October 3, 2008

Raw Food Diet: The Real Deal?

Eating raw foods avoids many of the pitfalls of a traditional Western diet - like added salt and sugar. But it is not so simple as it seems.

Eating more raw fruits and vegetables is now a fairly standard nutritional recommendation. But if a little is good, is even more, better? Should the health conscious attempt to go totally raw?

A raw food diet consists of raw fruit, vegetable and grains. Food may be warmed but cannot be heated above 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason for this restriction is to keep the enzymes present in uncooked food active.

While many of the ideas behind a raw food diet make good nutritional sense, this idea that it is important to keep enzymes active does not.

While many of the ideas behind a raw food diet make good nutritional sense, this idea that it is important to keep enzymes active does not. There is no scientific evidence that preserving the function of these enzymes provides any nutritional benefit. Nearly all enzymes will be inactivated as soon as they encounter the acid present in the stomach. The enzymes are not destroyed; they are inactivated and will eventually be split into their component amino acids, for use in an individual's own proteins.

A major benefit to eating a raw food diet is that it avoids many of the excesses of a traditional Western diet. There is no refined sugar and fat content is low. All non−food additives added during food processing are also avoided. These include artificial flavoring, coloring, chemical preservatives and flavor enhancers.

A raw food diet also eliminates consumption of some suspected carcinogens that are created by certain methods of cooking meats and potatoes.

Meat cooked at temperatures above 480 degrees Fahrenheit produces heterocyclic amines (HCAs). French fries and potato chips contain acrylamide. Both are suspected human carcinogens. While these compounds have not been proven to cause cancer in humans, their ability to do so in animals is worrisome.

Both species of potential carcinogen can be lowered by small changes in cooking habits. Blanching or soaking potatoes before frying lowers their final acrylamide level. So does boiling them. Microwaving or marinating meat before broiling, frying or barbecuing reduces HCAs, as does cooking meat at lower temperatures.

While cooking food does decrease its level of vitamins B and C, it also increases the body's absorption of other food substances, such as beta−carotene and lycopenes. This is pretty much a nutritional stand−off. Cooking also helps sterilize food, killing microorganisms that can cause food borne illness.

The emphasis on fruits and vegetables in a raw food diet is healthful. Most Americans could stand more of them in their diet. On the other hand, raw diets have their deficiencies. Vitamin B12 must be taken as a supplement; it's found only in animal products. Protein requirements are difficult to fulfill on a raw food diet. The lack of meat, dairy or soy products means that great quantities of nuts and seeds must be eaten to satisfy this requirement. Eating low calorie foods also means eating a lot of them and eating often. This can be quite complicated and will not fit well into everyone's life style.

There's no question that a lot of Westerners consume a lot of junk. Many would benefit from eating a diet that's higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in fat, salt, refined sugar and dubious chemical additives. Going all the way to a raw food diet is pretty extreme. It might be better to set your sights on eating a rawer diet. This would be one containing more fresh fruits and vegetables and less fat, salt and processed foods. When it comes to nutrition, balance seems to be the best overall strategy.

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