Are raw food diets really best for our bodies?

An abundance of colour reflects a variety of nutrients.

When most people adopt a whole food lifestyle, they often discover that within the whole food community, there is a big emphasis on eating raw food. Vegan and omnivorous diets alike often promote raw food consumption, with the assumption that the more raw food people eat, the healthier they will be. But is a 100% raw diet truly the healthiest option?

Without a reliable heat source to cook food, our ancient ancestors were forced to spend the bulk of their day foraging for edible plants, seeds, and fruit.

Today, most people consume cooked food daily. In stark contrast to the benefits enjoyed by earlier humans, however, the world is burdened by more lifestyle diseases than ever before.

Is the cooked food to blame for contributing to these ailments (as many raw foodists assert), or is it something more complex? For example, modern food preparation methods such as deep-frying, pasteurisation, microwaving, and high-temperature processing in manufacturing facilities alter the composition and cellular structure of foods. Heat exposure can also contribute to Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE’s) in food, which when consumed can modify cellular function, alter or stop protein activity, modify certain parts of the DNA, and cause oxidation in the body.

Not to mention exposure to numerous harmful toxins lurking in plastic and foil packaging. As a result, the microwave-ready freezer meal on the grocery store shelf is a far cry from the wholesome pot of vegetable stew or freshly-caught fish prepared over an open fire that earlier generations were used to. However, is traditionally-prepared cooked foods on their own enough?

Raw foods are excellent for overall health for two very important reasons : digestion, and nutrient absorption. Raw foods contain numerous enzymes that help the body to convert nutrients into energy. Enzymes are proteins that speed up chemical reactions and metabolic processes in the body. This means that without enzymes, both digestion and nutrient absorption are slowed down. Raw foods naturally contain large amounts of enzymes, while heated foods contain few or no enzymes (enzyme deterioration starts at around 47 degrees Celsius).

This is why people often refer to raw food as “living food. When the majority of someone’s diet consists of cooked food, their body has to draw from its own enzymatic reserves to supply sufficient enzymes to digest the food. Additionally, heat also destroys key vitamins. For example, an American study found that just 30 minutes of cooking destroys 29% of the vitamin C content in tomatoes.

The other side of the argument is that cooking can sometimes make food easier to digest, neutralise potentially harmful compounds and kill parasites in raw foods.

When carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, and peppers are boiled or steamed, their antioxidant levels are enhanced (antioxidants are vital for fighting off free radicals that contribute to cancer and inflammation).

Studies also show that lycopene (a powerful antioxidant and pigment that gives tomatoes and other pink/red fruits their colour) levels in tomatoes can rise by up to 35% when cooked for 30 minutes.

This is because when heated, the tomato’s thick cell walls are broken down, which assists the body in absorbing the nutrients locked away in the cell walls. Cooking also aids in neutralising harmful phytates (compounds that block nutrient absorption) in grains, legumes, and beans.

On a practical level, a balanced diet including a daily intake of raw food is recommended. A good ideal is to eat something raw before consuming cooked food (e.g. a salad before a main meal, fruit before porridge).

This will ensure that your body is equipped with the enzymes it needs without having to draw from its own reserves. Use cooking methods that retain the most nutrients (light steaming and boiling are best, followed by roasting and pan-frying).

Avoid deep-fried foods and microwaved foods, and only use oils with high smoke-points (organic cold-pressed virgin coconut or macadamia oils are the most stable). Lastly, focus on consuming whole foods – avoid any packaged, processed, and refined foods, and choose organic where possible.

This will help ensure that you are getting the maximum energy and vitality from your food to support your longevity and lifestyle.