The Raw Food Debate

By Jayne Robinson

Have you heard about the benefits of eating raw food? That the process of cooking destroys enzymes and reduces the amounts of vitamins and minerals? Nutritionist Chris Sandel explains why the argument that "raw is best' is not so straightforward.

Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating. For the Frame blog he explains why, despite popular opinion, raw is not always best.

Have you heard about the benefits of eating your food raw? That the process of cooking destroys enzymes and reduces the amounts of vitamins and minerals?

Well despite the claims that “raw is best” it’s not so straightforward. While cooking food can reduce certain substances in a food, it also makes food easier to digest. And this is a huge benefit.

In Richard Wrangham’s book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human he argues about the importance of cooked food as a boon for our evolution. Prior to cooking we spent huge amounts of our time chewing and eating and digesting food to get out of it what we needed.

But through cooking, which helps to break down lots of the fibres, carbohydrates and proteins, it makes the food easier to digest and increases the calories we can get out of it. This meant that we increased the intake of calories but for much less effort. It lead to our bigger brains and more time to do things that eventually lead to the advanced societies we have today.

One of the issues of comparing the amounts of vitamins and minerals in raw versus cooked food is that just because these substances are in the food, doesn’t mean you’ll absorb them. So while on paper the raw food has the higher numbers, in reality it’s often the cooked version that provides more once we factor in digestive ability.

For example, with things like vegetables, people often believe that raw or lightly steamed is better than longer cooking or making a soup from them. But again, this depends on what’s digested and often the raw and lightly steamed stuff doesn’t do so well.

Now, if someone is eating this hard to digest food and it is just making it’s way through the body with lots of vitamins and minerals still undigested then the only downside is the nutrients that missed out on being absorbed.

But for lots of clients, the issue is much worse then this. Rather than simply missing out on certain nutrients, these difficult to digest foods actually create digestive upset and the outcome is lots of gas and bloating. And it can also affect their ability to digest other foods.

This inability to digest this food isn’t just about the micronutrients they are missing out on, but calories in general. And if someone is eating a lot of this food, they may be under eating from a calories perspective because they are unable to absorb what they need.

So rather than it just being a matter of missing some vitamins and minerals, it’s a problem that leads to a procession of other issues.

This same problem can arise even if someone is having a lot of this raw stuff in juice form. Because lots of the foods that people put in juices they wouldn’t eat in raw food form normally.

Rarely, if ever, would someone sit down and eat raw beetroots, cabbage, kale, and broccoli to name a few. But these things are put in juices in large amounts because the belief is that in juice form they are fine to digest. (If this stuff is fermented it’s a different story because the fermentation processed aids in digestion).

Some juicers remove a lot of the fibre and the fibre in this raw form is part of the issue with digestion. But it’s not the only issue. Lots of the substances in these foods, we, as humans aren’t very good at digesting. Other substances, like the goitrogens in cruciferous vegetables, can negatively affect thyroid health, but can be mediated by cooking.

Juicing does break food down to much smaller particles. But there is a big difference between the sizes of these particles and how small they really need to be to make their way in into the blood supply and around the body. So a lot of digestion still needs to be taking place in the small intestine. Because this is food that really should have been cooked, our ability to do this affectively is minimised.

This isn’t about creating fear or saying that everyone should be avoiding juicing of vegetables, because this is not the case. But for most people there is a threshold amount for how much of these kinds of juices they can tolerate before it is a problem. And having it as regularly as lots of people do, often in place of an actual meal, is likely going to affect their health in a negative way.

I want to bring some level-headedness to the discussion of raw foods versus cooked foods. Eating a food in its raw form in some circumstances can be better, but this isn’t always the case. And the blanket advice that “raw is best” is erroneous.

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