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Nutrition 101: On Raw

Posted May 28 2011 4:47am

Happy Saturday all!

Today a very exciting post. I had been meaning to do a proper post on eating raw for a long time now, so here it is!

I’m not a raw foodist per se but most of the time I do eat a high raw diet. The health benefits behind a raw diet are abundant yet not widely understood, which is why I decided to dedicate a post to help understand the raw food diet better, and why I choose to eat this way.

Very simply put, I eat a large percentage of raw food for my health. Veganism, for me, is not about my health (although I can’t deny the numerous health benefits that stem from it), but raw food is.

I had never been a big fan of vegetables and had a hard time even getting the (already low) daily recommended intake in each day, until I began incorporating more raw foods. Yes, it took some time and no, it wasn’t always a breeze adjusting, but now I eat three raw vegetable-based meals a day with ease. That’s what raw did for me. With some time, it transformed my diet to be mostly vegetables and fruits, instead of starches, soy products and nuts. I never liked salads, now I can’t live without ‘em. Eating raw transforms your tastebuds and the way you look at food. You’ll naturally start to crave the freshest foods which are, coincidentally, also the healthiest foods.

Why Raw?

1. Taking out the Bad Stuff

Eating a larger percentage of your diet raw automatically means pushing some of the less healthy, or downright bad stuff out! Think about it: whipped cream, candy, meat, dairy, bagels, pastries, chips, etc, all of these are eliminated or at least greatly reduced on a raw food diet (note: some raw foodists do choose to include raw eggs, meat, dairy, etc, but most don’t). What is left are greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, sprouted grains and legumes, seeds, sea veggies, basically the higher quality foods, and these now make up the bulk of the diet.

Fresh, raw foods are lower in sodium and saturated fats and contain no cholesterol, transfats, refined sugars and refined carbs. Raw foods are much higher in fiber, unsaturated fats, potassium, vitamins, minerals, enzymes & phytonutrients (see below).

2. Preserving the Good Stuff

Just like not every calorie should be treated equally, neither should, say, raw versus cooked vegetables. Just like organically grown veggies have more nutrients and less pestices than conventionally grown ones, raw vegetables retain all of their vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytochemicals whereas cooked vegetables lose a large percentage of these (all, when it comes to enzymes!). Basically, with eating raw you get more bang for your buck!

Vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients are heat sensitive and/or water soluble. Cooking veggies in water leaches a lot of the vitamins and some minerals into the cooking water instead of into your body! The same goes for phytonutrients, and heat kills all food enzymes. Steaming and sauteeing are better options for preserving vitamins and minerals, but the enzymes still go lost, together with a small percentage of vitamins & minerals. Oven baking requires very high temperatures which will also damage some nutrients, and all enzymes. Besides losing a lot while heating your food, you also unknowingly add bad stuff (see next point) !

3. Prevent AGEing

AGE stands for Advanced Glycation End products, but put simply these are the by-products of heating your food. These by-products are created when fat oxidizes or when sugars and proteins mingle (the latter is also called the Maillard reaction, responsible for a nice cooked smell and browned food, such as breads, coffee and pastries). Food producers and cooks actually intentionally use the maillard reaction to enhance flavor and taste of their foods, even though these by products are unhealthy. These AGEs occur when cooking, baking, broiling, steaming grilling or otherwise preparing your food and are quite detrimental to our health. AGEs impair our immune systems, accelerate ageing and contribute to the risk for cardiovasculair disease, diabetes, kidney disease and more.

To get a slightly better understanding of ages take this study as an example. Two groups of women were put under the exact same amount of stress. One group received stress management training (say, meditation, yoga, workshops) while the other group didn’t. At the end of the trial researchers measured the perceived levels of stress and overall well-being of the participants. The group that was offered stress management reported much less stress and a higher level of well-being than the control group. The researchers also found the stress management group had much lower levels of blood AGEs. AGEs equal stress and therefore accelerate aging and higher your risk for a bunch of degenerative diseases.

Studies consistently show raw vegan diets are significantly lower in AGEs and other harmful byproducts (such as acrylamides, PAKs and HCAs, all known carcinogens).

4. Adding Enzymes for Better Digestion and More Energy

Enzymes are proteins that perform millions of tasks in our bodies, one of the most important being digesting our food. Everyone is born with abundant enzymes, although it is deemed possible that the older we get, the smaller our enzyme reserve becomes (or less efficient).

There are three types of enzymes; metabolic enzymes (perform important bodily tasks), digestive enzymes (enzymes that are responsible for the breaking down of our food) and food enzymes (enzymes found in food). The enzyme theory claims that by adding lots of food enzymes (by the means of eating raw foods) to our enzyme supply, our own enzyme reserve gets depleted less quickly, which would prevent premature aging. Also, enzyme-rich food would be much more easy to digest because they come with their own built-in digesting team. The easier foods digest, the more energy we have and the more energized we’ll feel.

The enzyme theory is just that, a theory, and has been under scrutiny. I myself have been a sceptic of the enzyme theory until I a) started reading more and more research and b) started to eat more raw food myself. Because honestly there is much to say both for and against the theory (that is, it is definitely not proven, but it’s hard to disprove as well…), but my personal experience so far has been really good. For now, I like to believe enzymes most certainly do aid in human digestion, freeing up more enzyme activity and overall energy, but perhaps not as much as the founders of the theory would have liked them to. And who knows, maybe the increase in my energy and slightly better digestion were due to the foods themselves, and not the enzymes. All I know is that switching to a largely raw foods diet made a significant contribution to my health and well-being, and I’ll take it!

6. Eating Raw for Better Digestion

Next to enzymes perhaps aiding in the efficient digestion of raw foods, raw foods themselves also are believed to be digested more easily and efficiently. You see, when you cook a food, all kinds of processes unable to detect with the bare eye are unfolding within the food. Proteins denature and coagualate, starches can crystallize, fats oxidize. Some of these processes make the foods easier to digest and the nutrients more efficiently absorped, while others turn the food into an indigestible lump. The proteins in eggs, for example, are easier to assimilate by the body when the egg is cooked, whereas raw meat has shown to have a better bio-availability of amino acids over cooked meat.

Not all raw food is easier on the digestive system though! That is not my point in bringing this up. Rather, the raw food diet as a whole, as opposed to simply ‘raw foods’, in general will be easier on the digestive system, because all processed and refined products are replaced by whole foods. The dramatic increase in fiber may, in the beginning, cause some discomfort for some. Also, for those coming from a fairly typical Western diet, the digestive juices may not be quite adept yet in digesting of whole plant foods. However, with time the body adjusts and embraces these changes. Adequate fiber intake, in the long run, will only support your digestive system and thus make for more efficient digestion.

Certain foods are not to be eaten raw, and are actually digested far better when cooked. Starchy vegetables are a great example. Please, don’t eat raw potatoes or yams. I also wouldn’t advice to eat raw grains and legumes, unless sprouted, which makes them even more efficiently digested than when cooked. Nuts are difficult to digest either way, soaking nuts makes them easier on your digestive system.

7. Raw Foods are Alkaline Foods

Remember the importance of keeping our bodies alkaline? An alkaline body is a healthy, strong body with a vibrant glow and clear skin. Most raw foods also happen to be the most alkaline-forming foods, whereas most cooked and processed foods are more acidic. Fruits, vegetables and greens are the most alkaline-forming foods and these are the most abundant in a raw foods diet. A typical Western diet contains much more grains (refined and whole), meat, pasteurized dairy, legumes, refined sugars, etc. A raw foods diet automatically shifts you towards a more wholesome and unprocessed diet, crowding out the acidifying foods with the alkalizing ones!

7. Sustainable Energy

A lot of cooked foods are stimulating foods. Processed and man-made ‘foods’ contain large amounts of sugar, sodium, fat and additives, all of which are very stimulating. Our bodies and taste-buds get addicted to this stimulation, needing more and more, craving more and more. Not only will we crave more food, our energy levels are also affected by stimulating foods. Refined sugars and carbs, especially without some protective fiber, will give us short bouts of artificial energy, only to crash again moments later. The same goes for caffeine, it gives us the ability to use up energy we don’t actually have and in the end we only built up an energy debit.

Raw foods are generally non-stimulating foods (raw cacao obviously not included…), encapsuled in protective fiber and lower in sodium and caffeine and free of additives and refined crap. The energy you get from eating raw foods is authentic and sustainable, and therefore more constant.’

How to Raw?

1. Transitioning

I cannot stress this enough. I myself jumped in fairly rigidly, as is my nature. Everything turned out fine, obviously, but jumping straight into a raw food diet is not what I would recommend to most people, knowing what I know now. For most people a raw foods diet looks nothing like what they eat now and the thought of jumping all in can be too intimidating, setting yourself up for failure. I myself also experienced the  raw food blues !

A raw food diet is also very cleansing because it contains more vitamins, minerals, enzymes, fiber, chlorophyll and phytonutrients. If you were to switch overnight, you risk the change of releasing too many old toxins at once that have no quick exit route (because your bowels might still be a little backed up and/or not speedy enough)! It’s fat better to slowly, gradually, loosen up these toxins and old waste and have it move out in an orderly fashion ;).

Easy Transition Tips

1. Eat a handful of raw veggies before each meal
2. Start with eating one raw meal a day
3. Experiment with making fun raw snacks and desserts
4. Eat raw until dinner
5. Start adding one or more all raw days to your week and work up
6. Add a little, substract a little. Add a raw component to each meal, replacing a little of the cooked part
7. Drink a fresh smoothie or juice before your (downsized-portion) breakfast

Step number one is the easiest place to start, and from there on out you could pick your prefered way of transitioning. Or, instead of transitioning to a high raw diet, you could also simply incorporate some of these steps into your non-raw diet!

Again, please don’t feel tempted to go all raw or high raw overnight. It’s useless. Eating more raw or high raw should be a long-term goal, something that 5 years from now you’re still passionate about, not something that 5 days from now you’re already exhausted from! You will only benefit from this diet if it lasts.

You will also greatly benefit from simply adding a little more raw foods to your current diet, as mentioned in step 1, as long as you make it stick!

2. Raw Foods are a Means, Not a Goal

Eating a raw food diet simply for the heck of it should never be the goal. Rather, a raw food diet can be a means to cleanse your body continuously (not for xx weeks and then be done with it) and to give your diet a serious health-upgrade. Using a raw foods diet merely to lose weight will also be futile and excutiatingly hard. The transition to raw foods can be tough and it may take weeks or months, so using it as a short term weight loss strategy wouldn’t be your best bet. If you are interested in reaching your natural, healthy weight as an automatic result of nourishing your body the best way possible, then raw foods is certainly for you.

With eating raw your health comes first, the rest follows suit.

3. Don’t fall into the All Raw Trap

Perhaps a lot of real raw foodists won’t agree with me here, but I definitely don’t advocate going for ‘all raw’. It might work for some and perhaps if you’re battling serious illness the payoff is worth it. But for the rest of us, I wouldn’t suggest getting dogmatic on eating only raw foods. Not all cooked foods are treated equally. There are a lot of cooked foods that are still healthful, very healthful even, as long as you educate yourself and make smart food choices.

Instead of whole-wheat bread for starch, opt for the more nutrient-dense and gluten-free Quinoa. Swap your BBQed meat for a mixed bean salad. Throw out all refined oils (right this minute!) and start cooking (or uncooking ;)) with coconut oil.

When choosing wisely you can add a large variety of super healthy cooked foods to your raw foods diet. These cooked foods, although healthy, are usually acid-forming in various degrees, which is why they should make up the smaller part of your diet anyway. If your dinner now consists of meat, potatoes and a cooked veg or something to that extend, start with swapping your cooked veg with a side-salad. Further down the line, change in your potatoes (or wheat products) for grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat or amaranth. Eventually you might end up with a huge salad with a little cooked quinoa and/or tempeh, egg, or meat thrown in for flavor.

So again: don’t strive towards eating all raw, simply strive towards adding a little, substracting a little, until eventually you end up where you feel comfortable!

4. Tools

If you’re interested in making all sorts of gourmet dishes then some fancy equipment is needed. However I, like many others that eat high raw, really noticed how after a little while of eating more raw, you’ll automatically start to crave the simpler things (even though it seems hard te believe at first). Yes, I bought a dehydrator and every other day I plan on using it but honestly, I hardly ever do!

The one and only thing that is absolutely vital is a very good quality blender, and a simple food processor. With this, you are equipped to make nut butters, smoothies, mousses, dressings, chop your food and nuts in a sec, etc.

A little further down the line I’d also recommend investing in some good knifes, a nutmilk bag (to make your own nut milks!), and perhaps a juicer.

Raw & Semi-Raw Meal Ideas

Breakfast

1. Raw nut milk with raw buckwheat cereal
2. Fresh fruit topped with raw nut butter or coconut butter
3. Fresh juices & smoothies
4. Raw nut yogurt with fresh fruit

Lunch & Dinner

1. Large raw salad with nuts & seeds
2. Small salad with a soup
3. Sprouted Quinoa Tabbouleh
4. Semi-raw sushi
5. Large salad with either a cooked grain or cooked protein

Snacks & Desserts

1. Raw homemade chocolate
2. Chocolate Mousse
3. Raw energy bars
4. Fresh fruit topped with raw nut butter or coconut butter
5. Carrots with raw dip or hummus
6. ‘Snack Smoothie’ (healthy smoothie base but with added chocolate, coffee, etc)
7. Raw brownies and cookies
8. Trailmix (mix your fav nuts, seeds & dried fruit)
9. Raw homemade ice-cream
10. Energy balls

Recommended Reading

1. The Beauty Detox Solution
2. Crazy Sexy Diet
3. Raw Food Detox Diet (though very weightloss oriented)
4. 12 steps to Raw Foods (including the psychological aspects to eating raw vs cooked)
5. Becoming Raw (very research-based, nutrient oriented)
6. Green for Life

Cookbooks 1. Ani’s Raw Food Essentials
2. Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen
3. Thrive (not all raw)
4. Raw Energy

Voila! All you need to know about why raw is good for your health and how to get started. Ladies and gents, start your blenders!

How raw or cooked is your diet? Would you like to eat more raw foods? Any info to add to this post?

Love,

Sabine

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