To Your Health

I know I should eat more of my food raw, but when I try to eat more raw foods it really upsets my stomach and gives me painful gas. What are my options?

Q. I know I should eat more of my food raw, but when I try to eat more raw foods it really upsets my stomach and gives me painful gas. What are my options?

A. As a group, Americans are not good about eating fresh and raw foods, concentrating instead on pre-packaged convenience foods and restaurant food. Predictably, such overly processed food generally has lower nutrient content than less-processed counterparts. Food supplements can replace some of these lost nutrients, but everyone agrees that the best source of nutrients is your diet. However, when raw foods are a bother, there are several things worth trying that might enable you to eat more healthily.

Try easing into the raw foods, starting with one small serving of raw food a time or two each week, then increasing every week or so until you can comfortably eat a raw food at two meals of the day. It may take several weeks to adjust to this change in diet.

Some foods have more of a reputation than do others for creating stomach distress: the cabbage family (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), legumes (beans, peas, peanuts), onions, garlic, nuts, seeds, fluid milk, whole grain products, and some dried fruits (prunes, for instance). All these foods are wonderfully nutritious, but a food you can't comfortably eat is useless to you personally. With trial and error, you may find one food in a family of otherwise bothersome foods that you can tolerate raw. Also, sprouting strikingly changes the character of a food, so bean sprouts or sunflower seed sprouts may be tolerated when the original seed is not. Eat more raw fruit, which is usually tolerated better than raw vegetables. In America we have access to more food options than perhaps anywhere else in the world, so we have a good chance of finding an acceptable alternative.

Digestive aids can be tried out to see if you just need some help with that function. The safest of these is pancreatin, the blend of digestive enzymes provided by the pancreas, and regular use for a week should tell you whether you would benefit from continued use. If plain pancreatin gives no relief, try one with added cellulase (not to be confused with cellulose, which is what cellulase digests). Also, with professional guidance, a cautious trial of betaine HCl or another stomach acid replacement can be done.

Finally, there is a very small silver lining to this situation: Some of your vegetables and fruits are better eaten cooked than raw. A group of antioxidant nutrients, the carotenoids, are tightly bound to cell structures and thus tend to be unavailable when a food is eaten raw. Heating the food releases these carotenoids from the cellular matrix, presumably allowing better absorption. Cornell scientists recently found that cooking increased the amount of available lycopene above the level found in raw tomato. Lycopene is one of the carotenoids important in prevention of cancer and preservation of eyesight. Levels of some other important antioxidant nutrients such as bioflavonoids and anthocyanidins seem to be unaffected, and the heating process, as expected, reduced the levels of fragile nutrients such as vitamin C and folic acid.

The take-home message is that, while fresh, raw vegetables are certainly overall more nutritious than cooked, there is no harm and perhaps some good to be gained from cooking some portion of your food. Various nutrients respond differently to the different cooking methods. It seems prudent, therefore, to eat a variety of foods prepared in a variety of different ways. At each meal some food can be boiled, some baked, some stir-fried, and some eaten raw. Using a variety of cooking methods (and eating some food raw) would ensure that you would conserve some of each nutrient.

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