What is the raw food diet? It’s just what it sounds like: a diet consisting entirely of raw foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds make up the bulk of the diet, and nothing can be cooked above 188 degrees. Strict observers of the diet also eliminate all meat, poultry, and dairy. Followers believe that raw food is “live” and consequently cooked food is deemed “dead.” They claim that food begins to break down once cooked, significantly reducing the nutrients and phytochemicals and destroying the natural enzymes essential for metabolism. The raw food diet promises more energy, clearer skin, detoxification of the body, and even the curing of many chronic conditions including cancer, arthritis, and allergies.
One of the biggest arguments for the “all raw food” diet is that cooking food destroys nutrients and certain phytochemicals (e.g., flavonoids and antioxidants). While this is true — some vitamins are lost through the cooking process (e.g., vitamins B and C) — other nutrients actually become more available from the cooking process.
“If a vegetable or fruit starts out with 100% of its nutrients, yes, it’s accurate that cooking will reduce those nutrients, but that’s only part of the story. When you cook certain vegetables or fruit, overall nutrients may decrease, but the cooking allows many of those nutrients and phytochemicals to be more available for your body to use; that is, cooking can increase the bioavailability of a food,” says Paul Lachance, Ph.D., D.Sc., professor of food science at Rutgers University.
For instance, the plant walls in vegetables weaken when cooked, which makes it easier for the body to absorb the remaining nutrients and digest them. Studies even show that cooked vegetables are more protective against cancer than raw vegetables because antioxidants are more easily absorbed. More specifically, the lycopene in tomatoes and the beta carotene in carrots are more accessible after being cooked. Furthermore, cooked vegetables are more easily digested.
The raw food diet also boasts that it is high in fiber and low in sodium, fat, cholesterol, and trans fat. This is true, but going completely raw has its problems — the diet is very low in calories, which can result in fatigue and malnutrition. Due to the absence of eggs, dairy, and other animal products, the diet is deficient in vitamins B12 and D, vitamins you can’t find in raw foods, no matter how much you eat. Certain essential fatty acids, which the body needs to process fat-soluble vitamins, are also lacking in the raw food diet.
Another claim is that cooking destroys the enzymes found in food. Again, this is factual, but it’s irrelevant because the body destroys most of these enzymes before they could ever be used in digestion. There is no evidence that raw food is metabolized more efficiently. The body makes its own enzymes, each with its specific role in metabolizing the food we eat — raw or cooked.
“Even if this were accurate, the enzymes found naturally in broccoli are not the same enzymes that will work with our body chemistry. Not only that, but we have enough of our own enzymes to last a lifetime,” says Robert Wolke, Ph.D., professor of food chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and author of “What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained.” In fact, cooking foods can actually act as a pre-digestion stage, breaking down some of the protein and enzymes to get the food ready for the rest of the process.
MINIMIZE THE LOSS
“There are many factors that influence the availability of nutrients and phytochemicals in your food — including whether or not it’s mashed, whipped, chopped, cut, or diced, if it’s cooked or not, how long it’s cooked, and even what it’s cooked in,” says Lachance.
Here are some tips to minimize nutrient loss:
- Opt for just-picked fruits or vegetables — produce begins to lose nutrients and phytochemicals as soon as it’s picked.
- Don’t discount frozen produce — it’s also a nutritious option because the vegetables are “blanched” prior to freezing, which locks in many of the nutrients.
- Store fresh fruits and vegetables in dry, cool places.
- If you don’t have a farm-fresh stand right near your home, eat your fruits and vegetables as soon as possible.
- Do not soak cut fruits or vegetables; nutrients can pass from the food to the water.
- Cook vegetables as quickly as possible in as little water as possible — avoid overcooking!
- Use leftover cooking water for soups, sauces, or stews.
- Cut vegetables into large pieces before cooking; smaller pieces cook faster and lose more nutrients.
- Add vegetables to water after it has already come to a boil.
- Keep the skins on for cooking; remove them afterwards if desired.
- Steam your vegetables if possible — most experts agree this is the best method of cooking.