Debunking the ‘Raw Foods are More Nutritious’ Myth

(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)

A few weeks ago I sent a newsletter to the meal mentor community titled, “Are frozen vegetables unhealthy?” For convenience, I’ve posted the newsletter on the meal mentor blog and you can catch a direct link from the show notes on

But I’ll recap quickly right now and end the suspense: Fresh vegetables aren’t so fresh.

It takes 7 to 16 days to transport “fresh” produce (which doesn’t exactly scream “fresh”) and to ensure the food isn’t rotten by the time it gets to the store, produce also has to be harvested prematurely.

(Side bar: If there’s anything I hope to convey with this podcast it’s that we can’t outsmart or cheat nature without consequences)

Back to my point: It takes 7 to 16 days to transport “fresh” vegetables, which requires premature harvesting. Compare this to frozen fruits and vegetables which are harvested ONLY at their peak AND frozen within a few hours.

The freezing aspect is important here because it creates a time capsule. A leaky one, but the taste and nutrition value of frozen produce is mostly preserved while “fresh” produce degrades constantly (losing their important vitamins and nutrients as the clock ticks ticks ticks).

A 2010 study by the Institute for Food Research concluded that fresh produce loses up to 45% of their essential nutrients from farm to table.

(For a list of the top 11 best frozen fruits and vegetables to buy, check out the blog post I mentioned earlier on

Now, I know what you’re thinking (because I was thinking this too) “What if I buy from the Farmer’s Market or a farm stand? Or grow it in my own backyard?” Yes, those items would have degraded less and might be more nutritious than frozen.

So haven’t I then just admitted that raw foods are nutritionally superior? Not quite.

In episode 2 “Should you track your calories?” I discussed briefly how every calorie is not ABSORBED the same way.

That by cooking or processing our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

We’ll get to the energy theory of cooking and how cooking our food made us evolve into homo sapiens in a future episode but for now

Let’s begin with this fun fact:

Humans are the only animals that cook their foods.

Indeed societies all around the world past and present practice cooking, it is one of the few human universals.

In “Catching Fire: How Cooking With Fire Made us Human” Richard Wrangham hypothesized, “Are humans an ordinary animal that enjoys the taste and security of cooked foods or have we evolved to depend on them?”

Raw-foodists claim plants contain “living” or “active” enzymes, which, if eaten raw, operate for our benefit inside our bodies. As such, food cannot be cooked above a certain temperature (45C (113F)) because doing so destroys the “life force” of the enzyme.

I have to quote Wrangham here, “To scientists the idea that food enzymes contribute to digestion or cellular function in our bodies is nonsense because these molecules themselves are digested in our stomach and small intestines. Even if a food enzyme survived our digestive systems, their own specific metabolic functions are too specialized to allow them to do anything useful in our bodies.”

In case you fell asleep, the whole idea of “living foods” is NOT accepted by physiologists.

Reviewing countless real-world studies and volumes of books by anthropologists, some dating back to the early 1900s, Wrangham found “home cooking was the norm and eating raw was a poor alternative demanded by circumstance.”

This was true even for hunter and gatherer populations, including the Inuit (Eskimos). They too cooked their food and preferred it that way. This is remarkable considering they had no bark or branches to make fire most of the year, and had to use animal fat as a burning oil to slow cook their food all day. (They also ate deer poop, which I just have to throw in here for paleo readers).

Wrangham was unable to find any report of people living long term on a raw wild food diet, but he did provide a generous anthology of groups of people who were forced to endure an all raw wild diet, whether it was purely plants, purely raw meat, or a combination of meat and plants.

I was particularly captivated by the Robertson family who survived for 38 days in a dingy after a whale sunk their ship in 1972. The family survived eating mostly raw fish and turtles and doing some funky stuff with makeshift enemas to avoid dehydration.

Anyway, each story suggested that raw diets do not provide enough energy, even when there is no shortage of food available. These people simply couldn’t extract enough of the nutrients or calories from raw foods.

This was even true with the shipwrecked Robertson’s. They caught more food than they could eat, and despite being given more bone marrow than everyone else, Neil Robertson was disturbingly thin when he was rescued.

The Robertson’s were also constantly starving which was my experience on a raw food diet.


Even when I ate more calories than I biologically needed, I was not satisfied. I lived in a state of feeling hungry even when my stomach was uncomfortably full.

The Robertson’s said they fantasized about cooked foods constantly and I remember Zamperini reporting similarly in the book Unbroken.

Not that I’m comparing a juice fast to what the Roberson’s or Zamperini went through, but when I tried to juice fast I became obsessed with pizza. I couldn’t stop thinking about it which seemed odd to me because I don’t particularly like pizza, and in all the times I’d tried dieting in the past, even crazy diets, I didn’t have obsessive food thoughts or cravings quite like that.

Anyway, Wrangham explains “the raw diet supported survival but it also brought out a sense of starvation.” He also said the lack of evidence for longer-term survival on raw wild food suggests that even in extremes, people need their food cooked.”

I mentioned in a previous episode that any given food has a set bioavailability. That is, how many calories, minerals, or vitamins it offers, but that even in the best conditions, we may not absorb all that is being offered. That’s what Wrangham is getting at here.

That’s the energy theory of cooking, which I’ll discuss more deeply in the next episode.

For now, the summation is that by cooking our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

Admittedly, when I first started learning about this, I thought it sounded a lot like “negative calories.” This idea that a food requires more energy to be digested than the food itself provides. (Here’s the fancy scientific lingo: the thermic effect or specific dynamic action—the caloric "cost" of digesting the food—would be greater than its food energy content.)

There is no scientific evidence to support “negative calories” but there IS evidence that we are unable to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food, which I’ll talk about more about next time.

To wrap up for now, Wrangham, and a recent study out of Germany, unanimously concluded “a strict raw food diet cannot guarantee adequate energy supply.”

Which I interpret as, even if raw food was magically more nutritious (and this episode definitely poked a lot of holes in that) we humans can’t assimilate enough from it anyway and are thus setting ourselves up for hunger, misery, energy depletion and nutrient deficiency.

It’s sort of like like eating tree bark or cardboard, but maybe small amounts of whole raw foods, such as salads with cooked meals, can help ease the pain of dieting and weight-loss by providing more physical and visual volume without disturbing the needed caloric deficit since we won’t assimilate it. (I need to think more on this).

True for all: cooked food is easier to digest than raw, and all animals grow better on a cooked diet, just ask any farmer.

Wrangham suggests this is why domestic pets become fat--the calories in processed pellets are so much more easily absorbed. It’s similar to my orange vs. Dorito example in the last episode.

Meaning, you might not absorb every calorie in an apple, but you’re probably going to absorb every calorie in an Oreo. The theory of cooking really is amazing…

Let’s circle back quickly to Wrangham’s original hypothesis: “Are humans an ordinary animal that enjoys the taste and security of cooked foods or have we evolved to depend on them?”

Humans, unlike all other animals, have adapted to cooked foods. The reduced size of our digestive system (compared to our ape cousins, for example) limits our effectiveness at digesting raw food.

HOWEVER, that shortened digestive system enables us to process cooked foods with exceptional proficiency. GREAT news from an evolutionary standpoint as I’ll explain in the next episode but not-so-good news when we consider what that means for processed foods and the obesity epidemic.

Finally, and this point is more for my non-vegans listeners, but applies to plants as well: let’s not forget that cooking also reduces the risk of eating toxins or pathogens that make us sick and can kill humans.

Animals do not have these same constraints. They’ll eat roadkill covered in maggots.

Animals don’t worry about salmonella or “starve” on a raw diet. This distinction lead Wrangham, and eventually me too, and hopefully now you as well, that humans need cooked foods.

To be clear, Wrangham doesn’t say it’s IMPOSSIBLE to live on raw foods, but that today’s voluntary raw foodists can only thrive in rich modern environments where they depend on eating exceptionally high-quality foods they do not forage for themselves, and that are also elaborately prepared with special equipment to increase their energy value and absorption.

Which is his very British way of saying “they’re cheating.”

By the way, there’s still one more compelling reason to eat frozen fruits and vegetables (which are lightly cooked)...Did you forget we started out talking about frozen vegetables, the nutrition superstars they are?

Frozen produce is often cheaper, but it also consumes less resources.

The Natural Resource Defense Council released a report stating 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. This means that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year AND that all this uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste.

Getting food from the farm to our fork also eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States.

Those numbers are quite literally hard to swallow when you realize almost HALF goes to rot in a landfill.

NRDC notes that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year. Increasing the efficiency of our food system is a triple bottom-line solution and buying frozen, meal planning, and using all the foods you buy without having leftovers or waste (which we do with the meal plans) is the easiest way you can help get us there.

There’s a link to the full NRDC report on

If you’re enjoying this podcast, please leave a review on iTunes or share this podcast with your friends.

And speaking of friends, I’d like to give a shoutout to @UglyFruitandVeg on Twitter and Instagram. You should definitely follow them and I commend them for their ongoing efforts in getting all of us to buy food because it’s edible and not worry about if it looks pretty.

Download your free 7-day meal plan at

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Plant-based camping tips with member Sara

A new Meal Mentor co-pilot podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

On this episode of the Meal Mentor co-pilot Podcast, member Sara shares her experience transitioning to a plant-based diet and gives her best advice on how to make it work while camping!

Don't miss this episode for a discussion on how to convince loved ones to research the benefits of a plant-based diet, how to travel with potatoes, plus much more about making a plant-based diet work in any situation, from bachelorette parties to endurance events.

P.S. Do you love listening to the podcast? Show your support by leaving a review on iTunes.

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Should you track your calories?

(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)

Alright, so you’ve heard me say a hundred times that weight-loss is physics. That you have to consume less energy than you burn (create a deficit) to lose weight. That’s the beautifully simple part.

Here’s the not-so-simple part: a calorie is not always ‘a calorie’ so it’s not a straight math formula.

For example, not every calorie is ABSORBED the same way.

By cooking or processing our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients (and also the calories) in that food.

This means calories from predigested foods (like smoothies or hummus) or highly processed foods (like Oreos) are absorbed much more easily than whole foods. Meaning, you might not absorb the full bioavailability of the calories in an orange, but you’re probably going to absorb every last calorie in a Dorito.

“From your lips to your hips” is very real, ESPECIALLY when it comes to highly processed foods.

{Side bar: There’s also new research that some people absorb calories more easily than others, so it’s not purely a difference in metabolism as we once thought.}

Not every calorie is NUTRITIONALLY equivalent, either.

Intuitively you know that 100 calories of carrot cake isn’t THE SAME as 100 calories of carrots.

100 calories of olive oil (about 2 tsp) has virtually zero nutrients (it’s pure fat – a whooping 11.3g, but has no protein, no carbohydrates, no fiber, or vitamins) where 100 calories of olives (about 20 olives) has 5.5g carbohydrates, 0.7g protein, 2.8g fiber, 9.4g fat plus vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron.

Or let’s compare 100 calories of apple juice (⅞ cup) compared to 100 calories of an apple. The whole apple has 5 times more protein and 4.4x more fiber. The juice is basically sugar water. You might as well eat sugar packets.

And remember, you’re more likely to absorb every single calorie in the oil or juice.

These examples also nicely prove my next point, which is:

Not every calorie satiates in the same way.

You’ve experienced this before when you ate a doughnut and were starving an hour later.

250 calories of doughnuts won’t leave you as energized or satisfied as long as 250 calories of bananas and oatmeal.

But even whole plant foods vary greatly in satiety.

A boiled potato, for example, is the most satiating food there is.

This was partly why I hit a hard plateau with my weight-loss, even though I was plant-based.

Using the meal plans helped me with calories and portion control, but they also TAUGHT ME what a meal has to look like.

What kinds of satiating foods need to be in my meal so I’ll actually feel satisfied and not overeat.

There are still MORE problems with counting calories.

The big one being we actually have no idea how many calories are in any given food.

And I’m not just referencing apples or oranges that don’t come with a label.

Food labels are inaccurate. Most are 10-30% off!!!

The biggest source of error with calorie determination is portion size, and we’re all really bad at guessing, which is what we’re doing with calorie calculator apps like MyFitnessPal.

If you’re not measuring and weighing everything extremely carefully, you’re going to be off. And even if you ARE extremely precise, you’re still going to be off because labels and USDA estimates are, well, only estimates!

The calorie gives us an unfair sense of precision, which is why relying on it can be so detrimental to weight-loss.

This is especially true if you’re also exercising, because we tend to OVERESTIMATE the calories we burn. (Machines, expensive watches, and apps are far too generous as well.)

Here’s my experience:

I tracked my calories for a long time and it was beneficial in the beginning because I was completely in the dark about how many calories were in foods and I had major portion distortion going on. Tracking became a teaching tool that helped me make better choices.

For example, I would ask myself: "What would fill me up more, ¼ cup of almonds or almost 2 whole cups of blueberries?!" (They’re the same amount of calories.)

But then this practice took a less helpful turn when I started looking at my app to see how many calories I had left in order to justify eating, typically off plan, and often when I wasn’t even hungry.

“Oh I have 50 calories left? Better go eat something!” or “I have 200 calories left? I can eat a COOKIE!”

Eventually I stopped losing weight. This was incredibly frustrating to me because what had been working so well now suddenly wasn’t and according to my app, I wasn’t “going over my calories” so why the heck wasn’t I losing?

Now I understand why: because I didn’t really have that many calories left. It’s just not that precise and I was nullifying my deficit (because the one and only beautifully simple part to all this is that weight-loss requires a caloric deficit).

For a while I simply journaled, meaning I wrote down what I was eating on paper but it was only a list of what I ate. I would have to do math on the spot to get any kind of number and since I’m lazy, and not great at math, I never did. The list was there to remind me of what I had eaten so I could keep accountable and also say to myself, “You just had all this food an hour ago. You’re not actually hungry. This is bored or emotional hunger.”

This is EXACTLY what Laura, one of our members said, too, when I asked if people tracked their calories, journaled, or just followed the meal plans.

Here are what other members said:

What can we glean from their experiences and all this information?

The calorie is useful as a relative measure which is why we still use it when building the meal plans.

Tracking can also be a helpful learning tool or resource for feedback, particularly when you’re first getting started.

Keeping a log (but not tracking exact calories) can also be incredibly helpful if you are an emotional eater, overeater, or mindless muncher.

BUT tracking your calories isn’t something you can rely on like religion.

And it’s not enough by itself.

Bottom line: We don’t know how many calories we’re taking in and we don’t know how many calories we’re burning. We can’t outmath our bodies or nature.

PLUS a calorie is not always ‘a calorie.’ As we learned in this podcast/post, some calories are more easily absorbed than others, they aren’t always nutritionally equivalent or satiate in the same way, and so on.

When it comes to weight-loss, focus on nutritious foods that make you feel FULL and for a long time, but on a smaller amount of calories. Which is EXACTLY what we do with the meal plans each week.

Get started on the meal plans right here. (They definitely take all the headache out.)

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I never realized this before

Has this ever happened to you?

You go to the grocery store…

BEST intentions… Ready to finally get your act together...

Fill your shopping cart with TONS of healthy ingredients…

Cry a little when the bill is $200 dollars...

Get home and have NOTHING?

No idea what you flippin’ bought???


Anything you want to make...

You still don’t have all the ingredients for?

This happened to me ALL. THE. TIME.

OR I would buy way too much and it would go bad.

I had SO MUCH waste because of good intentions but lack of a good plan.

I CRINGE thinking how much money I lost!!!

Food waste is an expense you never realize you have


The average family spends $2225 a year on wasted food.

And Making a “quick trip” to the store??

You’ll typically purchase 54% MORE than you planned.

Even if you only make two extra trips to the grocery store each week, you’ll still spend an extra (unplanned) $157.50 a month!

(But at only $10-$20 a pop, you don’t feel that total weight to realize it.)

The only way to avoid this waste is to have a PLAN.

You can’t go to the store without a shopping list. CAN’T!!

A list is how you AVOID impulse purchases or overbuying.

And you can’t make a list without planning your meals.

We even take it one step further at Meal Mentor…


Our menus use up EVERYTHING you buy.

Absolutely no unused foods or oddball leftovers

Because half a bell pepper or can of tomato paste has a cost.

So the question now is:

Are you ready to SAVE SAVE SAVE?

STOP the food waste, overbuying, and spoils?

If so, join 5,447 other savvy shoppers!

Get your zero-waste food plan and shopping list now.

P.S. Post your massive savings on Instagram or the forums this week for a chance to win a $25 gift certificate to Amazon. Because it PAYS to save ;)

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Shortcut to Slim Podcast - How the Plant-Based Diet Made Me an Overeater

I have new PODCAST for you!

In addition to the co-pilot podcast…

Shortcut to Slim is a research-based podcast on diet and nutrition. Every week I’ll review hot new research and break it down for you in easy-to-digest tidbits. I’m doing ALL the homework and reading so you don’t have to!! Listen in to get on the fast track towards your health and weight-loss goals!

In the premier episode I share my struggles with overeating and the truth about calories. Episode 2 dives deeper into calorie reality, and PREPARE TO HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN in Episodes 3 & 4 when I discuss cooked vs. raw food and which is healthier. New episodes will be released on Tuesdays!

Subscribe to Shortcut to Slim on iTunes here and bookmark it on Simplecast here.

P.S. Do you love listening to the podcast? Show your support by leaving a review on iTunes.

P.P.S. Join the Meal Mentor newsletter (it's FREE!) Click here to signup!

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Cultivating health on the inside AND the outside

A new Meal Mentor podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

In this episode Meal Mentor member and former Herbie of the Week Stacy shares how a plant-based diet helped her finally improve her cholesterol, reduce inflammation in her joints, and how she uses the meal plans to refuel her body after her workouts.

Don't miss this episode of the Meal Mentor Podcast to hear Stacy get honest about her struggle with binge eating and how she uses her experience on a plant-based diet in her nursing career!

P.S. Do you love listening to the podcast? Show your support by leaving a review on iTunes.

P.P.S. Join the Meal Mentor newsletter (it's FREE!) Click here to signup!

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