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The Raw Food Myth: Why Cooking Matters

Updated: Oct 24

The idea that raw food contains more nutrients than cooked food is a myth. The narrative that when we cook foods like vegetables we destroy the vitamins and minerals in them is not only wrong, it is often actually the opposite. For many vitamins and minerals, cooking the foods they’re in *increases* the nutrient levels.


By cooking vegetables, we break down the cell walls of the plant, thereby releasing the bounty of nutrients stored within their cellular matrix that would otherwise be inaccessible to us. There is a wealth of health to be extracted from plant foods and cooking allows us greater access.

Yet contrary to some views, plants are actually like all other living things and would prefer not to be eaten. They have even developed defense mechanisms to ward off would-be predators in the form of ‘anti-nutrients’. These include compounds like oxalates, lectins, phytic acid, tannins, saponins, gluten and more.


Take spinach, for example. Spinach is very high in calcium, but its calcium is bound to oxalic acid, an anti-nutrient that inhibits our ability to assimilate not only calcium, but other minerals including magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.


By cooking food, heat breaks the oxalate bond, thus liberating the calcium and making it more bioavailable to our body. The more bioavailable the nutrient, the more we can actually absorb, integrate and utilize it.


While it is true the act of cooking can decrease beneficial phytochemicals and enzymes, the essential vitamins and minerals that our bodies require for basic survival are generally increased, and indeed even some phytochemicals are increased, as well.


Tomatoes, for instance, contain the phytochemical lycopene, a powerful antioxidant known to be protective against cancer, heart disease, sunburn and much more. By cooking tomatoes instead of eating them raw, lycopene is greatly increased.


To really highlight exactly how cooking can increase specific nutrients, let’s take a look at some of the more common foods people eat both raw and cooked. For every food listed below, the corresponding nutrients are actually increased by the mere acting of cooking.


Kale

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, vitamin C, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin A, beta carotene, lutein + zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Spinach

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, choline, vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Collard greens

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, choline, vitamin A, beta carotene, beta cryptoxanthin, lutein + zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Tomatoes

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6, choline, vitamin A, beta carotene, alpha carotene, lycopene, lutein + zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Cabbage

Protein, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, choline, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Celery

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, vitamin B6, choline, vitamin A, retinol, beta carotene, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Broccoli

Protein, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, choline, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Brussels sprouts

Protein, lipids, carbohydrates, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, selenium, choline, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Carrots

Calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, zinc, copper, choline, vitamin E, vitamin K, fatty acids.


Swiss Chard

Protein, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, choline, beta carotene, vitamin A, lutein + zeaxanthin.


Beyond increasing nutrient content, the simple act of beginning the breakdown process of food with heat enables our digestive energy to flourish. When we cook our food, we do some of the work beforehand so our digestion doesn’t have to do it all.


By cultivating stronger digestive energy, we are able to break down more of the food we eat. The more food we can break down, the more nutrients we can absorb. The more nutrients we can absorb, the healthier we will become.


The best approach, as always, is balance. Consume a wide variety of produce, both cooked and uncooked, in order to diversify your nutrient intake as much as possible. When cooking, steaming vegetables has been shown to lead to the best nutrient profile.


Eating seasonally is also wise, both in terms of what is locally in season and in terms of staying mindful of what season we are in. If it’s wintertime, focus more on warm, cooked produce and save the raw, uncooked produce for the hot summer months.


In this way, we support our body’s thermal dynamics as they relate to the corresponding energetics of the year. We are alive in nature––the more we align within her cycles, the more we will thrive within our own being.