If your goal is achieving optimal health, then a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is key. They are loaded with essential nutrients, antioxidants and a multitude of disease fighting properties. It is no wonder that many health organizations recommend that you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Those of us trying to optimize our health are always looking to ensure that we get enough fruits and vegetables in our daily diets.
While fruits and vegetables are great tasting both cooked and raw, generally the best way to eat them is raw. (However, there are a few exceptions to that.) Let’s face it though, most people prefer some of their vegetables to be cooked. Unfortunately, no matter how careful we are when we cook them, some of the nutrients that we are trying so hard to preserve get destroyed in the cooking process. Some cooking methods are worse offenders than others though, so choosing the right method means losing less nutrients.
What nutrients are affected by cooking?
Certain nutrients are more sensitive to heat exposure than others, such as vitamin C, the B vitamins and folate. However, not all nutrients are adversely affected by heat. Lycopene, a vital phytochemical present in tomatoes, actually benefits from heat. Cooking tomatoes breaks the plant cells open, which helps the body to absorb the lycopene. Cooking carrots also increases the antioxidant power of beta carotene and phenolic acid.
The method you use to cook also affects the level of nutrients left in the food when you eat it. If you cook your produce in water, most vitamins and some minerals are likely to leach into the cooking water. Studies are showing that cooking in water also reduces the antioxidants (cancer-fighting) phytochemicals in such cruciferous vegetables as broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens and kale.
Of course, we must remember that the amount of nutrients lost, will depend on the freshness of the food, how it was handled and stored, how long you cook it and at what temperature, and how much surface area is exposed to water and air. You need to use a method that places the vegetables in the least amount of water (so the nutrients don’t leach into the water), the lowest heat possible and for the least amount of time. The higher the temperature and the longer the cooking time, the greater the vitamin loss.
How should I prepare my food?
Here are seven guidelines to follow when preparing your foods so that they stay as nutritious as possible.
- Steam or stir-fry vegetables: This is the best way to retain most of your nutrients. It cooks your vegetables with the minimum amount of water and the shortest amount of time.
- Avoid boiling: Boiling leaches out more nutrients because it requires longer cooking time and more water.
- Use leftover cooking water: If you are boiling or steaming your vegetables, keep the cooking water. It contains the nutrients that leached out during cooking. Don’t let them go to waste. Use the water in soups, sauces, stews, etc, so that you can reclaim those healthy nutrients.
- Keep the cooking time short: Keep the lid on when cooking and don’t overcook your vegetables. If they are crunchy and tender when finished, you know you retained most of the nutrients.
- Eat the vegetables right away: Don’t leave them standing at room temperature.
- Never soak fruits or vegetables prior to cooking: Quickly rinse your fruits and vegetables. If you let them sit in water, you will lose some of the nutrients.
- Cook vegetables whole and unpeeled: Don’t buy pre-cut vegetables. Whole vegetables have less surface area, resulting in fewer vitamins being destroyed due to exposure to water during cooking. Also, by not peeling certain produce, you will retain the nutrients present in the skin or just below the skin. Of course, you should cut off any inedible parts.
The bottom line:
By choosing the right cooking method, you can have a big impact on how much of the nutrients present in your fruits and vegetables are destroyed. Cooking method does matter if you want to maximize the nutritional benefit of what you are eating. Steaming and stir frying are good options because they expose your produce to the least amount of heat and water, so the essential nutrients go into your body and not into the water. You work so hard to be healthier, don’t let all that hard work go to waste by preparing your fruits and vegetables the wrong way!