Raw or cooked - which should you be eating? Which Contains More Vitamins and Minerals?
Which should you be eating - raw or cooked? Which Contains More Vitamins and Minerals?
Are raw or cooked foods better for you? I find this question tends to come up at certain times of the year. In January because midlifers tend to be trying to get back to healthy eating after the Christmas splurge, or leading up to summer when the ‘salad season’ kicks in.
There are, as always, arguments for both raw or cooked foods. The argument for eating raw is that heating destroys most of the natural enzymes that are beneficial for gut health and also destroys some of the nutrients. Boiling is worst for this whereas stir-frying and steaming are better.
However, cooking makes foods easier to chew and most of us don’t chew our food enough. Also, cooking adds variety of texture and flavour – think of the difference between raw and cooked carrots in both flavour and texture. This variety can encourage people to eat more veggies which can only be a good thing really.
Of course, in the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole foods diet, the raw or cooked debate isn't that critical for most people.
Where this can become a consideration is for vitamin and mineral deficiencies (or "insufficiencies"). These may be due to digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods (due to allergies, intolerances, or choice).
And I'll tell you that the answer isn't as simple as "raw is always better" or "cooked is always better." As with most nutrition science, it depends on several factors. Some vitamins are destroyed in cooking, while others become easier to absorb (a.k.a. more "bioavailable").
Here is the low down on vitamins and minerals in raw foods or cooked foods.
Foods to eat raw
As a general rule, water soluble nutrients, like vitamin C and the B vitamins, found mostly in fruits and vegetables, are best eaten raw.
The reason why is two-fold.
First, when these nutrients are heated, they tend to degrade; this is from any heat, be it steaming, boiling, roasting, or frying. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are a bit more "delicate" and susceptible to heat than many other nutrients.
Of course, the obvious way to combat these nutrient losses is to eat foods high vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (like in an awesome salad) or to cook them for as short a time as possible (like quickly steaming or blanching).
Fun fact: Raw spinach can contain three times the amount of vitamin C as cooked spinach.
The second reason why foods high in vitamin C and the B vitamins are best eaten raw is that they're "water soluble." So, guess where the vitamins go when they're cooked in water? Yes, they're dissolved right into the water; this is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled and poached but even for foods that are steamed as well.
Of course, if you’re a savvy health nut, you’ll probably keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce to preserve those nutrients that are left after cooking. Just don’t overheat it or you may lose what you were aiming to keep.
But, how much loss are we talking about? Well, of course, it ranges but it can go from as low as 15%, up to over 50%.
In short, the water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B vitamins degrade with heat and some of what's left over after they're heated dissolves into the cooking water. So be sure to cook your fruits and veggies as little as possible, and keep that cooking water to use in your next recipe.
Soaking nuts and seeds
Regarding raw nuts and seeds, it may be beneficial to soak them. Soaking nuts and seeds (for several hours at room temperature) allows some of the minerals to become "unlocked" from their chemical structure, so they're more absorbable.
Foods to eat cooked
Cooking certain orange and red “beta-carotene rich” veggies (e.g. tomatoes, carrots and sweet potatoes) can help make this pre-vitamin A compound more absorbable. Broccoli and courgettes may also benefit from some cooking in terms of increasing its anti-oxidant availability.
Fun facts: One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw carrots! Another found that cooking tomatoes reduced its vitamin C content by nearly a third but increased its antioxidant content by nearly two-thirds.
Of course, eating your fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) with a bit of fat will also help you to absorb more of them, so that’s another factor to consider. Add a drizzle of olive oil to cooked kale, spinach and carrots.
One vegetable to eat both raw or cooked
Spinach contains so many beneficial compounds that it's great eaten both raw and cooked (...unless you’re allergic, of course.)
Eating raw spinach preserves the water-soluble vitamins B & C.
Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals like iron to be better absorbed. Not to mention how much spinach reduces in size when it’s cooked, so it’s easier to eat way more cooked spinach than raw spinach.
One word of caution: spinach is high in oxalic acid which can bind with minerals in the body (although you have to be eating large quantities) and it also contains purines which can be metabolised in the body to uric acid. You only really need to avoid spinach if you have a kidney disorder or suffer from gout.
7 ways to include the raw and the cooked
The old nutrition philosophy of making sure you get a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet holds true. Feel free to mix up how you eat them, whether you prefer raw or cooked, just make sure you eat them (plenty of them!)
During the winter have cooked veggies at night when it’s colder and then have raw at lunchtime when it’s warmer – double up your dinner meal to have with salad at lunchtime the next day to save time and effort
Try including raw or cooked veggies in your breakfast e.g. mushroom omelette or greens in a smoothie
Have some fat, such as a drizzle of olive oil, with your veggies to stabilise blood sugars and optimise fat soluble vitamin uptake
Make a big batch of soup with left over veggies (raw or cooked) and/or the veggie water too
Make a tray of roasted veggies to have with dinner and then have them again cold in your lunchtime salads
Make up a mixture of grated vegetables to add texture to your salads
Combine the grated raw veggies and the roasted veggies on top of a mixture of salad leaves. Add some protein and some healthy fat, e.g. olives, avocado, oil and vinegar dressing, and you’ve got a fantastic lunch.
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