Monday, March 4, 2013

What's Better Raw or Cooked?

Last week I posted the lovely Juli Novotny’s letter where she discussed her initial discovery of raw food. Thank you for all your emails and comments. A handful of clients came into their sessions asking, so if I want to feel like she did do I need to go raw? This reminded me of another, more in depth, email I had received a few weeks back.
Are there foods that I am getting no nutrients from because I cook them? How do I know how many nutrients I am losing and which ones? Are they the ones I care most about?
As always, I look forward to hearing what you have to say!!
I’ve been in book writing induced hibernation so I had our fantastic newish nutrition nerd Carla Vass tackle this. Here are her answers to my questions.

Let’s start with the case for cooked. Which foods are more beneficial when cooked?
Yes, tomatoes for sure. The antioxidant content of tomatoes significantly increases when cooked. Lycopene, in tomatoes, has been singled out as important for prostate health but lycopene is a very powerful anti-cancer weapon in general. It is 10 times as effective as vitamin E at wiping out free radicals which can affect our cancer risk. Tomato sauce, tomatoes cooked in chili and soups are important in a healthy diet. Additionally, cooked carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage and peppers  also supply more antioxidants, such as carotenoids and ferulic acid, cooked than they do when raw.
There is also the question of digestibility. Have you tried uncooked squash? The sturdy cell wall is difficult to digest without heating first. Dried beans need cooking. Other beans need heat to kill certain compounds. Lima beans contain the poison cyanide, which is released harmlessly as a gas during cooking.
And all cooking methods are probably not created equal, what’s best and worst?
Yes, steaming was the most successful method of retaining the vitamin content of food. Stir-frying and pressure-cooking also proved to be good methods of cooking. We expected boiling but deep drying is the worst (for this and other reasons). We also received a Vitamix question; vitamixers do not worry contents do not get hot enough to destroy enzymes or nutrients.
And the reasons for raw, which foods are most important to eat raw?
The nutrient most affected by cooking is Vitamin C. The cooked tomatoes we discussed above as potent anti-cancer weapons? Well almost 30% of the Vitamin C will be lost in half an hour of cooking. That Mr Vitamin C is very unstable but is also much needed for immunity, wound healing and assistance absorbing iron.

It’s probably a good idea for everyone to eat some raw leafy greens and high “C” fruits each day (papaya, kiwi, oranges, strawberries). Vitamin C, aside what are the other reasons for raw?
Advocates point out that people ate raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds long before they learned to cook. They say that a return to this original diet increases energy, strengthens immunity to disease, and improves mental health.
While I’m all for less processed I hate this type of argument about what people used to do. People used to not wear seatbelts and eat poisonous berries too-whoops. Can’t use chronology as a method for determining what’s best in all cases. Thanks Carla, good information.
I’ve done weeks here and there of raw food and it feels great. Part of the reason it feels great is that you’re eating very nutritious foods but part of it is also what you’re eating less of: fewer grains, no dairy and less salt too. I try to have 1 juice or green smoothie and 1 dark/leafy green or microgreen salad per day. Especially in the winter, I find warm food very satisfying.
As much as I  hate answers that start with “it depends” or sound like hedging in the case of raw versus cooked it does depend. In terms of vegetables, try to eat some raw and some cooked each day and watch out for those lima beans (who knew?).
Have you dabbled in raw food? Thought about nutrients lost in cooking? What would you say your percentage of raw versus cooked is in your diet?


  1. I also hate the argument "this is how people used to eat" We tend to forget that people's life expectancy was in the 40's.

  2. lol, yeah, people USED to eat poisonous berries and mushrooms from nature, not knowing they were poison....and people USED to smoke in every restaurant around town.....we are an evolving species, it's wonderful isn't it?!
    I'm tweet this post pronto, because I Get this question all the time! Thanks Lauren.

  3. And I didn't mean to dismiss raw foods because some of my favorite meals and tastes have been raw. I just don't see the justification for 100% raw and that doesn't mean it can't be a healthy diet.

  4. exactly, there are some things we "used to do" or our relatives/ancestors did that were great and others not so much.

  5. As a student of Chinese Medicine the topic of Raw Food diets comes up a lot. The general CM theory says that our stomachs are cauldrons that are responsible for the transportation and transformation of all the body's energy. Much like throwing ice water onto a fire would hinder its energy production, eating raw, cold foods can consume the stomach's "fire" and eventually damage the digestive energy which is at the root of all the processes of the body.

    I think it's all about balance. On a frigid winter day when your body is already working harder to keep itself warm, it's better to eat a warm soup than a big cold salad. Same goes if you are fighting an illness. During the summer months, raw foods might be easier for the body to handle.

    Love this topic! Great q&a, and totally agree that just because something "used to be done" doesn't mean it's right. Otherwise I'd be sitting here writing this in a corset and full skirt instead of jeans. :)

  6. Love the Chinese medicine addition Sarah, thank you. I think temperature in itself is interesting to explore and what our body has to do to process the food. And yes, time of year is important too. You know I write all blog posts while wearing a corset, right? See you in a minute, I have to run to the well to get some water.

  7. Love this post! I always find myself feeling guilty when I read about people doing raw food diets. It seems so unattainable! I like a combination of raw & cooked foods so it's nice to know that both are good for you!

  8. Andrea@WellnessNotesMarch 4, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    I eat both raw and cooked foods, and I naturally eat more raw foods in the summer. I have done a few raw weeks here and there, and it felt good. I don't think I would ever switch to an all raw diet, but I'm looking forward to increasing my raw food again very soon.

  9. For me cooked food tastes better and is easier to digest. I know that some have really good luck doing totally raw diets but unfortunately I am not one of them.

    And your thoughts on chronology? Totally agree.

  10. Great post Lauren! I changed the majority of my breakfasts to be raw smoothies (in no small part because of your nutrition advice) and it feels great to start the day not only raw but with so many healthy ingredients! Like many others I eat more cooked foods (yummy soup!s) in the winter and more raw foods in the summer. I love that the bottom line of this post is that variety is the key. It just makes sense to me (although I was one of those people who was worried that I was cooking away my nutrients every time I threw my veggies into a pot!)

  11. strategic variety ava. I think it's important that we not get trapped by labels. Raw foods are fantastic but do we need to be raw only (some people like to adhere to a certain philosophy). I have vegan friends and clients, like you, or eat some fish (I know, I know has to work morally for people) and dairy free clients who eat fermented dairy. If we focus on what we enjoy eating, what works for our digestion and wellness and mix it up, it's often better than being overly rigid.

  12. And a good point Ameena. Cooking can break down food a bit for us so that our digestive systems do less work.

  13. I can see this Andrea but I encourage clients to make the effort for some raw food, even in the winter, when we're all included to soup and stew our days away.

  14. I agree Lauren. As with Juli's post, many commented me feeling do they "have to" go raw. My feeling is Juli talked about many things: cooking most/all of her own food, decreasing packaged/processed food and sugar and raw foods. There are many means to an energetic "end". The combo plan (of whole, nutritious foods) is fine. Guilt be gone. Wait, your comment came through, so exciting.

  15. I also agree that just because it's what people used to do doesn't mean it's necessarily better (seat belts and car seats are a good case-in-point). There are plenty of things in today's society that are better than they used to be, as well as plenty of things that are worse. I have to admit that I don't think a whole lot about whether I should be eating raw or cooked food - I figure that I should focus first on making sure my family eats enough fruits/veggies in any form that works. If they will only eat cooked veggies, then so be it. My primary focus is eating as little processed food as is feasible for us, then about not eating too much sugar. I worry about the raw aspect after that.

    It was an interesting comment that one of the biggest benefits of the raw diet was what you DON'T eat, like grains and dairy. I think that says a lot more about those foods than it does about the raw foods.