Can Raw Food and Paleo Diets Really Make Us Healthier?
Since the end of the Second World War, diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease have become significantly more prevalent in the developed world. Such diseases are some of the leading killers in developed countries, with almost one third of all deaths in Australia in 2015 being caused by cardiovascular disease alone. For the most part, these deaths are preventable, and the Western diet has long been thought to be a key factor underlying these worrying trends.
Among those looking to eat healthier or lose weight, raw food and paleo diets have become remarkably popular in the 21st century. But does scientific evidence support the claims made by proponents of these diets? Image: “Sunlit Salad” by Ed Suominen via Flickr (used under CC BY-NC 2.0).
Eat Like a Caveman: The Paleo Diet and Raw Foodism
From these health concerns, a number of diets claiming to increase life expectancy or weight loss have arisen throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. One of the most popular of these ‘fad diets’ is the Paleolithic diet (otherwise known as the paleo diet or the caveman diet). The paleo diet advocates for exclusively or primarily eating only foods that supposedly would have been eaten by humans in the Paleolithic Age, over 10,000 years ago. Generally, this is taken to mean avoiding not only processed foods and oils, but also grains, dairy products, coffee, and alcohol. Adherents of the paleo diet argue that human digestion has remained unchanged since the evolution of anatomically modern humans, and that we have adapted to eating foods that were available prior to the Neolithic revolution and the advent of agriculture. The paleo diet is incredibly popular, and was one of the most searched for weight loss methods in 2013.
Related to the paleo diet is the practice of ‘raw foodism’ (or the raw food diet), which refers to the eating of uncooked food. The concept of a raw food diet stems from the work of Maximilian Bircher-Benner (whose name you may recognise from Bircher Muesli), who believed that the “vital force” of foods was destroyed by cooking, and opened a sanatorium in the early 1900s where treatments consisted of raw food regimes.
The Real Risk of Uncooked Food and Cutting Out Food Groups
Although proponents of fad diets often make vague claims of living healthy or weight loss, some argue that they can be effective treatments for various diseases and conditions. Some even go as far to argue that raw or paleo food can cure, treat, or reduce the risk of cancer. While red meat, especially processed meat, has been implicated in greater risk of colorectal cancer, the raw food and paleo diets don’t prohibit or argue against eating red meat itself.
Both diets have also been shown to be potentially harmful. Those following the paleo diet, which cuts out entire key food groups such as grains, legumes and dairy, put themselves at risk for developing vitamin B2, calcium and vitamin D deficiencies. For those sticking with a raw food diet, there are a number of foods that, when uncooked or undercooked, can be toxic or harbour bacteria or parasites.
A Fad Diet vs. A Balanced Diet
The advent of cooking food was a hugely influential event in our evolution. Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that it was Homo erectus, by inventing cooking half a million years ago, was able to obtain more calories from food. This led to the development of an increased brain size, eventually evolving into modern Homo sapiens. Today, all societies and cultures, from the modern West to hunter-gatherers, eat cooked meals.
On the face of it, the ideas of the paleo and raw food diets seem somewhat convincing. Processed foods made abundant and available by modern life, especially those high in carbohydrates and saturated fats, are something to be concerned about. But fad diets, such as paleo and raw foodism are not the silver bullet or panacea for living a healthy life. Cutting out food groups based on a fad rather than evidence is unlikely to do much good.
That’s not to say that there’s no merit to the paleo diet. For individuals with a wide range of allergies and intolerances, cutting out gluten and dairy are a necessity.
In general, for those looking to lose weight and live healthier, the answer is simple: eat less, exercise more, have an overall balanced diet, and cut out junk food.