With the onset of the New Year, many of us have vowed to shed a few pounds…or renewed our commitment to eating healthier.
In both cases, I recommend adopting a delicious Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasizes extra virgin olive oil, fish, herbs, legumes, meat, nuts, produce, spices, cheeses, and moderate amounts of red wine. Science has shown time and again that following this sensible and highly enjoyable diet is the most powerful, single tool you have for achieving optimal health and maintaining a healthy weight.
So, it astounds me when some so-called experts recommend cutting out entire categories of healthy, highly nutritious foods like cheese, eggs, and meat.
And still, others go even further and recommend following a raw, vegan diet — which essentially limits you to uncooked fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, nuts, and oils.
But extreme diets miss the target when it comes to nutrition. In fact, they can even cause your body real harm…
Raw, vegan diet based on theories, not science
Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner (1867 – 1939) is credited with first developing the raw, vegan food movement (also known as “raw foodism”). He took some early ideas about thermodynamics (the study of heat and temperature and their relation to energy and physical work) to conclude that raw foods contain higher amounts of certain vital nutrients…and that cooking degrades or kills these nutrients.
Today, people who follow a raw, vegan diet typically abstain from eating any animal products, cooked foods, and processed foods.
On the one hand, it, of course, makes good sense to cut out processed foods. And certain vegetables — such as leafy salad greens — have higher antioxidant levels when eaten raw. That’s probably why over many, many generations, humans have traditionally eaten them that way.
But on the other hand, many vegetables are really difficult to digest raw. So, when you eat them uncooked, many of their precious nutrients can never be absorbed by your body.
Plus, we know that cooking actually boosts the nutrients available for digestion in many vegetables. For example, I learned from my experiments at the USDA in the mid-1980s that cooking broccoli, carrots, and tomatoes make their nutrients much more bioavailable (or easily absorbed) for digestion and absorption.
Furthermore, plants that belong to the “deadly nightshade” Solanaceae family (i.e. bell peppers, eggplants, potatoes, and tomatoes) are replete with raw toxins, which are reduced or removed with proper cooking.
And cutting out animal products also impairs your ability to get full nutrition from the produce you eat. For instance, in order to get abundant amounts of lutein, lycopene, and other carotenoids (including vitamin A), as well as vitamins E and K in vegetables, you need to eat them with some fats. And animal products are some of the best sources of healthy fats. Which is probably why in the Mediterranean, salads, and vegetables are always prepared with a little cheese (and olive oil).
Improved nutrition for the long-term
As an anthropologist, I tend to take the long view on human nutrition. And the fact is, humans have been cooking food — especially meat and fish — over the fire for about two million years. So, our digestive system has adapted to require these foods to achieve optimal health.
But if you’re still not convinced of the harmful effects of a raw, vegan diet, check out what it can do to your body.
Studies also show that raw, vegan diets can lead to rapid weight loss, impaired reproduction, amenorrhea, and menstrual irregularities. And in children, avoiding cooked foods can harm growth and neurological development.
Plus, it leads to the following deficiencies:
- Low “good” cholesterol (required by every cell in the body)
- Low vitamin B12 (required for energy and neurological function)
- Low antioxidant levels (required for protection against cancer)
- Low lycopene levels (required to support vision and prostate health)
Indeed, no human society has ever obtained sufficient calories and nutrients from raw, vegan foods alone, to allow for long-term survival.
Quality, diverse foods are key
Cutting out entire categories of whole foods — such as dairy, meat, and seafood — deprives your body of important nutrients, which can cause serious harm.
Of course, when all other scientific arguments fail, modern, raw-food devotees resort to a quack theory that eating raw food somehow “cleanses” the body of toxins.
Apparently, the famous actress Gwyneth Paltrow promotes this nonsense on her website called “Goop,” which has been called the “ground zero of scientifically dubious dietary trends.”
But these dangerous diets are finally starting to be recognized for the frauds they are. And not just in scientific circles. In fact, in 2017, publications from Food & Wine to Harper’s Bazaar concluded that this dietary advice “may be dangerous” and “could kill you.”
In the end, I would agree that we should all avoid eating fast foods — and any processed foods. And eating fresh fruits and vegetables should be part of your balanced, healthy diet.
But eating them to the exclusion of all other foods is detrimental to your health.
So, as we dive deeper into the dreary days of winter, I suggest making a pot of stew with some delicious grass-fed beef. And make sure to toss some healthy herbs and vegetables into the pot.
I guarantee it will help warm your bones on a cold, winter night. And it will certainly help boost your levels of some essential nutrients.
Rustic Italian Beef Stew
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 1 ½ tablespoon garlic powder
- Salt and freshly ground pepper (to taste)
- 1 ½ lb grass-fed beef chuck roast, fat-trimmed, and cut into roughly 1 ½ inch cubes
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large red onion, cut into large pieces
- 6 garlic cloves, chopped
- 4-5 large carrots, cut into large pieces
- 3-4 celery stalks, cut into large pieces
- 1-2 medium potatoes, cleaned and cubed with skins on
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 cups vegetable broth
- 28 ounce can of whole peeled potatoes
- 4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 16 ounces of white or cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
- Mix the flour and garlic together.
- Pat the meat dry, trim and cube, and season with salt and pepper. Then coat the meat in the flour mixture.
- In a large cast-iron skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Brown the meat for about 3-4 minutes on each side (a crust should form). Then remove from heat.
- Place the browned meat in the bottom of a large crock pot. Add the remaining ingredients except the mushrooms. Stir with a wooden spoon.
- Cover the crock pot and cook on high for 4 ½ hours. Add the sliced mushrooms. Cover and cook for an additional 30 minutes.
P.S. If you’d like to read more about the debate over raw vs. cooked foods, I wrote about the topic extensively in the March 2018 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter (“Forget what you’ve been told about raw produce—Why it isn’t always the most nutritious option”).
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“Phylogenetic rate shifts in feeding time during the evolution of Homo,” Proceedings National Academy of Sciences USA 2011: 108: 14555-14559
“Cooking as a biological trait,” Comp Biochem Physiol a Molecular Integrative Physiol 2003; 136:35-46