Q: My yoga instructor recommended that I start a raw food diet. Currently, I eat well balanced meals and snacks, but I would like to increase the quality of my health. Is there a true benefit to eating only raw foods?
A: In terms of an extreme raw food approach, there's not much science to back up the enormous effort.
Raw foodists believe that cooking food greatly decreases its nutrient content and destroys plant enzymes that enhance how efficiently you digest and absorb food. Although there are many "raw" variations out there and no one set of rules to follow, raw food diets are typically vegan diets (strict vegetarian diets) that include only uncooked food or food warmed to a temperature that does not exceed 115°F — so they include lots of raw produce, sprouted grains and beans, nuts and seeds. Some individuals choose to include raw dairy products and/or animal proteins, like fish. Most raw foodists do not eat a 100% raw diet — they aim for at least 70-80% of their diet to come from raw sources.
To date, there's no hard evidence that eating only raw foods instead of cooked offers a nutritional advantage. While it's true that some nutrients can be destroyed during heating (like B and C vitamins), other nutrients, such as lycopene and beta carotene, are actually more readily absorbed from cooked foods. As for the plant enzymes — they are quickly deactivated and broken down by digestive enzymes (produced by our own bodies to efficiently absorb nutrients) and acids in the stomach and intestines whether food is cooked or raw.
I love that the raw food movement advocates eating more whole, unprocessed, plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds. That part is great! But on a practical note, a raw food diet can be extremely difficult to follow and limiting — especially when it comes to dining out at restaurants, eating with friends, etc.
Bottom line: I encourage you to eat more nutrient-rich plant foods (fruit, veggies, lentils, beans, etc) — in any form, both raw and cooked!
If you do decide to go all raw, it's worth your while to meet once or twice with a registered dietitian to ensure you're meeting your nutritional requirements.