Do you know what happens when you cook your food? Do you love beef carpaccio or sushi? Is it better to eat raw foods, than cooked foods? Read on to understand the benefits of eating your food raw or eating it cooked.
There’s a lot of things going on about this raw food craze. So are raw foods better than cooked foods? Is that fact or fiction?
Well, in this case: it depends.
Cooking Changes the Structure of Food
Let’s go back to caveman times when man was still just figuring out how to make fire. We were able to start growing as a population on the planet, because we used fire to start to extract more nutrition from our foods. Man learned that when you cook foods, the chemical process that is cooking (putting it over heat) changes how much energy (read: calories) you can get out of your food.
The chemical process of cooking – whether it’s with fire, baking, steaming, microwaving, or even frying – puts heat energy into the food. That heat energy chemically modifies the structure of the molecules inside those foods.
Let’s take for example a sweet potato you dug up from the ground. You can actually feel the difference between the raw and the baked one in your hand. The raw one is hard and firm like a rock. This is the same for most plant materials, because the cellular structure of plants is very different than that of animals. The cells of animals are circular, squishy, and soft, but the cell structures of plant material are kind of rectangular, hard, and rigid.
So the structure of cells inside a plant material, in this case a sweet potato, makes it very firm, hard, and difficult for us humans to break down, digest, and get the nutrition that’s available inside. As we cook it, we use the heat to chemically alter the cellular structure of that sweet potato, which becomes soft and squishy.
Another thing that changes is the taste. When you cut your sweet potato up into little pieces to make some fries, it’s still hard, firm, and tastes kind of bland and bitter. But once you fry or cook them, those starches and complex carbohydrates in the raw sweet potato are converted into sweeter, simpler sugars, which is why sweet potatoes become very sweet when they get into their soft cooked form.
Now that’s a great thing if your goal is to get a lot of nutrition. All the nutrition available in that sweet potato goes into your body and that means you get to absorb all the calories. But if your goal is to lose weight, you don’t necessarily want all the maximum calories you can get out of your food.
In the case of a sweet potato – I actually talked about it in one of our prior articles – when you cook it, the starches get converted into sugars and you’ll get all the calories out of it. But, if you let that cool off before you eat it, the sugars get turned back into resistant starches, which are not digested or absorbed by the stomach or small intestine. This cuts about half the calories. And that’s a big difference for someone who counts his calories and is looking to lose weight.
So if your goal is to gain some weight and some muscle, you can eat the cooked version right when it’s hot. But if you want to lose weight, and you don’t want to eat the raw version, then you can cook it then let it cool off before you eat it. It’s the same thing when you’re in a restaurant –just leave your sweet potatoes on a plate, let it cool off, and eat it last.
Now, there’s this whole cauliflower craze – cauliflower rice, cauliflower mashed potatoes – which is using cauliflower as a substitute for other sources of starch such as bread, fries, and mashed potatoes. For me, I keep it simple and eat it raw for a snack, and I cook it if I’m gonna substitute it to some type of carbohydrates. But how does the cooking process affect cauliflower? Is it different or the same?
Using cauliflower as a substitute for bread or potatoes reduces the calories to about ¼, which is a huge difference, although it may also have only ¼ of the flavor. Cauliflower, just like all other plant materials, has the same cellular structure – that rectangular, firm, fibrous structure that’s rock hard and very crunchy. So the cooking of cauliflower does chemically change it – it becomes softer, and that’s how you can make it into rice cauliflower or mashed cauliflower. So it does increase the amount of calories available, but cauliflower doesn’t really have any calories to begin with. It’s really low in calorie density, so in that case pick which one’s best for you. If you do find this great substitute to white potatoes because it has way less calories, then that’s a great option and you can go ahead with that.
Raw versus Cooked Fish
Now when it comes to sushi and raw fish, how does fish compare with others as far as cooking to get more calories?
Sushi in Japan is a very popular street food, and it’s now internationally acclaimed. The fish itself, just like other foodstuffs, when cooked or heated, is changed chemically. So we’re getting it in a raw form in sashimi or sushi. Once you start cooking it, whether by searing or blowtorch, that’s processing and chemically changing that salmon and making it easier for your body to absorb.
Again, this is not good or bad. If your goal is to get a lot of calories to gain weight or bigger muscles, then you need more calories, and cooked salmon is probably better because you’re gonna get more nutritional value out of it.
Raw salmon on the other hand, requires more work for your body to absorb. As I’ve talked about the thermic effect of food before, proteins are much harder to break down in your stomach because they’re very complex molecules. So if you’re eating it raw, it’s actually much more work for your body to break down biochemically, and the calories absorbed are about 25 to 30% less. So if weight loss is your goal, sushi’s your friend.
Let’s Talk About Eggs
Eggs are one of the first things recommended to add to my diet. This helps increase my intake of proteins and fats, while decreasing all the extra carbs that I’ve been getting from rice and beans. And in the case of eggs, there’s a huge difference between the cooked egg versus the raw egg, in the availability of protein.
A lot of people eat eggs because there’s a lot of protein in them. Some just eat the egg whites raw. But all that protein’s not available in its raw state. Interestingly enough, you only get about 50% of the available protein in an egg if you eat it raw. So if you want to get all the protein you want and all the calories out of your eggs, you would need to cook them. This will give you 90% of the protein – almost double the amount of protein availability versus a raw egg.
Additionally, there’s this protein inside of eggs called avidin which stops your body from absorbing biotin, a B-vitamin. So eating only raw eggs could get you a deficiency. But when you cook an egg, that avidin goes away. The cooking denatures it and it’s no longer bioactive and you get your biotin. So that’s another positive benefit of cooking eggs.
What about the method of cooking an egg?
On a spectrum of how much cooked an egg is, we have: a raw egg, an over easy egg, a poached egg, over medium, over hard, and then hard-boiled eggs. The difference between the soft and liquid form versus the more firm and hard-boiled egg is like the opposite of the plant-based food. Plant-based foods start as hard and end up soft, while eggs will start as soft and end up more firm. The cooking process changes the proteins inside the egg, and makes it more bioavailable such that you actually get more calories out of a hard-boiled egg than a raw one.
So again it is based on somebody’s goal. Hard-boiled eggs are great snacks to take with you as they are more portable and ready to eat. It contains a lot of protein and fats to keep you satisfied before your next meal. But, don’t eat at the end of the/ten a day because they are pretty calorie-dense and you are getting all the calories.
So now we’ve talked about how the answer to the question “Are raw foods better than cooked foods?” depends on your goal, what the food is, and how much you cook it. Another thing to consider is if you cook them yourself or if you go to another place to eat, like a restaurant. The reality is – raw or cooked – neither is better. They’re just different.
Overcooking is Bad for You
I’ll use a steak as an example. In the raw end of the spectrum, that steak is really tough. Your body would require a lot of energy to chew it up and break it down in your stomach, so the thermic effect of food is high, and you get fewer calories.
As you start to cook, the spectrum goes from rare, medium rare, medium, medium well done, to well done. But there could also be a time that you grill it too long and burn the outside such that some parts turn black.
Overcooking things can actually be very bad, especially when you burn the outsides of the meats, or even vegetables. It happens usually when you cook with fire, or when there’s too much direct high heat contact. It comes to the point where some of that material – whether it’s from a plant or an animal – can turn to a carcinogen – that means it causes cancer – or it can have some other problem with your body.
So we wouldn’t want to overcook things. That’s really the only time when cooking is bad. So if you like a little crunch like I do, just be careful to not do too much that some parts already look like charcoal. It’s a different thing when there is some sugar and barbecue sauce which are caramelizing and changing color, like a dark brown to almost black. It’s the sugars changing that’s making it look black, and not charcoal, so that’s actually okay, although that’s kind of an excess. Just don’t cook your meat to death since it also could be bad for you with those carcinogens.
Using Oil with a High Smoke Point
Another thing to add – if you like fried things like sweet potato fries, whether you bake or fry them – I recommend using oil that has a high smoke point. First, so it doesn’t smoke up your house, if you’re doing it at home. Then you’d want to use that oil only once or twice, because if you keep reheating and then cooling the oil, the chemical composition of the oil starts to degrade, and that back and forth heating and cooling creates a lot of free radicals and oxidants.
You might’ve heard of the antioxidants which are inside of fruits and vegetables. Now these antioxidants are good for you, so as you don’t have your cells breaking down. The aging process is really driven by the free radicals and oxidants, so we don’t want our oil to have that. Using oil over and over again makes it start to go rancid and very high in toxins and free radicals – it can be very bad for you.
So overcooking to the point of charred – bad. Using frying oil repetitiously – also bad.
One type of oil that has a high smoke point is peanut oil. Contrary to what people think, it doesn’t taste like peanuts, but has a neutral flavor. You can apply a higher temperature with a higher smoke point oil so that oil can be raised up to a very high temperature before it starts to have smoke coming off of it. The higher that temperature is, the better it is for frying.
For example if you used butter. It has milk solids in it which burn off and create smoke at only about 200 degrees, which is not very hot at all. But with peanut oil, it’s gonna be around 375 to 400 degrees before it gets to the smoke point. And since you wouldn’t even need to get to that high a temperature if you’re cooking, you’re never gonna have it burning off the top and have those oils broken down. So that’s why it’s recommended.
First, Determine What your Goal Is
So finally with all that being said it comes back down to raw vs. cooked. Let’s take for example Goldilocks and the three bears. Just like in that fairy tale – not too hot, not too cold, not too big, and not too small, just right. Don’t cook your food too much. You don’t necessarily have to eat everything raw. Find what works for you because everybody’s different.
Start with your goal. What are you trying to accomplish?
If you need more calories, cook your foods a little bit more. Don’t eat raw so much. Have cooked salmon instead of sashimi. Have your cooked sweet potato fries hot as opposed to raw sweet potato that nobody eats anyway.
If your goal is trying to lose some weight, then you need to have less calories going in. Some of the things you can do is to err towards the raw side. Have your broccoli raw. Cool down your sweet potatoes after you cook them. Have your eggs sunny-side up instead of over medium.
The reality is cooking gives you more total calories available. If that’s what your goal is then you would want your food cooked as opposed to raw. If those aren’t your goals, then go towards the raw side.
So are raw foods better than cooked foods? It’s neither fact nor fiction. It depends on your goal.
- Cooking plant-based food converts the starches into simple sugars, making you absorb more calories. Letting it cool off after cooking, however, halves the amount of calories you absorb.
- Overcooking to the point of charring the food can be bad for you because it can contain carcinogens.
- Know what your goal is first. If you need more calories and you want to gain more weight or muscle, then it’s better if you cook most of your food. If you want to lose weight, you can go towards the rawer end of the spectrum.