Is consuming raw or minimally cooked food always beneficial for your well-being?
I spoke to three of Precision Nutrition’s nutritionists: Ryan Andrews, Sarah Maughan, and Brian St. Pierre, who are all accomplished coaches in existent nutrition plans for both genders.
It seems the tale is far more captivating than just “cooked versus uncooked”.
As you prepare, bite, chew, and digest, you create a series of mechanical and chemical changes that affect:
- a food’s nutritional content (i.e. the nutrients it contains) and
- each nutrient’s “bioavailability” (i.e. the degree to which it can be absorbed by your body).
- Some nutrients are indeed best available when the foods containing them are eaten raw.
- But other nutrients are best available when the foods containing them are cooked, or broken down by cutting or crushing, and/or eaten alongside other foods.
Here are several ways to get the most nutritional benefit from your meals.
1. Eat locally grown food soon after it’s been picked.
Consuming foods that have been farmed nearby and picked straight from the ground increases the quantity of vitamins, minerals, and flavor that you can acquire from fruits and vegetables.
Gathering the edibles from the ground (or plant, shrub, or tree) implies taking them away from their nourishing source. The farther apart they are, the less nutritional value they will possess.
It is thought that if you purchase a “fresh” fruit or vegetable from a grocery store, it could have lost up to 60 percent of its vitamins. In order to avoid this, it is recommended you try and buy and consume it within 72 hours of being harvested.
When it comes to getting the best nutrition, local is the top priority, regardless of whether one chooses organic or traditional produce. Attaining the most nutrient-rich food is why it is beneficial to shop at local farm stands or farmer’s markets.
Plus, there’s winter. There is not a lot of newly picked fruit and vegetables available in the northeastern United States between November and June.
Luckily, there are multiple strategies for acquiring the highest levels of nutrition from the food you eat – without having to give up your home and move to a rural area.
2. Soak, chop, crush, and blend.
These basics of food prep can make vitamins, minerals, and other compounds more available in a few ways:
- Cutting up fruits and vegetables generally frees up nutrients by breaking down rigid plant cell walls.
- Crushing and chopping onion and garlic releases alliinase, an enzyme in these foods that helps form a nutrient called allicin. Allicin, when eaten, helps form other compounds that may protect us against disease.
- Soaking grains and beans reduces phytic acid, which might — in part — block your absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.
If you’ve already been doing these things, great. Now you know why they work.
3. Store fruits and vegetables the right way.
When thinking about storage, balance two things:
- Make it easy to eat your plants: Keep fruits and vegetables where you’re most likely to access them.
- Slow down nutrient loss: Heat, light, and oxygen degrade nutrients.
That’s why you should store…
- all vegetables — except those of the root variety — in the refrigerator until you need them.
- all fruits except berries — this includes tomatoes and avocados — at room temperature away from direct light.
- all cut fruits and vegetables with a squeeze of lemon juice on them and in an airtight container. (Cut produce rapidly oxidizes and vitamin C, an antioxidant, slows decay.)
- all herbs — with their amazing phytonutrients — are chopped up and frozen in an ice cube tray with water. (Maughan says she sees a lot of clients leave them unused — and eventually unusable — when they’re stored in the produce drawer.)
4. Eat most sources of water-soluble and heat-sensitive nutrients raw.
The vitamins B1, B5, folate, and C are prone to be broken down when subjected to heat, so consuming these nutrients through eating raw food is the best way to gain the most amount.
Thus, foods like:
- sunflower seeds, peas, beet greens, and Brussels sprouts (sources of vitamin B1),
- broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and avocado (sources of vitamin B5),
- spinach, turnip greens, broccoli (sources of folate), and
- bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts (sources of vitamin C)
It is preferable to consume these nutrients in their raw form in order to maximize absorption.
An illustration of this is that raw spinach includes a quantity of vitamin C three times greater than cooked spinach.
Boiling leads to the loss of water-soluble B vitamins and vitamin C. For these kinds of meals, it would be best to prepare them using low heat and using as little water as possible.
- roasting; and/or
5. Know which foods are best when cooked.
The amount of vitamins and minerals lost as a result of cooking ranges drastically, from 15 to 55 percent. Most of the time, the highest amount of vitamins and minerals is lost when boiling in water.
Certain foods actually provide higher nutrient levels when they are cooked.
For example, cooking:
- significantly increases the bioavailability of lycopene, found in tomatoes. Research shows that lycopene increases by 25 percent when tomatoes are boiled for 30 minutes.
- significantly increases the bioavailability of beta carotene, found in red/orange/yellow plants like tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, and spinach. Cooking helps here by breaking down the plant’s cell walls.
- denatures protein in eggs and meat, making them much more digestible.
- makes iron and other minerals more available for absorption by decreasing oxalates, an acid that makes the minerals inaccessible by binding to them.
- reduces certain harmful food components, such as cyanide (found in yuca) and possible anti-nutrients (found in grains and beans), making way for all the good stuff those foods have to offer.
If you are boiling vegetables, keep the liquid for making soup stock. This is a great strategy to use. You are able to keep the nutrients you would have consumed later on, so they can effectively be saved.
Be sure to remember the major point: boiled potatoes are preferable over French fries.
6. Pair food strategically to maximize nutrient absorption.
Many world cuisines put particular foods together. Contemplate the use of lemon and olive oil with vegetables in Italian cuisine, or the intricate mixtures of spices in food from the Caribbean, African, and South Asian regions.
Through many years of experimentation and learning from mistakes, cooks eventually intuited that a comprehensive meal including many different types of food was the optimal option.
Combining the appropriate dishes won’t just make them taste delicious, it will also ensure that you obtain all the nutrients from the meals you consume.
Here are a few examples.
Pair fat with fat.
Consume items rich in vitamins A, D, E, and K alongside dietary fats so that they can be properly broken down and used in your body.
Therefore, foods like:
- sweet potatoes, carrots, and squash (vitamin A),
- eggs and mushrooms (vitamin D),
- spinach, Swiss chard, and asparagus (vitamin E), and
- kale, spinach, and broccoli (vitamin K)
all go better with 1-2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fats like:
- mixed nuts;
- olive oil;
- coconut oil; and/or
It’s a good idea to include in your diet food such as salmon, egg yolk, liver, and sunflower seeds due to their content of vitamins D, A and E, which are carried in the natural fats these foods possess.
Pair iron with vitamin C.
Iron from non-meat sources is known as nonheme iron. The absorption of nonheme iron is not as strong as that of heme iron, which is most commonly found in animal-based products (such as beef or poultry with dark meat).
Enhance your body’s ability to take in iron from vegetables by consuming foods that are rich in vitamin C in tandem with them up to six times more effectively.
This works in two ways:
- Vitamin C can help the plant food “let go of” the mineral.
- Vitamin C can block other dietary compounds that can inhibit absorption.
Therefore foods like:
- soybeans, and
all go better with:
- a squeeze of lemon juice,
- orange slices,
- strawberries, or
- chili peppers.
A salad consisting of spinach, oranges, strawberries, and dressing made with lemon juice. Sauteed kale seasoned with chili peppers and a splash of lemon juice.
Pair iron and zinc with sulfur.
In conclusion, items that are abundant in iron and zinc should be combined with food sources containing sulfur for the greatest benefit. Sulfur has the ability to attach itself to various minerals, which allows for improved absorption.
Therefore foods like:
- liver, beef, and turkey (rich in iron)
- oysters, beef, and turkey (rich in zinc)
all go better with garlic, onion, and egg yolks.
7. Keep it simple.
Don’t start creating spreadsheets to track all of this. Keep it simple and sane.
It is better to consume broccoli in any form than to neglect it since it might not be in an ideal state. As Brian “Voice of Reason” St. Pierre likes to say:
Even though 60 percent of something might not feel like much, it is still more beneficial than not having anything at all.
It’s also important to factor in things like quantity. Rather than consuming five cups of raw spinach, it is far simpler to eat the same quantity of cooked spinach, in addition to all of its vital minerals.
In some cases, the cooked and raw variations of food have the same amount of nutrients, just presented in different forms. A good illustration of this is that, while unprocessed spinach contains higher quantities of iron, it also has an increased concentration of compounds that block the body’s ability to take in the mineral.
As a rule of thumb, it is helpful to decide whether you should cook or not when you have trepidation.
- Water soluble vitamins (vitamins B and C) lose the most nutrients when cooked.
- Fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) lose the fewest nutrients when cooked.
- Just eat some darn vegetables already.
Ways To Absorb Your Nutrients More Effectively
It’s of little benefit to consuming vast amounts of protein and calories in an effort to increase muscle mass if you aren’t able to properly assimilate the nutrients. If you are attempting to reduce your weight, it is significantly more crucial that you effectively process as much of your dietary intake as possible, as your ratio size is tiny.
That’s right, we’re starting off with a weird one. This method has substantial scientific backing, and it is a technique beloved by professional bodybuilder Ben Pakulski. Recalling the advice of counting to ten as a strategy to keep from getting angry is a great tip. In essence, setting aside a few moments to count your breaths can help settle your nervous system.
This evokes stimulation of your vagus, the longest nerve in your anatomy, which stretches from your head down to your midsection. Stimulating the vagus nerve, often referred to as increasing your “vagal tone,” can help put your body into a more relaxed “rest and digest” (parasympathetic) state, rather than a stressed, “fight or flight” (sympathetic) state. Studies have discovered numerous health benefits which come with the improved vagal tones, such as improved nutrient absorption and insulin production. Inform your body that there is no reason to use its energy to defend itself, and direct it towards digestion instead.
2. Vitamin C
It’s a simpler step, and it is especially essential if you consume a large range of vegetables. First off, iron derived from plants or eggs (classified as “non-heme” iron) is not as easily absorbed as iron derived from animal-based sources. Adding a source of Vitamin C when consuming it can fix the problem and improve absorption. It is especially critical if you consume massive volumes of tea or coffee since that could diminish the body’s capacity to absorb iron.
Consuming legumes and whole grains can be beneficial, but phytic acid, which is an anti-nutrient, might block your body from taking in vitamins such as zinc and magnesium. Taking phytic acid together with Vitamin C has been found to significantly increase the body’s ability to absorb these nutrients. Eat fruits or veggies with your meals.
3. Black Pepper Extract
If you are the proud owner of a plethora of vitamins and pre-workouts, then it is highly likely you have encountered Bioperine in the components list. The molecule that researchers are looking for is piperine, and studies show that it could obstruct enzymes that impede the digestion of some nutritive substances.
Piperine is sometimes included as an ingredient in curcumin (turmeric) and green tea (ECGC) supplements, along with certain prescription medications, since some research has revealed that it can demonstrate an increased ability to absorb their anti-inflammatory compounds. Remarkably, certain studies have revealed that piperine enormously boosts the absorption of curcumin to an astonishing 2000%.
Fewer studies have been done on the capacity of piperine to increase, for instance, vitamin assimilation, and while it appears to help stop excessively high levels of some medicines in the body, it can reduce the potency of others, so you should consult a doctor before taking it.
4. Probiotic Supplements
Consuming fermented edibles or taking probiotic supplements may enhance the wellness of your intestinal flora, which is the term for the trillions of microbes that line the digestive system. These creatures aid in the digestion and processing of food, and one can easily damage their microbial population if they do not get enough rest if their diet lacks fiber, or when they are in a state of distress.
Investigation has shown that the ingestion of particular probiotics enhances the digestion and usage of protein and various other nutrients. Eating a considerable amount of fiber, especially prebiotic fiber which is contained in garlic, onions, bananas, and asparagus, can help keep your gut microbiome in balance.
5. Eat Slowly
If you eat faster than everyone else, you may not be getting the most out of your meal. Mastication thoroughly assists in breaking down your food and stimulating digestive enzymes found in your mouth – a study from 2009 demonstrated that people who chewed almonds 10 times or 40 times would get more nourishment and energy from their meal if they chewed more times.
6. Eat Enough Fat
Many vitamins, including A, D, K, and E, require fat to be implemented in the body efficiently since they are lipid-soluble. These vitamins are sometimes found in fatty items (Vitamin E in almonds, Vitamin K in butter, and Vitamin D in egg yolks), but it can be worthwhile to include some fat with vitamin supplements so that your body can absorb them better.