We often get asked whether raw foods or cooked foods are better for your health. There is a lot of information out there that can make it confusing. It depends on what factors we weigh in order for the individual to choose what works for them. Ayurveda takes a holistic approach on this topic and doesn’t just consider vitamins. Raw foodists claim that keeping food raw, or uncooked, preserves more of the nutrients in the food. This can be true. When we boil or cook vegetables they can lose their nutrients, especially if overcooked. What isn’t as considered in this topic is how we digest the food.
In Ayurveda, we take into account that it is not only what you eat that is important, but what you can digest, absorb and assimilate. Even though you may be taking in nutrients, if you can’t utilize them then there is no benefit. While the raw food movement is a more recent fad, we are compelled to stand behind Ayurvedic knowledge that has been tested over thousands of years. In general, cooked foods are easier to digest.
Ayurveda doesn’t completely rule out eating raw foods. They are okay in moderation as well as certain seasons like summer or climates where outside temperatures are higher. Also, for those with a strong pitta constitution, digestion will naturally be strong so these people can eat and digest more raw foods better than a kapha or vata person would be able to. There are also specific cases when someone may benefit from switching to a more raw diet, yet this may not be for everyone or sustainable for health over the long term.
Why are cooked foods easier to digest, absorb and assimilate?
Our digestive fire (Agni) is usually not strong enough to consistently be digesting raw foods, as they take more energy to break down. They have a lot of prana (life-force). When we cook food it helps to soften and almost pre-digest the food we are about to take in. This way meals are not taxing on our digestion and the focus can be on assimilation and absorption. When digestive fire is low, a whole plethora of issues come along with it, so keeping the digestive fire balanced and strong is important for health. When there is undigested food in the gut, it has the potential to clog channels and create toxins (Ama). We want to be sure that everything we take in can be fully digested and processed through the body.
However, on the opposite side overcooked foods, frozen foods, or leftovers (over a few days) are lacking in life-force energy and can also affect our digestive system in Ayurveda.
Cutting down on raw foods doesn’t mean you have to rule out salads and your micronutrient intake! There are many ways to lightly cook and add spices to make food easier for the digestive system to handle. For winter try to stick with lightly sautéed or steamed vegetables. In summertime, depending on your constitution and state of Agni, you can have more raw foods.