Healthy Eating

The Raw Deal: Eating Raw or Not?

eating rawEver heard of eating raw? Or are you nuking all your nutrients? Me too. Just when I thought I’d conquered healthy eating, it turns out I have an odd tendency to cook everything.

And I’d say I’m not the only one. Given the hot debate over whether cooked or raw foods are healthier, it seems that a great many people are reluctant to turn in their pots and pans. And there’s compelling evidence on both sides of the argument.

People who practice “raw foodism” believe that cooking foods negatively alters nutrient composition. In other words, we cook the vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and enzymes out of our meals. Accordingly, some proponents strictly adhere to a raw food diet. Others simply believe it’s important to put more raw foods on the table and not cook EVERYTHING. Foods commonly eaten raw are fruits and vegetables, nuts and grains.

Yet some nutritionists and food scientists are saying that heat does not always eliminate important nutrients. And sometimes cooking actually enhances them. For example, cooked eggs, and tomatoes cooked with olive oil, may actually be healthier cooked than in raw form. The answer seems unique to the type of food.

And some health experts are saying raw food is fine, if you want to do it, but we needn’t go gaga over the trend.

From there, the type of cooking and cook time determine how much nutrient composition is altered. Arguments far beyond my nutrition education level address the nutrient compounds of each specific food. There is also debate over the importance of enzymes in our food—does it even matter if we cook enzymes out?

A Few Things Experts Seem to Agree On

Given the mixed viewpoints, I did some research and then dusted off my copy of Food Rules to see what Michael Pollan had to say.

In Food Rules, Pollan advocates a mostly plant-based diet. He cites significantly lower disease rates among societies who eat a pound or more of fruits and veggies a day. Pollan doesn’t say we should eat raw, but if you upped your plant intake, you’d likely be eating quite a bit more raw food.

And then there are cooking methods:

  • -For many foods, light cooking (steaming or baking) is considered best for nutrient-preservation.
  • -Boiling is slightly better than frying, which is thought to be a nutrient-killer.
  • -Lower heat destroys fewer nutrients than high heat.
  • -Grilling should be done carefully, if at all, because it may produce carcinogenic charring. (I had never heard this! Cancer.gov has info)

If you’re interested in eating more raw foods, perhaps you could set a goal to eat only snacks that are raw foods. Or, eat most of your vegetables raw.

Bonus: If you do cook veggies, Pollan suggests saving the water since it contains vitamins and other healthful chemicals. The nutrient-rich water can be used for sauces and soups.

Another Reason Raw May Help Us Curb Calories

To an extent, I still believe in cooking food. There’s something comforting about warm, soft food and the ability to mush it all together. It goes down easier—no marathon crunching and chewing. It may even be ideal preparation for eating astronaut food, when we earn $20 million and join the ranks of space tourists.

But I think it makes sense to incorporate more raw foods into our meals, regardless of whether it’s more nutritious to cook food or munch it raw. It comes down to our behavior when eating each type of food.

When cooking food, it’s an opportunity to add salt, fat and sugar. Admit it: cooked food is a vehicle for extras! But just try to add a pat of butter to a raw potato, or salt to carrot sticks. Besides, fresh, ripe raw foods are often more flavorful than their cooked counterparts, so you may not be inclined to add anything at all. (Unless you’re a Ranch-dipper. You may have to work on that.)

Many also say that raw foods are more filling. I don’t know if it’s true, though if cooking removes some fiber content, that would make sense. Or maybe it’s because it takes longer to eat raw foods—what with all that chewing—and the delay allows us to realize we’re full before we overeat. Either way it seems raw could be good for consuming fewer calories.

Americans really do tend to focus on heavy, hearty meals. A focus on raw may steer us away from excessive meat consumption. In Food Rules, Pollan says people who switch from eating meat 2 or 3 times a day, to eating it 2 or 3 times a week, are as healthy as vegetarians.

One of my favorite nutrition tips comes from a doctor who says: “Aim for a solid B+.” In my book, that means eating more raw foods than I have been previously. So what’s on the menu today? I’m thinking some raw asparagus.

What’s your take? Cook or crunch?

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert


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