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The Raw Deal

A diet solely of raw foods may sound boring, but many people swear it's the healthiest way to eat. And some nutritionists support it, too.

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Nutritionists who aren't raw fooders themselves agree that such an eating plan has its advantages. Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist with a division of the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans, says a raw food diet is "nutrient dense," with a high content of minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. And because it emphasizes organically grown foods, says Kimball, it's virtually free of pesticides, chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics that are found in meats, poultry, and non-organic produce.

There is also little or no saturated fat, no added refined sugars, low sodium levels, and high fiber content. "All the things that are recommended to decrease our risk of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses," says Kimball.

Kimball does have some reservations, however. For one, cooking does not destroy as many of the nutrients as raw fooders claim -- "I think they're being a bit extreme in that regard" -- and, in fact, enhances the benefits of certain foods. Cooking increases the availability of the beta carotene in carrots, for example, as well as releasing the lycopene in tomatoes (both beta carotene and lycopene have been shown to offer protective benefits against heart disease and cancer).

A diet made up solely of raw foods may also leave you coming up short when it comes to calcium, omega-3 fatty acids (which are found in plentiful supply in fatty fish such as salmon and tuna and offer protection against heart disease and cancer, too), iron, and vitamin B-12 (which is found only in animal foods). "Raw foods do have calcium, iron, and even some fatty acids -- in walnuts and flaxseed, for example," says Kimball, "but not as much as you would find in other foods, and they're not always absorbed as well."

This doesn't mean you shouldn't necessarily follow a raw foods diet, but you should plan your meals carefully and consider taking supplements, says Kimball.

Following such a food plan can have other drawbacks as well. People with irritable bowel syndrome and diverticulitis may find a diet made up solely of raw foods a bit hard on their system, says Kimball. And people who have been told by their doctors that they have abnormally high potassium levels should boil their vegetables so that some of the potassium makes its way out of the veggies and into the water, says Wahida Karmally, MS, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Karmally says that not all raw vegetables taste good, and if it's a matter of not eating vegetables at all, or cooking them, then by all means cook them.

"There's also something to be said for the comfort of a hot meal," Kimball says. "The satisfaction, or satiety -- that feeling of fullness -- you get from a hot meal is important to some people."

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