Raw Food vs Cooked Food: What’s to Gain or Lose?

There are limitless ways to organize or change your diet depending on your goals: weight loss, performance, improved health, animal welfare, or managing side effects from medications. This is why it can be overwhelming and difficult to know what eating plan is best for you at a specific point in time. Trying to implement too many changes usually ends up in food restriction because either we a) don’t know what to eat, or b) all of the options are too burdensome to implement on a routine basis. Often we try one path (e.g. cut calories) and then change to another before a behavior is changed, and a manageable routine is in place. Instead, a sequential path that progressively changes/improves diet, should be implemented.

Eating raw is a popular approach to consuming a healthier diet. The most basic entry into eating raw, is focusing on vegetables, although some “raw foodies” also eat raw grains, dairy and meat. Consuming raw fruit and vegetables are encouraged because many levels of vitamins and minerals are higher in a raw state. However, eating raw isn’t easy for some people because even though many enzymes are contained in the raw produce, others are not.Raw KaleThe enzymes needed to break down fiber in produce, cellulase, is not produced by the human body, and is why people often experience gas or bloating when eating high fiber vegetables. Additional enzymes that break down starch in legumes and cruciferous vegetables, are produced in the body, but amounts vary due to many variables including age. A sudden increase in consumption of these foods often leads to gas and bloating unless supplemental enzymes are taken.

The main reason to choose which vegetables should be cooked (lightly steamed, boiled, roasted, or baked) or not revolves around the availability of the nutrients upon digestion.  Most water soluble vitamins are lost if cooked longer than a minute, while the bioavailability of many minerals are increased after steaming or boiling.

Unless you need to reduce oxalic acid in your diet to prevent kidneys stones, I do not recommend boiling vegetables because of the loss of vitamins C and B, unless you serve the boiled water full of nutrients with the meal. Steaming lightly is preferred so that even if some vitamins are lost, you retain valuable carotenoids (precursors to Vitamin A) and phytonutrients (antioxidants). I often enjoy a fresh veggie drink using the leftover steamed water from my broccoli.

Lycopene, a fat-soluble carotenoid found predominantly in red vegetables, and associated with improved eye health, is found in much higher levels in processed forms (e.g. spaghetti sauce or tomato paste) than raw.  Most cruciferous vegetables (kale, cauliflower, broccoli) have additional cholesterol lowering benefits when they are cooked due to binding with bile salts.  You may eat raw garlic for its antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties, but roasting garlic enhances its sulfur containing properties. Sulfur is necessary for the synthesis of the antioxidant, glutathione, known for its ability to manage free radicals.

First Steps

You have probably deduced that its best to eat foods prepared both raw and lightly cooked to gain the most benefits.  Most people enjoy raw fruit, so that is the easy part. However, eating raw greens may be a challenge due to their bitter taste. I recommend eating fruit (e.g. pineapple, mango) with lacinto kale or rainbow chard to gradually increase your intake.

Experienced raw foodies also replace grains with vegetables. For example, eating spaghetti squash instead of grain (wheat, rice) pasta. Contrary to “raw” guidelines, most people bake the squash otherwise it is difficult to remove the strands.

If you are interested in eating raw, there are many “MeetUp” groups that can provide support and guidance, and of course, speak with a dietitian about a dietary nutritional analysis.

Eating Raw & Exercise

Raw snacks are everywhere in the grocery store and these can be a great option to wean off a diet comprised of processed foods. The only drawback is price.  For less processed food, we pay more!  Making raw snacks at home is feasible if you have the time and motivation to do so. For most raw recipes, its simply pulsing and chopping your ingredients. If you are trying to lose weight, you should take into consideration the fat calories often found in raw snacks due to nuts, seeds and coconut. These are healthy fats but still need to be balanced with your total intake.

Eating raw foods during training depends upon the goal of the workout and your gut. Consuming fat or fiber during training is not recommended for moderate to high intensity training because: a) fat requires more energy to be broken down (its not energy efficient), b) fiber slows down absorption of carbohydrate (sugar) reducing the rate at which it can help maintain blood sugar levels and provide energy to working muscles, c) depending upon the type of fiber, it may draw water into the intestines causing a gut ache, d) fat and fiber draw blood away from working muscles to focus on digestion, which may cause abdominal cramps.

A recipe for a homemade “Larabar” is below. I typically do not include amounts in raw recipes because it becomes more about texture and taste preference as you mold the item. However, dates (or figs) should be the predominant ingredient in this recipe to provide carbohydrate. Removing the skin of the date (which takes patience) is also recommended to reduce fiber. I recommend roasting the nuts first to decrease the risk of gas and improve digestibility. There are many more ingredients you can add to this (e.g. oats, flax, chia) if you are fueling for a long hike, but for cycling and long runs you should limit them per the reasons noted above.

Ingredient Directions
4 oz or 4- 6 whole Dates (which ever is least expensive in the bulk isle). Soak overnight to remove pits, “peel” and rinse before adding to food processor. Or use 3-4 oz Date Paste. Note: Whole dates are easier to find than date paste. In a food processor first ground the nuts into a fine powder.
1/2 cup Raw Almonds Separately ground the seeds.
1/4 cup Raw Sunflower Seeds Then separately, pulse the dates in the food processor and add back in the nuts & seeds. Add the rest of the ingredients and process in short pulses until the mixture comes together.
Flavoring: sea salt, cinnamon, cardamon Pour mixture into mixing bowl and slowly add coconut or olive oil in liquid form. Only add enough to add moisture and hold ingredients together.
Honey (I like Ambrosia from Colorado) Hemp or pea protein is helpful with coating the mixture to make more manageable and less sticky. You can also use flour.
Unsweetened cacoa powder or cacoa nibs (cocoa powder can be used in place of cacao) You can either press the mixture into a baking dish or roll into small balls and place on a cookie sheet. Parchment paper will prevent balls from sticking together.
Optional: Coconut or olive oil Transfer to the fridge to set for a few hours or preferably overnight.
Optional: hemp or pea protein Use parchment paper to wrap & carry with you.

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