The raw truth
Do you think a raw food diet is better and more beneficial than one largely based on cooked food? We sift through the debate, one which doesn’t quite serve up conclusively...
Of all the debates surrounding food these days, and the case being made for the superiority of one diet over the other — meat-based vs. vegetarian, wheat-based vs. gluten, vegan vs. meat, paleo vs. regular, another one has joined the fray — raw vs. cooked.
When did we even reach the point of doubting that the safety and vitality of our health may not lie in cooked food? For we left behind the raw diet of our ancestors back in the caves. Ever since man learnt to make fire, he learnt how to cook food, altering civilisation forever. But the raw fanatics of today’s increasingly health-conscious world cry out their benefits: supposedly better nutrient-absorption and retention, increased disease fighting abilities and, by default, a diet that will incorporate more fruits and vegetables (since you can’t, mostly, eat raw meat or fish).
Cooked food advocates argue the case for being able to intake a larger variety of foods through cooking, its social and cultural benefits, and simply because it tastes better! In his book Catching Fire, Richard Wrangham, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, believes cooking is what made us human. “In order to be able to apply a sufficient number of calories to the brain, you have to be able to cook your food,” Wrangham argues. “You can only afford to have a brain if you can supply a lot of energy to it.”
Or, does our health really depend on moderation, and finding the optimum balance between consuming both raw and cooked food? Read and decide.
The Case for Raw Food
Anja Schwerin is a Dubai-based food blogger, food photographer, food stylist, marathon runner and health conscious cook, who pens her thoughts on all things food and nutrition at anjasfood4thought.com. Her blog offers a number of raw, paleo, vegan and gluten-free recipes, and even when she cooks, she users healthier ingredients like alternative sugars and flours. While a fan of all things food, she vouches for the benefits of a raw diet.
Raw foods are closer to its live state, and therefore richer in nutrients, as opposed to cooked foods. Cooked foods are “dead” — as soon as they are subjected to heat or other forms of preparation, the nutrients tend to die too. They die on being exposed to extreme heat, or cooking in water. In the latter case, the nutrients are also flushed out with the water or broth. On the other hand, raw food does not contain only nutrients, but also anti-nutrients. The cooking process does actually destroy some of those harmful anti-nutrients that may interfere with the absorption of nutrients in the body.
That said, following a raw — or even vegan diet — needs lots of preparation and long-term planning. Going out for a meal at a restaurant, for instance, bec-omes very problematic. These diets can be too restrictive to fit into an otherwise busy life. I personally follow a balanced diet that contains both raw and cooked foods. But I eat at least one raw meal per day, and make sure my cooked foods are prepared from fresh ingredients and cooked in the most “conservative” way possible, e.g. steaming or grilling.
There are ways to make a largely raw diet very palatable, by just adding some touches to it. For example, with salads, I like to think it’s all about the dressing. Try honey mustard, for instance. Or add fresh fruit or dried fruit like raisins; pomegranate seeds are a standard in our salads at home.
IN THE RAW
“Raw foods are unprocessed so nothing’s taken away; you don’t get the nutrient losses that come with cooking,” says Brenda Davis, co-author of Becoming Raw: The Essential Guide to Raw Vegan Diets
COOK IT UP
Dr. Joel Furham, author of the best-selling book Eat to Live, says that most essential nutrients in vegetables are made more absorbable after being cooked in a soup and water-soluble nutrients are not lost, because we eat the liquid portion too
I don’t believe that humans have lost their ability to eat certain foods — like vegetables and grains — unless they’re cooked. I don’t think our digestive abilities change that way. The way people eat has changed though. Much more farming takes place now, and we eat more starchy grains and legumes, which contain a lot of anti-nutrients, even when it’s in cooked form.
Cooking also creates a long-term health hazard when you continually use non-stick pots and pans, aluminum, and ceramic-coated cookware, which are known to be carcinogenic, and contribute to toxicity and disease in the body. Cooking also doesn’t guarantee that the pesticides or preservatives in store-bought ingredients will be removed. Only buying genuine organic, and/or local ingredients is the way to go.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is used as a main criticism against a raw or vegan diet. But supplements will help there. All the other vital vitamins and minerals can be consumed though otherwise wise food choices.
My motto is to eat real foods, as fresh and as little processed as possible. If we manage to consistently omit all processed foods from our life — a hard enough task these days — we will be able to listen to our bodies and its needs, and remain pretty healthy.
Going raw is a process for many people, and not a decision that a full-fledged meat eater can make one day, and start out on the next day — that is more likely to end in failure. Becoming a vegetarian, and then cutting out dairy and eggs to become a vegan, and then trying a raw diet is more likely to lead to success. During this process, your taste buds will undergo changes, and one should adapt slowly to the new diet.
Raw-food cuisine offers some amazing recipes. I have eaten raw soups and raw cakes — they are delicious, and quite filling too. Don’t be deceived into thinking that rawists eat carrots and celery sticks all day long!
Alison Andrews is a popular local food blogger who is a proud raw and vegan food writer and recipe wizard, as she calls herself. She switched to a “high raw” diet around ten years ago, which turned out to be a sort of miracle healing for the numerous allergies, constipation, and hormonal issues she suffered from, according to her. Her site lovingitraw.com chronicles all the information she has picked up along the way on sustaining a raw vegan lifestyle. She has also published the ebook Go Raw In 4.
My whole lifestyle is a testament to the raw food diet. My website is about inspiring others towards a plant-based high raw lifestyle. It is about the simplicity and fun of plant-based foods and recipes and how easy it is to become healthy and high raw, reaping all the benefits of a raw food lifestyle with minimum fuss or upheaval.
A high raw lifestyle can increase your energy and vitality, slow down the ageing process, give your skin a gorgeous glow and leave you feeling fab.
Yet, as much as I recommend a raw diet, the case is for complementing your raw diet with some amount of cooked foods. It depends on the food really. Cooking fruits or salads makes no sense. Yet, cooking a potato is going to make the starches in it much more digestible to the body. Any cooked food diet can be improved by the addition of plenty of fresh fruits and salads, and many raw food diets can be improved with the addition of some simply cooked, plant-based foods. I myself am high raw, not all raw. So it’s extremely easy! Eating both plenty of raw, plus some cooked foods added makes it extremely flexible and easy to adhere to.
It’s a myth that most vegetables can only be enjoyed if they undergo some cooking. Most vegetables are lovely eaten raw. A few of the more starchy vegetables such as butternut squash, for example, are easier to eat cooked, but they can also be enjoyed raw, such as by spiralising them into noodles and adding to a salad. You can also juice most vegetables with a little fruit for a fantastic vegetable juice.
I don’t think that humans have lost the ability to eat most foods unless they’re cooked. Not at all. Raw fruits and salads are so easy to digest (and fibre-rich) that, in fact, when you have been eating easy-to-digest raw foods exclusively for a while, eating cooked foods again really challenges your dig-estion. Only eating cooked food can give rise to all sorts of deficiencies. For instance, the lack of vitamin C, which is achieved primarily from fresh fruits and vegetables. It lowers your immunity and you’ll get sick more often. Then, dehydration — you have to drink a lot of water to combat a diet that consists of only cooked foods (low water content), and most people don’t do this. Eating a largely cooked food diet also leads to faster ageing.
Starting on a raw food diet has both immediate and long-term benefits. Better digestion, for example. The increased fibre content of raw fruits and vegetables means you can expect perfect digestion. Slower ageing is also attributed to the diet, due to the high water content of the foods you’re eating — and it’s the best kind of water too, distilled by nature. You only have to look at raw foodists over 70 years old, such as Annette Larkins and Mimi Kirk, to see how well it works. Raw food also increases your immunity to illnesses.
The only deficiency caused by a raw diet is vitamin B12, which can be supplemented. Everything else (except Vitamin D, which we should get from the sun directly) can be achieved in abundance directly from plant foods, raw or cooked.
Why is it difficult to go raw? I don’t think there can be anything easier than eating fruit. The easy, fun way to eat raw is just to eat fresh delicious fruits in the day, with a big salad or raw soup and some cooked food for dinner. Add in smoothies and green juices whenever you like. It’s really only as difficult as you choose to make it.
The Case for Cooked Food
Tina Chagoury is a clinical dietician and health behaviour educator at Live’ly, the Dubai-based nutritional services company that provides consulting, educational and catering services. She setting up their dietetic department in 2005. Like any dietitian worth her salt, she believes in moderation and achieving the fine balance when it comes to the food we consume.
The biggest advantage of cooked food is that it is more readily absorbed by the body. You can eat a bigger variety of foods and hence, the more the nut-rients and vitamins available to you. More importantly, it allows us to consume important foods that are not possible to digest raw, like beef, fish and some root vegetables. Needless to say, cooked food is tastier as well.
It’s not always the case that nutrients are lost in the cooking process. Very small amounts of nutrients are lost with conservative cooking, such as in stews and soups, but a good amount of nutrients are actually made more absorbable; when we heat and moisturise vegetables and beans for instance, we increase their digestibility and absorption, and also the plant proteins in the diet, which is specially important for vegetarians.
Cooking actually destroys some of the harmful compounds that bind minerals in the gut and interfere with their action, which in turn increases their activity in the body. For instance, cellu-lose, which is hardly ever digested raw, is broken down by steaming, and then require fewer of our enzymes to digest the food. But, on the other hand, the roasting of nuts for instance, or the baking of cereals, does reduce the availability and absorbability of proteins. Deep-frying vegetables also drastically reduces their vitamin content.
There are quite a few deficiencies one is likely to get from consuming mainly raw food. 1) Ferritin (iron stores): Ferritin levels are very important to check to avoid iron deficiency anemia. Found mainly in red meat, which are usually consumed cooked, we can compensate by consuming some foods that can be eaten raw such as cherries, blackberries, spinach, dates, Swiss chard, burdock root, sea vegetables like kelp, and figs. 2) B12: probably the most common deficiency that can develop out of a vegan or raw vegan diet. I do recommend taking a B12 supplement on a regular basis for those on a prima-rily raw and vegan diet. 3) Cholesterol: Very low cholesterol levels are reasons to worry, and a raw vegan diet has shown to affect total cholesterol levels, which are correlated with depression, anxiety, risk of hemorrhagic stroke and premature births. Include healthy fats through raw nuts and olive oil in your diet, with raw fish and beef, if possible.
I believe the current popularity of raw food is another craze that will have its followers like any other food craze. The problem is that people need to learn moderation; trends are far from changing eating behavior to the better; just like the high protein craze that also invades society until today: we prefer to consume liberally a certain type of food (raw food in that case) or we lose control completely and find it difficult to apply a disciplined, diversified diet. So I am against following a purely raw diet for more than a few days, and I am a very tough advocate of consuming all foods in moderation for both health purposes and maintaining a fit body.
Of course, you can maintain a combination of both methods — cooked and raw — with a focus on quality ingredients and healthy methods of cooking, as not all cooking is created equal. Go for pressure cooking, baking, steaming and stew making: avoid deep-frying, stir frying and BBQing. Be aware what oils, additions and ingredients you use. Always go for seasonal vegetables and good quality low fat proteins.
It’s difficult to enjoy most vegetables unless they undergo some cooking, plus there is the danger of consuming pesticides, preservatives and bacteria when you don’t cook certain items. That’s definitely a reason for cooking and improving the food quality; however, I also strongly believe raw vegetables should be a main part of our diet and consumed daily alongside cooked dishes.
Evolution has played a role in our digestion and enzymes capability, but the debate should be more about processed vs. wholesome food, and not eating raw spinach vs boiling it. Our body has evolved to digest and absorb processed foods that are not useful or healthy and that should be the focus: avoid processed and stick to natural, nutrient filled and simple foods; whether cooked or raw, it doesn’t matter!
Raw Pea Basil Hummus (Serves 6)
2 cups peas, fresh or thawed
2 tbsp tahini
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp lemon juice
¼ tsp salt
2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Add water to achieve desired consistency. Serve immediately or store in the fridge for up to 48 hours.
Cinnamon Almond Butter Truffles (Yields 15-20)
1 cup whole raw almonds (or ½ cup almond butter)
¼ cup dried figs, chopped
¼ cup dried coconut flakes + more for coating
4 tablespoons honey or agave syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon water (optional)
In a food processor, combine almond butter*, figs, ¼ cup dried coconut flakes, cinnamon and agave/honey. Blend until well combined. If the batter seems to dry to form balls, add a teaspoon of water and blend again in the food processor.
Form balls of the size of a cherry, then roll in dried coconut flakes to coat. Place in mini muffin liners. Keep in airtight container at room temperature or in the fridge.
*For the almond butter:
Place 1 cup of almonds into the food processor. Blend for about 25 minutes (yes, 25!), until texture becomes creamy. It is important to regularly wipe the sides of the food processor. Process, wipe sides, process, wipe sides. You’ll get about ½ cup of almond butter out of a cup of whole almonds. (Courtesy: Anja Schwerin)