A raw deal: Why eating only raw food isn’t always right

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First up, this story is not an attack on our dear raw vegan friends, we commend their aim to tread more lightly on the planet and being raw vegan is always preferable to a burger and fries lifestyle. Yet, while raw food should be part of everyone’s diet, aiming to be 100 per cent raw vegan isn’t the best diet for everyone and can even be detrimental to health.
Words by Alison McLaughlin. 

One of the latest food trends is consuming a diet that is purely made up of raw foods.

The thinking behind the raw food movement is based upon the idea that when foods are cooked they lose many of their nutrients. Thus, if foods are uncooked and unprocessed they are automatically better for us. Consuming raw foods on a regular basis is an important part of healthy lifestyle. In fact, I encourage my clients to eat raw foods every single day because they support a healthy digestion system. But, eating only raw foods should not be defined as being the healthiest way to eat. In fact, some foods are not always better for you when they are eaten raw.

Research has shown that cooked vegetables make nutrients more bioavailable for our bodies to absorb. Specifically, when some vegetables are cooked, they end up having higher amounts of antioxidants (carotenoids and phytochemicals) when compared to their raw form. This increase in antioxidants is from the breaking down of cell matrix (where nutrients are bound) in vegetables. For example, the lycopene in tomatoes is more accessible to our bodies when tomatoes are cooked and cooking carrots makes the beta-carotene more available for the body to absorb. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach are also high in nutrients such as calcium and magnesium, which is more available for our bodies to absorb when these vegetables are cooked. Just one cup of raw spinach contains approximately 100 mg calcium, whereas one cup of cooked spinach contains approximately 260 mg of calcium.

Some raw foods can decrease thyroid function. Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and brussels sprouts), although highly nutritious, release a compound called goitrin during digestion. Goitrin can interfere with thyroid function and the synthesis of thyroid hormones. When you consume goitrogens, they may inhibit your body’s ability to absorb iodine – an essential mineral required for thyroid function – and reduce your body’s ability to produce thyroid hormones that regulate energy use. Low levels of thyroid hormones – a condition called hypothyroidism – are associated with unexplained weight gain and poor health. Individuals with hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) and iodine deficiency may benefit from cooking these vegetables, which takes away most or all of their goitrogenic properties.

Sure, if we cook foods until they are burnt or turn black, they will lose the majority of their nutrients. But some raw food proponents make it seem that cooking healthy foods such as vegetables means they become ‘processed’ foods. This is simply not the case. Processed foods come in packages. There is nothing processed about having a side of steamed vegetables for dinner.

One of the most preferred cooking methods to maintain/enhance nutrients in vegetables is steaming. Research shows steaming can increase antioxidant capacity, while boiling may lead to a loss of nutrients, especially water soluble nutrients such as vitamin C, folate and thiamin. Other methods of cooking such as baking, stewing, grilling, and microwaving have been shown as beneficial for breaking down the cell walls in vegetables (making more nutrients available). Cooking breaks apart fibres and cellular walls to release nutrients that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to absorb from the same raw food.

Lastly, it’s important to realise what foods you will be missing out on if you eat solely raw foods. For example, someone who only eats raw foods will usually not be able to consume any kind of legumes such as beans and lentils – unless they have the time, patience and skill of a raw food chef. Legumes offer a wide variety of nutrients, and are a good source of protein and fibre. Eggs are another food that should not be eaten raw (but can be), because of the possibility of being contaminated with salmonella. Eggs are one food that should not be intentionally cut out of a diet, as they are full of vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, high quality proteins, and antioxidants that support eye health (lutein and zeaxanthine).

THE BOTTOM LINE

Eating raw foods is just one part of a healthy diet. I recommend eating a variety of raw and cooked foods to reap the health benefits that both have to offer.

BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO RAW VEGANISM

Raw veganism is a plant-based diet that involves no cooking. No food is heated above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Raw vegans believe that foods cooked above this temperature have lost much of their nutritional value and are less healthful or even harmful to the body. In raw vegan speak, cooking is killing. Foods are eaten fresh, dehydrated with low heat, or fermented.

Many raw vegans refer to ‘live’ foods versus ‘dead’ foods. Live or uncooked foods are said to be filled with vital life energy so juicing and blending green smoothies are usually key elements of this diet.

Raw veganism is an extension of the vegan appreciation for animal welfare, with the added spirituality of a life force, called chi or prana. Dead or cooked foods are said to be depleted of their life energy, as well as most of their nutrients.

Among raw vegans there are subgroups such as fruitarians, juicearians, or sproutarians. Fruitarians eat primarily or exclusively fruits, berries, seeds, and nuts. Juicearians process their raw plant foods into juice. Sproutarians adhere to a diet consisting mainly of sprouted seeds.

RAW VEGAN RISKS

Tooth decay: Some people on a raw food diet rely so much on fruit that their teeth begin to erode: from acids in the fruits that wear down the tooth enamel, from sugar promoting decay, from dried fruit sticking to the teeth and further promoting decay, and from a general mineral deficiency.

Nutritional deficiencies: On a raw vegan diet it’s difficult or impossible to get vitamins B12 and D, selenium, zinc, iron and two omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, without taking supplements. Vitamins D and B12, and Omega 3 fatty acids are nutrients that women particularly need as they age.

Child development: A child raised on a raw, vegan diet without proper supplementation would likely develop severe neurological and growth problems due to a lack of vitamin B12 and other nutrients.

For more information on the risks of a raw vegan diet, read the article called Reality Check: 5 Risks of Raw Vegan Diet by Christopher Wanjek at www.livescience.com 

RAW FOOD QUEEN’S U-TURN

Victoria Boutenko is one of the world’s most well-known and influential raw foodists. She has been integral in bringing raw veganism into the mainstream with several books including 12 Steps to Raw Food, published in 2000. However, more recently, even Boutenko has backed away from a regimented attitude on the raw food diet, here’s part of what she wrote in her blog on 9 January 2010…

“I noticed feeling progregressively more sensitive when talking to people who were struggling to stick to a 60%, 70%, 80%, or whatever % raw diet. All of a sudden, I realized that my book 12 Steps to Raw Foods (first edition) contained fanaticism about 100% raw foodism. Soon I completely revised this book and published the second edition, which I find to be a much kinder book, and perhaps more useful because of that. I shredded and recycled the left over copies of the old edition.

“I have noticed that when I was telling other people about myself being a 100% raw foodist, it came across as if I was claiming to be a better, higher, more spiritual person. I felt so uncomfortable that I repeated in every lecture, “I am just a woman in a green dress. Please don’t put me on a pedestal.”

“We are all pioneers, still in the beginning of our research of the human diet. Nothing is set in stone and our bodies continually change. For example, while I enjoyed gourmet raw food in the beginning of my raw journey, for several years now, I have completely eliminated food prepared with nuts. In recent years I have decided that it can be healthier, to eat a bowl of cooked green vegetables than a whole jar of raw nut butter.”

Victoria Boutenko is author of 12 Steps to Raw Food and creator of the green smoothie. To read Boutenko’s complete blog, go to http://greensmoothiesblog.com/ victoria-boutenko-on-not-being-raw 

DID YOU KNOW? Most scientists agree that eating meat and then cooking food enabled the development of the human brain. Cooking in particular opened up a new world of calories and nutrients. Our raw vegan cousin, the gorilla, has three times the body size of humans, but one-third the brain cells; it grew muscular on plants, but not smarter because the diet did provide consume enough calories to evolve the brain. [For more, read Eating made us Human, at www.livescience.com] 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alison McLaughlin, RD, MPH, is Managing Partner of FitnessO2.com. She is a Registered Dietitian, chocoholic, and yoga teacher with 200-Hour Yoga Alliance National Teacher Certification. For more information, go to her websites: www.balancedwithallie.com

www.fitnesso2.com 

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