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If you've ever enjoyed the satisfying crunch and fresh flavor of a vegetable salad or a perfectly crisp apple, you already know that raw foods are not just nutritious but tasty indeed. But have you ever considered doing without cooked foods entirely? Raw foodists have, and do.
Raw foodism is based on a diet of unprocessed, uncooked (not heated above 116 degrees Fahrenheit) foods eaten in an attempt to reap maximum health benefits. A raw-foods diet is comprised largely of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with nuts and seeds, whole grains, dried fruit, and other uncooked, unprocessed foods. Cooking can diminish the nutrient content in many foods to some degree (vitamin C, B vitamins and enzymes, among others, are susceptible), so raw forms are often more nutrient-rich than cooked varieties.
A raw-foods diet is naturally high in fiber, water, vitamins, antioxidants and other health-promoting nutrients. And when diets are retooled to displace less nutritious and more calorie-dense foods--processed, fried and fatty foods, and many animal products--with more nutrient-rich, raw foods, people often report feeling healthier and more energetic.
Cooking With Care
There's no doubt that fresh fruits and veggies are chock-full of nutrients with far-reaching health benefits, including disease prevention. Even so, those considering going the raw-foods route should understand that cooking actually renders some nutrients more bioavailable than when they're consumed raw, meaning that the body can better absorb them.
Beta-carotene from carrots is one example. And lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes that's been linked to decreased cancer risk, is significantly more bioavailable once cooked. (Consuming cooked tomato products with a fat source--such as olive oil--enhances absorption even more.)
In addition, study results published last year in the journal Nutrition Research demonstrated that steaming cruciferous vegetables--collard greens, cabbage, broccoli, kale and the like--enhanced their bile-acid binding potential, a factor associated with lowering the risk of heart disease and cancer.
It is true that certain cooking methods can break down vitamins and other healthful constituents in foods, but mindful preparation goes a long way toward preserving nutrients. And our bodies produce their own enzymes to help us break down foods for nourishment. The issue, says registered dietitian and American Dietetic Association Spokesperson Keri Gans, RD, MS, CDN, isn't with cooking foods but with overcooking them. She recommends lightly steaming vegetables to preserve the most nutrients, as well as using cooking water in sauces and soups to recover nutrients leached into cooking water.
Another benefit of cooking is that it can decrease the likelihood of contracting food-borne illnesses by killing harmful bacteria. This is especially important for pregnant women, small children and those with compromised immune systems. (Washing fresh produce can help keep it safe for anyone to consume, although some raw foods, including sprouts, aren't recommended for these groups.) For people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) [LINK to IBS article?] and other digestive issues, cooking can also help reduce gastric distress resulting from eating some vegetables raw.
Gans recommends the following tips to help keep raw produce safe:
- Wash produce under cold, running water with a produce scrub brush. (Warm water tends to promote bacterial growth.)
- Be sure to wash fruits and vegetables that have an outer layer (melons, mangos and the like) which you'll discard before eating. They need washing because the knife used to cut through them comes in contact with the outer skin.
- Don't store fruits and veggies already washed. Instead, wash only the amount you're going to eat at the time.
Up the Fruits and Veggies
The bottom line is that both raw and cooked foods can be healthy; it's not an either/or proposition. The important thing for most people, says Gans, is to simply eat more fruits and vegetables, period.
"The average American today is falling way short of the dietary guidelines of three to five servings of vegetables and two to four servings of fruit per day," Gans says. If you don't like fresh vegetables and you'll eat more if they're cooked, then go right ahead, she advises. If you're likely to eat more apples if they're baked instead of raw, by all means turn on the oven (just don't pile butter and brown sugar on top).
Eating both raw and healthfully cooked foods is also more convenient than limiting yourself to raw only. You'll have more options when dining out, and you'll likely spend less time in the kitchen chopping, blending, dehydrating and juicing.
"Sticking to a raw-foods diet is very hard to do," says Gans. "And I'm not sure that science will support that it's any healthier than eating a well-balanced diet."
About the Author
Liz Brown is a health, nutrition and travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a B.S. degree in Nutrition and is co-author (with Chris Meletis, N.D.) of the book "
" (Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004). Brown is also a Spa magazine contributing editor.