Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Vegetables: Raw or Cooked?

We all know that eating more vegetables is the key to a more balanced and healthy diet, however, how we should consume them in order to obtain the ultimate in benefits they provide may not be as clear. Over the last couple months I had been hearing and reading a lot about eating raw, so when thinking about eating vegetables I was leaning toward the idea that eating them raw might keep more of the vitamins and nutrients intact for my ideal consumption.

I was wrong... sort of.

It seems, when seeking the most healthy way to consume your vegetables - raw versus cooked - that the answer depends on (1) the vegetable that you wish to consume, and (2) the health benefit you most wish to obtain from your meal. Of course there is no simple answer because if there was, we would have all already known it by now! The list of variables and various vegetables one could possibly wish to consume is extensive, so I will start you off here with some of the biggie lessons I picked up in my studies today.

The Good Stuff
  • Vitamin C If you have procured a particular vegetable with the intention of consuming it to obtain the benefits of its vitamin C content, then you will want to keep it away from the heat. Vitamin C is considered "unstable" and degrades when exposed to heat. Also, vitamin C dissolves in water, so boiling it is out also. Note: Before you give up on cooking your asparagus, tomatoes, bell peppers, and brussel sprouts (just to name a few!) it is important to remember that if not cooked for long periods of time, a vegetable with a high amount of vitamin C will still have some left over after preparation for you to consume (just not as much as it started out with). Also, you can still get a great raw serving of vitamin C from fruits in your diet.
  • Lycopene I was surprised by this. If you are not familiar with it, lycopene, found in tomatoes, is an antioxidant that has been discussed as a possible aid in the prevention of various types of cancer, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration. Being born half Italian-American, there is no deficit of tomatoes in my diet, so I wondered which preparation would best serve me if I was looking for a lycopene fix. The answer - cooked tomatoes! It seems that while all tomatoes contain lycopene, during the cooking process the amount of lycopene actually increases because the cooking allows the tomato to change form and release some lycopene that might otherwise be trapped in the plant's cells.
  • Beta-carotene & Vitamin A When the antioxidant beta-carotene enters our body it transforms it into vitamin A for us, it seems, just like the lycopene, that cooking helps this process along. Vegetables like carrots, spinach, cabbage and others, should be cooked if you are looking to get the beta-carotene benefit from them.
Some Suggestions
  • Eat Your Broccoli & Cook It Too As I am sure you have already puzzled out, this is something you should adopt for many vegetables, broccoli is just one example of a vegetable that has amazing benefits both raw and cooked. In its raw form broccoli contains a compound (sulforaphane) that has been said to help prevent cancer and stomach ulcers. When cooked it forms another compound (indole) that fights precancerous cells.
  • Don't Eat Them Alone For ultimate absorption, it is best to pair up vitamins and nutrients when possible, remembering this when you prepare your meals is great as well. For example, iron is difficult for our bodies to absorb on its own, but it has been shown that pairing it with vitamin C can help it reach our blood cells that need it, so why not have some hummus (source of iron) with some wedges of bell peppers (our RAW vitamin C!). Also, it has been said that pairing tomatoes with some fat helps with lycopene absorption, so drizzle some olive oil over those tomatoes while cooking them up!
  • Keep Those Veggies Out of the Water It seems that everywhere I looked for the "best" cooking techniques for gaining the greatest nutrition out of our veggies, led me away from the water. Steaming, of course, is highly recommended, however, sauteing and baking were also mentioned. When sauteing, no more than 5 minutes, and one shouldn't over-steam either, but I found no hard and fast "time rules" for steaming or baking.
  • Enjoy Your Vegetables Remember that vegetables are not supplements created to carry only one vitamin into your body, they are live things with a system in place that kept their lives going and now they are ready to pass that gift on to you - no matter how you consume them, you are sure to obtain some benefit from them, so prepare them in a way that will get you coming back for more. This raw vs. cooked debate is merely to decide which technique packs the biggest nutritional punch.
It seems that I will be continuing to diversify my menu ~ a little raw, a little cooked ~ with hopes that I am making the "right" choices along the way!

Some Resources Used for Today's Post:
Scientific American 
The Dr. Oz Show

Reader Question:
What is your FAVORITE way to get vegetables into your diet?

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