Raw versus Cooked Food

Health & Wellness: How Heat Affects Nutrition

Nutrition often gets overly complicated by well-intending people. Sometimes we are told an entire category of food is bad — the fear of fat in the latter half of the twentieth century is a good example. In avoiding some foods that would otherwise be just fine, we end up with nightmare products like margarine. Please tell me you aren’t still using margarine! Also, unless you’re allergic, eggs are amazing.

There are so many diets and styles of eating, and people can get very emotionally invested in their strategies. I have found that people become as defensive about food as they do about politics. It’s really quite strange, especially if there isn’t an allergy, aversion or religious/moral proscription causing the limitations. Some vegans, in particular, come to mind, but also ravenous carnivores. What I just realized in writing that is that whether it be an extreme toward plants or an extreme toward flesh, food can become a dangerous topic at the dinner table. Odd, yes?

Another curiously defensive stance can come from people who are bound and determined to eat junk food and who abhor “rabbit food.” Like… okay. I love some junk food, too. But all the time?

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And now I have encountered someone who is particularly adamant about a raw vegan version of the Paleo Diet. I would caution you against believing phrases like, “this is the most natural way to eat,” regardless of the style. Eskimos have survived for thousands of years on raw fish and blubber. People in places with extended growing seasons sometimes develop a food culture that avoids meat entirely. Humans can survive on a wide variety of foods. We are neither herbivores nor carnivores. We are omnivores. Ignore arguments that direct you toward our pointy teeth or our long intestinal system. It seems odd that in making the argument for meat or plants being the healthier option, these people overlook the fact that we have traits to digest both.

Something my mother had introduced me to is a raw diet. She doesn’t evangelize it, so I never really thought of it as much more than yet another one of her odd nutrition experiments. Watching her eat eggs makes me slightly panicky, but she knows better than to tell me to eat them that way. But I tried to have a conversation about it with a die-hard advocate, and I found he made some startling claims. I would like to look at some of them.

Raw is food in its natural form

There is no argument that we can eat raw foods. We do it all the time with fruits, salads, crudité, seeds, nuts, sushi, tartare and cured meats. I see no problem whatsoever with this; however, this man is a raw vegan, and that poses some issues to be aware of.

There is no vertebrate I know of on the planet that can digest fiber. Bioflora in the digestive tract help to extract nutrition from fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. Chewing and saliva break through cell walls, but without helpful bacteria, we cannot fully access all the nutrition from plants, especially when raw. Cooking allows more of the energy and nutrients from food to reach our bodies. Similarly, many meats are also more easily digested when heat has begun the process of breaking down proteins (not to mention the role cooking plays in killing pathogens). Accessing protein is always one of the chiefest concerns for vegans, and eating raw plants all but prevents much of the plant protein from being absorbed. If you do want to be vegan, I highly recommend you consider the potential problems you might face following a raw regimen on top of that.

Raw food has more nutrition

The argument here is that without the application of heat more of the nutrients in a food will be preserved, especially water soluble vitamins (which can be destroyed during cooking). I agree: Prolonged and/or high heat obliterates nutrients. But low and medium heats do not cause so much damage, and cooking actually makes more nutrition available in many instances. Raw tomatoes are an excellent source of Vitamin C and Vitamin A. But lycopene is an important antioxidant that cannot be accessed until heat is applied. So yes, enjoy your marinara and catsup. Both forms of tomato are healthful, but each for different reasons.

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Cooking food makes it toxic

No. That is just a no. No. From what I could tell speaking to this raw vegan, he was extrapolating based on trans fatty acids. Fats have smoking points. Each fat begins to be reconfigured by heat at different temperatures. The smoking point of a fat is the temperature at which a lipid changes its molecular alignments and becomes a dreaded trans fatty acid. For that reason there are some fats that are not at all suitable for cooking. Olive oil is an example of this: You should not cook with olive oil. Use it for salad dressing or cold prepared dips. Coconut oil is fine for medium heat, but do not use something with a lower smoking point than lard or vegetable oil for high heat.

He took this principle and applied it across the board to all foods at all times. It is misguided. True: Over-processing or adding chemicals to food is questionable. Yes, avoid overcooking your food. Boiling vegetables into goop is not only disgusting, it is also destructive to the nutrients. But this person was trying to say that any cooking turns carbohydrates and proteins into carcinogens. It is true that burned food is unhealthy for that reason, but how often are you charring your strawberries? I mean, really? Carrots are a good example of a food that has more bioavailable nutrition once it has been reduced a little with heat. Don’t boil them to death, just heat them until they are tender.

It is frustrating when someone takes small kernels of truth and explodes them out to make strange claims. I would encourage you to focus on as much variety as possible. Whether it be plant or animal foods, every option has its own perks and gaps. A wide array on your menu fills in all those blanks and creates synergy as nutrients often help absorb each other. Yes, eat some foods raw and some cooked. But be cautious about trying to eat like a Neanderthal. They went extinct for many reasons.

Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.

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