Vegan raw food advocate Zhanna D’art tragically died due to severe malnutrition and exhaustion.
The trending raw vegan diet offers health benefits like weight loss and energy boost, but risks include nutrient deficiencies and bone weakness.
While the raw vegan diet can offer advantages such as preserving enzymes and nutrients, it also has downsides like pathogenic organisms risk.
The hashtag #rawvegandiet has nearly 20 million views on TikTok, with tons of people regularly sharing recipes made from raw ingredients and personal stories detailing how the diet helped with their chronic illness. Though the raw vegan diet has been linked to many health benefits, such as combating heart disease and cancer, the diet is not without its risks.
Despite its recent spike in popularity, the raw vegan diet—which consists of uncooked plant foods prepared without any animal products, dairy, or eggs—isn’t new. The diet can be traced back to Pythagoreans in Ancient Greece, however, it wasn’t until the 1800s when Germans who settled in Southern California brought the diet to the United States. The diet was ushered into the mainstream in the 1960s when the Hippocrates Health Institute, a non-profit organization that utilizes natural healing tactics, promoted the potential healing properties of eating raw vegan foods.
The eating pattern received heavy criticism after vegan raw food influencer Zhanna D’art recently died from starvation and exhaustion. D’art, who was 39, had strictly followed the raw vegan diet—eating a strict combination of fruits, sunflower seed sprouts, fruit smoothies, and juices—when she contracted a cholera-like infection and succumbed to the illness, the Independent reported.
In certain cases, a strict raw vegan diet can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, weaken muscles and bones, and exacerbate eating disorders. Due to these risks, it’s crucial for people adhering to the diet to work with a certified nutritionist or dietitian to ensure they’re consuming enough calories and protein, health experts say.
“It's OK to be lean as long as you're maintaining your muscle mass and ability to take care of your daily activities and are not becoming deficient in any vitamins or minerals,” Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a clinical dietitian, assistant professor at UCLA Fielding school of public health, and author of Recipe for Survival, told MDLinx.
The pros and cons of the raw vegan diet
The idea behind the raw vegan diet is that the heat from cooking can destroy enzymes and nutrients and alter the digestibility of food. For example, if you boil vegetables in water, they can lose water-soluble nutrients like Vitamin C and potassium, says Dena Champion, a registered dietitian nutritionist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Furthermore, heating some proteins may create harmful byproducts, research suggests.
Evidence shows that the raw vegan diet can facilitate weight loss, increase energy, aid digestion, combat cancer, and heart disease, and ease symptoms of chronic diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. “A whole-food, vegan diet has many health benefits, including being full of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and safe for the kidneys, heart, and vascular system,” says Dr. Hunnes.
Despite the long list of potential health benefits, the diet has been associated with several risks. Cooking can decrease the amount of pesticides in food and kill harmful microbes. Raw foods may contain more pathogenic organisms. Cooking can also boost the availability of certain carotenoids, thereby improving the nutritional qualities of some foods. For example, cooking carrots can increase the availability of vitamin A, and cooking tomatoes can promote the availability of lycopene.
The diet has been linked to a lack of vitamin D, a risk factor for fractures and osteoporosis, and vitamin B12, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some people following the raw vegan diet may develop deficiencies in protein, iron, calcium, selenium, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids. The diet can be challenging for people with gastrointestinal disorders. Raw fruits and vegetables that have not been cooked can be challenging to digest. “Cooking breaks down the cell walls and softens them, making them easier to digest, absorb, and assimilate into the body,” says Dr. Hunnes.
How to treat someone following the raw vegan diet
Champion says anyone who follows a vegan or nearly-vegan diet must take B-12 supplements, regardless of whether they’re strictly eating raw. Physicians should look for any signs of vitamin or mineral deficiencies, such as changes in weight, lean muscle mass, or fat mass, says Dr. Hunnes. Blood tests can help identify any deficiencies.
Anytime someone is on a strict diet, it’s important for physicians to consider the possibility of an eating disorder, says Champion. “We live in a world where people are listening to influencers instead of health professionals, and it can be difficult for the average person to distinguish ‘healthy’ from ‘disordered,’” she said.
Champion recommends gently asking patients about what is motivating them to follow the raw vegan diet. “This certainly could be a form of disordered eating if the purpose is to restrict calories and overall intake,” says Dr. Hunnes. If you have any concerns about an eating disorder, you can refer the patient to a dietitian—potentially, one who treats eating disorders—who can develop a plan to help them consume enough calories and nutrients. A psychologist or mental health professional may be needed in more serious cases.
A raw vegan diet can be healthy, especially when it’s rich in a wide variety of sprouted grains, nuts, seeds, and high-protein and high-fat plant foods such as avocados or olives. “Like everything else, including a vegan diet, if you're getting enough calories, protein, vitamins, minerals, and other trace nutrients, it too can be a healthy diet,” Dr. Hunnes said.