Expat Life

Truths and myths about raw foods; When is it healthier cooked?

By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE

I’ve recently spied a certain raven-haired celebrity looking uncomfortably bony on the cover of a magazine. Turns out she’s been following a raw foods diet.chl susan logo2

I wonder if she’s taking care to obtain all of the vital nutrients that are necessary for good health? Committed “rawists” know a strict raw foods lifestyle requires serious planning and then devoting lots of time to preparation. Otherwise, the follower can find themselves seriously deficient in protein, vitamin B-12 and other vital nutrients.

As explained in LiveScience.com, raw veganism is a plant-based diet that involves no cooking. No food is heated above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Foods are eaten fresh, or dehydrated with low heat, or fermented.

There is a certain amount of attractiveness attached to the word “raw”, as in unadulterated, pure, natural or unprocessed. And raw can be the basis for any healthy diet…but the question begs: Are we making ourselves cranky while trying to get and stay healthier?

Why cooking is healthful

Cooking helps us digest food without expending huge amounts of energy. It softens food, such as cellulose fiber and raw meat, that our small teeth, weak jaws and digestive systems aren’t equipped to handle.B12Sources

All cooking methods are not equal. For example, boiling and cooking with excessive heat can destroy certain nutrients, especially water-soluble B-vitamins and vitamin C. Red peppers are packed full of vitamin C, but when temps reach 375 degrees F, the C is rendered less potent.

Overheating diminishes a food’s antioxidants and healthy fats, too. Charring meats can increase your risk for carcinogenic heterocyclic amines or HCAs.

But is that a good enough reason to turn a cold shoulder to cooked foods?

A core tenet of those advocating a raw-only diet is that heating food above 104 degrees F diminishes food’s nutrients and denatures “live” enzymes, making foods indigestible.

As logical as that may sound, it’s mistaken. As Jo Robinson, investigative journalist and nutrition writer so coherently said on a recent Freakonomics podcast, One of the claims is that if you cook things you destroy plant enzymes, and that’s true. And so, the thinking is we need these plant enzymes in order to digest our food; they’re gonna make us healthier. But plant enzymes are not created for our health. They’re for the plant’s health.”

Many foods are naturally more enjoyable, safer and even more nutritious when cooked

Topping the list of foods that are better when cooked are the obvious — meats, fish and eggs. We’ve lengthened our lifespan partly because we’ve learned how to make foods safer with heat. Most bacteria in foods that range from milk to meat are banished when cooked to a proper temperature.

salmon & vegetables
Salmon with vegetables.

Some plant foods are healthier when eaten raw. But some plant foods are healthier when cooked.

Raw beets are better. Beets lose about 25% of their folate when cooked — so try beets raw, shredded in a salad with carrots and radishes.

Raw garlic’s allicin is a more potent antioxidant when uncooked, but it’s pretty sharp tasting; I prefer it roasted.

Raw cacao’s micronutrients are not present in sugar-and added fat-laden chocolate candy bars…but unsweetened, it’s just about inedible — I wrote a previous column about a source for naturally-sweetened, organic stuff in Cuenca — readers, please feel free to post your favorite below.

And processing isn’t always a dirty word. Raw chia seeds are good sources of calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants…but they’re a little difficult to get out of your teeth — better to grind it.

Proper cooking brings out the flavor, enjoyment, and boosts nutrition in many foods

Research shows that carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and bell peppers pack more antioxidants when steamed.

Whether you sauté, boil, grill, or roast mushrooms, cooking releases the muscle-building potassium.

Eat spinach lightly cooked (lightly steamed or quickly sautéed) and absorb more calcium, iron, and magnesium. Since spinach is a good source of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K, (plus vitamin C and B-vitamins), cooking with a little fat (olive oil) increases the absorption even more. Adding some vitamin C (lemon juice) or with some acid (citrus juice or vinegar) helps you absorb the iron in spinach too.

Heating broccoli deactivates myrosinase, an enzyme in broccoli that helps cleanse the liver of carcinogens; however, steaming broccoli makes it cholesterol lowering. The fiber-related components in broccoli do a better job of binding together with bile acids in your digestive tract when they’ve been steamed. When this binding process takes place, it’s easier for bile acids to be excreted, and the result is a lowering of your cholesterol levels. Raw broccoli still has cholesterol-lowering ability — just not as much. I enjoy broccoli both raw and cooked. Read more here.

Marinated vegetable kabobs.

Lycopene is the red pigment in tomatoes and other rosy fruits, including guava, papaya and watermelon. It’s a powerful antioxidant that’s linked to a lower risk for cancer and heart attacks. Research shows that turning up the heat on tomatoes enhances lycopene’s potency — add some olive oil and basil, and now you’re cooking with gas! Jo Robinson says, Canned tomatoes are actually better for us than a fresh, organic, locally harvested, heirloom tomato. When lycopene is heated, it is transformed into a form that we find easier to absorb. And the best source of lycopene in the entire store is tomato paste. And you know people don’t like to hear that. How could that be? But in fact, science supports it.”

When nutritious foods taste good, you’re more likely to eat them — and some foods are just inedible when raw. Whole grains like quinoa, rice, wheat berries can be sprouted — and sprouts are nutritious — but after a while, I want some chew!

Legumes, lentils, black beans, and garbanzos all require soaking and cooking. Here in Cuenca, the soups are fabulous. How about some black bean soup with brown rice or quinoa? I crave the texture and flavor of these delicious, nutritious, and satiating foods — and cooked is the only way to enjoy them.

Healthy preparation enhances good nutrition — smart eaters avoid plunging a magnesium and potassium-rich potato into boiling fat — turning a nutrient-rich spud into a fatty dud.

Get hooked on the health benefits of the omega-3 fatty acids in yummy grilled fish. There’s nothing better than a scrubbed and baked sweet potato loaded with fresh-made tomato salsa — add red onions, olive oil, lemon juice, a little sea salt and cilantro and boost the nutrition significantly.

Detox? Do it with whole foods – naturally

Allow your body to do the job that it’s designed to do — naturally. Eat foods both raw and healthfully cooked, especially fruits and vegetables and whole grains, these plant foods not only allow but actually help your immune system, your liver, kidneys, lungs and other organs in your body to naturally do their “natural detox” on a daily basis.

Drink enough water and fuel your fitness with a balanced diet — sufficient protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats. There’s nothing worse than going on a “raw foods fast”, and trying to walk up the Escalinata steps! Read more about food and energy here.

It is not necessary to deprive yourself of the pleasure of eating a bowl of protein-rich hot tomato quinoa soup, or roasted eggplant and garlic spread, or grilled trucha with roasted potatoes. Diets should not mean deprivation.

Savor this easy-to-swallow advice: Don’t diet, live it! Create a balance that is sustainable for life.

roasted tomato soup
Roasted tomato soup.

Roasted Tomato Soup with Quinoa and Feta

Adapted from WholeFoodsHouse.com

Ingredients (serves 4)

16 medium sized round tomatoes

1 tsp sea salt

Cracked black pepper

1 bulb garlic

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 ½ tsp ground coriander

1 ½ tsp paprika

1 tsp ground cumin

3-¼ cups vegetable stock 

1 cup cooked quinoa – see below

2 Tbsp feta cheese (optional)

2 Tbsp snipped chives


  1. Preheat oven 160°C. Chop tomatoes into eighths, toss in a colander with pepper and salt and set in the sink to drain for 15 minutes (the salt will draw moisture from the tomatoes). Arrange tomatoes in a large roasting dish or two- they should not be crowded- with garlic bulb. Drizzle with olive oil and roast for about an hour, until tomatoes are shrunken and sweet to taste and garlic is soft.
  2. When the garlic is cool enough to touch squeeze pulp into a food processor with tomatoes, spices and stock (swirl it around in the roasting pan to dislodge any yummy remnants first). Pulse on medium, stopping before the soup is completely smooth- a little bit of texture is good. Transfer to a saucepan with quinoa, heat gently and adjust seasoning, keeping in mind that the feta will add saltiness.
  3. Serve topped with feta, chives and cracked black pepper.

For 1 cup cooked quinoa: Wash ¾ cup quinoa thoroughly and combine in small saucepan with 1-cup water. Bring to the boil covered and simmer gently for about 12 minutes, until the water is absorbed. Remove from heat and allow to sit for 10 minutes before fluffing with a fork.


Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March

Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is... Read More

  • Kay

    Raw food (as in salads) can be tasty…I love crunch in my food. But, I learned long ago that my digestive system does not like raw food at all, so I minimize it as much as possible. Nice to know the scientific reasons that cooked foods are good for me too. Thanks, Susan

  • PoppyJohn

    Great article. Have been cooking like this for years. Yes, cooking helps a lot with taste and digestion in many cases.

  • BDev

    Some observations:
    1. Nature works. Life, and all its systems, work. Otherwise there would be no life as we know it.
    2. One part of the propagation of Life is that every living thing that has ever existed, since the beginning of Life itself, has eaten everything it has ever eaten, raw. Life is designed to thrive on raw foods, across all animal kingdoms.
    3. Humans are a part of Life, so humans ideally should eat a lot, if not all its foods, raw.

    So with that understood, we can see that ‘research’ that suggests heavily cooking tomatoes for better nutrition, for example, is very myopic in scope. The beautiful little tomato likely has hundreds if not thousands of nutrients in it. To limit research focus to one nutrient, lycopene, and then make blanket statements about the nutrition of tomatoes cooked vs raw, is way out of line. Even if lycopene is made somewhat more ‘available’ by cooking, what has been done to the thousands of other tomato nutrients due to serious derangement by high heat for many hours?

    Each proper food for humans has a wealth of nutrients in it, directly available in proper balance and synergy, exactly as it is. Eat a wide variety of natural, biologically correct foods and you will get a huge amount of natural nutrients, as intended. If there are limitations of diet for whatever reason, then complement your natural raw diet with whatever conservatively cooked foods you need.

  • Juts Liek

    Thanks for the info – sharp and precise as always.

    I’d like to see the word “diet” outlawed when used in phrases such as “vegan diet” because a diet is a habitual way of eating, presumably with the goal of sustaining life, and habitually following a vegan “diet” will result in death from a vitamin B-12 deficiency. Sure, one can swallow B-12 pills, but that merely sidesteps the issue. A vegan way of eating will not sustain life, period.

    In addition, eating raw food makes it nearly impossible to obtain enough energy from food to keep going. Personally, I’ll eat almost anything that can’t get away, and so far I’m doing OK.

  • Todd

    This is what my youngest son had to say about this article after I sent it to him. I knew he would write me back about it:

    Sounds biased misleading and absolutely no work or studies cited.. in fact her only quote or work cited came from ANOTHER journalist.. xD
    B-12 deficiency is a myth as your body just like every cow, horse , or any other herbivore create it’s own B-12 when needed…
    In fact any extra “B-12” or other “essential” vitamins that are found in meat, are only there because they are fed multi-vitamin supplements from the store…
    She doesn’t even realize why raw foodists don’t eat meat or animal products xD she just weighs cooked vs uncooked and that doesn’t work as most anyone raw or not would tell you if you eat meat you have to cook it
    It’s not so black and white 😛
    Cooked food tastes better – opinion as most people their entire lives only prepare cooked food, they have no experience in where to even start with preparing raw food… I’ve made raw apple pie for example, and was one of the best pies I’ve ever made! And one of the only pies I ever made where I didn’t throw up after eating it all! Because it had no flour, oil, sugar etc.. it was chia, figs, apples, bananas, raisins, nuts, hell that was probably the healthiest dessert I’ve ever eaten along with it being healthier than most people’s meals!
    I eat cooked food out of convenience but as soon as I get to my property I’d like to be eating raw till dinner each day
    (I find if I eat raw at night when I’m sleeping I’ll have an empty stomach because you digest raw food so quickly)
    There’s a lot of people who eat “raw till 2” something like that ..

  • StillWatching

    Great article. A keeper to refer to frequently. Nice job. I’m going to e-mail a copy to you-know-who.

  • Todd

    I knew you wouldn’t post any negative comments. So sad that you do this disservice to your readers.

    • Jean McCord

      Did you notice that your negative comments and BDev’s comments were posted? So sad for you.

    • StillWatching

      Todd, stop whining. That’s a negative comment about you. I have 100% confidence it will be published. Your generalization about negative comments is wrong and so are the observations of your youngest son.

  • LadyMoon

    It might be more useful to avoid ‘allness’ statements. My system cannot handle raw food…I do eat it sometimes, but know it isn’t good FOR ME. I had allergy testing done and virtually anything with fiber (raw veggies and fruits), plus brown but not white rice….etc. It would be a wonderful world if we could all be tested to know precisely works for our individual needs.

    • BDev

      Hi LadyMoon – Yes, you are correct. There are ‘always’ exceptions. 😉 Sorry to hear that raw fiber causes such challenging problems. But you must admit that this is a very odd, even perhaps perverse metabolic situation. Kinda like I have heard of people who are ‘allergic’ to water, sunlight or air. ‘Tis a bizarre immunological twist…

  • BDev

    JM – Sorry that you feel my comment to be negative. I simply post some obvious facts about how Life operates across the globe. For humans to pretend that they are somehow exceptions to Basic Life Principles, that we can opt out in the regards of correct diet, sleep, exercise, sunlight, etc and still expect to be healthy, balanced and sane, is foolhardy.

    • StillWatching

      Your comments are not negative.

      Nor are some of what you refer to as facts, factual.

      You’re still my favorite libertarian.

      By the way, I still have something you wrote sitting in my e-mail inbox (I copied and pasted it and mailed it to myself) and I still intend to get to it soon.

  • StillWatching


    You presumed that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other.

    Many people confuse correlation (things happening together or in sequence) for causation (that one thing actually causes the other to happen).

    Sometimes correlation is coincidental, or it may be attributable to a common cause.

    Example: Pointing to a fancy chart, Roger shows how temperatures have been rising over the past few centuries, whilst at the same time the numbers of pirates have been decreasing; thus pirates cool the world and global warming is a hoax.

    You wrote this: “Eat a wide variety of natural, biologically correct foods and you will get a huge amount of natural nutrients, as intended.”

    As intended? That is anthropomorphic.

    • BDev

      Nature works, yes? Science is the rational study of nature, of all that is. Macros systems and laws are in constant operation. Similarly, regarding Life, macro laws, systems and operations are in play.
      If some bit of science comes to a conclusion that is in opposition to obvious laws, systems or operations that are working, and have been working forever, then it is science that has somehow missed something, or has limited itself, or that certain fundamental assumptions are erroneous.
      To observe that all life on earth, since the beginning, eats all its foods raw, is clear and indisputable. Whether I want to call it “intentional,” or you want to call it “anthropomorphic,” is pointless, really. The point is that it is true.
      So, it is wise, and scientific, that humans would best eat its foods raw, as doing so is naturally harmonizing with the macro system that works for all Life. Anything less is less than ideal.
      Now, if one wants to eat cooked foods for the smells, the taste sensations, the palatability, whatever… well, fine. Go right ahead and enjoy it. People do all sorts of things for pleasure that are less-than-ideally healthy. Just don’t start believing it is optimal for you, nutritionally speaking. Life has evolved over eons, synergistically, with raw foods as the dietary macro system that works. Why not intelligently “go with the flow”?

      • StillWatching

        That is some of the most spurious sophistry I have ever read and It is internally self contradictory. In your penultimate sentence, you allude to evolution because you think it supports your position, yet you ignore the fact that man has evolved to cook his food and in the process, has extended life expectancies, reduced the incidence of food borne bacterial infections and increased his enjoyment of food to boot. All of these outcomes have demonstrable links to cooking food, unlike the false causation you cited in your original post.