The raw food diet is exactly what you would expect; it advocates eating 100% of your diet raw. You can’t eat steak, you can’t eat steamed broccoli, and you can’t eat boiled eggs.
It differs from the normal vegan diet as well, because you can’t eat plant foods with even minimal processing like dark chocolate or coffee. The raw food diet is not exclusively vegan, but most of its followers tend to be.
Like the fruitarian diet (nothing but raw fruit), the raw food diet has morphed into a mini religion. The leaders advocate a raw food diet for spiritual enlightenment and crossing the boundary into a higher consciousness. However, there are many practical followers as well, who just want better health. They claim that the raw food diet can enhance nutrient absorption, enrich your gut bacteria, and supply natural digestion enhancing enzymes.
The idea is that real food is “alive”, and that the average sick human eats dead foods. One strategy is to only eat foods plucked directly from a tree or the soil. Another is to eat only foods which are less than 24 hours old.
There may well be countess living compounds in food which we don’t understand yet. We are the only animal that cooks food, after all. Every other species on earth eats these “raw, living, enzyme rich” foods; it’s possible that we’re missing something big.
For acne, there are excellent results out there. A typical testimonial is an enriched skin tone and glow within weeks of switching to the raw food diet. However, many patients then slip backwards after just a few weeks of adherence. They report in with a new outbreak of pimples and complete loss of the newfound glow.
The reality is that eating raw food has a variety of benefits for acne, but the raw food diet does not.
Here’s a bunch of reasons why the raw food diet should be avoided for acne despite having some good ideas behind it.
Do raw food diets maximise nutrient intake?
The first pillar of the raw food belief system is a valid one – that cooking foods significantly depletes their nutrients. Supposedly, if all foods are eaten in their natural state you can maximise your intake of nourishing vitamins and minerals.
If this was completely true, then the benefits for acne would be huge, because many minerals like zinc and vitamin E are vital for clearing the skin. But is it true? Not for all foods; in fact many fruits and vegetables become more nutritious when cooked.
One on hand we have broccoli. This cruciferous vegetable is excellent for acne due to it containing 148% of the RDA for vitamin C per 100 grams. However, this study found that boiling broccoli depleted its vitamin C content by 33%. Carotenoid antioxidants and compounds called glucosinolates were depleted by 13% and 41% respectively. The final food on the plate (surely they didn’t just bin it) was far less beneficial for acne than its raw counterpart.
One point for the raw food diet. However another cruciferous vegetable, kale, is completely different. Kale has the highest quantity of bioavailable nutrients after it’s been steamed for 5 minutes. After boiling kale for ages up to 70% of the vitamin C is lost. But through light steaming you can massively increase the magnesium bioavailability, by deactivating the natural oxalates which bind to it. Magnesium is a vital mineral for acne due to its role in antioxidant production.
You also have tomatoes in their many forms; this study found that cooking tomatoes increased their antioxidant content by 28%, 34% and 62% after 2 minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes respectively. Antioxidants are vital for all acne patients; follow the raw food diet and you lose the advantage.
Another factor is food preparation, which relates to the raw food commandment that food should be completely untouched. Cabbage is widely believed to lose its beneficial (and for acne, anti-inflammatory) sulphur compounds six hours after you cut through the leaves. However, while some slowly degrade to nothing, many new ones are formed. Cutting cabbage leaves stimulates them to produce an enzyme called myrosinase. If you leave the cabbage on the cutting board for several minutes, the myrosinase will react with sulphur to form highly anti-inflammatory compounds called glucosinolates.
The end result – cutting the cabbage is smart for acne. Garlic meanwhile is similar; cutting the bulbs causes a chain reaction between allinase and alliin to form allicin, one of the most anti-inflammatory compounds known to humanity. The same applies to the garlic bulb’s relative onions, which also contain allinase and alliin.
Then you have certain cooking methods; grilling meat can deplete up to 40% of the B-vitamins, because they drip away in juice during the cooking process. However, if you keep the juice you will keep the vitamins. Likewise, lightly steaming broccoli depletes the vitamin C by negligible amounts compared to 33% with boiling.
There’s definitely acne benefits in eating some foods raw, like berries and other fruits, but each food group has its own set of rules.
Your own taste buds are a better indicator of nutrient bioavailability than any rigid dogma. A cooked plate of raspberries would turn to unsatisfying mush. Overcooked broccoli loses its flavour and firmness. You wouldn’t eat sweet potatoes raw, 35 minutes in the oven is optimal; that’s also when the oxalates have deactivated and released the minerals.
It’s a smart idea for acne to know about the optimal cooking methods for each food, to maximise your acne nutrient intake, but it’s a bad idea to apply a blanket ban on cooking to all. This is the first reason why the raw food diet fails for clearing acne.
Cooking is needed to deactivate plant toxins
A lot of newcomers to the raw food diet enthusiastically jump aboard with the intention of banishing all manmade toxins from their diet. They’ve decided to remove pesticides, herbicides, chemical flavour enhancers, stabilisers, preservatives and all the rest to finally detoxify themselves.
That’s a great decision for acne. But what the raw food dogma doesn’t mention is that many plants have their own natural toxins. Historians believe that this is why we humans adopted cooking in the first place; to take out defensive toxins in plant species.
Oxalates are a widespread example. They bind to nutrients like magnesium, but are also linked to chronic inflammation (the root cause of acne) in susceptible individuals. Oxalates are found in a broad range of foods like spinach, cocoa, rhubarb and blackberries.
Individual foods have their own specific weapons. Potatoes contain two natural plant toxins called solanine and chaconine, which are types of glycoalkaloids. The potato plant produces glycoalkaloids in response to stress and when eaten they can cause digestive inflammation, a massive problem behind acne.
Tomatoes are also a known acne trigger for many people. This is down to their own specific glycoalkaloid called tomatine, which also increases inflammation either slightly or moderately. Then there’s pumpkins and butternut squash; both produce an inflammatory toxin called cucurbitacin in response to drought or harsh soil conditions.
The point is that plants do not want to be eaten. Even if they are not sentient (although some raw foodists disagree), they still have their own inbuilt defences to deter predators.
Adopting a raw food diet is hence a disadvantage for acne, because cooking is the simple way to deactivate many of them. Glycoalkaloids, for example, are reduced significantly by boiling potatoes (study). The preparation is once again important. A raw food believer would tell you to eat the potato with the skin, to keep it close to its pure form. However, that’s where both the solanine and chaconine are heavily concentrated.
What’s more, we started cooking over a fire tens of thousands if not millions of years ago, perhaps when we were still stuck in homo erectus mode, before we even became the homo sapiens we are today.
Hence, we have irreversibly adapted to that cooking. Unlike other animals, humans lack the necessary digestive enzymes to digest oxalates (study), and it’s likely that this feature faded away because of our adoption of cooking. Humans also lack phytase, the enzyme used to digest phytic acid, a compound found in nuts which causes digestive problems.
For some foods we need cooking whether you like it or not. That principle applies to both the acne-causing toxins outlined above and the nutrient bioavailability.
Many raw food proponents fall into the old vegan trap of comparing us to random animals. They claim that “an elephant, the largest land mammal on earth, gets all of its protein from plants and leaves, so why can’t we”. Similarly, they claim that humanity is shooting itself in the foot by cooking foods at all, since gorillas and orangutans do just fine.
However, because we have been cooking for so long, our physiology has changed, even if we are 98.5% related to a Chimpanzee genetically.
So this is the second big failing of the raw food diet for acne patients – the belief that all plant foods are harmless and we can digest them without help.
Are raw foods alive and rich in enzymes?
Despite this the proponents of the raw food diet do have some intelligent points to make. The “living food” idea sounds like the craziest and most new age of them all, but the points relating to live enzymes and bacteria are actually some of the best for acne.
Basically, over 3000 specific enzymes have been identified in the human body; it’s believed that tens of thousands may exist. The best known function of enzymes is in digestion, with many specific ones for different nutrients (e.g. lipase for fats). However enzymes are also involved with athletic performance, energy, maintaining cell function, and neurotransmitter activity.
The theory behind the raw food diet is that live, uncooked foods are loaded with natural enzymes which can supplement your body’s own production, hence enhancing almost every aspect of health.
For acne, the benefits could be 1) increased absorption of acne nutrients like minerals in steak, improved digestion of skin protecting proteins like glycine, lowered insulin levels, and reduced stress.
But is there any truth to the theory? More than the previous two. A variety of foods contain useful enzymes, including mango, kiwi, papaya, grapes, and raw dairy. One good example is honey. Raw honey contains enzymes which are actually secreted by honeybees in their saliva as they make it. That’s why I only ever recommend raw honey on this website, as a sweetener and as one of the best natural topical treatments.
A great example for acne is pineapple and its famous enzyme bromelain. Bromelain is widely sold as an athletics supplement and is used as a meat tenderiser because of its extremely potent power to digest proteins. Eating pineapple can therefore allow you to digest the proteins in a nice juicy steak far more efficiently, as well as the minerals like magnesium and zinc.
Similarly, papaya contains an enzyme called papain which also digests protein. But the key is that only raw varieties work. Tinned or cooked pineapple contains next to no bromelain.
The enzyme preservation is one instance where the raw food diet has some useful strategies for clear skin.
Is raw food rich in beneficial bacteria?
Then there’s healthy strains of bacteria, another aspect of the “living” food theory. Diverse and enriched gut bacteria is very important for acne. Beneficial bacteria lowers inflammation, keeps insulin levels low, and pumps out serotonin (therefore pumping your mood up).
Organic raw foods such as spinach, carrots, and potatoes are teeming with live bacteria because of their soil content. Just buy some organic celery, snap off a stick and you’ll see the soil residue at the bottom; right there you have a ton of healthy bacteria. All of those foods will lose their bacterial powers completely when they leave their raw state.
For all those reasons, there is a lot of value to the living food theory, but is this a reason to adopt the entire raw food diet?
Definitely not. You can enjoy the aforementioned benefits simply by eating servings of raw, organic fruit and vegetables per day. Eating an omelette for lunch doesn’t mean that you can’t eat some raw lettuce with it.
The raw food lobby is shooting themselves in the foot as well, because many of the richest sources of bacteria are the opposite of raw. Fermented milk like yoghurt, kefir or blue cheese is teeming with healthy lactobacilli and bifidobacterium, but is pure evil in the eyes of raw food maniacs. The same goes for fermented soy like natto, sauerkraut, or any probiotic (good bacteria) or prebiotic (compounds that feed good bacteria) supplements.
In fact these sources are the best ways to get bacteria from your diet. Yes raw milk has beneficial bacteria strains in it, but according to this study, they are present “only at quite low levels in raw bovine milk”.
Raw milk can’t compete with kimchi, a fermented form of cabbage popular in Korea which is flavoured with ginger. This study found that kimchi was packed with a beneficial bacteria strain called lactobacillus kimchi. This study found that the bacteria in kimchi was abundant enough to lead to “brain health promotion, immune promotion, and skin health promotion”. A meal of kimchi is not raw in the slightest.
Once again, the raw food diet has some great ideas which can help with acne, but is far too restricted by the ideology.
The food selection of the diet
Many people joining this diet experience immediate benefits. Their acne fades away, their hair develops a radiant shine, and their skin tone improves beyond what they’ve seen for years. It usually fades away eventually, but this all happens to begin with.
Why? Because the raw food diet does eliminate a vast swathe of acne causing menaces. You eat less refined sugar from sweets, candy, milk chocolate, cake, and energy drinks. You eliminate bread, cereal, pasta and all of its inflammatory gluten. You wave goodbye to refined vegetable oils such as soybean oil, with their insidious omega 6 fats.
Combined with the diet being rich in fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices (pretty much all you get to eat) there’s a substantial improvement in your overall selection of foods. Fruits and vegetables are very important for eating enough antioxidants, vitamin C and phytonutrients, so that’s a benefit. Join the raw food brigade and you’ll find yourself at some form of advantage compared to the average American, who lives on processed food and whose only fruit intake is maybe one banana or apple per day.
However, the reason why raw food followers mostly fail in the long term is in the shunning of animal foods.
You need to eat animal foods for optimal skin, because of their proteins, fats and minerals. If you shun meat, fish and eggs completely you will lack zinc, glycine, magnesium, selenium, animal based omega 3s (the best absorbed form) and many smaller compounds which are important for acne.
Animal foods and plant foods are equally valuable for acne, but they specialise in different nutrients. Some raw food followers do savagely eat raw slabs of meat and raw eggs. However, cooking is particularly important for animal foods, as effectively, the heat partially predigests the proteins for us.
Join the raw food club and you’ll also have to stop eating chocolate. 85% dark chocolate is a great food for acne, but it isn’t raw; it contains sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and vanilla extract. The cocoa is shipped over from Ecuador or Madagascar, taking weeks, breaching the raw food philosophy.
Similar rules apply to coffee; the beans are shipped over from Brazil, Columbia and Vietnam. Coffee is one of my recommended indulgences for acne, since the caffeine threat can be minimised and just one cup is loaded with antioxidants. Red wine is another healthy indulgence for acne which isn’t close to raw; it takes weeks to ferment the grapes.
The point is that life on a raw food diet is a never-ending nightmare. On the paleo diet (not perfect, but the best diet for acne out of the popular ones), you might have to stop visiting your local pizza dealer every three days but you can still eat steak, fried eggs, dark chocolate, and drink coffee, beer and wine. Sign up to raw foodism and the tastiest foods you’ll be given are probably pomegranate, pineapple or raspberries.
The raw food diet is one of the worst for acne you could follow.
It has far more disadvantages: 1) you will be exposed to inflammatory plant toxins, 2) you will miss out on acne nutrients which become more available when cooked, and 3) you will miss out on meat, probiotics, and many more acne-clearing secrets.
The raw food diet is definitely like a religion. The leaders are so blinded by their obsession with raw above all else that they don’t care about the complexities of nutrition anymore.
Concepts such as Mother Nature’s kingdom of unlimited food goodness take precedent above everything. They also make weird claims that the raw food diet is the only path to personal development, spiritual enlightenment, and happiness. The raw food leaders are way too obsessed with spiritualism over rock hard data. Meanwhile the normal follower sees their hair falling out in clumps and can’t work out why (almost certainly a lack of proteins and zinc).
If you’re one of the rank and file followers then take this information to heart and consider switching to a better diet. You should definitely do so if you’re entering the diminishing returns stage where the glow is fading and the acne is returning.
Overall, I prescribe using your brain to look at each food, food group, and nutrient in turn.
Essentially, the common sense diet is smartest. You can see it clearly in the article. The raw food dogma is that raw foods are ideal for maximum nutrient absorption. Yet the reality is more complex. Broccoli loses 33% of its vitamin C when boiled, but tomatoes gain 62% more antioxidants when cooked.
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Thanks for reading!