Raw foodism has been circulating for more than a century but has seen surging popularity in recent times. This movement defines “raw food” as food that is not “cooked” to temperatures over 118 degrees F. Instead, the diet allows several “no-cook” alternative preparation methods, including juicing, fermenting, dehydrating, soaking, and sprouting. Not surprisingly, raw foodists are typically vegan. However, some people do also consume raw fish, meat, and dairy.
Proponents argue that it’s far healthier than our usual diet of cooked meals, keeping foods in their natural form so they are more nutritious. Benefits attributed to raw food include lower disease risk, improved energy levels, better looking skin, and loss of body fat. But health experts warn that eating a mostly raw diet may lead to some unintended health consequences.
A raw food diet does have some positive points. Mainly, it’s often high in fresh fruits and vegetables, which are typically lacking in a standard American diet. That means it can supply higher amounts of certain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and disease-fighting dietary fiber.
Some evidence also suggests going raw helps promote weight loss. When someone switches from a mostly cooked diet or one dominated by calorie-dense processed foods to a mostly raw diet, their calorie intake is likely to decrease dramatically, often resulting in weight loss. Additionally, cooking increases the digestibility of foods, making it easier for your body to obtain the calories from them.
Raw food is costly, metabolically speaking, to eat and digest. So, the calories you obtain from raw carrots may be less than that from cooked carrots. One study found that a strict raw food diet can lower levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, which can benefit heart health (however HDL or “good” cholesterol was also reduced, which is not ideal).
Sure, cooking can decrease certain nutrients in food, especially water-soluble ones like vitamin C and the B vitamins. However, the act of heating increases the availability of other nutrients and antioxidants, such as lycopene and beta-carotene. Cooking grains and legumes reduces so-called “antinutrients” including lectins and phytic acid to help bolster nutrient availability.
A concern is that a poorly executed no-cook diet can leave people deficient in protein and nutrients like zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12, leading to health issues like poor bone health and menstrual disturbances. Research suggests that a raw food diet can raise the risk for dental erosion versus a standard diet. Another concern is that with lower energy intake, those who are physically active may struggle to obtain enough calories to support training.
A core belief behind the raw food diet is that cooking destroys the health-giving “live” enzymes in foods. You need to know that enzymes are proteins, and when we eat proteins, they are denatured by our gastric acids, rendering their biological function useless.
Cooking our food has another advantage — it kills harmful bacteria and viruses that may be present in raw and uncooked food items. Finally, a raw food diet may be challenging to keep up for several reasons, including boredom with limited food choices and difficulty to follow.
For all these reasons, you could argue that it’s important to eat a variety of both raw and cooked foods for optimal nutrition. Just don’t be fooled into thinking that cooking somehow makes food bad for you. It doesn’t.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)
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