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You’re always getting nutrients when you eat good-quality produce, but some actually give you more nutrition, depending on whether you cook them or eat them raw. Here, a little cheat sheet to make sure you get the more from your food.
Cook tomatoes to increases the levels and absorption of lycopene, an important carotenoid plant compound that helps protect heart health, decrease stroke risk, and promote prostate health in men. We’re talking about tomato sauces, stewed tomatoes and tomato paste. The plant nutrient in cooked tomatoes also provides a natural SPF, helping provide some photoprotection assistance from the sun. (Don’t rely on them alone for sun protection though! Still practice safe exposure and cover up with proper clothing, hats and skin products.)
Cook your carrots and cook them whole! Raw carrots are nutritious, of course, but cooking carrots boosts the levels of important carotenoid plant nutrients—including beta-carotene, which plays a role in healthy vision, skin and the immune system. Research has shown that when carrots are left whole during cooking (instead of chopped), they retain 25 percent more of their phytonutrients. Not only do whole carrots increase and keep more of their nutrients during cooking, but they preserve their flavor better too! Try roasting carrots with extra virgin olive oil, ginger and thyme. And here’s another bonus: the olive oil you use to roast them can help boost absorption of the beta-carotene from the carrots, too.
Cook your apples in a cast iron pan. Cooking in a cast iron pan can add iron to your food that your body can absorb. Important for energy and oxygen delivery, animal sources of iron tend to be the highest sources. But cooking in a cast iron pan can increase the iron—no different than the iron in our bodies—in certain foods like apples and tomatoes. In one classic study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (now the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics), researchers tested 20 foods and found that compared to raw, cooking apples low and slow in a cast iron pan increased the iron in the apples by over 2000 percent! Additionally, cooking tomatoes in a cast iron pan increased the iron content of the tomatoes by 9 times. If you’re looking to increase the iron in your diet or diversify the foods you get iron from, try cooking in a cast iron pan.
Some nutrients are reduced during cooking, particularly water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B vitamins. Cooking can reduce these nutrients in the foods and a percentage of vitamins is simply lost into the cooking water. So changing it up and choosing to eat veggies sometimes cooked and sometimes raw can maximize the nutrients from the very same food.
Here are some veggies that are good to eat sometimes raw:
Brussels sprouts. Usually cooked or roasted, try them shaved raw in salads and slaws to preserve the vitamin C and thiamin.
Broccoli. Steamed broccoli is fabulous, but enjoy some raw, too! As crudités with hummus or other dips and chopped fine in salads to optimize the vitamin C, folate and B vitamins.
Raw spinach retains more folate than cooked. So include spinach in your mix of salad greens and smoothies, too!
Bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamin C which increases as they ripen. Cooking decreases the total amount, as well as diminishing some of the phytonutrient compounds. Enjoy especially the yellow, orange and red bell peppers raw with dips and in salads for maximal vitamin C.
Note: Remember, it’s okay to cook these veggies, too, but make sure they are also eaten sometimes raw!
Frozen and dried
Frozen blueberries and raspberries. Freeze them yourself when they are in season or buy frozen varieties year round. Research has shown that frozen berries not only retain their nutrients, but they are very easy to keep on hand and use in a variety of ways. And it might surprise you to learn that much of the research that has put blueberries on the map showing their high phytonutrient levels and benefits to heart health and brain health has been done using frozen berries! And raspberries are an excellent fiber source for few calories—with a whopping 8 grams for around 50 calories per cup—so provide a very easy go-to fruit if you have them in your freezer. In fact, research has shown that in some cases frozen berries retain more nutrients, including those plant nutrients with antioxidant functions such as polyphenols and anthocyanins, than fresh berries that have been in the refrigerator for a few days. Fun tip: try frozen berries instead of ice in your blender to boost the nutrition and frostiness of your smoothies!
Dried fruits like cherries, raisins and apricots. Fresh fruit is great, but what do you do when your other faves are out of seaso? Some fruits, like tart cherries, you will only really find dried and in juice form. And guess what? All of the research on these little red gems, from lowering cholesterol to easing inflammation related to arthritis and post-exercise to helping with insomnia, has been done not on fresh, but on minimally processed forms like juice, frozen and dried. Tart cherries are a powerful source of anthocyanins, vitamin A, and also one of the few known sources of melatonin, a plant nutrient that plays a role in helping maintain healthy sleep cycles. Dried cherries (and other forms like juice and frozen) are available year-round, while fresh are not. And while tasty raisins and dried apricots are available fresh as grapes and fresh apricots with their respective seasons, the dried forms of these and other fruits have the advantage of offering a high nutrient, portable option that extend the season beyond the season and offer a longer shelf-life, too. Mix dried fruits with your favorite nuts in a homemade trail mix or add them to yogurt, oatmeal, salads and entrées.
Wendy Bazilian is an educator, author, nutritionist and food enthusiast. She has her doctorate in public health and nutrition, is a registered dietitian and certified exercise physiologist. Her guiding philosophy is Eat well, Move daily, Be Healthy.®