The Reality of All Raw Diets: What You Need to Know!

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IMG_2002Things are about to get really sciency in this blog post. Really, really sciency! This cooked meal of roasted Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, wild mushrooms, sweet potatoes, white beans and pomegranate seeds is delicious and nutritious!

It seems like raw food diets are all the rage these days.  People report experiencing “raw food radiance” and the amount of raw food cookbooks one encounters on a stroll through Barnes and Noble is astounding.  I mean, clearly, you know a diet style is popular based on the number of cookbooks catering to it, right?! Yet, does the raw food revolution have any merit? There are unquestionable benefits to eating plenty of raw fruits and vegetables, but the answer to this question is a resounding NO, neva, eva will an all raw food diet be the most ideal for our short- and long-term health! Granted, all raw diets are SO much healthier than eating the standard American diet (the two should not even be compared!), but by going all raw, you will be missing out on some stunningly nutritious (and delicious) foods! While many raw foods rock and many encompass some of the most nutrient dense anti-cancer foods around, we can’t turn a blind eye to the known powerful, health promoting properties of cooked veggies or the fact that some foods contains toxins in raw form that are destroyed upon cooking.

Quite a chunk of my most favorite mouth-watering, and more importantly, nutritious foods are cooked vegetables dishes. Mmmm roasted Brussels sprouts with garlic or pumpkin soup are delightful treats to cozy up with. Steamed kale with a creamy cashew sauce, Portobello mushroom burgers, and steamy carrot lentil soup are all cooked foods that pack some wickedly awesome, difficult to ignore health benefits that I wouldn’t be exposed to if I ate an all raw diet. Thankfully, I can relish in the knowledge that cooked foods can be as nutritious as they are tasty!

More convincing than my fantasies of favorite home-cooked meals is the science. A slew of recent studies demonstrate that favorable chemical reactions occur when we cook vegetables, reactions that enhance our ability to absorb the salubrious anti-cancer micronutrients (carotenoids and phytochemicals- especially lutein and lycopene) in food, primarily vegetables.  This increased absorption occurs upon cooking as a result of the breakdown of the cell matrix (connective bands) to which these oh so important chemicals are bound.

Raw food advocates rave about the delicate heat-sensitive enzymes available in raw foods that aid in digestion and catalyze important chemical reactions that occur in the body.  It is proposed that these enzymes are killed when we cook food and raw foodies use it as an argument to support the raw food lifestyle.  Despite this widely held believe, the truth is that the amount of scientific evidence to support it is in the realm of nil. The composition and quantity of digestive enzymes in our bodies is perfectly in sync with the amount that we need to effectively absorb the nutrients in foods.  Plants don’t magically contain additional enzymes that help us digest, as if somehow we aren’t capable of digesting foods on our own.

Nor is it true that the digestion of raw foods is gentler on the body or that raw foods somehow require the use of less of our own enzymes to digest.  Our own digestive juices are perfectly capable of breaking down whatever kinds of foods we eat, both raw and cooked, and raw foods don’t magically provide us with additional beneficial enzymes.

There are a few foods that we should always eat cooked and a few that we should eat cooked when we can for increased nutrient absorption.  Here they are for your nutritional edification:

Foods Best Eaten Cooked

Mushrooms~ It turns out that mushrooms, even the common button mushroom, contain carcinogenic compounds in raw form that are destroyed upon cooking.  The same toxin is found in button and Portobello mushrooms- hydrazine- and shiitake mushrooms contain a naturally-occurring fomaldehyde.  Both chemicals are heat sensitive and readily abolished upon exposure to heat. Some contain enzymes that inhibit protein uptake. We might think nothing of eating a few slices of button mushrooms raw, but to get the anti-cancer effects of mushrooms instead of the pro-cancer effects, cook these babies.  As regular mushroom consumption has been shown to decrease the risk of breast cancer by 60 percent[i] (you can bet the participants of this study ate them cooked), eat cooked mushrooms with gusto.

Corn~ Cooking corn increases its anti-oxidant activity; when the ability to quench free-radicals was measured, cooked corn outperformed raw corn by between 25-50 percent!  Cooking corn releases a phytochemical called ferulic acid, which is an anti-cancer superstar.  Ferulic acid is present in tiny amounts in most fruits and vegetables, but found in very high amounts in corn.  Absorption of ferulic acid can increase by a gargantuan 500 to 900 percent by cooking corn.

Tomatoes~ Cooked tomatoes exhibit some snazzy lycopene action.  Tomatoes are known for housing high levels of lycopene, a potent antioxidant, but lycopene levels jump through the roof when we cook them. My alma mater, Cornell University, conducted a study in which our ability to absorb lycopene cooked at varying temperatures was measured; tomatoes were heated for two minutes, 15 minutes and 30 minutes.[ii]  Levels of these disease-fighting warriors increased with each incremental increase in heating. Trans-lycopene rose by 54%, 171% and 164% during the three treatments. Cis-lycopene levels rose by 6%, 17% and 35% and antioxidants increased by 28%, 34% and 62%.

Beans~ I couldn’t imagine eating the completely rad, weight loss friendly, high in resistant starch beans raw. How would that work, right? We would probably face a most unpleasant choking epidemic and might end up in the hospital due to a toxic overload of poisonous compounds present in raw beans; for instance, raw kidney beans contain a toxin that, at a level as low as one percent, causes death in rats in two weeks.  All beans contain lectins, potentially toxic protein compounds that can damage the heart, kidneys and liver, destroy the lining of the intestines, and inhibit cell digestion, yet are destroyed upon cooking.[iii] Given that we are much better off eating beans cooked, raw foodies are loosen out big time by not enjoying a comforting bowl of three bean chili or sprinkling black beans and chick peas on top of a refreshing salad.

That’s a pretty simple list to remember.  Also handy to have in your nutritional knowledge repertoire is that steaming veggies and making vegetable soups changes the plants’ cell structures so that fewer of your own enzymes are needed to digest the food, not more.  When you steam or make vegetable soup, the temperature is fixed at 212 Fahrenheit- the temperature of boiling water.  The browning of food and the formation of heat-created toxins, like acrylamides, are awesomely avoided by these cooking methods.  The same cannot be said for roasting nuts or the baking of cereals- doing so does reduce the availability and absorbability of proteins and creates acrylamides.

ACRYLAMIDES (warning: you may never look at a pretzel stick the same way again!)

Crunchy snacks like pretzel sticks, potato chips, French fries and breakfast cereals all have the presence of acrylamides, a baneful health villain, naturally cancer-causing miscreant and genetic mutation inflicting anathema in common.  This Lex Luther of cooked foods is present in all fried, baked, roasted, grilled or barbequed foods, but not those that are steamed or boiled. The World Health Organization first began to examine the dangers of acrylamides in 2002 after the publication of a bunch of studies in Sweden linked acrylamide consumption with cancer.  Since then, studies have been conducted in Norway, Switzerland, England and of course, our home country of the U.S. of A.- all of them have found a correlation between acrylamide consumption and risk of developing cancer.  A few months after the initial report out of Sweden, The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. came out with it’s own study on the acrylamide content of the most common starchy foods.  Here’s the results:



Acrylamide (mcg)

McDonalds French Fries, large

6.2 oz.


Burger King French Fries, large

5.7 oz.


KFC Potato Wedges, Jumbo

6.2 oz.


Wendy’s French Fries, Biggie

5.6 oz.


Ore Ida French Fries (baked)

3 oz.


Pringles Potato Crisps

1 oz.


Fritos Corn Chips

1 oz.



1 oz.


Honey Nut Cheerios

1 oz.


Boiled Potatoes

4 oz.

less than 3


8 oz.

0.12 (EPA limit)


As you can see, French fries and potato chips contain bountiful acrylamides and the amount of acrylamide found in a large order of French fries at a fast food restaurant is higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency allows in a glass of drinking water!  In other words, French fries and potato chips are two of the most deadly foods you can eat.

In July of 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a list of the top 20 foods by acrylamide intake by the U.S. population:

  1. French Fries (made in restaurants)
  2. French Fries (oven baked)
  3. Potato Chips
  4. Breakfast Cereals
  5. Cookies
  6. Brewed Coffee
  7. Toast
  8. Pies and Cakes
  9. Crackers
  10. Soft Bread
  11. Chile con Carne
  12. Corn Snacks
  13. Popcorn
  14. Pretzels
  15. Pizza
  16. Burrito/Tostada
  17. Peanut Butter
  18. Breaded Chicken
  19. Bagels
  20. Soup Mix

A general rule of thumb is to avoid burnt, overly cooked or browned foods as much as possible.  If by accident, you’ve overcooked or browned your food, discard it like the ugly sweater your aunt gave you for Christmas.  Baking can be a sweet acrylamide-free experience, but it is best to heat cakes, cookies and muffins at very low heat to avoid burning or crisping.

Other than the few foods that are best eaten cooked, most vegetables are fantastic eaten raw or cooked.  To obtain as many nutrients we can from foods, a combination of steamed veggies and soups and raw fruits and veggies is the way to go.  Variety is the spice of life and the same applies to our diets.  Forgoing a raw food diet will enable us to consume veggies as a more concentrated source of calories, rather than relying on the few calories we can obtain from raw veggies (ex. raw spinach contains a mere 7 calories per cup) and meeting our need for more calories with too many nuts, seeds and avocadoes.

So there you have it! Both raw and cooked foods can be marvelous for our health, it simply depends on the food and how much you cook it!


[i] Zhang, M., et al., Dietary intakes of mushrooms and green tea combine to reduce the risk of breast cancer in Chinese women. Int J Cancer, 2009. 124(6): p. 1404-8.

[ii] Dewanto, V, et al. Thermal Processing Enhances the Nutritional Value of Tomatoes by Increasing Total Antioxidant Activity. J. Agric. Food Chem.200250 (10), pp 3010–3014

[iii] Bender, A.E. Haemagglutinins (lectins) in beans.  Food Chemistry, 1983. 11(3): 309-320.


  1. Myra Din says:

    So glad you wrote this article. I have been reading and even trying phases of raw eating for the past couple months and it is really hard to maintain. I am glad to know that a combination of some raw foods (mostly fruits and salad) and cooked vegan plant foods is best!!

  2. Myra, I am so glad to help you! All raw certainly isn’t best and can be stressful to maintain. I’m glad you are on a better track now 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing this! From experience and further study, I believe that when combined, the merits of raw and cooked foods make a very healthy diet (I hesitate when I say ‘diet’). Someone I have been following is Sara Wasabi, an Ayurvedic nutritionist whose hip, fun, educational posts are quite intriguing yet sensible. When the weather is warm, I naturally crave cooler foods, but would definitely eat something grilled in the evening. Oppositely, when the weather is cool, I might add more warming substances to my meals (like cayenne pepper), or at least some steamed/cooked vegetables to a salad. All year round, a stir-fry is constant (well, not fry, more like saute). I just think that listening to our intuition while keeping a level-headed perspective on nutrition and how it applies to our body is important, along the concept of bio-individuality. All of these sciences are phenomenally interesting, and right now I am working on a personal nutritional almanac, filled with information and plans to work for MY body. Today, I am so grateful that there are people like you and Sara (amongst countless others!) who are making a difference in the world of health and wellness. One day, I plan on creating a blog of sorts dedicated to this field of interest, and hope that it too will inspire and educate others!
    Have a great day!

    – Sam

  4. Jocelyn says:

    Would love the recipe to that beautiful food creation!!

  5. Serena says:

    This was a beautifully written and informative article, Talia! I’ve never given a thought to trying a raw food diet, but it was fun to learn about acrylamides. Can’t wait for ze book to come out!! Eeekkkk 🙂 🙂

  6. Serena, I’m so glad you liked the article and found the information educational! Acrylamides are gross!!

  7. I love Sara and her work. She is actually a great friend of mine who I respect and admire. Thank you for sharing, Samantha!

  8. Gabby says:

    Thanks for this article! This post makes a lot of sense. And that cooked meal looks way delicious!
    I was considering sprouting lentils in addition to my cooked lentils. Are sprouted lentils safe to eat raw?

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