raw foods isn’t the only solution to this problem.

“There are still different cooking methods you can use. Instead of boiling it in a lot of water you can only use a little, or stir fry or steam it,” McMillan said.

The most difficult part of my raw food diet trial though had nothing to do with food. It was the forced removal of my morning beverage of choice.

A die-hard coffee dependent, I was highly disturbed to discover coffee is unacceptable on a raw-food diet, as beans in coffee are roasted.

Despite caffeine withdrawal and induced crankiness, I persevered, and took the opportunity to indulge in a plethora of fruits and vegetable salads.

I thought that sushi rolls would be acceptable, but sadly the rice is cooked – meaning that sashimi alone is appropriate for the diet.

Wishing to preserve my health and avoid salmonella and other food borne diseases, I stayed away from raw meat and adhered to the raw vegan model. However, this doesn’t allow for much more than fruits and vegetables.

McMillan said there are no evidence-based benefits of eating raw food, which isn’t hard to believe after personally experiencing the diet.

“I wouldn’t recommend it. The main thing you want is something you can maintain in daily life,” McMillan said. “Something like this challenges normal eating patterns and isn’t a sustainable change.”

I agree with McMillan. I can only imagine the perseverance and dedication required to stick to this diet.

The Caveman diet

Reverting to a Stone Age diet is as restrictive as it sounds.

The Paleolithic diet, also known as the Stone Age or Caveman diet, only includes foods that hunter-gatherers could obtain before the development of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago.

The 1975 publication of Walter L. Voegtlin’s book The Stone Age Diet initially promoted the Paleolithic Diet to the public.

Voegtlin argued that humans are carnivores and should ingest minimal carbohydrates, focusing instead on fat and protein. As a result, he believed following a diet similar to those who lived in the Paleolithic era could improve a person’s health.

Paleo dieters can eat fish, meat, fruit, roots and nuts. Food is allowed to be cooked.

However, the theory that the human body is genetically adapted to only ingest foods from the Paleolithic era isn’t evidence-based, according to Public Health dietitian Heather McMillan.

“We have adapted to a lot more than that. With milk, unless you’re lactose intolerant, our bodies have enzymes that can digest it,” she said.

Proponents of the Paleo diet say it helps to prevent cardiovascular disease. According to McMillan, the diet forbids grain products, so Paleo dieters miss out on important nutrients.

“They’re missing Vitamin D and calcium, as well as carbohydrates, fibre and minerals,” McMillan said, adding that this could lead to an iron deficiency or anemia.

Dairy, potatoes, beans, sugar and salt are off limits to Paleo dieters.

Similar to a raw food diet, the only health benefit of the Paleo diet is the elimination of excess sugar, salt and saturated fat, McMillan said.

Ultimately, following the Canadian Food Guide will help one be healthy without having to resort to severe restrictions, McMillan said.

“Lots of vegetables, fruits, lean meats and fish are lower in saturated fats — you can get this from just following a healthy diet,” she said.

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