Is Your Diet Overcooked?

ADDITIONAL CONTRIBUTORS Cody Fenwick Veronica Chavez

By Cody Fenwick and Veronica Chavez

Photos by Ashley Rodriguez.

With adult obesity at an all-time-high in the US and a heightened awareness of the health dangers that stem from highly processed foods, many Americans seek diets based on more natural, wholesome ingredients.

Some claim that the purest and best diet is based entirely on raw foods. The popularity of raw food diets has surged within the last 15 years. Though followers of raw food regime disagree over various details of the ideal diet, they all share an aversion to cooked fare.

Proponents quibble, for instance, about the exact temperature over which “cooking” occurs. Some say food should never be heated above 112 degrees Fahrenheit, while others accept up to 118 degrees Fahrenheit. But any conventional cooking method, whether with a stove, oven, grill, toaster, microwave, or fire pit, is ruled out in principle.

Raw foodism is frequently associated with a vegan diet, which requires abstinence from meat and all other animal products. But raw food diets can contain animal products, such as the raw fish in sushi and sashimi, “raw” unpasteurized milk, and even raw meat. Exclusively raw foods can comprise many diets, whether vegan, vegetarian, omnivorous, or carnivorous.

Is there good reason to follow a raw food diet? Raw foodists make many claims to support their nutritional choices. For instance, they commonly claim that cooking destroys vital nutrients and enzymes, or “denatures” the food.

However, it can be hard to distinguish truth from hype in the midst of major trends. Though many raw foodists are clearly sincere, it’s not clear whether their views are grounded in the best science.

Take Esme Stevens, founder of Raw Food Europe, for example. She writes on her website, “I need no science, research or specialists to convince me that the raw food diet is what I want to eat for the rest of my life! My experience and results speak for themselves.”

BTR spoke to Dr. David Katz, nutrition expert at Yale University and president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, to evaluate the health claims of raw food enthusiasts.

“Eating raw is kind of the native mammalian condition,” he explains. “It’s the native condition for the progenitors of Homo sapiens as well, although we have been using fire probably for the better part of two million years.”

On this point, Dr. Katz is consistent with many of the proponents of raw food diets. The idea that consuming raw food is the most natural way to eat is very appealing to some. However, Dr. Katz thinks such claims often go too far.

“There are many good arguments for eating many foods raw. But are they completely drowned out in the sort of religious zeal, with the notion that ‘all foods must be raw to be nutritious?’” he continues.

That overarching assumption, Dr. Katz states, is “patently false.”

He happily concedes to many arguments that raw foodists make. Some nutritional value can be lost when cooking particular foods and numerous foods are most nutritious in their uncooked state. Additionally, a good portion of the foods that are most beneficial to include in the human diet are fruits and vegetables that are typically eaten raw.

Nevertheless, these claims are not strong enough to support the conclusion that eating raw food is always better than eating cooked food.

Dr. Katz maintains that many foods are more nutritious when cooked. Tomatoes are a prime example. The carotenoid that makes tomatoes red, lycopene, is a very valuable nutrient. When methods of consumption are compared, the lycopene levels in a person’s blood rise much higher after eating cooked tomato sauce than after eating raw tomatoes.

Could a diet consisting solely of raw foods lack important nutrients?

“If you eat a wide enough variety of foods raw, potentially you can get all the nutrients you need,” Dr. Katz admits. “[But] there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to be limiting access to nutrients from certain foods, for one thing. For another, there are certain foods you’re almost certainly not going to be eating if you just eat raw.”

Beans and lentils, in particular, must be cooked to be fit to consume. Dr. Katz argues that these foods are “enormously beneficial” and that most people should probably eat more beans and lentils, not less. Other foods, such as broccoli or Brussels sprouts, are simply much more palatable and easily digestible when lightly steamed rather than eaten raw–and still very nutritious in their cooked state.

Some versions of raw food diet are indeed unnecessarily risky. Dr. Katz notes a particularly high risk with consuming animal foods raw. Consuming animal products that have not been cooked has shown to increase the risk for infectious disease transmission with “essentially no benefit.”

Dr. Katz believes the emphasis should be on wholesome foods which are closer to nature, rather than whether or not a given food is eaten raw.

“If you mostly eat vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, seeds, with or without everything else you might be inclined to eat, you can’t go too far wrong,” he advises.

Furthermore, Dr. Katz worries that some extreme diets can take the joy out of eating.

“I think it’s a mistake to forget that food is a source of pleasure,” he states, “and a lot of these ‘rules’ about food kind of ignore that issue.”

Raw food diets can, in this way, be lumped in with any other number of diets, like the paleo diet, the Atkins diet, or the Mediterranean diet. The public is constantly barraged with new trends, diets, and exercise regimens, all claiming to be the magic bullet for optimal health.

“As long as the public keeps hearing ‘my diet can beat your diet,’ there is a failure of our culture to rally around the fundamentals of healthy eating,” Dr. Katz says. “Everybody’s bickering, we keep selling fad diet books, and meanwhile, America keeps ‘running on Dunkin,’ which nobody thinks is a good idea.”

For more on this topic, check out today’s Dish + Drink.