Why do we hate raw food families?

22:27, Jul 07 2014
THE RAW FAMILY: These folks travel round, proselytising about raw food.

I'm not one for parent-bashing.

Unless caregivers are abusing their children, or themselves to the point they can't look after their children, most parents are genuinely doing the best they can and don't need to be judged for it.

But then articles like this come along in the New York Times with the title 'Raw Food Families Provoke Powerful Reactions. Why?'

Being on a raw food diet means eating no heated or cooked foods, and that often also means being a vegetarian or vegan as well (some raw food dieters do eat raw meat and fish).

Raw food families are driven by parents who have embraced this way of life not only for themselves but on behalf of their children too, with some children growing up having never eaten a piece of cooked food.

The author of the New York Times piece explains; "These families maintain that their children are free of asthma and allergies, and not afflicted with the usual ear, nose, throat and sinus infections.


"Many consider sugar an addiction, and note that their children are free of it, along with any cravings for processed foods or other substances some classify as toxic.

"They get their protein from leafy greens and sprouted lentils; calcium comes from kale, tofu or soy and almond milk."

And it's for this reason I believe many of these raw foodies provoke such strong reactions.

The idea that illness can be avoided by eating a raw food diet implies that parents who bring their children up with more diverse diets are exposing their children to potential sickness.

And that's just not true.

While eating a healthy diet is of course a great way of preventing illnesses occurring - particularly in the long term - those who choose to eat only raw foods aren't going to be any more successful at preventing disease than those who eat plenty of plant-based foods as well as cooked meat, dairy, and even some processed foods in moderation and sugar (gasp!) on occasion.

It would be awful if parents of children who are particularly unwell were left feeling judged by raw food families, as though if only they'd given their children a different diet, their child would not have asthma/allergies/insert disease here.

The preachy overtones of some raw food families who use social media to share their stories come across as patronising and elitist.

The reality is, allowing your child to eat some junk at a friends birthday party is not going to leave them in toxic shock (allergies aside, of course).

While raw food advocates pushing their diets on children are thankfully relatively small in number, they're also vocal, and leading nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton OAM says families adopting all kinds of restrictive diets is becoming increasingly common.

"I appreciate people on a raw food diet or other extreme diets are trying to avoid the crummy diet most kids eat - we know that 40% of the food most kids eat comes from junk food and many children certainly need to eat more fruits and vegetables," she said.

"But I just think these people on raw food diets have taken that to an extreme and it's just not necessary.

"Families adopting these kinds of diets certainly are increasing, but we haven't got any evidence that they stick to these things for very long."

This was because people on raw food diets - or any diet governed by a lot of rules around acceptable foods - ultimately give up, she said.

She added that it would be very difficult for children to get the nutrients they need from a raw food diet unless they ate an awful lot.

"Many kids are not prepared to sit at table long enough to eat the mountain of food they would need to consume to get enough nutrients from a raw food diet," Dr Stanton said.

"It just seems to me that you're setting children up for a lifetime of unnecessary extremes around diet, when all we really need to teach them to is to eat less junk food.

"My worry is when people go to an extreme like this they sometimes find it intolerable and go back to eating junk and don't find balance."

And it does seem some of the parents sharing their raw food stories themselves have a history of diets dominated by junk food and health problems associated with that, like obesirty. Parents who push children in any way to make up for mistakes they may have made may be well intentioned, but are ultimately misguided.

Dr Stanton is also concerned by the psychological impact extreme diets may have on children, not just from the burden of following so many rules but also because those rules may isolate them from normal social experiences, like eating out.

"I remember one family who wouldn't let their kids go to a party in case they ate 'impure' foods, and I thought the psychological damage on those kids was probably worse than the danger of impure foods," Dr Stanton said.

She said she would prefer parents make gradual improvements to their child's diet, such as eliminating soft drinks and increasing fruit and veg intake.

In worst cases, Dr Stanton said children on raw food diets ended up malnourished and sick.

So while it's true that many children would do well to exercise more and eat more healthfully, embracing a raw food diet is by no means the best or most effective way of achieving healthy kids.

And any parents who claim that giving their children raw food only means they will get sick less than children on healthy balanced diets are as guilty of ignoring the science as anti-vaxers.

Melissa Davey is a journalist who specialises in health and medical reporting. You can follow her on Twitter or view her website here.

- Daily Life