Raw vs Cooked
The raw food movement contends that heating food destroys its nutrients and enzymes, essentially "killing" the food. They believe we need to eat plants in their raw state to absorb all that they have to offer. I believe eating raw food is nutritionally amazing and we should look for raw foods every day; however, I have two points of contention with the purely raw food lifestyle.
1. What about raw meat, dairy and seafood?
Most raw foodies are strict vegetarians, even vegans. If we are really going to talk about the nutrients available in raw foods, we cannot ignore that raw fish, raw grass-fed lamb or beef, raw liver, and raw milk have more nutrients and enzymes than some vegetables.
Meat, even raw meat, has been eaten for thousands of years by our ancestors. Please take note: I’m not advising you to start eating raw, conventional meat from your local grocery store. This meat is often so contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides that you would be putting your health at risk.
However, if you’re willing to focus on finding only the best quality, humanely processed dairy, meat, and seafood, then these raw foods can be quite rewarding.
If you look carefully you’ll find some remarkable heritage food artisans in your local region. Checkout Edible magazines in your region as they have many top tier vendors listed. My family gets raw milk from pastured cows through the realfoodbayarea.com, an amazing CSA that delivers fresh, local products to the Bay Area. If you live out of CA, try the Farm to Consumer Raw Milk Interactive Map to find a direct source.
Raw milk has lactase enzymes intact to digest the lactose sugars and I find my family has less ear infections, sinus infections, and overall healthier immune systems since we switched over to raw milk. It’s chock full of the vitamins A, D, E and K which only reside in the fat so we make sure to get a full fat source. Raw milk is a complete protein and will satiate you quicker so you can moderate your portion control.
We drink way less whole raw milk which is nice on the pocketbook. When I followed the ridiculous advice of my previous pediatrician to drink skimmed milk, my two year old daughter could drink a gallon a week. Now my family of four goes through one liter a week of whole fat raw milk and I never have to be the portion control police. I serve a 1950's sized 4 oz drinking glass and the kids are satisfied.
I bet you can’t tell me with a straight face that you’ve never eaten raw eggs. That would mean you never stole a bite from the cookie dough before they were cooked. Exactly!
Raw eggs briefly enjoyed the limelight when Orange Julius sat in the corner of every mall in America. The owners realized that orange juice did not hurt their bellies as much when they added the healthy fat of egg yolks to their juices. Unfortunately, American dieticians in the low-fat era started chanting faulty advice, not well studied, about how egg yolks condemned you to high cholesterol and increased risk of heart disease. We started to eat egg white omelets and low-fat cereals instead. Now the American population is in a severe state of essential fatty acid deficiency, we have high rates of vitamin D deficiency, higher cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, and a wide range of problems with our digestive systems. Maybe we should have kept the eggs and dropped the 16oz of orange juice now served with breakfasts in diners across America.
In my home, we love our eggs, the whites cooked, but the yolks sunny side up. Again, please do not try this with a conventional store-bought egg from a chicken kept in a cage, fed GMO grain, pumped full of hormones, and antibiotics. That type of toxic load could make your liver increase your cholesterol.
Chickens that eat their natural diet of foraged bugs and greens have less cholesterol in their bodies. Instead of cholesterol that is formed when a body is stressed, healthy chickens on pasture produce eggs with higher concentrations of nutrients. I like to put it in these terms: our ancestors often ate insects and were really healthy, so you can either eat your bugs or eat the eggs from the chickens that eat the bugs for you. I may be an adventurous eater, but I’ll choose eggs every time.
Ask my kids what their favorite food is and they will most likely reply sushi. Raw fish is a staple in the Japanese diet and if you’ve tried it, you know why. Sushi and sashimi are delicious! If you’re new to raw fish, try a ceviche recipe where you use a Peruvian style of "cooking" the fish in lemon or lime juice which will not "kill" the nutrients and enzymes in the food but will not feel raw to you either. Another slightly cooked taste, but still raw form of eating fish, is in smoked salmon or lox. I serve my lox on fresh cucumber slices with a dollop of cream, and raw fish eggs, aka caviar.😋
If you were brave enough to try a raw shrimp cocktail in the ‘90s, then you may enjoy this Vietnamese-inspired dish that the kids can make themselves. With the exception of the vermicelli rice noodles that are steeped, like a tea in hot water, these shrimp rice wraps are totally raw. And if you really want to be exotic and have super thyroid-stimulating nutrients, go for the raw oysters. Sea salt minerals, zinc, and iodine can boost a sluggish thyroid and we in the bay area are close to some really tasty morsels. The more north you go, the colder the water, the better the oyster.
I was very close to a Polish family in my early 20's. They taught me many of the techniques I still use in food preparation today. Unfortunately, I was a vegetarian at the time and I missed out on so many nutrient-dense, heritage recipes. This one for raw ground beef really stood out in my mind. Layered like a parfait with raw onions and a raw egg yolk on top, this dish appeared on the table like a slap in the face to a "veg-head." I regret never accepting the invitation to taste such a delicacy. It’s really just another presentation of steak tartare which is on the menu of many five-star restaurants and one of my new favorite delights.
If you’re nervous about raw beef, you should be!
Here in America, we have lowered the art of animal dressing to the most barbaric states. Feeding cows GMO grains that they can’t digest, while locked inside small animal feedlots standing in their own feces, is not a recipe for a healthy animal. Cholesterol raises with stress, so much like the chicken's cholesterol levels rising from living in poor conditions, cows produce higher cholesterol when their bodies are stressed with disease. These stresses occur from inhumane living quarters, an improper diet, hormones to bulk up quickly, and antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to slaughter. I would never recommend you buy conventional beef from the local store and eat it raw. Honestly, I’m afraid to eat the spinach raw in some stores based on previous e-coli scares, but when in doubt, just cook it!
However, if you meet your local ranchers and see how they raise their cattle, you’ll find a harmonious relationship between the animals, the land, and the people. The meat will have more nutrients, vitamins, and healthy fats and you can be sure it will be safer to eat. I bought my beef this year from Julie Morris at Morris Beef and I buy my chicken, lamb, and pork from Markegard Family Grassfed. I highly recommend you check out their websites and look for local farmers in your region. Even though I don’t prepare raw beef dishes, I allow my daughter to lick her fingers after forming meatballs. She eats raw beef only from safe sources after I have frozen the meat for 14 days. I attribute her amazing immune system to it.
Some Vegetables Should Be Cooked!
My second point of contention is that some vegetables are easier to digest when cooked or broken down. Cooking breaks down the cellular wall of the plant which better prepares some of the nutrients within the cells to be absorbed. This is important when digestion requires support for the absorption of nutrients.
Lycopene is found in red-pigmented plants, like tomatoes, red cabbage, and red peppers, and has been linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart disease. Lycopene is better absorbed when cooked in olive oil. I’m not saying ditch the raw tomatoes and peppers completely because they contain vitamin C. Vitamin C is fragile and levels of this particular nutrient diminish when cooked. What I’m saying is try to have a healthy balance of both cooked and raw tomatoes to absorb the widest variety of nutrients.
Carrots are another example of foods that benefit from lightly cooking or steaming. The orange pigment that is converted to vitamin A in the body, beta carotene, is absorbed better when the carrot is lightly cooked and the tough cellular wall is broken down. Beta-carotene supports the immune system, serves as an antioxidant, and promotes healthy vision. We like to say carrots give you "Spiderman Eyes."
Cruciferous vegetables, sometimes called brassicas, like broccoli, kale, collards, and cabbages should be steamed or cooked for at least 3 minutes to break down the goitrogenic substances. Goitrogens can interfere with the absorption of iodine, block the production of thyroid hormone, and can lead to a sluggish thyroid in some cases. This article about Goitrogenic Foods and Thyroid Health by Chris Kresser sums it up quite clearly.
Strong leafy greens such as spinach, chard, and beet greens also contain oxalic acid which prevents the absorption of minerals like iron and calcium. If you really want to boost your intake of iron and calcium make sure to steam those greens for 3 minutes and then smother them in butter. You had to know that was coming, the Food Foundation guru never misses a chance to save the world one stick of butter at a time.
On a serious note, the healthy fat of real butter will slow down the absorption of the carbs in the vegetables and boost the ability to absorb the nutrients they contain. I recommend using grass-fed butter because as we previously discussed, we benefit from the health of the cows that forage their natural diet.
The Winner Is...
I can’t point to a winner of the raw versus cooked debate; I honestly think they are both important sources of essential nutrients. My goal is not to convince you to avoid either cooked or raw foods but to try to convince you to eat them in both capacities. If you are in the process of building your own food foundation, I recommend exploring a healthy mix of both raw and cooked foods from both the animal and the plant kingdoms.