Could humans survive on a raw food diet?

23 September 2012

Question

Hi Chris et al.,
I love the show and have been meaning to write in for a while to ask you a question. I heard a scientist make a comment that human beings could not survive for more than three months on raw food alone (I'm pretty sure it was Steve Jones). He made an off-hand remark about us evolving an external stomach for digestion - the frying pan!

So, I would like to ask if this is true, and if so, why.

Cheers,
Sarah Turnbull
Melbourne, Australia

Answer

Kat - This is an interesting one, because human beings have evolved to digest food as we've evolved the use of cookery. So from the development of fire, we humans have evolved, and we've evolved cooking skills along with that.

It is possible to survive on a raw food diet, but there are some health risks associated with it. Some of the studies that have been done on people who have lived on raw food diets for a long time have shown that they tend to be underweight, so there's a risk of just not getting enough calories in you. Particularly for women, there's also a risk of osteoporosis, and not getting enough minerals and vitamins to make healthy bones. Again, with women, they can have no periods or irregular periods, so that can be a problem. There's a big risk, actually, of food poisoning. One of the most important things that cooking something does is gets rid of the bacteria in it, so there is an increased risk of things like gastroenteritis and food poisoning from eating a lot of raw foods, particularly things like raw milk. But even salad vegetables, we know that things like E.coli outbreaks can be on salad vegetables.

Chris - But what about - I went to Leon and had steak tartare a few years back, and very nice it was too, that's just raw meat, but it's still meat. I don't think there's any benefit from cooking that apart from the one you mentioned about the fact that you're going to kill any bugs in it. And what about people from Japan, for instance, who eat enormous amounts of raw fish?

Kat - Well there are certainly a lot of raw foods that you can eat that will be perfectly good for you. Some of the people who go for raw food diets are also vegetarian, so they'll say "I don't want to eat anything from animals", or even vegans, which is really tough, I should imagine...

Chris - They don't want to eat a vegan?

Kat - No! They don't want to eat anything from animals at all, so they would be vegans themselves. Eating vegans, if they're raw, would be part of a raw food diet, I'm sure. You can eat some raw meats, you can certainly eat some raw fish and fruits, nuts, grains, vegetables, and all of these kinds of things, if you eat them raw, would be part of a raw food diet. So there are some health risks attached to it, but people can certainly survive on it, yes.

Dave - I don't know whether the original quote might have meant that if people lived on a normal diet, but didn't cook it, they wouldn't last for three months, because you need higher quality food and you've got to eat more of it.

Kat - I think you do have to think quite hard about it if you're going to take up a diet like that.

Chris - So we're giving it the official "thumbs down", are we? Are we saying it probably is more myth than fact?

Kat - Yes, I think you can definitely survive on a raw food diet, as long as it's the right kind of raw food diet.

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