This is one of my favorite questions asked at every presentation, lecture or nutrition group. You’ve probably read recently that opinions on diets and nutrition have now become like a religion or politics: Someone is either strongly for or against a viewpoint and it seems there’s nothing in the middle.
Let’s break down both sides of the raw vs. cooked argument and see what sort of veggie ends up on the plate at your next meal. Spoiler alert: sorry to shatter hopes of “your side” winning, because like most things related to nutrition, there are no absolutes and there is no one right answer. Simply put, it’s very complex.
Four main exposures can reduce nutrient levels in food: Time, heat, light, and oxygen/air exposure. Certain nutrients are more vulnerable to some of these environmental insults, like water-soluble vitamins including the antioxidant Vitamin C. Other nutrients, like the antioxidant lycopene that help give tomatoes their red hue, are more bioavailable or have a better shot at getting absorbed when the food is cooked.
Overall, mix up your cooked and raw veggies and you’ll get the best of both worlds.
No, that’s not me trying to speak like Scooby-doo, it’s a real term. Raw diets have recently gained popularity although they’ve been around a very long time. You may hear other catchy terms like Raw Foodist, Raw Veganism, or Raw-gust (get it… eating only raw foods in August!). Despite the cute, fun terms and media glamour of these seemingly ultra-healthy diets, there are indeed many well-founded reasons why raw foods are good for us. Eating raw vegetables can offer loads of nutritional benefits.
- Higher Vitamin C levels: Vitamin C is an important antioxidant and nutrient for healthy skin. One cup of raw spinach has more than twice the amount of Vitamin C of cooked spinach (8.4 mg vs 3 mg per 30 grams).
- Peak nutrient content: Raw veggies can be picked and eaten ripe off the vine for the ultimate in local, nutrient-packed produce.
- Enzymes: Plants naturally contain digestive enzymes that are easily destroyed by heat.
But before you remove the oven and range from your kitchen to make way for a full sized dehydrator, let’s look at the many benefits of cooked vegetables. The discovery and use of cooking by early man is linked to the development of our brain size and power. Cooking gave us the ability to absorb energy from food more efficiently. This important development supported a growing brain that uses up about 20% of our total energy intake. Beyond calories or energy, nutrients and cooking can go hand in hand.
Cooked veggie benefits:
- Vitamin K levels: Vitamin K is required for maintaining healthy bones and blood. One cup of cooked kale offers over nine times more Vitamin K than one cup of raw kale (1062 micrograms vs 113 mcg). Even when we look at the same weight of cooked vs. raw kale, cooked comes in at almost three times the amount.
- Carotenoid levels: Beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lycopene are antioxidant compounds that help give orange, yellow and red veggies and fruits their vibrant colors. These important nutrients can be multiplied by cooking veggies, like carrots.
- Indole: Indole compounds are potent phytonutrients touted for their cancer fighting actions. Indoles are formed in cruciferous veggies (brassicas) like broccoli and cabbage when they are cooked.
Best ways to cook veggies
If images of mushy, wet, brown spinach, baby-food like green beans or flaccid, boiled carrots flood your mind when we talk about cooked vegetables, it’s no wonder you’re turned off and think raw is the only way to go. That’s because when nutrition experts refer to cooked veggies, we don’t mean they’re “cooked to death.”
Here’s a more detailed explanation of 9 Cooking Methods to Help You Cook Like a Chef. And here are more healthy techniques to help preserve nutrients when cooking your veggies, like baking, grilling, roasting, stir-frying and steaming.
It’s not all or nothing
Match your choice of raw vs. cooked veggies to taste/texture preference or consider the season, like cool and crisp in summer or warm and hearty in winter. Enjoying both raw and cooked veggies can help ensure you get a wide range of health supportive, energizing nutrients.
Do you prefer your veggies raw or cooked? Why?
Another popular question is, What’s best, fresh or frozen fruits and veggies? Read more here.