This piece originally appeared on Fix.com.
The raw food movement is hard to miss. From dieting books and recipes to all-raw restaurants and detox retreats, raw food is a popular health topic with great momentum.
But what’s all the fuss about? What’s so great about raw food? Is it really the magic bullet of health that so many make it out to be? Like all questions about the relationship between food and wellness, the answer is complicated.
Raw food has accompanied other concepts, such as “whole” and “organic,” during its rise to idolatry in the public’s eye. Consider the “Paleo” bandwagon, for instance, which hints at an obsession we have with the idea of returning to our “natural” roots.
Amidst the blinding popularity of these associated ideas, many misconceptions exist about the benefits and drawbacks of eating raw food. In this post, we will explore some of the biggest raw food myths and health benefits as well as which foods are best eaten raw or should be cooked according to their nutritional profiles.
Get your facts straight so you can make the most of raw food while avoiding its nutritional pitfalls.
The 3 Biggest Raw Food Myths
1. All raw vegetables are healthier than cooked vegetables –WRONG
One of the biggest, most pervasive raw food myths is that all foods are healthier when eaten raw. People sometimes make this assumption because it seems intuitively correct that foods that are processed less must be more “whole” or “natural.” While many raw foods can offer beneficial nutrients, raw isn’t always better!
2. Eating a 100 percent raw food diet yields greater benefits than just eating some raw foods – WRONG
While it is common for people to lose some weight on a strict raw food diet, your body will also lack some crucial nutrients, such as protein, iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. It will also miss out on nutrients that are better derived from cooked foods, such as beta-carotene and lycopene.1
3. Raw food diets are a good way to do a short-term detox –WRONG
The upheaval of suddenly abandoning your regular diet for a raw food blast can be jarring for your body. The uncertainty your body experiences due to the yo-yo effect of making sudden drastic changes can actually lead to weight gain in the long run. Because your body learns that it can’t be sure when it will suddenly be deprived of something, it starts to store fats just in case.
It’s better to maintain a steady, well-balanced diet throughout your lifetime.
Raw or Cooked?
Although there are plenty of benefits to incorporating raw food into a balanced diet, not everything you put in your mouth should be eaten raw. Some foods can be dangerous to consume raw, and others actually have a better nutritional profile when cooked.
One important nutrient found in foods such as tomatoes, watermelon, and red peppers is lycopene. A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that individuals who stuck to a strict raw food diet actually had lower levels of lycopene. Why? Lycopene is bound to the cell walls of fruits such as tomatoes, and the heat from cooking processes breaks down these cell walls, making it easier for the body to absorb lycopene.2
Cooking can also kill bacteria, which is one of the central concerns of eating raw foods. Nobody wants to risk food poisoning. However, some cooking methods are better than others. It may not come as much of a surprise that boiling or steaming a tomato is better than deep-frying it!
We’ve put together a handy chart to help you determine what you should and shouldn’t be eating raw and why.
Foods on the Fence
Deciding whether or not you should eat a food raw or cooked isn’t always straightforward. Some foods are better eaten raw only for certain nutrients they contain, while others are better eaten cooked.
The solution? A healthy mix of some raw and some cooked preparations of these foods will ensure that you make the most of what they have to offer.
The Bottom Line
Trying to navigate a healthy diet amidst the media’s constant claims regarding the next best dieting fad is a challenge, to say the least.
When it comes to raw foods, balance and variety are the key to making the healthiest choices. Studies have shown that the benefits of eating something raw versus cooked can be a little complicated.
Special thanks to Sue Mah, MHSc., RD, Toronto-based registered dietitian