Myth: Raw foods are best.
I love vegetables! All kinds, including the uncooked ones. Nothing beats the crunch of a raw carrot or the crispness of lettuce and cucumber in a salad. However, you can take a good idea to extremes. There is a whole diet tribe who only eat raw foods, believing it to be best for health, wellbeing, longevity and prevention of disease. It’s kind of like the advanced, super duper version of the vegan diet. Raw food diet followers exist on raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, sprouted beans and seaweed – none of which can be heated above 37.8°C (116°F), about body temperature – or else they believe enzymes will be destroyed and the food won’t be as well digested and absorbed. This is a load of rubbish. The enzymes are for the plants’ benefit, not ours.
The idea that plant foods should be eaten raw to extract their nutrition is just false. In fact, so called ‘anti-nutrient’ factors in raw plant foods make them harder to digest. Phytates can reduce absorption of minerals such as iron and zinc, and nuts contain enzyme inhibitors in the skin. Of course, the level of some vitamins (such as vitamin C) and antioxidants (sulforaphane) are reduced by the cooking process; however, in a mixed diet this is not an issue (still, don’t boil the life out of your vegetables but lightly steam, microwave, stir-fry or roast them instead).
Processing vegetables by juicing, mashing, pureeing or cooking actually releases more vitamins and antioxidants from vegetables than eating them raw and whole. For example, more lycopene
is absorbed from a tomato pasta sauce than raw tomatoes, and the same goes for beta-carotene from carrots. The physical effects, as well as higher temperature, soften and break the tough cell walls in plant foods so their inner goodies can be released. In fact, an Italian study comparing steaming, boiling and frying found all methods increased the availability of antioxidants in zucchini (courgettes), carrots and broccoli. The availability of cancer-fighting indoles in cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage is also higher after cooking.
Because it is very bulky, high in fibre and nutrient-sparse, a raw food diet carries a very high risk for people with higher nutritional needs, such as children and pregnant women – they need a lot of nutrients the body can easily get at. If you have sensitive bowels, such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, this diet will only lead to tears (from pain in your gut) because of its very high fibre content. And the taste? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but I contend this is an extreme diet you do out of conviction rather than enjoyment.
Long story short Besides being a heck of a lot of trouble, you do not need to follow a raw food diet to be healthy. Enjoy a balanced diet from all the food groups and a variety of raw and
Hungry for more? Read Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Food Myths available in bookshops and online and from www.greatideas.net.au