The crispness of a raw carrot, the crunch of raw almonds, the bitter bite of exotic salad greens or the peppery blast of fresh arugula – raw foods are a welcome delight to the palate, especially in the summertime when the heat makes the idea of cooking undesirable. But more than just tasting good, raw foods are vitally important to our health. The recent Raw Foods movement, along with developments in the health sciences have opened up the world to the importance of these tasty morsels.
I’ve written off hand about the value of raw food before, but today I’m going to take a moment to go into detail about it’s importance. And what examination of raw foods would be complete without discussing enzymes.
Enzymes are specialized proteins that manage the body’s biochemical processes. Actions like talking, breathing, moving, thinking and digesting would all be impossible without enzyme catalysts taking part in the the process. Vitamins, minerals and hormones all require enzymes to be able to do their work. At this point, over 5000 different enzymes have been discovered.
The importance of food enzymes, one subsection of enzymes that help to digest our foods, cannot be understated. These enzymes are what actually make the breaking down of our food possible. As good as your diet may be, you’d be getting no nutrients from your food if it weren’t for these little helper proteins. Although our body makes enzymes via the pancreas, these enzymes do not come into contact with the food until the food exits the stomach and enters the duodenum (the first section of the small intestine).
This is where enzymes from dietary sources come into play. If there are enzymes in the foods that we consume, they can be working to digest the food all the way through the processes of upper digestion, meaning the pancreas has less work to do once the food reaches it. Unfortunately, these dietary enzymes are destroyed with heat – 118 degrees Fahrenheit for wet heat, 150 degrees dry heat. This means that cooking destroys the enzymes.
A diet of of solely cooked food puts excessive strain on the pancreas which, in this situation, is responsible for producing all the enzymes responsible for the foods digestion. When raw foods are eaten, the enzymes that exist naturally assist in the digestive process, giving the pancreas a break.
Dr. Edward Howell, pioneer of enzyme research and author of the books The Status of Food Enzymes in Digestion and Metabolism and Enzyme Nutrition first recognized the importance of enzymes in studying the difference between cooked and raw foods and their effects on the health of his patients. He found that the enzymes present in raw foods alleviated the burden on the digestive system and therefore contributed to health and longevity. The consequences of a diet deficient in enzymes is illness, lowered resistance to stress of all types and a shortened life. According to Dr. Howell, “Enzymes may be the key factor in preventing chronic disease and extending the human lifespan.” And he should know – at 99 years old, according to his Myspace profile, Dr. Howell is still kicking.
Foods naturally high in enzymes include extra virgin olive oil (cold pressed), raw honey, grapes, figs, avocados, dates, bananas, papaya, pineapple, kiwi and mango.
Other than enzyme content, there are other reasons to consider adding more raw foods to your diet. Raw foods are unprocessed foods in most cases, meaning you’re not getting any mystery ingredients. It also means that the foods are intact, containing all their original nutrients and, not to be undervalued, their fiber.
The amount of raw foods eaten in order to be healthy is a debated subject. Raw foodists are generally considered to be anyone who eats over 70% raw. Some say that this is actually the minimum we need. But other more moderate approaches say that just making sure you’re eating raw foods every day is a good place to start. If you don’t do well on raw foods, which some people don’t, try supplementing your meals with fermented foods and condiments so that you still get the enzymes you need, but the “predigestion” of fermentation makes the food easier for the body to process.
So think about adding some raw foods to your diet. There are an infinite variety of salads and raw recipe ideas online. Here’s a good place to get your start. Another possibility is going and trying out a raw food restaurant. They’re not very common, but if you’re fortunate enough to have one nearby, it might be worth experimenting. Raw chefs do some amazing things with raw foods, and have lots of interesting tricks up their sleeves. Every foodie should be up for the adventure.
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto.