Raw vs. Cooked: A Veggie Debate

posted Apr 28, 2014, 5:49 PM by Merrin McGregor   [ updated Apr 30, 2014, 1:05 PM ]

You may have heard recent hype about raw food diets and the benefits of eating your veggies in the raw. While there certainly are benefits to eating plenty of raw produce, you might be surprised to learn that there are some vegetables that have more or different benefits to offer when they are cooked! Depending on the vegetable and method used, nutrient availability can actually be increased by cooking.

The raw deal vs. the cooked camp

A well-known benefit of eating your veggies in the raw is that some vitamins are lost in the cooking process. And this is true ... for some vitamins, but not all.

Water-soluble vitamins [such as C and B] are degraded through exposure to heat and by dissolving in water. So boiling vegetables can be particularly damaging to those vitamins. To minimize loss, try low-liquid and quick cooking methods such as steaming asparagus or sauteing broccoli. If you do boil, make a soup to retain all the goodness in that cooking liquid!

Fortunately, not all vitamins are so sensitive...

Fat-soluble vitamins [A,D,E,K] can take the heat without degrading. In fact, whether raw or cooked, these vitamins become more available for absorption when consumed with a little oil. To maximize the benefit, drizzle your spinach salad with a little olive oil or stir-fry your bell peppers.

Cooked [but not over cooked] veggies can sometimes even have benefits that go beyond what we can get from their raw versions, because while cooking can destroy some nutrients, it can actually enhance the availability of others. Veggies’ cell walls break down when you cook them, making it easier for our bodies to absorb certain nutrients. Here are some examples:

Cook CARROTS ➙ increased beta-carotene [good for the immune system and eyesight]
Stew TOMATOES ➙ boost in lycopene [an antioxidant for a healthy heart and reduced risk of cancers]
Saute DARK LEAFY GREENS ➙ calcium more available for absorption [keeping your bones strong]
Stir-fry ONIONS ➙ maximizing quercetin [which has anti-inflammatory properties]

In addition to the nutritional benefits, some people find vegetables to be more palatable and easier to digest in their cooked forms. So sometimes bringing a little heat to the produce can enhance the enjoyment and increase consumption [which is the goal, after all].

The best of both

As you might guess, balance and variety are best. In some cases, what you get from the raw version of a vegetable is degraded in the cooked version, and what is made available by cooking may not be accessible in the raw version.

Spinach is an excellent example of the benefits of balance. In its raw form, spinach is high in vitamin C [and much more … it really is a super food!]. When cooked, spinach offers better availability of iron and calcium … but we know vitamin C is easily destroyed by cooking. To get all the benefits of this powerful green, serve it in both raw and cooked dishes.

So, opt for the maximizing the nutritional benefits of consuming vegetables by eating some raw — getting the most vitamin C and B for your bite — and some cooked — to benefit from all of those heat-enhanced nutrients. However you eat veggies, you are getting a dose of nutrition-packed produce in every bite. Eating your veggies is known to offer cancer-preventing properties, protect your heart health and dramatically decrease your risk of dying.

So which veggies are really better?

In reality, the vegetables that are the best for you are the ones you will actually eat, no matter whether they are raw or cooked. And that goes for the rest of your family too. If you live with veggie-phobes, I always encourage a little subversion! [Get healthy-but-stealthy recipes or pick up a copy of Vegetables Accidentally to launch your plot to increase fruit and veggie consumption in your house.]

To get optimal benefits out of your veggies, and to increase the likelihood of them being gobbled up, focus on including a wide variety, prepare them in various delicious ways — both cooked and raw — and eat them in season [for superior flavor, nutrition and price!]