Q: I’ve heard the body absorbs more calories from cooked food versus raw. Is it true?
A: I’ve been interested in this question for a long time. And it turns out it may actually be one reason that followers of the raw food diet are stereotypically skinny.
Based on research done over the past few years, scientists now believe that you do, in fact, get more calories from the same amount of food when it’s cooked, as opposed to raw.
The most convincing study was published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers fed the exact same amount of meat and sweet potatoes—either cooked or raw—to different groups of mice for 40 days. At the end, the results clearly showed the cooked foods, both meat and veggie, delivered more energy.
What might explain the difference?
Scientists think the system used to measure calorie counts doesn’t account for the energy used to digest food. In other words, when you cook food, you’re breaking it down a little in advance. So, your body will have to do less work to absorb the nutrients. With raw food, the body has to work harder. It essentially burns off some of the calories it’s working to access in the process.
An example: The process of cooking meat gelatinizes collagen, making the protein easier to chew and digest.
In addition, gut bacteria may also play a role, since microbes in the intestine extract energy from food. Since cooking breaks it down in advance, the body is able to absorb the calories before the food gets to the microbes. With raw food, some of those calories are getting eaten up by bacteria.
There’s not enough research yet to show exactly how big the difference is in terms of how many more calories you’ll absorb from cooked versus raw food.
One thing is for sure: the calorie counts we’re currently using are definitely inaccurate. So I’d add this (to the long list) of reasons calorie-counting isn’t an effective weight-loss or healthy living strategy. It’s all about eating healthy, whole foods in reasonable portions (and learning how to eat according to your hunger quotient.)
One more tip: If you are following a raw diet, you’ll likely need to eat more in order to stay healthy and strong…so fill that blender up to the top every time.