The raw foods movement has been rapidly gaining popularity over the past 10-15 years. Raw food magazines, books, food catalogs and even restaurants have popped up all across the U.S. Devotees of this movement claim that switching over to raw foods is a life-changing experience that will provide you with extra energy and improved health. Is there any validity to the health claims made about consuming only raw foods? If so, is it something that everyone should start following?
NUTRITIONAL FACTS AND FIGURES
Raw food followers adhere to the practice of preparing “living foods,” which include uncooked, unheated and unprocessed plant foods. In other words, they shun the use of stoves and ovens and only eat foods that grow from the earth. The diet includes fresh vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and nuts. Although nothing can be cooked, nuts, seeds and grains are made more digestible through soaking, and the use of dehydrators can add variety to fresh produce. Raw condiments such as liquid aminos (an aged soy product) and stevia (a green herb that is sweeter than sugar) are used to flavor dishes. Most raw foodists eat no animal products (no meat, chicken, fish, cheese or eggs); this is called a “raw-vegan” diet. Less common are raw diets that include raw eggs, fish (sashimi), meat (carpaccio), milk and cheese (both non-pasteurized and non-homogenized). This Nutrition Bite focuses on the “raw-vegan” diet.
The theory behind the raw foods movement is that heating food over 116 degrees is bad because it destroys vitamins and enzymes in the food, which are believed to be the “life force” of food. Raw foodists state that enzymes-proteins that act as catalysts for bodily functions-are needed for every metabolic purpose in the body and can even heal the body. They believe that by following a raw foods diet, one has more energy and lower risk of certain diseases, and looks younger and healthier.
So, it sounds as if the theory supporting the raw foods movement makes perfect scientific sense…or does it? What do the skeptics of the raw foods movement state?
Contrary to the popular belief of raw food followers, cooking foods is NOT unhealthy. It denatures (breaks down) some proteins and enzymes in foods to allow our bodies to further digest them. Digestion is a scientifically proven process that depends on enzymes that the body generates itself, NOT the enzymes naturally found in food. The idea that the body works more efficiently with the enzymes found in raw fruits and vegetables is completely ludicrous!
Furthermore, while cooking may decrease the nutrient content of some foods (mainly the water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C), cooking can actually increase the bio-availability of other nutrients. The following are nutrients that are better absorbed in foods that are cooked than raw.
- Beta-carotene, starch, and protein are absorbed less in raw foods compared to conservatively cooked foods.
- The body can absorb more iron in certain vegetables (such as cabbage and broccoli) when they are cooked compared to when they are raw.
- Cooked tomatoes offer more of the antioxidant lycopene than raw tomatoes.
Other negative aspects of a 100% raw food diet include:
- Nutrient Deficiencies- Strict adherence to a raw foods diet may cause one to become deficient in a variety of nutrients, including vitamin B-12, vitamin D, calcium, iron and protein.
- Increased risk of parasites and bacteria- Cooking foods to a certain temperature can kill off any harmful bacteria or parasites in food.
- Major effort required- Eating a lot of sprouts, living foods, and/or wheatgrass requires spending a great deal of time preparing food; this can be a major impact on your life.
- Social isolation effect- Although the movement is growing, it is not mainstream enough to allow 100% raw food followers to abide by their diet regime anywhere they go. Long-term, strict, 100% raw food regimes are extremely hard to follow and in reality are very rare.
Given the substantial list of negatives about the raw foods diet, should you nix the idea of going raw all together?
Not totally, the key word is moderation. As with most fad diets, the raw foods movement has taken something that is healthy to the extreme so that it is no longer healthy. There is no doubt that Americans would benefit from reducing their intake of overly processed foods and eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.Processed foods are packed with unnecessary ingredients that are difficult to pronounce, often produced in a lab and have unknown health effects. What we do know is that consuming a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of breast cancer, colon cancer, and heart disease. However, it’s not the food enzymes doing the work. Rather, the fiber and antioxidants, of which fruits and vegetables are prime sources, are what make the difference.
“Eating without heating” has gained popularity among health-conscious consumers who are looking for new ways to eat food in its natural state. However, going 100% raw may not be a healthy choice for all and can potentially be dangerous. One risks acquiring many nutrient deficiencies and is guaranteed to have a tough time following such a restrictive diet. Although proponents of the diet argue that cooking foods destroys their nutrients, the bottom line is that some foods are improved by conservative cooking while others are not. Rather than becoming a 100% raw “foodist”, a much healthier idea is to simply increase your consumption of non-processed natural food products such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains,in BOTH the raw and cooked states.