Last November, I was lying face up with needles stuck in my feet, earlobes, and forehead when I casually mentioned to my acupuncturist that I was having some minor digestive problems. Mainly, I had some uncomfortable gas and bloating after eating. Her suggestion? Don't eat raw fruits, vegetables, and salads. "Just steam or sauteé them a bit before you eat them," she said. "It will be easier for your tummy to break them down."
Now, I hate the word "tummy" with a vengeance, so I should have been skeptical from the start. But my acupuncturist usually knew what she was talking about, so I decided to try it her way: For the next six months or so, I switched out my usual yogurt and fruit in the morning for an egg and toast, and my lunchtime salad for stir-fried vegetables and rice. It felt kind of indulgent—and I'm not going to lie, I didn't miss eating salads all the time at all.
Unfortunately, avoiding raw food completely can have consequences. After a few months, my digestive problems didn't get better—they got worse. My skin was also a mess. I broke out more often, and my face looked more tired and less lackluster than usual. That's when I decided I raw-lly needed (sorry, had to) dig into what was going on.
Raw foods: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly
It turns out there's a reason nutritionists tell us to eat those fruits and vegetables daily. While both raw and cooked vegetables can be good for you—and both are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and lower blood pressure—there are reasons to get your raw produce intake up too.
"With raw food, our bodies get the benefits of all the enzymes, vitamins, and nutrients from foods that cooking may deteriorate," says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, of Real Nutrition in New York City. Eating raw foods may also decrease your chance of getting certain cancers, may improve your mood, help certain skin conditions, and even improve fibromyalgia symptoms.
What's more, if we avoid raw foods, we miss out on some key nutrients. "Certain nutrients, such as vitamin C, can be destroyed under high heat. When you eat foods that have been cooked, you may be taking in less of these vitamins than when you consume them raw," adds Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, and author of The Belly Fat Diet for Dummies.
Raw foods are also excellent for our digestive system. Yep, that means they help you poop too. "Raw foods are easier to digest since they move through the body more rapidly and assist our natural digestion process, so you will feel more satisfied from meals, absorb more nutrients, and eliminate regularly," Shapiro says.
On the other hand, cooking vegetables isn't bad, Palinski-Wade says. For example, cooking can increase the availability of other nutrients, such as lycopene. "When cooked, some foods like tomatoes will be higher in certain nutrients than their raw counterparts, like the lycopene in tomatoes," she says.
The Raw Truth
So, you might ask, if eating raw food is important, we should be doing it all the time then, right? Not necessarily, says Palinski-Wade. Although some glowing goddesses like Kate Middleton embrace a raw diet, it might not be the best choice for you.
For one thing, taking on a raw diet limits protein and animal products that aren't safe to eat raw. "A large amount raw foodists also follow a vegan meal plan," she says. "Although a vegan lifestyle may be beneficial to health, care must be taken to ensure you are meeting your nutritional needs each day. Combining a vegan meal plan with a raw food diet means that you may be increasing your intake of anti-nutrients (which block the absorption of some nutrients from plant-based foods) and can increase the risk of vitamin deficiencies."
Palinski-Wade notes that, as with most things in life, balance is key when it comes to eating a mix of raw and cooked foods. "I recommend a mix of plant-based raw and cooked foods to provide your body with the best source of nutrition each day," she says. "Increasing your intake of plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, can enhance health—regardless of if they are cooked or raw."
The Bottom Line
After learning more about the importance of raw foods in our diets, I decided to reintroduce them gradually into my meals. But reintroducing raw foods after not eating them for a bit wasn't easy. I felt bloated even after eating a few blueberries! On the other hand, my skin was glowing. That enough was enough motivation to keep loading up on fiber-rich fruits like apples and water-hydrating snacks like melon. Thankfully, someone recommended taking digestive enzymes every day. After that, everything was smooth sailing.
I don't blame my acupuncturist for suggesting someone with digestive issues avoid raw food. But I now understand why fresh, raw foods and vegetables are often best enjoyed just the way they grow in nature. That said, not everyone can handle raw food, especially if you have a serious digestive issue, so it's always a good idea to check with your doctor first.