Raw Food Diet - Is Cooking Harmful?
You have most likely come across adherents of the raw diet, proselytizing about the perfection that can only be found in uncooked foods. “We’re not supposed to cook anything,” they say, “heat ruins the nutritional content of food.”
They insist that every polyphenol and micronutrient that “cures cancer” or “prevents aging” die slowly as soon as it is harvested and immediately if it is sautéed or steamed. In fact, the closer you are to the moment you snap the fruit from the tree or pull the egg from under the chicken, the closer you are to achieving perfect harmony with nature and immunity to both time and disease…
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But is any of that actually true? Do we all need to start gnawing on roots and grimacing through raw egg drinks or – gag – chewing on raw chicken? Are we now subject to gutting out piles of uncooked, never diminishing mouthfuls of broccoli in the name of optimal health?
Thankfully, no. You can leave that to your friends in their Vibram shoes and slouchy organic cotton t-shirts who believe the hype. Today we are going to explore why we should eat a wide variety of cooked and uncooked food, then calm the heck down.
Stop Comparing Modern Man to Our Ancestors
The first stop on the dietary truth tour is mythology. Specifically, the mythology raw dieters have created to maintain why eating uncooked foods is the only true path to health.
In this world, life was a Garden of Eden and homo sapiens happily sat around, chewing on twigs and berries. Back then, they say, there was no disease, no cancers, and human beings were happy and strong.
But, that’s not exactly the case. Before civilization, human beings didn’t live very long lives. And, really, none of us can speculate as to whether they were happy with their foraging lifestyles or simply didn’t know any better. Our ancestors lived a rough, short life, according to the whims of mother nature. Spoiler alert: she’s not the doting type. There are zero participation trophies in the fossil record.
Now, consider the fact that humans have been using fire for over 400,000 years. This means we haven’t been eating all raw since we were loping out of the trees and branching out across the plains, still covered in hair and looking very apelike, indeed.
Before homo sapiens, our hominid ancestors had smaller cranial cavities, clamped on both sides by giant jaw muscles to do all the raw gnawing they had to do. It is said that once those giant jaw muscles evolved to become smaller and less intense, our craniums began to grow.
With cranial capacity, came intelligence. With intelligence, came fire. With fire, came cooked foods. Then, our intestines shortened a bit and became more efficient so that the energy we consumed could go to our rapidly growing brains.
Suddenly, we weren’t bound by simple, and easily-absorbed fruits and seeds – we could eat root vegetables and tougher plants, which would otherwise be indigestible without being cooked. We could also eat more foods without worrying about deadly pathogens and bacteria. Therefore, our intestines were able to give even more energy to our big, fat heads.
And those big, fat heads, in turn, put us on the top of the food chain and gave us the keys to the planet (whether this was a good idea in retrospect, we have yet to find out.)
For nearly 30,000 years of our existence, we have been eating bread. By 15,000 years BC, it was a staple, along with beer. What do the raw foodies think of our holy and pristine ancestors full of bread and booze? Probably a little squeamish. Since before the dawn of civilization, we’ve been cooking vegetables and meat and eating breads and drinking alcohol. Sounds more like a beer garden than the Garden of Eden.
Oftentimes, raw food advocates insist that giant animals like gorillas, cows and rhinos eat uncooked vegetation and grow to be huge and strong creatures. Because of this, we, too, should be able to eat raw veggies alone and thrive. But they forget a key detail: we aren’t gorillas, cows, or rhinoceroses.
We do not have as much intestine to pull every ounce of nutrients out of grass. We do not have more than one stomach. We would rather not re-graze upon our own excrement to make sure we leach everything out of our food.
And beyond all of that? Look up how much plant mass these animals have to consume to meet their requirements (tons) and how much time they spend eating in a day (most of their waking hours) and how much rest they need to conserve every calorie they get.
We would be slaves to chewing and napping. That’s all we could do. Forget the new iPhone, everyone at Apple HQ is asleep. We’re not going to the moon, either, because all of NASA has twenty bales of grass to chew through this afternoon before their brains have enough energy to calculate equations.
We are no longer simple hominids and we are not comparable to other species in the animal kingdom. You would think that goes without saying, but, there – it has been said.
What is Bioavailability?
In order to understand how to get the most out of our diet, we should understand bioavailability.
Bioavailability is the term we use to determine how much of the nutrient or chemical ingested actually gets absorbed into the bloodstream and utilized. For example, you can eat a big, juicy steak that has 50 grams of protein, but only so much of that protein goes to muscle gains and the rest goes straight to the local septic system. Some of that bioavailability depends on cooking. Some vitamins and minerals diminish, some amplify.
A sample of the most nutritionally dense foods includes: salmon, kale, blueberries, garlic, egg yolk, sardines, liver, sweet potatoes, and seaweed. It is no doubt if you ate these foods, you would receive more than adequate nutrition, but what is the difference between cooked and raw?
As far as vegetables are concerned, cooking them helps us digest them. Cooking breaks down the cellulose in plants so we can better get at the vitamins and minerals inside. Remember, we aren’t cows and can’t chew our cud.
While leaving vegetables raw helps us absorb more vitamin C, cooking vegetables exposes us to lycopene, which doesn’t happen in the raw.
When carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, and peppers are cooked, they supply more antioxidants, such as carotenoids and ferulic acid, than in their raw state. However, some veggies, including broccoli, are healthier raw rather than cooked. Heat damages an enzyme that helps broccoli produce certain “cancer-fighting” polyphenols. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because another organic “cancer-fighting” compound is released when broccoli is cooked.
As for eggs, research shows that a cooked egg provides 6 grams of digestible protein, whereas a raw egg, only has 3 grams. So, if some guy in baggy zebra-striped pants shows up at your gym and insists upon some old school raw-egg slammer for breakfast, you can say, “no thanks.”
Although heat can destroy proteins, the nutritional value isn’t significantly different between raw and cooked meats. Cooking meat is mostly for flavor, texture, and killing harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne illness.
Is Cooking Harmful?
The way you cook things can affect health. Deep frying foods creates free radicals from oxidizing the oil with high heat. This means that the little chemical explosions in the oil when heated make some electrons unstable and they can affect cells in your body. This doesn’t mean you will die by a plate of French fries; it just means you don’t want to include deep-fried foods in your daily rotation.
The same goes for grilling and smoking and curing meats. These cooking methods create carcinogens that we don’t want accumulating constantly in our bodies. We should enjoy seared and preserved foods in moderation to mitigate any ill-effects that may be linked to excessive consumption.
It seems steaming, lightly sautéing, and microwaving retain nutrients without all of the carcinogens. Boiling does the trick, as well, but be careful not to over-boil things, as the nutrients will leach out into the pot of water over time.
There are also plenty of foods that we need to cook or they’d harm us. Kidney beans and cashews are actually poisonous in their raw state. And then, there are foods like potatoes, root vegetables and some collard greens that are simply too hard on most people’s stomachs to consume raw. They contain hard to digest starches and compounds that make them very bitter, to boot.
Not only that, but there are foodborne pathogens that can cause anything from a bad day on the toilet, or death. E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and Campylobacter are just a few of the nasty things that we can effectively kill with heat. This has helped us all throughout history to consume stored and processed food. If we couldn’t cook food, eating would be a far riskier endeavor.
This is why there is a controversy around milk. Raw foodists insist raw milk is healthiest, but raw milk is one of the most easily contaminated foods with unpleasant microorganisms. This is why Pasteurization was invented. Pasteurization heats up the milk to kill all the bacteria so it can sit in a refrigerator for a while, without said bacteria multiplying and becoming a problem.
Pasteurization does not kill all the nutrients in milk, either. Milk is primarily a source of lactose and proteins, which aren’t destroyed by the gentle heat of Pasteurization. Some of milks vitamin content is diminished, this is true, but those vitamins weren’t in abundance, anyhow. In fact, milk isn’t a huge source of vitamins at all.
Milk is infamously fortified with Vitamin D not because it gets destroyed in the Pasteurization process, but because of a public health initiative to make sure people consumed it, just like folate and iron is added to breakfast cereals. This may surprise you, but raw milk does not contain Vitamin D at all. None.
It’s easy to get things all twisted up when you believe in diet mythology.
How Should You Prepare Food?
Basically, cooking can have both positive and negative impacts on the foods you eat. The good news is the positive effects, such has turning up nutrition, killing bacteria, and making some starchy or otherwise poisonous foods easier to digest, far outweighs the slight risk of free radicals and possible vitamin loss.
The best thing you can do for your diet is to allow for a variety of cooked and uncooked foods. Beware of restrictive food fads with cult followings that claim one food is perfect and another will lead to certain death. Eat what you love, and what makes you feel healthy and strong.
And sometimes? Eat the stuff you don’t love but you know is good for you, too. In other words, Eat joyfully and responsibly. If something hurts your stomach? Don’t eat it, no matter how high on the “superfood” scale it is. Your body will absorb what it needs and eliminate the rest.
Nutrient-dense food is great, but not solely necessary to maintain one’s general health and wellbeing. Constantly fretting over the micronutrient content of every meal can lead to orthorexia and cause far more ill-effects from stress than simply eating food and moving on.
So, eat food both cooked and raw, thoughtfully, but not obsessively, and move on.