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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 food instead of cooked food? Well, the short answer is no, and I’ll go into the reasons in this article.
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, releases the nutrients, and therefore they become more bioavailable to the body. 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 need 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 in your diet.
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 from the fruits and vegetables themselves. Although, it’s true that enzymes found in plants can have some beneficial health effects, like improving digestion.
Sometimes people do have digestive problems on a vegan diet, and therefore taking an enzyme supplement could help.
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 can be a good source of calories if you’re falling short of your daily calorie target.
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). Beans are not eaten raw, so the idea that cooked can’t be healthy for you as some people claim is just not true.
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 (around 70%). People who practice calorie restriction are not on a 100% raw food diet but have results that either match or are better than raw foodists on several health markers.
As many people 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 than eating them raw. I only consume a 70% raw food diet and have experienced excellent health from doing this diet for over 10 years.
Many raw food teachers become a diet guru from how strict they are on their diet. And because of this, many people fail on a raw food diet because it’s just too difficult and not practical to maintain such a lifestyle. At least for most people.
Fortunately, to get great results and experience amazing health, you do not have to adhere to a full 100% raw food diet. You just have a eat a whole foods diet which is high in raw fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It’s really that simple.
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 recommended that people on raw food diets consume adequate amounts of fat or include processed tomato products in their diets (3). The biggest trade-off when cooking tomatoes are that you lose Vitamin C, but fortunately this vitamin is abundant in a raw food diet anyway.
Tomatoes contain a significant amount of dietary lycopene compared to many other foods, but 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. This could be products such as tomato sauce, tomato juice, tomato paste, and ketchup (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).
Lycopene concentration in the skin has also been associated with better skin health and increased perceived attractiveness (10). The glow you can get 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
Article reviewed and updated: February 2019