The raw food diet consists only of raw foods and some foods cooked at extremely low temperatures.
Popular at the moment, the raw food diet contains high levels of plants, seeds, oils, nuts, vegetables and fruit – all highly nutritious foods. By sticking to raw foods, it also means that people on this diet consumer very low levels of processed foods and high levels of fibre which is wonderful and something we should all be striving for.
However, there is another side to raw foods. Whilst heat can damage certain vitamins and antioxidants in food, cooking can actually increase the bioavailabilty of some nutrients in food, making those nutrients more available to the body, easier to be absorbed than if you consumed them raw.
Without going into every single vitamin and antioxidant (different temperatures affect different nutrients, as does light and oxygen) Vitamin E and A are two vitamins that are found in higher levels in cooked food compared to raw. These vitamins are essential as our body cannot produce them and therefore they need to be obtained by food.
So a strict raw-only diet can actually lack certain nutrients and lead to deficiencies.
Raw food enthusiasts worry that the cooking process deems cooked foods devoid of nutrients, though this is not the case. Cooked foods still contain nutrients. The levels might be slightly lower, but never devoid. Lightly steaming is the most effective cooking method to preserve nutrients, with high levels of antioxidants and vitamins founds within steamed vegetables. It is when we start boiling vegetables until they are mush that we need to be concerned.
The invention (or discovery) of fire and hence the ability for us as humans to transition to cooked foods and consequently obtain more nutrients, is one of the reasons we have a larger more functional brain today as opposed to the very small brain of our raw food eating, very distant ancestors.
Raw food enthusiasts claim that raw food contains all the wonderful enzymes we need which are ‘killed off’ by heat and cooking. Though a quick lesson in nutritional biochemistry reveals that the enzymes in our saliva, stomach and intestine denature (kill) these enzymes anyway.
For people with irritable bowel type issues, a raw diet is not always suitable given the very high amounts of fibre and raw nature of that fibre, making it difficult to break down and therefore digest for some people.
Cooking food provides variety, producing different flavours and textures which is important for the psychological enjoyment of food.
I worry when I see people eliminating foods from their diet, it sets alarm bells off for me. Variety is the key to optimum nutrition and anything that reduced variety is limiting the number of nutrients one can consume each day.
As well as this, many of the raw food desserts are not what they seem. I see so many desserts labelled as ‘Raw Chocolate Healthy Slice’ which holds the illusion that it is healthy because it is raw, though many of these recipes are in fact extremely high in calories and fat. We do have raw dessert recipes here on the blog, although we are very careful that if they are high in calories, we do not label or promote them as ‘healthy’. Raw desserts do use more healthful ingredients such as nuts and seeds instead of white flower, dates and sultanas instead of processed white sugar but if you are choosing a ‘raw’ dessert recipe in the hope that it is healthier and will save you calories, it is not always the case and something to be mindful of.
So whilst cooking foods can damage some vitamins and antioxidants, it can also preserve others. This highlights the importance of having a well balanced diet consisting of both raw and cooked foods for optimal nutrition.
The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and all round myth buster. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible and up to date nutrition information in order for people to make their own educated decision about nutrition.