While you may have noticed the hype about the benefits of raw food diets or raw food cleanses, it is important to note that not all cooked foods are bad. In fact, cultures around the world have been cooking their traditional food dishes for thousands of years in healthy ways.
Depending on the type of food, the method of cooking and the supporting ingredients in a dish, digestion and nutrient absorption of vegetables can actually be increased from cooking. Spices such as cumin, turmeric, ginger and coriander are frequently used in traditional Indian cooking and act as important digestive aids to help the body break down and absorb important nutrients that come available once cooked. The flavour enhancing additions of such spices also provide anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits to the body and work in conjunction with a variety of fiber rich vegetables to fill our cells nutritional requirements.
When it comes to the raw or cooked question of vegetables, it's all about balance. Some plants, like kale for example, will benefit from the cooking process but can also be enjoyed raw for higher levels of vitamin C.
So let's break it down and look at what vegetables fit the raw category and which ones can benefit from a little heat.
This chlorophyll rich and cleansing vegetable is an excellent source of the immune boosting antioxidant, Vitamin C. Vitamin C is easily lost with cooking so enjoy this refreshing vegetable in the raw. You can also enjoy the health benefits of vitamin A and K when you add a salad dressing made from unrefined oil.
Garlic contains a compound called allicin, responsible for the antibiotic, antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic in the body. Allicin is heat sensitive so make sure you get your doses of raw garlic in.
Arugula is high in most of the B vitamins but contains especially high amounts of folate, which has been said to protect the aging brain and help prevent cognitive decline. This tasty delicate green can be enjoyed it its raw state to ensure that the folate and the other B vitamins are not lost during cooking.
It might be assumed that cucumber is enjoyed uncooked but you may just want to enjoy it more often! This mineral rich, hydrating vegetable holds a unique combination of nutrients. It contains three types of phytonutrients that provide us with valuable antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer benefits. Enjoy the wax free and organic version whenever possible to avoid added toxins.
This one might be up for debate for those who have problems digesting broccoli or are aware of its thyroid inhibiting goitrogens. However, broccoli contains a liver cleansing enzyme (myrosinase) that is destroyed by heat.
When you cook spinach you can enjoy its high iron content and be able to absorb more calcium and magnesium.
Mushrooms are often enjoyed cooked and they are an excellent source of B vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. To maximize their flavor and maximize their nutrients, just lightly sauté for a few minutes on medium heat.
Squash is more manageable when cooked and the nutrients are better retained when baked. The bright orange flesh of winter squashes are high in vitamin A and excellent for lung health.
Tomatoes are especially high in lycopene which is said to be the most powerful antioxidant measured in food and noted to play a preventative role in both cancer and heart disease. Lycopene becomes active when heated so you can enjoy its benefits from making homemade tomato sauce, soup or pasta dishes.
This nutrient dense plant is argued to hold more nutrients per calorie than any other plant. Slightly cooking this leaf increases absorption of health promoting phytonutrients called carotenoids, an antioxidant that protects against cancer and enhances immune system function.
How Much Is Enough?
As a nutritionist I recommend that vegetables should be the largest part of your meal, taking up ¾ of the space on your plate. Another great rule of thumb is to only snack on fresh foods and eat dark leafy greens daily. Sourcing from as close to home as possible not only ensures a lighter environmental footprint, it also provides the highest amount of nutrients possible as nutrient depletion begins immediately after harvesting.
The Canada Food Guide recommends at least seven to eight servings for adult females and eight to 10 for males of vegetables daily, and many health professionals recommend even more. Aside from the dark leafy greens, a focus on bright orange vegetables (squash, carrots, orange beets), which are high in powerful carotenoids, is suggested.
Raw is not always more nutritional. While raw food contains live enzymes it can also be hard to digest in which case we don't actually absorb all the nutrients. It's important to pay attention to the individual needs and preferences of your body to see what foods best suit you.
It's true that vegetables cooked for a long duration, in poor quality oils, at a high heat are not a healthy option. Vegetable soups on the other hand, when made from high quality ingredients and simmered for a longer duration can be quite healing and provide a great source of minerals and fibre.
My personal preference of cooking methods are those that are higher heat for the least amount of time in order to retain nutrients, texture and a little crunch (no soggy vegetables for me please). Preferably, my vegetables are lightly sautéed on medium-high heat with water. I will add a high quality unrefined oil (such as unrefined sesame oil) before serving. The addition of oil ensures the absorption of important fat soluble vitamins in the vegetables. Alternatively, I cook with waterless stainless steel cook-ware that is an excellent heat conductor and requires less cooking time.
When I'm not cooking my vegetables I am often making vegetable smoothies so that I can also enjoy the raw benefits that vegetables and fresh foods have to offer. When it comes to vegetables the most important thing is to simply eat more! Many of us have a hard time fitting in the suggested daily servings that lies somewhere between seven to 10, depending on your sex.
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