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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.