You don’t have to eat like a rabbit to gain the health benefits of a raw diet.
Credit: Getty: Larissa Veronesi

Kale salad belly: It’s a thing. If you’ve ever dove head-first into a raw kale salad, you’ve no doubt also experienced that dreaded post-lunch bloat. There are definitely health benefits to incorporating raw foods into your diet, as explained by Jamie Vespa MS, RD and Cooking Light’s assistant nutrition editor: “Certain heat-sensitive nutrients, such as B-vitamins (including folate) and vitamin C, start to break down and suffer nutrient loss at temperatures above 118°F.” But it’s also undeniable that raw veggies aren’t as enticing as, say, a bowl of buttery glazed carrots. They can also be tough on digestion, causing bloating, distention, and discomfort.

Wellness is not achieved through extremes, so while you won’t win any health medals (or friends) by going totally raw, you can find a balance by incorporating a variety of produce items into your mealtime routine. The trick is seeking ways to make them work with you, rather than against you. Here are 5 ways to find equilibrium with raw foods.

Don’t hate, marinate.

There’s a reason those kale salads taste better after hanging out in the fridge for a day or two: The combination of oil and vinegar in the dressing works to break down the kale’s cellular structure (and yes, massaging the leaves gently with oil first helps too). This makes the kale—or other hardy greens much easier to digest, because some of the work has already been done for you. Unlike tender salad greens, like spring mix, that get soggy, raw brassicas actually benefit from being dressed in advance. Give the vinaigrette an hour to two to work its magic before digging in, or make in advance and store the salad in the fridge for up to three days.

Think garnishes, not main event.

Hey, nobody said you have to eat 100% raw. A salad made with raw lacinato, shaved Brussels sprouts, chopped carrots, AND untoasted almonds is enough to wreak havoc on anyone’s stomach. Instead, aim to incorporate one or two simple elements of a raw food into a cooked meal. Add a handful of massaged and marinated kale to a spinach base, or include grated—not chopped—raw carrot into a grain bowl (grating makes it easier to chew and digest). The saying “Go big or go home” only applies here if you finish it with the phrase, “...and experience gastro distress for the next four hours.”

Do the chew.

Your stomach doesn’t have teeth, so you’d better believe your mouth has to do the majority of the work when eating a raw meal. Chew your food thoroughly, and it’ll be much easier to digest once your internal juices start flowing. And there’s another sneaky benefit, too. Vespa says, “From a mindfulness perspective, raw foods [force] us to slow down and be more present for our meal.”

Choose the right veggies.

When it comes to raw, not all vegetables were created equal. Some produce will just never taste good uncooked (think potatoes and hardy root vegetables, like parsnips). But here’s a tip that’s applicable to most other produce: The younger the vegetable, the better it will taste... and the easier it will be to digest from a raw state. Radishes, for example, are less spicy and more tender before they reach maturity. And there’s a reason those monstrous green leaves are often labeled as “cooking spinach”—its baby counterpart is much more enjoyable in salads and sandwiches. Ditto for Brussels sprouts, carrots, and beets.

Cheat (a little bit).

Okay, so you’re not ready to go totally raw? It’s okay cheat just a little bit! Many restaurant and catering cooks know that lightly steaming vegetables for a crudité platter “takes the edge off,” making them more pleasant to eat. You don’t have to douse your produce in oil and crank the oven to make it taste good, but if you’re not into the idea of rabbit food for supper, this is a clever way to feel more satisfied with a big plate of vegetables. Vespa explains, “In most cases, the higher the temperature and longer the cook time, the greater loss of nutrients.” So while a quick steam will zap a few nutrients, it will preserve more than a long roast time.  

To steam veggies, add an inch or two of vegetable stock to the bottom of a double-boiler, bring to a boil, then fill the top with your chopped and prepped veg. Reduce to a lively simmer, cover, and steam for 2-3 minutes, until just barely touched by the heat. They’ll be softer, sweeter, and… almost irresistible.