Cooked or raw food– what’s best when you have cancer?

Published: 23 Oct 2019

Did you know 24th October is Food Day USA?. When fighting cancer getting the right level of nutrients into your body is more important than ever. Many people look for ways to optimize the way in which their bodies absorb vitamins – and one of the methods some people consider is a raw food diet.
Before we discovered fire, 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, homo-sapiens thrived on a diet of fresh, raw and even live foods in their whole unadulterated state. Some raw food diet advocates claim that we should return to those days – and that since we started to cook, we experience shorter lifespans and increasing ill-health. 

The raw-food movement claims that raw foods are more nutritious than cooked foods because enzymes, along with some nutrients, are destroyed in the cooking process. Some believe that cooked food is toxic. Celebrities such as Demi Moore, Sting, Venus Williams and Woody Harrelson have all been advocates of a raw food diet at some point.

But are they right or is this just another Hollywood-driven fad?

Whilst cooking food can improve the taste, it does change the nutritional content.  But whilst some vitamins are lost, others become more available for your body to use when food is cooked.  So, before you start on a raw diet, make sure you do your homework.

As many people have found, including celebrities, a strict raw-food diet is very difficult to follow, and the number of people that stick to a completely raw diet in the long term is very small.

While there are varying levels of raw-food diets, all of them involve eating mostly unheated, uncooked and unprocessed foods. In general, a raw-food diet is made up of at least 70% raw foods.

Most people that try it tend to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, although there are a small number that also consume raw dairy products, fish and even raw meat.

While there are some clear benefits to eating raw fruits and vegetables, there are also some potential problems with a raw-food diet.

What are the benefits or a raw food diet?

During cooking some nutrients can be lost - water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C and the B vitamins, are particularly susceptible, for example.  Boiling vegetables can reduce the content of water-soluble vitamins by as much as 50–60% - so eating them raw can be beneficial.

Raw foodists claim that consuming mainly uncooked foods can lead to weight loss.

They also believe that with a raw food diet, the body is better able to prevent and fight diseases, especially chronic diseases.

Cooked foods can take longer to digest, and raw food advocates say they clog up the digestive system and arteries with partially digested fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.

Raw food dieters maintain that a person on the diet will experience:
•    more energy
•    clearer skin
•    better digestion
•    weight loss
•    a lower risk of developing heart and cardiovascular disease

Following a raw food diet can mean the common allergens in food are completely avoided: eggs, soy, wheat (gluten), sugar and dairy.  Raw foodies also claim it stops unhealthy cravings, such as coffee alcohol sugar. 

Others say they can to tap into their intuitive-side. When they stopped drinking too much booze the night before, and no longer suffered from brain fog from gluten, they became far more focused, noticing the small and beautiful things round them.

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What are the negatives of a raw diet?

Many people who follow a strictly raw food diet find it hard to stick to – so it’s not for everyone!
Some foods contain dangerous bacteria and microorganisms that are only eliminated by cooking.

Eating a completely raw diet that includes fish and meat comes with a risk of food poisoning, especially if not super fresh!

Meat, poultry and fish provide necessary nutrients such as protein, B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium.  You need to ensure you find these nutrients elsewhere, such as dry beans and peas, nuts, and seeds or take supplements. 

Raw food diet also means no dairy.  Milk and eggs are packed full of calcium, protein, vitamin D, and other minerals important for building strong bones.  However, there are other sources of food containing both of these. In fact, our best source of vitamin D is from the sun, and you can get your daily doses of calcium from leafy greens, fortified orange juice or almond milk, and broccoli.

The process of cooking food breaks down some of its fibers and plant cell walls, making it easier for you to chew your food and helps the body to digest and absorb the nutrients. The digestibility of a food is important because your body can only receive a food's health benefits if it's able to absorb the nutrients.

Although cooking vegetables can reduce certain nutrients, studies have shown that cooking vegetables increases the availability of antioxidants like beta-carotene and lutein.  Antioxidants are important because they protect the body from harmful molecules called free radicals - a diet rich in antioxidants is associated with a lower risk of chronic disease.

If nothing else, cooking generally improves the taste and aroma of food, which makes it much more enjoyable to eat.  People fighting cancer often struggle with their appetite – so making food as appealing as possible is important. 

Raw or Cooked

Neither a completely raw nor completely cooked diet has been justified by science - the truth is that it all depends on the food……….and you.

Here are some examples that we have found:

Best raw:

Best cooked:

Top Tips

  1. Do your research – if eating something raw for the first time make sure it’s safe
  2. Try a healthy mix of raw and cooked food 
  3. When cooking vegetables, reduce temperature and cooking times – don’t cook till very soft they should remain al dente
  4. Steaming, roasting or stir-frying, rather than boiling, will retain as many nutrients as possible
  5. Whatever diet you choose – avoid processed foods and have a balanced diet

WARNING – before starting any new diet speak to your medical team and/or a nutrition expert. If changing to a raw diet be careful.  Ensure you are getting the correct level of nutrients and check what foods can and can’t be eaten raw.  Please be aware that any changes to your diet can affect your medication.

If you have any experience of a raw diet – both good and bad – please join the Chemotherapy Support Group on Facebook and share your experience.  Similarly, if you have any questions or advice about how to maximize your nutrient intake when undergoing treatment for cancer please join and share with over 6,000 members.