by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
What is a Raw Food Diet?
The raw foods diet is a nutrition trend that has been picking up steam over the last couple of years. It involves eating a diet made up mostly or entirely of foods that are not cooked or heated past about 110 degrees or so. That doesn’t mean they’re not processed—on the contrary, raw foods may be dried, rolled, juiced, blended, frozen, soaked, sprouted, fermented, or ground. They’re just not heat-processed. Raw foods diets are usually composed primarily of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, grains, and legumes.
What are the Benefits of a Raw Food Diet?
One big advantage of eating foods raw is that they retain more of their nutritional value. When you cook foods, some nutrients—especially water soluble vitamins and antioxidants—are destroyed by heat. Other nutrients, including minerals, may leach out into cooking water. (See also How Cooking Affects Nutrients.) For example, cooking vegetables in water can reduce the amount of certain nutrients by half.
But according to the USDA, freshly harvested vegetables can lose up to half their original nutritional value simply by sitting on your counter for two days—or in your refrigerator for two weeks. Nutrients are also lost when foods are dehydrated, frozen, soaked, or juiced. So, when it comes to nutrient losses, unless you can arrange to eat every meal in the field where it was grown, it’s all sort of relative. And even though nutrients are lost, don’t worry. There are still plenty left! (See also Getting More Nutrition from your Vegetables)
Cooking actually makes some nutrients more absorbable. For example, the lycopene in cooked tomatoes is up to four times more bioavailable than in fresh tomatoes. And, if you want to absorb more of the protein in eggs, you’d be better off cooking them than slurping them raw like Rocky.
Enzymes in Raw Foods
Raw food advocates also frequently bring up the issue of enzymes. Heating foods deactivates any enzymes it may contain, you see. Eating foods raw preserves more of these food-based enzymes and that supposedly helps us digest and absorb our food better. Frankly, I wouldn’t get too excited about this.
What Are Enzymes?
The biggest nutritional advantage of a raw food diet isn’t the enzymes or the extra nutrients you glean by not cooking your vegetables; it’s the fact that a raw food diet is devoid of virtually all junk and processed foods.
Not that enzymes aren’t exciting—they are! Enzymes are a special class of proteins that literally make life possible. Throughout your body, in every cell, there are thousands of different types of enzymes, each with a very specific job to do. There are enzymes that break molecules apart and enzymes that put molecules together. There are enzymes that transfer things from one molecule to another and enzymes that simply rearrange a molecule into a different shape.
Even within those categories, the enzymes are very specific. Got two glucose molecules that need breaking up? There’s an enzyme for that. Got a lactose molecule that needs breaking up? There’s a different enzyme for that. Most of your entire DNA sequence is devoted to storing instructions for making various enzymes.
And it’s a good thing that your cells know how to make all the enzymes you need to function, because enzymes are relatively fragile. Not only are they destroyed by temperatures above 116 degrees, but they can also be destroyed or inactivated by very acidic environments—such as that of your stomach.
The enzymes in raw vegetables no doubt served very important functions when those plants were living—but don’t have much functionality in your digestive tract. In fact, whether they’ve been denatured by cooking or by your stomach acid, the enzymes in your food function primarily as a source of amino acids (protein) that your body can use to produce its own enzymes, as needed.
Is a Raw Foods Diet Healthier?
In my opinion, the biggest nutritional advantage of a raw food diet isn’t the enzymes or the extra nutrients you glean by not cooking your vegetables. Rather, it’s the fact that a raw food diet contains no fried foods and no baked goods. No partially hydrogenated fats, refined flour, Twinkies, or potato chips. A raw food diet is rich in minimally processed fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and devoid of virtually all junk and processed foods.
Sounds quite healthy to me. But I don’t think it’s necessary to give up cooking to have a healthy diet. If you want to improve the nutritional quality of your diet, start by cutting back on junk foods and eating more fresh vegetables. And, as I’ve said before, I think it’s an excellent idea to eat at least some of your vegetables each day raw.
I’ve got links below to restaurants and websites that specialize in raw food if you’d like to try some out new raw food recipes. A raw food diet can be a fun—and healthy—place to visit…but, personally, I wouldn’t want to live there!
Feel free to share your thoughts about raw foods below or on my Nutrition Diva Facebook Page.
Check out these related episodes and tips:
Directory of Raw Foods Restaurants
Collection of Raw Recipes