A Raw Food Diet: Is It Healthier?

In today’s ever health-conscious world, the Raw Food Movement is on the rise, gaining new devotees as well as critics.

The basic premise of the raw food diet is that raw foods in their whole, natural form provide the enzymes necessary for digestion and vibrant health, and that cooking food destroys these natural enzymes along with many of the other critical nutrients in whole, unprocessed food. By eating raw, whole foods, you consume the enzymes found within them, which are believed to enhance and improve digestion, leading to better absorption of the food’s beneficial compounds (such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants). Raw food enthusiasts claim that this diet promotes good health because your cells are able to acquire the nutrients they need from pure, unadulterated food.

Ancient Wisdom Perspectives
From the point of view of Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine, the raw food philosophy is not completely accurate. These ancient traditions assert that cooking food actually makes many of the nutrients more available. They also state that eating cooked food protects the digestive capacity (“digestive fire”) of the body. With all the contradictory dietary advice out there, it’s no wonder people may be confused about which diet is best for them.

One Size Does Not Fit All
It all comes down to the health requirements of the individual, as everybody has unique dietary needs. According to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine, raw foods have a “cooling” effect on the body, so someone with a lot of “heat” and inflammation may do better on a raw foods diet than someone with a colder constitution. Also, it is interesting to note that the majority of success within the raw food movement is found among those who live in warmer climates. Cooked whole food is healthier for people with weaker digestion and colder constitution, as cooked foods are more warming, and easier to break down and assimilate.

Pros and Cons of Cooked Food
Certain foods are proven to be healthier when cooked. For example, lycopene is an antioxidant found in tomatoes and watermelon. However, lycopene content is highest and most bioavailable when tomatoes are cooked. Many vegetables, such as kale, spinach, onions and garlic are also more nutritious when cooked because light cooking unlocks many of their compounds, making them more easily absorbed.

However, science has also shown that over-cooking many foods — especially meats — is unhealthy, as foods that are overcooked can produce chemicals such as acrylamide and others that contribute to inflammation and more serious health problems over time.

The best cooking methods are light steaming or sauteing, without over-cooking at high temperatures. These methods can help to make nutrients in the food more available and easier to absorb, without causing the harmful chemical reactions found in foods cooked for long periods at high temperatures.

The Enzyme Debate
While raw foodists claim that enzymes from raw foods are critical for proper digestion, the American Dietetic Association asserts that the body naturally produces the enzymes necessary for digestion and does not need to obtain them from food. In addition, because the ph of the stomach is very low, meaning that it is very acidic, the stomach breaks down all proteins including enzymes. This means that the enzymes found in fruits and vegetables are essentially destroyed by our stomach acid, as its job is to break down food and kill any harmful pathogens. The amount of enzymes found in raw food have not been shown to drastically improve digestion or the levels of natural enzymes in the body. One critic of raw food, Dr. Stephen Barrett, states, “Raw food contains no enzymes needed for digestion. All the enzymes needed for human digestion are made in the body.”

However, it is important to note that with today’s fast-paced lifestyles and the Standard American Diet, many people are enzyme deficient and can greatly benefit from including supplemental digestive enzymes in their daily program. Enzyme supplements are typically designed to survive the stomach acid environment and release their digestive health benefits once they reach the small intestines, where most nutrient absorption occurs.

Everything in Moderation
For many, the raw food diet may seem like another fad diet. While it may have nutritional drawbacks for some people with weaker digestion, it can also provide benefits from the abundance of fresh produce typically consumed in a raw food diet. Once again, the old adage of “everything in moderation” may be applied in this case. There isn’t one type of diet that is the magical formula for vibrant health, nor does one type of diet work for everybody. The best advice is to maintain well-rounded eating habits that include healthy fats, protein and complex carbohydrates, along with fresh fruits and vegetables, in order to feed your body and mind the nutrients they need to achieve optimal health and well being.