In a growing movement towards eating foods in a whole, natural state, what’s the logical endpoint? Obviously, eating as many “raw” foods as possible. Many people have taken this path, but is it a good idea?
The concept of a raw food diet goes back a long, long time, and there are books advocating for it dating back over one hundred years. Proponents of this eating pattern claim that any heating of foods destroys enzymes required to properly digest the food. They also point to heat destroying certain nutrients and that cooking food at high temperatures creates cancer-causing toxins.
It’s also important to know that there are several variations of a raw food diet. The most extreme version is eating all foods raw, including meat, eggs, and dairy. This is an especially bad idea, as the likelihood of contracting a food-borne illness from raw animal products is very high.
Some raw foodists will make allowances for cooking animal products, and concentrate on consuming plant foods raw. Others will avoid animal foods altogether, an eating pattern that is often called “raw veganism.”
With our definitions out of the way, let’s tackle the various problems with raw food diets.
It’s true that certain nutrients in food are sensitive to – and can be destroyed by – heat. Water-soluble vitamins like B vitamins or vitamin C are particularly susceptible to damage from high temperatures. There are many variables in determining how cooking may affect levels of these nutrients, but higher temperatures for longer cook times will do the greatest amount of damage to these nutrients. It’s important to know, however, that unless you’re cooking your food for an exceptionally long time at a very high temperature, you will still retain reasonable amounts of water-soluble vitamins in the food. Even boiling vegetables, which will reduce their vitamin content more than any other cooking method, will leave around half of the water-soluble vitamins in the food.
While certain nutrients are indeed damaged by cooking, raw foodists often fail to acknowledge the flip side of this dynamic. Cooking plant foods breaks down cell walls and fibers that allow the enzymes in our body to more fully digest the food – which means access to more nutrients. The cooking process also makes certain vitamins – like folate – more easily absorbable.
Most people like vegetables more when they’re roasted, steamed, or sautéed compared to eating them raw. This is important; we’re not going to eat foods we don’t enjoy. The typical American already falls far short of the recommended daily consumption of fruits and vegetables, and eating everything raw might make that just a little more challenging.
Properly cooking legumes also reduces compounds known as “anti-nutrients,” like lectins. Lectins are nothing to worry about if beans are properly cooked, but eating beans raw may cause digestive issues.
Certain raw plant foods, like cassava (most commonly used as a gluten-free flour or to make tapioca) contain cyanide. When properly peeled, cooked, and processed, cassava is perfectly safe. Eating it raw, however, will cause serious health problems.
Anyone eating animal products should, with few exceptions, be cooking them. Bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria are often found in uncooked meat and eggs. Unpasteurized milk can pose many of those same risks. It is, however, a good idea to avoid overcooking and charring meat, as this can create certain compounds that are linked with increased cancer risks.
In summary, there are benefits to eating certain foods raw. If you’re worried about vitamin C, eating certain fruits and vegetables – like citrus fruits, berries, and peppers – raw might be preferable. However, the biggest nutrient deficits for most Americans don’t have anything to do with how they’re preparing food; it’s that they’re not eating enough of the right foods at all. Prepare your fruits and vegetables the way you like them best. Always fully cook beans and other legumes. Cook meat, fish, and eggs to their recommended temperatures without charring them. There’s no good reason to eat all of your foods raw.