By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Going “raw” is a big trend these days. In fact, you’ll find plenty of celebrities, nutritionists, and “foodies” who swear by the benefits of following a raw food diet of uncooked and unprocessed foods.
Why such a draw? Well the main thing followers of a raw food diet will tell you is that cooking food destroys its nutrient and enzyme content, making it less healthy—even nutritionally void.
It’s true, eating raw food certainly has many nutritional perks. Let’s face it, if you’re eating a mostly vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes, your body gets to enjoy countless vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and other health-enhancing compounds like fiber. Raw foods also tend to be low in calories and sodium. All this equates to better digestion and weight control and higher energy levels. Other raw food benefits include less inflammation, stronger disease prevention, and even clearer skin.
A Raw Food Diet Is More than Just “Rabbit Food”
Many people assume eating raw means nothing but “rabbit food”: salads, carrot sticks, and celery stalks. Yes, raw fruits and vegetables make up a large part of what you eat every day; but there are all sorts of variations of raw food diets. Depending on how devoted you are to going completely raw, you might also consume sea vegetables, fermented foods, sprouted grains, and even some raw meats, eggs, and fish and unpasteurized dairy products in addition to your fruits and veggies. There are all sorts of paths to take here; whichever way you choose to go with raw food, just remember “unprocessed and natural” – a good food mantra to have regardless of what diet you’re on.
No-Heat Food Prep Offers Many Benefits
One thing I really appreciate about the raw food movement is that it has exposed millions of people to unique and lesser-known techniques for preparing food without the use of heat.
Blending and juicing are both great ways to indulge in raw foodism —especially with ingredients that you normally wouldn’t think as “drinkable,” like kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, or spinach.
Personally, I prefer blending over juicing. While the juice extracted from fruits and vegetables can be digested within minutes (which gives you that almost-immediate boost in energy), juicing removes the fiber you get with blending. Fiber is really what is at the corner of healthy and happy. Fiber not only helps you cleanse and detoxify; it also slows down digestion, which allows your body to absorb more nutrients.
Sprouting, dehydrating, fermenting, and pickling are other no-heat food prep methods that are really taking off. Foods prepared using these techniques offer a vast array of nutrients typically lacking in the American diet. Take fermented and pickled foods, such as sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, kimchi, and nori. These items have robust amounts of beneficial bacteria (prebiotics), which enhance nearly every area of health, including gastrointestinal function, immunity, and mental wellbeing. More and more science is showing that good health starts in the gut, and fermented and pickled foods are the best way to get your gut in tip-top shape so that the benefits trickle down to the rest of your body.
Research shows that people who follow diets heavy in raw food have higher antioxidant levels. Those who have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia seem to experience the most benefits from raw food diets.
Important Considerations for Raw Foodies
As you can see, there are some very good reasons to add more raw food to your diet. But with that said, you may be wondering if cooking vegetables and other foods is really all that bad. Does it really deplete foods to the point that they’re nutritionally worthless?
Not necessarily. Interestingly, while cooking does destroy some enzymes and vitamins, it increases levels of other compounds, such beta-carotene and lycopene. Generally speaking, if you’re going to heat your vegetables, light steaming is the best option to maintain nutrient content. Avoid boiling and pressure cooking, as they cause the greatest losses.
Some research shows that people who follow primarily raw food diets tend to suffer deficiencies in vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and vitamin D. So taking at least a daily multivitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps should be a no-brainer; I also recommend vegans take coenzyme Q10, carnitine, omega-3 and alpha-lipoic acid.
And then there’s the possibility of food poisoning… Those who choose to eat raw fish, undercooked meats, unpasteurized dairy, and raw eggs run the risk of getting sick from harmful bacteria.
Ease Into the Raw Foodism Movement
While I’m a fan of raw foods, I could never give up cooking or grilling. Most people can’t, and that’s fine. Taking an all-or-nothing approach to anything in life, especially when it comes to diets, often sets you up for failure.
In my experience, it’s all about taking small steps. There’s no need to completely overhaul your diet. At the same time, there’s some serious value to adding more raw foods into your diet. Strive to make about 50 percent of what you consume every day raw. Slowly work up to that amount by replacing cooked veggies and processed snacks with raw alternatives.
Here are some easy ways to include raw foods into your daily regimen:
- Start your day with a smoothie. Ditch the cereal and instead blend a fruit and vegetable smoothie for breakfast.
- Replace snacks. Instead of snacking on chips, pretzels, and other processed junk, nibble on fresh or dried fruit, celery with nut butter, carrot sticks and hummus, or raw seed and/or nut mixes.
- Add a small salad to your lunch or dinner. Replace cooked vegetables with interesting salad combos. Include Swiss chard, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, zucchini, seeds, sprouts, nuts, and other tasty raw foods.
- Juice it up. Forgo soda (even diet soda), processed juices, and other beverages for freshly squeezed fruit and vegetable juices.
- Experiment with raw desserts. Giving up processed sugar is one of the best things you can do for your health—but there’s no reason to forgo treats! Satisfy your sweet tooth with a raw dessert. You can find a ton of easy recipes online.
Once you get into the habit of incorporating more raw food into most of your meals, I encourage you to start experimenting with dehydrating or fermenting your own foods. It’s not only fun, it’s extremely satisfying – your gut will thank you for it!
- Rauma AL, et al. Antioxidant status in long-term adherents to a strict uncooked vegan diet. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Dec;62(6):1221-7.
- Nenonen MT, et al. Uncooked, lactobacilli-rich, vegan food and rheumatoid arthritis. Br J Rheumatol. 1998 Mar;37(3):274-81.
- Donaldson MS, Speight N, and Loomis S. Fibromyalgia syndrome improved using a mostly raw vegetarian diet: an observational study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2001;1:7.
- Talcott ST, Howard LR, and Brenes CH. Antioxidant changes and sensory properties of carrot puree processed with and without periderm tissue. J Agric Food Chem. 2000;48(4):1315-21.
- Dewanto V, et al. Thermal processing enhances the nutritional value of tomatoes by increasing total antioxidant activity. J Agric Food Chem. 2002;50(10):3010-14.
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