Nutrition Requirements On A Raw Food Diet

When they adopt raw food diets, many people start caring about their nutrition requirements due to concerns over inadequacy. What's the RDA for calcium? Am I getting enough zinc? What about protein?

Knowing what recommendations to follow can be a bit tricky, as different bodies of experts suggest different things. There's also no assurance their recommendations even apply to you because good raw food diets are so radically different than what most people eat, and require different standards.

For most nutrients my diet meets - and in many cases exceeds by large factor - the standard RDA suggestions, but in some areas I'm "deficient," by the SAD nutrition requirements proposed by the usual bodies of experts. Yet in following this diet since 2005, my health has been near perfect, with not so much as a head cold in sight. So can I really be deficient?

We have to look at why the RDAs are set where they are to understand that a healthy intake of some nutrients can be much lower than the official suggestion.

Nutrition Requirements: The Questionable Standards
Vitamin E
Omega 3 & Omega 6
Selenium Calcium

Raw Food Nutrition Requirements:

Time To Relax

Nutrient Requirements Side
                        CrowGiven how little thought is given to such considerations when we're chomping away at hamburgers and feasting on processed foods, fretting over meeting vitamin and mineral requirements after switching to a far more nutrient-dense diet is a bit absurd.

A diet of uncooked fruits, vegetables, and perhaps a few nuts and seeds will supply you with a wide range of nutrients that a SAD diet can't hope to match.

Frankly, you can stop worrying as long as you're eating a healthy raw food diet (there definitely are unhealthy raw food diets).

If you don't want to worry about it, you can stop reading this article right now and probably be safe. Keep going if you have specific concerns.

Raw Food Nutrition Requirements:

Supplementing Is A Really Bad Idea.

I often run into people who figure they might as well take supplement pills, "just in case." The science shows this to be a very bad decision, with many people causing themselves health problems by taking supplements.

The isolated nutrients in pills are very different from the complex packages found in foods, and the body deals with these sources in vastly different ways. To understand just how bad an idea taking supplement pills as a preventative measure is, read this article.

There are a few nutrients which can be exceptions, and we will cover them in this article.

Nutrition Requirements: How To Know?

One easy way to see how well you meet the nutrient requirements put out by the US Dietary Institute of Medicine is to use Cronometer (sign up for a free account for their online service or download a copy of the program for use offline).

It's an easy way to track calorie and nutrient goals. You simply put in your stats, enter the food you've eaten for the day, and see if you're meeting the RDA for each nutrient. You'll note that you probably fail to meet the Requirements for some nutrients, and this article discusses why. You can directly edit Cronometer's nutrient goals if choose to follow the suggests presented here.

Nutritional Requirements: Protein

Guidelines (4)
WHO Guidelines (5)
International Society of Sports Nutrition: Endurance Athletes (6)
International Society of Sports Nutrition: Strength Athletes (6)
Common Body Builder Goal
Andrew Suggests

0.8 g/kg
0.8 g/kg
1.6 g/kg
1.6 to 2.0 g/kg
2.5 to 3.0 g/kg
0.8 to 1.2 g/kg

Fears about inadequately meeting your nutritional requirements for protein on vegan or raw food diets are extremely overblown. You can read more about some of the reasons why humans actually do better eating considerably less protein than what most westerners consumes here.

Average people doing only minimal exercise appear to need just .69 g/kg a day to maintain their bodies, an amount that's hard to avoid taking in if adequate calories are being consumed from varied sources. Strength athletes are believed to require 1.41 g/kg for maintenance, which is a bit more ambitious (7).

The USDA and WHO guidelines of 0.8 g/kg for average people are buffered for safety and to accommodate some level of growth, and are still easily achievable on a good low fat raw vegan diet.

For instance, let's say we have a moderately active, six-foot-tall, 165 pounds (75 kilo) man who need 2,928 calories to maintain his body weight. How can he get the 60 grams of protein he needs to meed his nutrition requirements? Check out the menu below.

Sample LFRV Menu To Meet Nutrition Requirements
Total Calories:
Percent of Calories From Carbs:
Percent of Calories from protein:
Percent Of Calories From Fat:
Breakfast: 10 Large Figs
4.8 grams
Lunch: 10 Medium Bananas
12.9 grams
Snack: 4 Medium Stalks of Celery
1.1 grams
Dinner Course One: 19 Tangerines
12.9 grams
Salad: 3 Heads of Red Leaf Lettuce
12.3 grams
Salad: 3 Cucumbers
5.9 grams
Salad: 4 Medium Tomatoes
4.3 grams
Salad: 1 Ounce Almonds
6 grams
Total Protein:
60 grams
The amount of protein you take in on this diet increases as the amount of calories you require goes up. As you burn more calories through exercise, therefore also increasing your need for protein, your hunger guides you to bring in more grams of protein.

I think it's fair to say that the truly massive 300+ lb football linebacker physique (with large amounts of body fat) is impossible to achieve on this diet, but this is a good thing. Such large athletes tend to die young, largely as a result of consuming the protein-rich animal foods and fat needed to sustain their massive frames (8).

Despite what you may have heard at your local gym, multiple studies have failed to show exceeding 2g/kg of protein is at all beneficial, and ample evidence suggests exceeding this amount can negatively affect calcium stores, heart health, bone strength, and kidney function (10, 11).

Nutritional Requirements For Protein:

The Percentage Model

I've traditionally talked about protein needs on this site from a percentage of calories perspective, which is applicable for all people regardless of size, exercise levels, and gender. I suggest you aim to take in no more than 10 percent of your calories from protein.

You may be wondering how this perspective meshes with the grams per kg model which is standard, and I feel comparing the two can lead to some good insights. 

Nutritional Requirements FruitIn the sample menu above - which meets US and WHO guidelines for protein nutrition requirements - averages 7 percent protein.

Generally, only 5 to 6 percent of a diet must be derived from protein to meet the maintenance requirements of the body, although higher percentages are suggested for the physically active, and you often find body builders consuming more than 20 percent of their energy from protein (9).

The elite Kenyan runners who have been dominating the professional running world for decades fuel their runs on a diet of just 10.1 percent protein (1.3 g/kg).

While eating just 6 to 10 percent of my calories from raw plant protein, I find myself performing better than I ever did at higher protein intakes. This makes sense to me, since human breast milk, which is designed to be our sole or primary fuel source during the period of most rapid human growth, is just 6 percent protein.

Nutritional Requirements For Protein:

Gaining Muscle

I've no interest in putting on large amounts of muscle for muscle's sake, but I do love gaining functional strength, and I've never had a problem doing it on this diet. The largest amount of muscle I've been able to put on in a month was 2 pounds while working out 5 days a week, which is considered respectable in body building circles.

The only time I've have problem gaining muscle is when I'm failing to take in enough vegetables, which are rich in protein. If you're just eating fruit but ignoring vegetables your protein intake can drop down as low as 4 percent, which is probably too low for gaining lean mass.

Nutrition requirements
                      PersimmonsMost established raw foodists seem to be able to make strength gains eating 0.8 kg/g or less. Sam Spaiser is a good example of someone who doesn't even track calories or protein intake but has managed to go from skinny to jacked. You can read his story here.

However, on several occasions new coaching clients interested in body building have told me they were unable to gain body mass on this diet.

After satisfying myself that they were getting enough sleep, meeting other lifestyle requirements, and eating well, I've had them aim for 1.2 g/kg of their goal weight, instructing them to eat no less than 3 heads of greens a day, and preferably more. This approach hasn't failed so far.

This requires a lot of green intake, and I rarely reach 1.2 g/kg myself because I have no need to, but it seems to work when people are having problems.

Concerned you're not getting enough protein to meet nutrition requirements? Leafy green vegetables contain far more protein as a percentage of calories than fruit or nuts, meaning you can eat tons and have no appreciable impact on your waistline while packing in the protein. When I'm doing a lot of strength training I start cravings young spinach and romaine lettuce, which I think is indicative of what the body requires to grow. Green smoothies are a great way to pack in the protein if you're not a huge fan of salads. I also suggest you learn to make delicious low fat raw dressings

Nutrition Requirements: Sodium

WHO Guidelines (1)
Average US Intake (3)
Yanomamo Indians of
Brazil (3)
Andrew Suggests
Sodium per Day
1.5 g

2 g or less
4-6 g
23 mg
 150 mg Minimum

Salt is bad - we get it. Eating processed salt in addition to the healthy sodium found in plant foods is like committing slow suicide by pickling.

But the unprocessed sodium in whole plant foods is necessary for proper cellular function, and it would be a mistake to stint on it. Luckily, it's just another one of those minerals raw foodists don't have to pay attention to if they're eating a good mix of fruits and vegetables in sufficient quantities.

The Yanomamo Indians of Brazil demonstrate that simply eating a variety of foods with no added salt provides for our health. They're healthy eating just 23 mg per day (3).

Interestingly enough, the WHO admits that there's no physiological reason for its vastly higher minimum suggestion beyond belief that lower intakes would cause other nutrients found with sodium to be lacking in the diet (3).

If you're doing a lot of strenuous physical activity (more than an hour of strenuous exertion in hot weather) and sweating a lot, you'll need more than the believed physiological minimum of 10-20 mg/day, however (3).

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Over the last year or so I've regularly gone running for several hours in the intense heat and glaring sun you find around noon during Thailand's hot summers. I was curious to see if I'd run into any sodium problems because my intake generally ranges between 250 and 900 mg a day, far less than is suggested amount, and I'm sweating like crazy.

So far there's been no problem. If I took up ultra marathons I'd probably consider consciously aiming for the 400-900 mg mark, or perhaps even taking salt tablets during events if I began running into problems, but so far there's been no cause for concern.

Concerned you're not getting enough? Concentrate on getting in a lot of leafy greens, celery, and other green vegetables, which are rich in sodium. I usually eat the equivalent of 2 to 3 heads of leafy greens ever day. In the fruit kingdom, many types of melons, such as cantaloupe and honeydew, offer a fairly decent supply. Taken together as part of a diverse diet, these sources can meet your nutrition requirements for sodium easily.

Nutrition Requirements: Zinc

US NRC Guidelines (12)
WHO Guidelines (1)
Intake (12)
Cooked Vegan
Diet Guidelines (14)
Andrew Suggests
Zinc Per Day
Men: 11 mg
Women: 8 mg
Men: 4.2 to 7.0 mg
Women: 3.0 to 4.9 mg
Men: 14 mg
Women: 9 mg
Men: 16.5 mg
Women: 12 mg
Men: 6 mg
Women: 4.5 mg

Zinc is a mineral necessary for proper function of the body, but low fat raw vegans probably don't need as much as is commonly suggested for vegetarians, vegans, or even meat eaters.

Zinc is most abundantly found in animal foods, but plant foods contain it in adequate amounts as well. The main problem is that just about everyone, including those eating cooked plant-based diets, takes in high levels of antinutrients that prevent the body from making use of the intake.

The phytates, oxalates, and tannins in food, as well as processed sugars, medications, caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, stimulants like cacao and "raw chocolate," and various recreational drugs will all bind up Zinc and make it unusable for us.

The diets of most people are dominated by grains, legumes, and other anti-nutrient-dense cooked foods, leaving many to consider vegetarians and vegans at great risk of deficiency, which studies have born out (15, 16).  It's frequently recommended that vegans take in twice as much zinc at meat eaters for this reason (14).

Many of these foods, and particularly medication and recreational drugs increase the need for our liver to detoxify our systems, and ramp up our adrenal and neurotransmitter activity. These are zinc-dependent bodily responses can deplete zinc stores and increase our requirements.

Because low fat raw foodists get most of their calories from raw fruits and vegetables, which are incredibly low in antinutrients, and because we avoid drug use, I feel comfortable suggesting a figure slightly lower than the WHO suggestion.

Nutrition Requirements: Selenium

WHO Guidelines
Institute of Medicine
Guidelines (17)
Deficiency Free Chinese  (19)
Deficiency Free Vegans In India (20)
Andrew Suggests
Per Day
34 mcg
26 mcg
55 mcg
13.3 mcg
27 mcg
34 mcg
Women: 26 mcg

Selenium deficiency is rare in the developed world, but in some areas where the soil is lacking in the mineral, populations have developed Keshan disease, an abnormality of the heart muscle, as well as bone disorders and mental retardation.

                                Requirements GreensIt's easy to achieve the 13.4 mcg figure taken in by deficiency-free Chinese farmers (19) and the 27 mcg intake of deficiency-free Indian vegans (20), although there's some research that slightly higher intakes are beneficial.

The WHO buffers their recommendations, and their suggestions are safe and achievable on a raw food diet. Although the slightly lower intakes are probably safe, I think the WHO baseline is a good target to shoot for.

I seen no good rational for why the higher 55 mcg figure of the Institute of Health is required.

Concerned you're not getting enough selenium to meet your nutrition requirements? Eat a single Brazil nut every other day. They're packed with selenium, with a single nut containing 95.9 mcg.

Nutrition Requirements: Vitamin E

National Institute
Of Health Guidelines (17)
World Health
Organization (18)
Andrew Suggests
Vitamin E
Per Day
15 mg
No Target
No Target

Vitamin E deficiency is extremely rare and people who take in very small quantities of it often have no signs of deficiency (17). So far, studies dramatically increasing vitamin E intake in the hopes of improving health have achieved little or nothing (22).

None the less, we find a somewhat random suggestion from the National Institute of Health that we take in 15 mg of vitamin E, despite it acknowledging, "great uncertainties," in the the available data (17).

The view from 10,000 feet is that Vitamin E need (and no one knows what that need is) appears to vary depending on fat intake. The more fat you consume, the more you need because fat consumption causes a decrease in vitamin E levels in the blood and opens you up to the possibility of oxidative damage (23).

The US guidelines appear to be set with the assumption that fat intake will be massive and more E will be needed, but a low fat raw vegan diet contains significantly less fat than most diets, and the need for Vitamin E will likely be much lower.

The World Health Organization points out the high fat assumption the US is using, and while refusing to set a recommended intake level because of the lack of definitive data, suggests that the high levels recommended in Europe and the US are only needed if you're eating the fatty foods and oils so often consumed there (18).

If you track your data in Cronometer, you'll find that if you're sedentary you may fail to hit the NIH nutrition requirements target, but that people who burn a significant amount of calories and replace them with fruits and vegetables can hit it most of the time. Since exercise is a big part of being healthy, I don't see why this should be a problem. Just don't stress if you fail to hit this arbitrary suggestion on rest days.

Want to try to meet the higher NIH nutrition requirements for Vitamin E? 
Papaya, Mangoes, kiwi, and spinach are particularly good sources of it when eaten in large amounts.

Nutrition Requirements: Calcium

USA Average
 Intake (24)
African Average
 Intake (24)
(18, 26, 27)
Andrew Suggests:
Total Calcium
1031 mg
368 mg
1000 mg
Western SAD Diet:  840mg
Relatively Healthy
Diet: 520 mg
Low Salt, Low Animal Food, And Lots of Vit D: 450 mg
450 mg +

Animal Calcium
717 mg
108 mg

0 mg
Plant Calcium
314 mg
260 mg

450 mg +

The idea that calcium intake is the dominant aspect of bone health has been hammered into our skulls by milk ads, but the data to support this in human studies is lacking. One of the big tip offs is that countries eating much less calcium and animal protein than developed countries sometimes have less incidence of osteoporosis and other bone issues (18). 

Obviously, we need calcium, but the large, mostly animal-sourced intake of western countries is unnecessarily high and probably dangerous.

                                    Requirements Watermelon

There are three known factors with wide scientific support for increasing the amount of calcium we absorb from our food, thus lowering our requirements.

These are eating less animal foods (meat, eggs, and dairy), decreasing salt consumption,  and getting more vitamin D (18).

In developed western countries with high salt and animal food intake, this has lead the WHO to suggest 840 mg, but just 520 mg for people eating less animal foods and salt. It proposes that those eating still less animal foods, keeping sodium intake below 1150 mcg, and getting enough sunshine would reduce their Nutrition Requirements for calcium to 450 mg. It also proposes that further reductions in salt and animal foods would continue this downward trend (18).

A LFRV diet is free of all animal foods and processed salt, and a healthy lifestyle involves regular sun exposure, so we might surmise that if ever there was a diet requiring less  calcium, this would be it.

I suggest 450 mg as a good, easily achievable target for our nutrition requirements, although intake levels in excess of 1,000 mg are reasonable when eating lots of fruits and vegetables. Lower intakes may be safe, but there isn't enough data to support the idea as of yet.

 Nutrition Requirements: Omega 3 and Omega 6

Institute Of Medicine
Recommendation (28)
Average US
Intake (30)
Paleolithic Hunter Gatherer Diet (31, 33)

Omega 6
Men: 17 g
Women: 12 g

Men: 1.6 to 3 g
1.1 to 2 g

Omega 3
Men 1.6 g
Women: 1.1 g

Men: 1.6 to 2 g
Women: 1.1 to 1.4 g
N-6 To
N-3 Ratio
Between 10:1 and 30:1

You've probably heard one nutrition requirement: that you cram yourself with the essential fatty acid omega 3, particularly in the form of fish oil and flax seeds.

The reason for this is because people in western countries have increased their intake of another essential fatty acid, omega-6, over the last century or so to the point where we're taking in as much 30 times more omega 6 than omega 3, putting us at risk for heart attacks. The sources of that omega 6 is primarily our skyrocketing vegetable oil consumption, but also meat, eggs, baked goods, grain-based processed foods, and margarine.

Our closest genetic relatives, the bonobos and the chimps, who share about 98 percent of our DNA and eat a healthy raw food diet, consume omega 3 and omega 6 at about a 1:1 ratio (32). The hunter gatherer societies that preceded us were still eating around a 1:1 ratio (31, 33).

Nutrition Requirements ShopAs we started growing our food, particularly grains, the ratio began to change, but it was probably still fairly close as recently as the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, omega 6 accounted for 2.3 percent of our caloric intake. By 1999 that had jumped to 7.2 percent, a 213 percent increase. Omega 3 had a smaller jump from 0.35 percent to 0.72 percent (34).

That's dangerous territory, and nutritional experts have suggested we dramatically increase our omega 3 intake to bring the ratios more in line, thus the suggestion to stuff yourself with flax seed and fish oil.

But this approach is pretty asinine. Instead of trying to supplement away your problem, you should attack it at the source: The extra oil, animal protein, and processed food you're eating.

When you're eating a healthy low fat raw food diet, your Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio drops close to 1:1.

Giving an exact n-3 and n-6 targets in grams is tricky because requirements increase as your caloric intake rises, but the ones I suggest above are probably a safe lower limit.

Want more omega 3 to meet your nutrition requirements? Omega 3s are abundantly found in various greens. Honeydew melon and golden kiwi are two fruits with a good supply of it. Heard you can't get enough DHA (an N-3 fat) on a vegan diet? That's not what the science seems to show.

Nutrition Requirements: B12

The B12 question is complicated, and cannot be easily summarized. To understand your needs and how to meet them, check out this page.

Nutrition Requirements: Following Up

Learn how well fruits and greens match our nutrition requirements

Eat a healthy raw food diet.

The cooking process can change our nutrition requirements. Find out how.

Nutrition Requirements: Article Sources

The citations for this article can be found here.

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