by May Bleeker, 18 Sept 2010 (updated 10 January 2013)
I recently experienced some of the remarkable benefits of eating raw food and almost got caught up in the hype.
After a bout of illness, during which I wasn't able to eat much at all, I found that for a few weeks I couldn't eat anything other than small amounts of raw food, like raw apple and carrot, or salad leaves. Anything cooked and part of my 'normal' diet, left me feeling decidedly unwell.
Before this I experienced a few fairly chronic, but 'low-grade' health problems and food sensitivities. Although I already avoided wheat, refined sugar, coffee and black tea or anything too sweet, some of my digestion problems seemed to gradually worsen.
Up to that point I considered my diet quite healthy. I ate lots of vegetables and some lean meat, with only the occasional piece of fruit, as my body doesn't react well to too much sweet stuff. But of course, I wasn't eating raw food except for the occasional side salad.
Then, while eating raw food for about a month I experienced immediate and significant benefits, namely:
• my digestion improved radically
• no 'beach ball' stomach after meals (quite common before)
• increased mental and physical energy
For a while just after starting to eat raw food I experienced an extraordinary increase in mental clarity and sharpness. I also experienced an increase in energy that encouraged me to get out and walk more.
The mental sharpness diminished (or I got used to it), as it does not seem so noticeable now (pity). I am also only eating around 60% raw, which might affect things.
NOTE: See an important update below!
Excited by these improvements I started researching raw vs cooked food and came across a whole raw food movement!
Some people are eating raw food 100% of the time and have the gadgets to prove it! I almost got carried away myself.
What stopped me from jumping straight into 'the raw' was the fact that making raw meals takes planning and ingenuity (even more than regular cooking does) and getting a good variety of food with different textures and appearances seemed to require buying a dehydrator.
How else would I eat potatoes?
In addition, I thought other factors, like the fact that I was walking more and scrupulously avoiding all wheat may have also been helping improve how I felt overall. So I didn't want to go jumping to the conclusion that eating raw food was doing i all.
Besides not wanting to get expensive, space-gobbling kitchen gadgets I don't need, I wasn't sure I wanted to give up cooked food either. Raw baby turnip may taste pretty good, but not as great as pumpkin casserole on a rainy day, in my humble opinion!
So before doing anything too radical I did more research and found some interesting, if contradictory, results about eating raw food.
A lot of raw foodists emphasize the idea that cooking destroys enzymes and vitamins in food.
The basic theory is that enzymes help you digest your food, but that cooking over 47˚C destroys these enzymes, forcing your body to produce more than it should have to in order to digest your food.
The theory goes further to say that your body's own store of enzymes can eventually be depleted, and when this takes place a number of health issues can arise. Eating raw food is supposed to supply you abundantly with enzymes, thereby improving your digestive health.
Cooking does destroy vitamins in food - but how much?
Rather than being the simple argument for raw food that many writers are making, there are various arguments for and against cooking. The role that enzymes play may be exaggerated just a little.
Enzymes in saliva only play a small, and not very significant, role in digestion. What happens in the mouth doesn't seem to last much further than the stomach, with most of the food enzymes being neutralized there. By the time everything reaches the small intestine, where the most nutrients are taken up, the body adds in its own enzymes anyway.
While cooking food over 40˚C does destroy some vitamins, so does exposing vitamins to air, light (UV) and water. So chopping up food and leaving it in a see-though container where light can get to it is liable to destroy some vitamins too, as is rinsing and cooking in water etc.
On the plus side of cooking, lightly steaming some vegetables can make certain vitamins, like betacarotene, more readily available to your body. Which means eating carrots lightly cooked allows for better absorption than eating them raw.
How much vitamins are lost?
In some raw food articles writers are saying that as much as 70 - 80% of vitamins are lost during cooking.
But, I came across research that compares vitamin levels of raw produce with those of produce cooked at 100˚C and this shows that loss of vitamins is really only around 10 - 25%. A lot less extreme. I put my dehydrator purchase plans on hold and read further.
What about minerals?
When it comes to minerals - the same research showed that cooking causes minimal loss of minerals. In fact, some of the cooked vegetables that were tested actually had a higher mineral content than their raw counterparts.
This was explained by the fact that different produce start out with different levels of minerals in the first place. Soil differences and different farming practices result in different nutrient levels. Eating raw food doesn't guarrantee the best mineral content. One juicy tomato is not necessarily equal to another.
To get enough minerals in your diet, the variety of your diet and where your food is grown are probably more important than whether you eating raw food or cooked.
Bioavailability of nutrients
One other aspect of nutrition is that it is not only what the food contains, but what your body can use that determines the end result.
Many common foods have varying amounts of antinutrients or toxins that interfere with the digestion or use of other nutrients within the body. But no need to get overly worried about these when eating raw food (as I did in the beginning).
It is true that some of these antinutrients and toxins are neutralized or changed by cooking, making those foods more digestible after applying heat. Soaking and sprouting some grains and types of beans also help with this.
But then again, some of these antinutrients and toxins are not affected by heat in the slightest, so chances are that you are eating them anyway, in your cooked food.
And some appear at such low concentrations that you'd have to eat impossibly huge amounts before they'd block the uptake of vitamins or minerals.
If you already have deficiencies of certain vitamins or minerals, this may affect how well your body is able to absorb and process the nutrients that are in the food you are eating.
So, for example, you might be eating enough iron-rich foods, but not absorbing enough iron due to a deficiency in another area. Balancing things out is important.
Cooking and browning of food at high temperatures or for long periods is also regarded as detrimental to health, but when you read into the research on the 'Maillard Reaction' it all gets very complex with some factors being good and others being bad, and nothing being exclusively one way or the other.
Most of us want to know what is good for us and what isn't, but we don't want to wade through reams of complicated charts and figures only to find that nobody can really say for sure. Eating raw food or eating cooked food can be both good for you and bad for you, depending.
All in all, the best approach may be to try to get a balance in allareas of your life, rather than focusing only on food, and to eat what makes you feel good, and avoid what doesn't.
When faced with impossible amounts of information, as well as uncountable facts we will never be able to know, the Course in Miracles says it most aptly: 'We do not perceive our own best interests.'
My take on all of this is that we get a mix of nutrients, antinutrients, toxins and beneficial elements whether eating raw food or cooked - but that our bodies are able to cope with it all, and make the most of it all, as long as we use moderation as a guide and we get enough of everything else we need for health.
There's more to 'nutrition' than just what goes into your mouth. There's also what goes in via your other senses, and what you feel when you eat.
To have a healthy life you need fresh air, good water, a broad variety of vitamins and minerals from a broad variety of foods, sufficient rest, sunshine, inner peace, loving thoughts, love and enjoyment of life.
You need good processes to get food in (eating, digestion, oxygen, blood circulation) and good, healthy processes to get things out (cleansing and releasing waste via skin, lungs, kidneys, and liver, sweating and the other two unmentionables, yes you know what they are).
If these avenues aren't working well, you're in trouble regardless of the amount of vitamins and minerals that are actually in your raw or cooked meals.
Things work as a whole. Nutritional content of food is part of a whole (the eco-system). You are part of a whole (life).
It's no good trying to separate things out too much.
In my view, having looked at evidence both ways (my own experience of eating raw food and that of research I could find on the subject), both raw and cooked foods have their positives and negatives.
And here's a couple of my own:
Use your intuition when choosing your food.
Some part of you knows what you need and knows what to avoid. If all else fails, learn to use kinesiology, as I did.
Only eat when you feel ok.
Your emotions can interfere with your digestion, so encourage peace and happiness around mealtimes. If upsets are unavoidable, delay eating until you or your family feel better.
Let your body, and how you feel before and after meals, be your best guide.
My health and wellbeing have improved by eating raw food, avoiding gluten and milk, and exercising more so I'll keep it up, although I'm not giving up cooked food either. I aim for around 60% of my meals raw.
This means more salad greens, turning cooked recipes into raw ones through sheer recipe genius (if I say so myself), eating more fruit than I'm used to (papaya for breakfast) and using nut milks (finally a brilliant substitute for cows milk!).
Eat more raw and decide for yourself. Just watch out for the hype.
(Note: The original research was once available on a website called www.beyondveg.com - but it has since disappeared from the ever-changing web, sorry!)
Since the heady days of 'eating raw', I've discovered some other factors that may account for the positive effects I experienced while eating less cooked food.
While eating raw I pretty much avoided these foods:
I already wasn't eating much fruit, or drinking fruit juice unless heavily diluted, as my body doesn't like sugar.
For years I have assumed I have a gluten intolerance. I swell up after eating anything with wheat in it, and the swelling affects my whole body most noticeably, my abdomen, face and hands (my clothes and rings don't fit for a week or more after eating the tiniest bit of supermarket bread or pasta).
But I was puzzled by the fact that whenever I eat a good portion of mashed or fried potatoes I would get extremely sleepy. At times, after a meal of fish and chips I would be forced to take a nap by the fact that my brain stopped working properly. I became fatigued to the point of not being able to string words together! Highly inconvenient! But potatoes don't have gluten in them.
Then I discovered Tim Noakes' articles on carbohydrate sensitivity and pre-diabetes. Type 2 diabetes runs in my family on both sides. One parent has late onset Type 2, and both my grandmothers died from complications relating to this disease.
Tim Noakes suggests that some people find it hard to digest carbohydrates and guess what - they react badly to things like bread, potatoes, rice and fruit.
So I did an experiment of my own and cut out carbohydrates completely for a month or two. Lo and behold, just as it had while eating raw, my symptoms disappeared.
So here's what I'm suggesting:
While eating raw food, I naturally avoided carbohydrate rich foods because they usually have to be cooked (potatoes, rice). I avoided bread and pasta because of the gluten thing, and I avoided fruit juice and fruit because of my natural dislike of anything too sweet.
This is pretty much the diet Tim Noakes suggests for people with carb intolerance. So it was easy to assume that eating raw was helping me, when in fact it may simply have been due to avoiding carbs.
Not to say that eating mostly raw doesn't offer some clear benefits. But if you think you have a gluten problem - test out whether carbs in general are an issue for you. If they are you might be able to get rid of pesky health problems simply by cutting carbs and sugars out completely or as much as possible. Tim Noakes suggests finding your 'threshold' for carbs.
I now eat a little home made bread (long-proved), and every once in a while I'll have a tiny portion of rice with whatever amazing thing I dollop on top (curry, green bean casserole, tomato bredie yum!). Plus I keep potato consumption to a minimum and find that I'm doing quite well.
Pasta and other commercial wheat products still cause a major problem - so I'll carry on avoiding these until such time they don't affect me (one can only hope!).
One more reason to learn to trust your instincts when it comes to food!