As everyone (hopefully) knows by now, fresh, colorful vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy diet. Simply put, your body thrives on the real, close-to-the-vine stuff, no added ingredients or processing involved. The more organic or farmers’ market veggies you eat – easy on the starchy ones—the more nutrients you’ll take in and the better your body will function.
When it comes to veggies though, one question patients often ask is, which is better – raw or cooked? And the answer is, both are fine, but it can depend quite a bit on the individual vegetable. Turns out, for some, heating will destroy certain vitamins and phytonutrients. With others, heating will amp up the nutritional haul, unleashing their full powers and making them easier to digest. Heating helps do this by breaking down veggie cell walls, releasing nutrients which, in their raw state, may be tougher to absorb.
So which ones make the better-cooked list? Here’s my A-to-Z top ten list of veggies you should feel free to fire up this fall, when comforting, hot foods are definitely on the menu:
What can artichokes do for you? Plenty, including things like help improve cholesterol and blood sugar levels and deliver good-for-you doses of fiber, antioxidants, folate, magnesium and potassium, to name a few. Though they can be eaten raw, most often shaved or chopped up and added to salads, if you’re looking to get the biggest bang for your nutritional buck, eat them cooked. Not only does a light steam bring out their earthy, nutty flavor but it also bumps up antioxidant levels by roughly 15-fold and a light boil by as much as 8-fold. However, steaming is the way to go as even a quick boiling drains off some of the water-soluble vitamin goodies, so if you must boil, keep the time as short as possible. (Fun fact: artichokes aren’t really a vegetable per se, technically they belong to the thistle family.)
I always say ‘eat the stalks and stems, in part because most people just chop them off and toss ‘em, despite being home to a number of essential nutrients and the fiber your gut microbiome thrives on. What’s interesting about asparagus it that it is, in its way, all stem – albeit a delicious, very edible one. As a ‘stem vegetable,’ or veggie whose shoots or stems grow above ground and are consumed as food, asparagus is fiber-packed while also delivering nice doses of folate plus cancer-fighting vitamins like A, C and E. Granted, asparagus delivers more vitamin C when raw, and they certainly have their place slivered or noodled in summer salads, here is where the slight trade-off comes in: researchers have found that when cooked, though vitamin C drops, both green and white asparagus get significant jumps in antioxidants beta carotene and quercetin, plus increased levels of phenolic acid, which is thought to be helpful in reducing cancer risk.
3) BELL PEPPERS
Beyond just their rich color, there’s a reason that bell peppers are among my favorite health-supporting veggies – and it’s their ability to support eye health. They become even more nutritionally valuable when you add heat. Here too, cooking breaks down the cell walls, making it that much easier to get plenty of vitamin C as well as precious antioxidants flowing into your system – in particular, those vision-loving carotenoids beta carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and lutein. The key is to not overcook your peppers, opting for a bit of firmness instead. To retain as much of the nutrients as possible, lean towards a quick stir fry of sliced bell pepper ‘sticks’ or a light roasting of peppers, cut in quarters.
4) BRUSSELS SPROUTS
Raw or cooked, brussels sprouts are packed with sulphur-rich glucosinolates which, among other things, gives this veggie its pungent aroma when cooked. Just add heat – we recommend a light steaming – and those phytochemicals produce a compound known as indole, which is thought to tame cancer risk by helping to kill precancerous cells. In addition, brussels sprouts are a good source of vitamin C, K, folate, fiber and carotenoids, as well as being helpful for supporting healthy digestion and taming heart disease and diabetic risk.
When you’re ‘eating the rainbow,’ carrots certainly tick off the orange box. The nutritional pay-off is the loads of beta-carotene which give carrots their distinctive color and their eye-health-supportive powers. When you cook them – skins on please to lock in more of the nutrients – your body is better able to absorb the beta-carotene, converting it into vitamin A to keep your eyes, immune system and skin in top form. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with raw carrots – where would crudité be without it? But adding some heat, ideally cooking the whole carrot with a quick steam in the microwave, makes a huge nutritional difference, by some estimates more than doubling this veggie’s antioxidant power.
As a kid, I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of mushrooms. But, fast forward a few decades and add a career in integrative medicine and I can’t sing their praises enough. Mushrooms are small but mighty, though we may consider them a veggie, technically, they’re actually a fungus. They add flavor, meat-like texture plus medicinal effects, particularly in the immunity department. And when you cook them, the news gets even better, for example, you get more potassium and zinc, and a lot less agaritine, a naturally-occurring toxin in raw mushrooms that heat helps reduce. What’s more, cooking mushrooms releases large amounts of ergothioneine, an antioxidant that’s thought to have a positive role in longevity and may play a key role in blocking the oxidative damage that’s linked with the development of certain types of cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Heat enhances the effect of ergothioneine, likely making it even more bio-available – so feel free to get cooking and enjoy mushrooms a few times a week.
Plump, juicy tomatoes are a staple produce item and no matter how you slice ‘em, this veggie (that’s really a fruit) is, according to data the U.S. Department of Agriculture an excellent source of potassium, vitamin A and lycopene. Why does lycopene matter? Well, for starters lycopene is a hugely powerful antioxidant that’s linked with lower risk for a number of chronic diseases like cancers and heart disease, and cooking tomatoes’ significantly boosts lycopene levels, giving them quite a nutritional leg up over raw. To really supercharge the delivery of your lycopene doses, always try to pair your cooked tomatoes with a healthy fat or top with a drizzle or two of extra-virgin olive oil. Your tastebuds and the rest of your body will thank you.
Cook ‘em if you got ‘em.
The list of better when cooked doesn’t stop here though. There are a number of other veggies that also come into their own when cooked, among them, being: broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, kale, pumpkin, spinach and squash, etc. When cooking yours, steaming and microwaving using the minimum amount of water (just a few spoonful’s will do the trick) are great for keeping nutrients from leaching out. In addition, keep veggies whole and cut them up after the cooking’s complete.