The Raw Deal
When you heat a food to higher than 110° F, its natural enzymes are obliterated, says Paula Pavelka, R.N., C.H.C., integrative nutritionist and health counselor in Knoxville, Tenn. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is a lost opportunity: “We all need enzymes in order to digest food and to get maximum nutrition from what we eat,” Pavelka explains. “With more enzymes in your stomach and intestines, your digestion can operate optimally and you’ll improve your health. You might even lose a little weight, since you’ll be able to achieve peak nutrition with less food!”
Each of us is born with an abundant supply of our own digestive enzymes, but they diminish over time, according to Pavelka. Some of that is due to the natural aging process, but the depletion accelerates if you’re eating the standard American diet. “Processed foods and medications—most notably over-the-counter antacids—rapidly deplete your natural enzyme reserves,” she says. When you lose them, they don’t come back; the only way to replace enzymes, Pavelka says, is to take them in supplement form (as is often recommended by naturopathic physicians) or eat raw foods.
The health claims associated with the latter path are so impressive that they almost border on hyperbole. Mars, for instance, says a raw diet can help improve (or prevent) eczema, allergies, bad breath, asthma, depression, psoriasis, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, hormonal imbalances and even autoimmune disorders.
Could there be truth to these claims? Yes, says Pavelka, despite a lack of studies in the field. “Most of us don’t realize that much of the immune system resides in the gut,” she explains. “When you strengthen your gut by adding enzymes to your diet, you enhance your ability to fight off diseases—including cancer.”
Of course, no one would prescribe raw foods as a frontline treatment for cancer. But if you’re coping with frequent infections or simply feeling more run-down than you’d like, it might be worth downing a little more of the uncooked stuff. “I’m not dealing with colds like when I was younger; my digestion has improved and my skin tone has improved,” says Matt Amsden, author of the go-to guide RAWvolution: Gourmet Living Cuisine (William Morrow), who’s eaten a 100-percent raw food diet since 1998. “I’ve got an incredible amount of energy and real mental clarity—it feels like a fog has sort of lifted.”