In the raw food community it’s common knowledge that fresh raw food contains more nutrients than cooked food; but is this always the case? And should we always consume raw fruits and vegetables overcooked? Well, the short answer is no, because it entirely depends on which food we’re talking about.
Although a vegan diet contains many nutrients that are beneficial to our health, some are better absorbed once the food has been steamed or boiled. This is simply because cooking breaks down the tough cellulose walls and releases the nutrients, and therefore they become more bioavailable. This is why I’m not a strong proponent of a 100% raw food diet.
By limiting yourself to only raw foods, you’re limiting the number of valuable compounds that have proven health benefits. Basically, you want to look at the ‘net-benefit’ when choosing to eat your food raw or cooked.
You’ll invariably decrease the number of certain nutrients while increasing others, but this is why it’s important to have a wide variety of raw and cooked fruits and vegetables.
For example, cooking may increase the level of carotenoids, but decrease the level of phenolic compounds such as caffeic acid, ferulic acid, quercetin, kaempferol etc. (1).
Steaming and boiling seem to be beneficial for some vegetables, whereas frying foods should absolutely be avoided. Our digestive systems are perfectly able to break down the food without enzymes coming from the fruits and vegetables themselves.
Although the nutritional value of foods like brown rice, whole grains, potatoes are lower than most plant foods, they can certainly be part of a healthy diet for most people, and should not cause any problems.
In fact, many raw foodists find it difficult to consume enough calories because of the quantity of food they consume which are not energy-dense!
So these foods are rich sources of calories that you can consume if you’re falling short of your caloric intake. Legumes such as beans can also be a very healthy and an important part of the diet.
One study found that legume intake is the single most important predictor of survival in older people! For each 20g increase in daily intake, there was an 8% decrease in mortality. (2)
From the current evidence that we have, there is no clear advantage of consuming a 100% raw food diet over a high raw food diet. People who practice calorie restriction are not on a 100% raw food diet but have results that match or are better than raw foodists on several health markers.
All of these foods are very good sources of complex carbohydrates and should be consumed as part of a healthy diet. As much people try to aspire to be 100% raw foodists, there is no proven benefit to being this strict. Eating healthy cooked foods is perfectly fine, and in some cases, is more beneficial. I only consume a 70% raw food diet and have obtained excellent health from doing this diet for over 10 years.
Perhaps many raw foods obtain ‘guru’ status because of how strict they are. So many people in the raw food community are trying to reach the same 100% goal as them, but not everyone can achieve this level of discipline.
Fortunately, to get great results and great health, you do not have to adhere to a full 100% raw food diet. You just have a eat a whole food diet which is high in raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Raw Foodists are deficient in Lycopene: In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers looked at the level of carotenoids in strict long-term raw foodists. In the study they found that despite the fact they were consuming a high level of carotenoids from raw fruits and vegetables, a large number (77%) of the raw foodists were below the normal range for lycopene; and the best predictor for lycopene levels was the amount of fat consumed in their diets.
Many compounds including lycopene are fat-soluble; that means they need to be taken with fat to be absorbed adequately. For this reason, it highly recommended that people on raw food diets consume adequate amounts of fat and/or include processed tomato products in their diets. (3). The biggest trade-off when cooking tomatoes are that you lose Vitamin C. Fortunately this vitamin is abundant in a raw food diet anyway.
Tomatoes contain a significant amount of dietary lycopene compared to many other foods. Unfortunately, by eating tomatoes raw, you’re losing out on obtaining a significant amount of an important phytonutrient.
Our body’s only able to absorb approximately 10-30%, so to get the most from your diet, you would have to either cook the tomatoes or consume other tomato products which have been processed. tomato sauce, tomato juice, tomato paste, and ketchup are some of the best sources of lycopene. (4, 5)
Why is lycopene important?
Lycopene is distributed throughout the body to various organs such as adrenal glands, prostate, breasts, liver, and testes; and it’s also stored in adipose tissue.
It has been found to be protective against many types of cancer including breast, prostate and lung cancer. It’s also protective against cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and macular degeneration. (6). Lycopene also significantly lowers the level of oxidative stress.
Researchers found that 30 mg of lycopene was able to reduce baseline DNA damage by 9%. (7). In other studies, they have shown that tomato paste can reduce lymphocyte (white blood cell) damage by up to 50% with just 7 to 16 mg of lycopene per day! (8,9).
If all these benefits weren’t enough to make you want to get more lycopene in your diet and body. Lycopene concentration in the skin has been associated with better skin health and increased perceived attractiveness. (10). The glow one gets from carotenoids signals better immunity and fertility to the opposite sex. (11).
1. Miglio C1, Chiavaro E, Visconti A, Fogliano V, Pellegrini N. Effects of different cooking methods on nutritional and physicochemical characteristics of selected vegetables. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Jan 9;56(1):139-47. Epub 2007 Dec 11. PMID: 18069785
2. Darmadi-Blackberry I1, Wahlqvist ML, Kouris-Blazos A, Steen B, Lukito W, Horie Y, Horie K.
Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities.
Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(2):217-20. PMID: 15228991
3. Ada L.Garcia1, Corinna Koebnick1, Peter C. Dagnelie, Carola Strassner, Ibrahim Elmadfa, Norbert Katz, Claus Leitzmann1 and Ingrid Hoffmann1. Long-term strict raw food diet is associated with favorable plasma. b-carotene and low plasma lycopene concentrations in Germans British Journal of Nutrition (2008), 99, 1293–1300 PMID: 18028575
4. Gartner C, Stahl W, Sies H. Lycopene is more bioavailable from tomato paste than from fresh tomatoes. Am J Clin Nutr 1997;66:116–22 http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/66/1/116.abstract
5. Rao AV, Agarwal S. Role of lycopene as antioxidant carotenoid in the prevention of chronic diseases: a review. Nutr Res 1999;19:305–23. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531798001936
6. A.V. Raoa,∗, L.G. Rao. Carotenoids and human health Pharmacological Research 55 (2007) 207–216
7. Sridevi Devaraj, PhD, Surekha Mathur, PhD, RD, Arpita Basu, PhD, Hnin H. Aung, PhD, Vihas T. Vasu, PhD, Stuart Meyers, DVM, PhD, and Ishwarlal Jialal, MD, PhD. A Dose-Response Study on the Effects of Purified Lycopene Supplementation on Biomarkers of Oxidative Stress PMID: 18689558
8. Riso P, Pinder A, Santangelo A, Porrini M. Does tomato consumption effectively increase the resistance of lymphocyte DNA to oxidative damage? Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;69:712–718. PMID: 10197573
9. Porrini M, Riso P. Lymphocyte lycopene concentration and DNA protection from oxidative damage is increased in women after a short period of tomato consumption. J Nutr. 2000;130:189–192. PMID: 10720168
10. Darvin, M. et al. 2008. Cutaneous concentration of lycopene correlates significantly with the roughness of the skin. European Journal of Pharmaceutics and Biopharmaceutics, 69,943-7. PMID: 18411044
11. Ross D. Whitehead mail, Daniel Re, Dengke Xiao, Gozde Ozakinci, David I. Perrett mail
You Are What You Eat: Within-Subject Increases in Fruit and Vegetable Consumption Confer Beneficial Skin-Color Changes Published: March 07, 2012DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0032988
Reviewed and updated 09/2018