Dr. Day is a cardiologist and Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at his practice in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowship in cardiology at Stanford University. He is board certified in Cardiology and Cardiac Electrophysiology.
The Top 3 Benefits and Risks of Raw Foods
Raw foods can be a great way to boost nutrition, lose weight, and eat more naturally. In fact, I would probably see far less cardiovascular disease in my practice if people ate more of the right kinds of raw foods. Perhaps this explains the growing popularity of “eating raw.”
In this article, I’ll cut through the hype and focus on what the science tells us. Read on to discover the top three benefits and risks of raw foods based on the latest medical studies.
My Raw Food Journey
At one point in my life, the closest I ever came to raw foods was an occasional bag of carrots or the standard dinner salad. In fact, raw versus cooked was something that was never even on my radar screen.
Since my health turn around a few years ago, I now eat raw foods every day. While you won’t find me drinking unpasteurized milk or eating raw meat, you will find me eating a heaping salad or munching on raw vegetables.
Personally, I don’t take sides in the raw versus cooked debate. As there are benefits to both, I enjoy the best of both worlds.
Top 3 Benefits of Raw Foods
Raw foodists believe that cooking destroys the enzymes and nutrients in food. After reviewing the medical literature, here are my top 3 benefits of raw foods.
1. More of Some Nutrients
It should come as no surprise that cooking changes the digestibility of foods. Some nutrients are better absorbed raw and others by cooking.
For example, raw vegetables have more carotenoids, vitamin C, plant proteins, and other key nutrients. If you like your veggies cooked, but want to maintain the nutrients, studies show that lightly steaming is best.
Raw meat may also make some proteins easier to digest. With dairy, pasteurization, which is a form of cooking, has been reported to increase food allergies in some studies. However, these studies are adamantly refuted by the FDA.
While enzymes are certainly deactivated by cooking meat and dairy, I could find no clear evidence that this has any detrimental effect to human health. This is probably because even if you eat raw meat and dairy, few enzymes can survive the hydrochloric acid in your stomach.
2. Weight Loss
The more raw vegetables you eat the less you will weigh. In fact, studies show that the main challenge with the raw vegan diet is that you simply can’t get enough calories.
While the 100% raw vegan diet certainly presents many health risks, simply eating more raw vegetables every day will likely improve your health, extend your life, and shrink your waistline. In contrast, eating raw meat or unpasteurized dairy does not cause weight loss.
Raw vegetables are so low in calories that I suspect you could eat a wheelbarrow full every day and still lose weight. Of course, if you smother your raw veggies with ranch dressing then you have completely undone any potential health or weight loss benefit.
3. Potentially Lower Cancer Risk
It is well known that overcooked meat, or even toast, may create carcinogenic substances. For example, studies show that overcooked meat creates heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which may increase your cancer risk.
Burned toast, or over cooked carbohydrates, create acrylamide. Studies show that acrylamide may also increase your risk of cancer.
Of course, the simple answer is don’t eat burned or charred foods. As long as you don’t overcook anything, you should be fine.
Top 3 Risks of Raw Foods
1. Food Poisoning
By far, the number one risk of eating raw foods is food poisoning. This is something you hear about every week in the news.
The main offender is salmonella. However, it could also be norovirus on a cruise ship, E. coli from the intestines of people or animals, or other nasty bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
According to the CDC, the number one cause of food poisoning in the U.S. is from raw milk. The reason why this occurs is because milk may come in contact with cow feces, bacteria on the skin of the cow, or contaminated milking equipment. If you enjoy raw milk, make sure you buy it from a trusted farmer who tests all milk for harmful bacteria to minimize your risk.
To avoid food poisoning, remember the 3 C’s.
Clean: Always wash your hands before preparing or eating food. Use a clean surface when preparing foods and be sure to wash fruits and vegetables with running water.
Cook: In general, once the internal temperature of meat hits 165 degrees Fahrenheit (74 degrees Celsius), bacteria is destroyed. With pasteurization, food manufacturers have already treated dairy to approximately the same temperature. Cooking vegetables also eliminates any lingering bacteria.
Chill: Don’t leave meat and dairy out. If you keep it refrigerated to a temperature of less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius), then the risk of food poisoning is dramatically reduced.
2. Less of Some Nutrients
Just as eating your veggies raw boosts some nutrients, cooking vegetables boosts other nutrients. For example, cooking your vegetables is the best way to get more lycopene. Studies show that lycopene may prevent heart disease. Thus, if you only eat raw veggies you will miss out on the protective effects of lycopene.
Loss of nutrients isn’t just with veggies. For example, the bioavailability of biotin has been reported to be less with raw eggs.
3. Digestive Challenges
Raw vegetables don’t work for everyone. Some people experience bloating, pain, or excessive gas from raw foods. This is because they may not be used to eating fiber or may have other digestive challenges.
Perhaps this is why Chinese traditional medicine believes that raw foods are too cold, or yin, for the body to digest and maintain optimal health. Thus, if you share a meal with a traditional Chinese family, you probably won’t see any raw veggies on the table.
Take Home Message
The main take away from this article is that most people would enjoy far better health, and a smaller waistline, by eating more raw vegetables. On the other hand, there is also a role for cooked vegetables in maintaining optimal health and nutrition. This is why I eat large portions of both every day.
Of all the vegetable cooking methods, lightly steaming provides the best of both the raw and cooked worlds. The nutritional profile of lightly steamed vegetables is similar to raw vegetables.
If you enjoy raw meat or dairy, you must be incredibly careful to avoid food poisoning. As I eat very little meat and dairy, it is just not worth the risk for me to eat them raw. I can’t afford to be sick for even a day.
Do you eat raw foods? Have you ever tried the “Raw Food Diet?” Please leave your experiences and questions below. If you enjoyed this article, please be sure to click on these links to subscribe to my free weekly newsletter and podcast.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.