Are raw or cooked foods more nutritious?

Whilst shopping at my local food co-operative this week I had an interesting conversation with a fellow shopper. The question of whether raw or cooked foods are more nutritious was one of the topics we covered. Today I aim to answer this question from both a scientific and Eastern medicine viewpoint.

Your choice of raw or cooked foods

Are raw or cooked foods suitable for you?

Most importantly, I want you to consider what suits you best — raw or cooked foods? Ways to assess this include the state of your digestive system. If you have any of the following symptoms after eating, then the type or quantity of foods that you are eating might not be the best combination of you:

  • bloating;
  • indigestion;
  • cramps;
  • constipation;
  • diarrhoea;
  • dumping syndrome (feeling of urgency);
  • intermittent loose or firm stools.

Another consideration is your energy levels. If you are meeting the recommended intakes for vegetables, fruit, wholegrain cereals, dairy (or alternatives), nuts and seeds and meat (or alternatives), and you feel tired or lethargic, your combination of foods might not be suitable. In considering your energy levels you also need to allow for your activity levels (too much or too little), sleep routine (ideally 7–8 hours per night) and level of stress.

Pros and cons of cooked foods

Eastern medicine, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, views the cooking of food as the commencement of the digestion process, and this is correct. Cooking breaks down fibrous substances in food releasing more nutrients. It can also active other ingredients such as the antioxidant lycopene found in tomatoes­ — cooked tomatoes have a higher content of lycopene than raw ones. Cooking is also a protective mechanism killing harmful bacteria in food.

Preventing the loss of nutrients

High temperature, oxygen and water reduce the nutrient content of foods, but these losses are minimised through our choice of cooking methods. Methods that I recommend are:

  • steaming;
  • stir-fry;
  • low temperature slow cooking e.g. casseroles and curries.

Vegetables that are soft, limp or discoloured have been overcooked. Ideally cook your vegetables, so they remain firm and brightly coloured.

Reducing the production of toxic chemicals

Cooking food can produce undesirable chemicals. The browning of foods through cooking occurs via the Mallaird reaction. Carbohydrates and proteins in food react, producing a number of harmful chemicals. Acrylamide is formed through baking, barbecuing, roasting and toasting of cereals foods and root vegetables. To reduce the formation of acrylamide —cook at temperatures below 230oC; rather than browning foods only cook until a light golden colour; thoroughly wash vegetables prior to roasting, frying and baking and store potatoes at above 8oC.

Advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) are another group of compounds that are believed to increase oxidative stress in the body, and possibly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They are more commonly found in high fat animal products. Cooking methods that increase the content of AGEs in animal foods are baking, frying, grilling and barbecuing. Marinating animal foods in acidic ingredients, such as wine or citrus juices, help to decrease the formation of AGEs during cooking. Preferred cooking methods to reduce AGEs forming are the same as those listed above.

Pros and cons of raw foods

Raw foods add variety to our meals, and I agree with the Eastern principle of enjoying them in the warmer months. A cold raw salad in winter may not be your best choice, especially if you have a sensitive digestive system and are low in energy. A warm vegetable soup would be a better choice for you.

The theory behind this Eastern viewpoint is that raw foods require additional energy for digestion and this could be taxing on your energy supply, especially in colder months when you are using extra energy to keep warm. However, if you are a very fit, strong person with a robust digestive system, then eating raw cold foods may be quite suitable for you.

This is why it is important to know how your body responds to different foods and ways of eating.

The addition of warming spices, such as ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg to raw foods may improve their digestibility. Also including warm vegetables like roasted sweet potato and steamed broccoli in a salad may aid digestion. In winter, a breakfast favourite of mine is a poached egg on rocket – the warmth of the egg helps to partially cook the greens. If you enjoy both raw and cooked foods, then this combined approach may work for you.

Raw or cooked foods — advice for digestive problems

  1. Seek a proper diagnosis from your healthcare practitioner.
  2. Monitor how different foods and eating patterns affect you by keeping a food diary.
  3. Keep to mostly lightly cooked foods, soups and casseroles.
  4. Drink warm beverages between meals.

Choosing raw or cooked foods

Your choice of raw or cooked foods depends on your personal health needs and preferences. Cooked foods certainly carry many advantages when you choose steaming, stir-frying and slow cooking options. Raw foods add variety and may be combined with cooked foods to assist digestibility. If you have any ongoing digestive problems, or notice a change in your bowel motions or experience pain, then please seek advice from your healthcare practitioner.

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