I'm a Vegan and Even I Find the "Raw Vegan" Trend to Be Troubling

While many followers of the raw vegan world preach health benefits, I can only see so many pictures of flat stomach and thigh gaps before I suspect that there are other motives behind the lifestyle.
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Marissa Higgins
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While many followers of the raw vegan world preach health benefits, I can only see so many pictures of flat stomach and thigh gaps before I suspect that there are other motives behind the lifestyle.

I've always had a fascination with food. Personally, I eat a vegan diet, which means that I don't consume anything from an animal or animal by-product. This means I don't eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin, and so on. I think health is important, and I include mental and emotional health in that, too. I also include animal welfare and the environment, because those factors influence my veganism as much as consideration for my own health.

In my daily life, I don't know a lot of other vegans. Social media — specifically Instagram and YouTube — has been an excellent resource for product reviews, recipes, and support from other vegans. Recently, however, I've noticed a spike in the “raw vegan” diet, and the more I learn about it, the more questions I have.

A “raw vegan” diet typically excludes all animal products and by-products (no surprise there) and goes a step further to avoid all cooked foods, including steamed. Dr. Douglas Graham's 80/10/10 plan is seen as a mecca in the raw vegan world, as he advocates for eating raw foods which are whole, unrefined, and, of course, animal free. The 80/10/10 plan suggests that a minimum of 80 percent of your calories should come from carbohydrates (fruit), 10 percent should come from protein (plant-based and nuts), and 10 percent should come from fats (avocados and coconuts). Specifically, the suggested breakdown is “approximately 90–97 percent calories from fruits, 2–6 percent calories from greens, and 0–8 percent calories from vegetables, non-sweet fruits, nuts, and seeds.”

One of the most popular advocates of raw veganism I found goes by “FullyRawKristina” on YouTube and Instagram and she manages the website FullyRaw.com. Her resources are impressive — she has gorgeous photographs of her food, especially her “low fat” raw desserts (I didn't know a raw vegan strawberry shortcake could exist before scrolling her site) as well as salads, smoothies, and juices. 

In the “About” section of her website, Kristina is described as a “pioneer in the local, organic food co-operative movement” and states that she is “the founder of the largest raw, organic produce co-operative in the U.S.” I don't know anyone who is the founder of a raw, organic produce co-op anywhere, so I'm pretty impressed reading her bio. 

The description goes on to explain that Kristina graduated from Rice University with a degree in Kinesiology, specializing in Health Science, Raw Foods, and Fasting. (I also didn't know someone could specialize in Fasting.)

Kristina gives off of a vibe of positive energy, acceptance, and exuberance in her social media. Her 542,000 Instagram followers seem to adore her and often tag her in photos of their food when they recreate her recipes. I love social media interaction and I think that connecting can be especially beneficial for the vegan community because we're a pretty small group compared to the greater population.

I worry, though, when I see more and more of these followers asking if and how raw veganism can “cure” their ailments (ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to cancer) and how to overcome their struggles in transitioning to the raw vegan lifestyle (many people report experiencing dental issues, weight gain, and insatiable hunger, for example). When so few people advocate a raw vegan diet, and there is so little research backing it, how can a handful of people possibly provide answers which are fitting for the masses? Is social media nearing a point where we consult strangers on the Internet before doctors and dietitians? That possibility scares me.

An alternative I found to the fully raw diet is the “Raw Till 4” lifestyle, which, as the name suggests, encourages you to eat raw fruits and vegetables (typically in the form of smoothies and juices) until around four in the afternoon, when you are permitted to eat cooked foods. These cooked foods must be oil and salt free (though natural salts found within foods are fine), and, of course, must be animal free. Beyond that, these foods should still be high in carbohydrates and low in fats, so potatoes, pasta, and rice are frequent picks.

Freelee banana girl on Facebook.

Freelee banana girl on Facebook.

One of the most popular advocates for the "Raw Till 4" lifestyle is Freelee the Banana Girl who is also a social media sensation. Her 318,000 YouTube subscribers are privy to the day to day of her “carbed up” lifestyle, where she frequently instructs them on the best ratio for “dateorade” (she recommends blending 20 to 30 (pitted) dates and 1–2 liters of water in a high speed blender) and posts time lapse videos of her consuming 1,700 calories worth of pasta for dinner. Of course, what makes Freelee particularity memorable, is her love for (as you probably guessed) bananas.

Freelee and her partner, as you can imagine, eat a whole lot of bananas. Credit: Freelee the Banana Girl via Facebook

Freelee and her partner, as you can imagine, eat a whole lot of bananas. Credit: Freelee the Banana Girl via Facebook

What also makes Freelee notable is her frequent discussion of weight. Freelee and her partner, who goes by Durian Rider, often attempt to show their “success” in the "Raw Till 4" lifestyle by pointing out their slim bodies. They are both quite thin, and I don't think anyone could argue otherwise. But is being thin the true goal in long-term health? Is thinness (which is an arbitrary standard, anyway) the true indicator of health and balance?

Upon further investigation, I discovered a video where Freelee asserts that anyone can achieve a thigh gap, especially if they follow their high carb, low fat, vegan diet long enough. This disturbs me because not only is a thigh gap not indicative of health or wellness, but because the vegan community should be a place of love and acceptance, not body or fat-shaming. 

She also shares videos discussing the weight of many celebrities, including a particularly critical segment on Lady Gaga, where Freelee criticizes the singer for eating meat and dairy and blames those choices for her weight gain. As a vegan myself, I don't think it's within my right to discuss anyone's weight gain (or loss), even if I disagree with someone's personal choices to eat animal products.

Freelee frequently posts pictures like this on her social media. Credit: Freelee the Banana Girl on Facebook

Freelee frequently posts pictures like this on her social media. Credit: Freelee the Banana Girl on Facebook

Ultimately, I found raw veganism to be far too restrictive. I'm not sold on the health benefits, which is my primary consideration — how would this lifestyle affect me in 10, 20, or 50 years? 

With such little peer-reviewed research and extremely limited success stories available, I'm skeptical that this diet could work well for everyone, especially long-term. While many of the meals are stunning visually (again, who doesn't want to try a raw vegan strawberry shortcake?), the necessary supplies and preparation time are beyond what my schedule allows. Frankly, I also can't afford it — organic and local produce is wonderful, but availability ranges widely, as does cost. 

Socially, I don't want to limit myself and put pressure on my spouse and friends to eat exclusively at the small number of restaurants which offer raw vegan dishes in our area (and we live in a major city — I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be to find an establishment which serves raw vegan dishes in suburban and rural areas).

The value placed on thinness I discovered in much of the “Raw Till 4” community turned me off from giving it a try, although the meal plan appears more balanced and reasonable than the fully raw lifestyle (though still much more restrictive than my personal vegan diet). 

While many followers of the raw vegan world preach health benefits, I can only see so many pictures of flat stomachs and thigh gaps before I suspect that there are other motives behind the lifestyle. For me, veganism is as much about the planet and the animals as about my health, and notice I don't mention my weight anywhere in there. I don't believe thin equals healthy, and I think that counts me out of the race for much of the raw vegan world.