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Myth: A raw food diet provides necessary enzymes that improve digestion

Red Shiso and Pea Shoots growing in wooly pockets on a rooftop in the West Village, NY

Red Shiso and Pea Shoots growing in wooly pockets on a rooftop in the West Village, NY

TRUTH: The evidence is clear that that fresh fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fiber that many processed foods lack.  However, the simple act of properly cooking them doesn’t make them any less nutritious. Cooking fruits and vegetables can cause nutrient loss if they’re overcooked or cooked improperly (like Vitamin C).  On the other hand, cooking makes some nutrients more available for your body to use (like lycopene).  That being said, if you cook vegetables properly, there is no evidence to support the claim that raw food is better.

Let’s move on to enzymes.  First, the basics: enzymes catalyze chemical reactions, meaning that they speed up the rate at which the reaction occurs.  The enzymes we (humans) produce in our bodies are very specific to our cellular reactions.  If you could somehow put enzymes from humans into plants, our enzymes wouldn’t do all that much for the plant’s metabolism.  In the same vein, putting plant enzymes (e.g. enzymes involved in photosynthesis) in our bodies wouldn’t do much either.

The raw food diet claims that temperatures above 118°F kills plant enzymes, rendering them useless for aiding digestion.  So, half of this is true.  If you heat fruits or vegetables above 118°F, it will kill the plant’s enzymes.  However, if you eat raw foods, there’s no evidence that suggests those enzymes would have done any good anyway.

Let’s look at this another way:

  1. You eat a cooked carrot, so the enzymes have already been inactivated by heat during cooking.  The carrot reaches your stomach and the enzymes produced by our digestive system breakdown the carrot further.
  2. You eat a raw carrot, with the enzymes intact.  It reaches your stomach and our stomach acid (containing human enzymes) breaks down the carrot anyway.

So the result is exactly the same either way.  Plus, if you adhere to the raw food diet, you may end up deficient in calcium, vitamins B12 or D, among other nutrients.  I’m all for vegetarianism or veganism for the right reasons, but let’s face it, our ancestors were omnivores for a nutritional reason (as researchers continue to find).

BOTTOM LINE: Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables is advantageous for many reasons.  Raw foodies are on the right track by focusing their meals on plant based foods.  Whether those fruits and veggies are cooked doesn’t matter for your health, but probably matters for taste. If cooked vegetables are more appealing to you then cook ‘em! Just don’t overcook them.

1. New York Times: Finding the best way to cook all those vegetables
2. Disease Proof: The Truth About Raw Food Diet

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One Comment to "Myth: A raw food diet provides necessary enzymes that improve digestion"

  1. Donna Seelbach says:

    Thank you for so succinctly and clearly explaining the science of enzyme digestion. People get all whipped up about becoming a pure being without looking at other options.

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