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The Raw Truth About Cooked Vegetables

There’s a reason your parents always told you to eat your vegetables: They’re really, really, really good for you.

Vegetables can help combat cancer, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, vision problems, and myriad other health conditions. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that veggies should be one-quarter of the food we eat each day, many nutritionists say we should eat even more.

When it comes to eating veggies, many of us assume that eating them raw is the healthiest way to go. The trouble is, while vegetables are generally good for you in their natural state, the nutritional benefits of most vegetables can actually be enhanced if they are cooked. The catch? Cooking them can destroy their nutritional value, too. The trick is knowing which veggies to cook, and how best to cook them.

We’ve to put together a list of some of the most popular vegetables with recommendations on how to prepare them in order to maximize their nutritiousness, antioxidants—and deliciousness:

basket of tomatoes and herbs

The List: Cooked Vegetables or Raw?

  • Artichokes — Artichokes are not negatively affected by heat, so feel free to cook them any way you like. Their heart-healthy fiber and antioxidants will remain intact.
  • Asparagus — Asparagus is best lightly steamed, as other cooking methods will diminish its high levels of folate, antioxidants, and potassium.
  • Bell peppers — Red bell peppers contain nearly 300 percent of your daily vitamin C intake. In addition to being a great antioxidant, vitamin C can contribute to great skin and helps your body absorb iron. With all of that said, cooking red peppers can flush all of those health benefits away, so eat them raw. (Baking is another option, as it does the least damage to peppers of all cooking methods.) Also, it should be noted that green peppers are simply unripe red peppers with a fraction of the benefits of red peppers. So, if you’re going to eat either, opt for red.
  • Broccoli — Broccoli can help fight many diseases, but if you cook it too long, its medicinal powers will fade away. Steam or microwave it to boost and retain its nutritional benefits.
  • Carrots — While carrots are high in beta-carotene, the also-beneficial folic acid they contain can be quickly diminished by heat. The key is to cook carrots lightly, either in the microwave or in a healthy sauté.
  • Cauliflower — In order to preserve the copious amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in cauliflower, first cut it into quarters to release the health-promoting enzymes, then cook it in a skillet with chicken or vegetable broth.
  • Corn — How many times have you shucked a bunch of ears of corn, threw them all in pot, and then boiled them? While the corn might have tasted great, boiling it actually dissolves its nutrients. Microwave it instead. Or, better yet, wrap it in foil and throw it on grill to maintain its healthfulness.
  • Cucumbers — Cucumbers contain comparatively small amounts of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. They are 95 percent water, however, so they are almost thirst-quenching as a glass of water. While you can technically cook them—a light, healthy sauté would probably be the tastiest route—cooking them at all risks erasing their small amount of nutrients and flushing out their water content. Opt for raw cucumbers instead.
  • Green beans — Like artichokes, green beans are pretty much impervious to most cooking methods, and will retain their antioxidant levels whether you steam, boil, or microwave them.
  • Mushrooms — Mushrooms contain mild toxins. If you are going to eat them raw, be sure to clean them thoroughly. Cooking them for even a few minutes helps to remove the toxins found in mushrooms, while also boosting your body’s absorption of polysaccharides—carbohydrate molecules found in mushrooms that have been shown to block tumor growth. Roasting, stir frying, and grilling are all great ways to cook mushrooms while maintaining their health benefits.
  • Onions — If you’re not going eat onions raw—the best way to eat them—cook them on a griddle. (Yep, the same thing you use to cook pancakes.) Griddles also good for cooking beets, celery, and Swiss chard, as they help these veggies retain their nutrients. (Just make sure you use a griddle without nonstick chemicals that could cause cancer. A thick frying pan with no oil is a good alternative.)
  • Potatoes — While most of us prefer to eat potatoes in french fry or potato chip form, a baked potato is an incredibly healthy food that is high in fiber and helps ward off heart disease cancer. Just how healthy is the potato? It’s a solid source of vitamin B6, copper, potassium, manganese, vitamin C, phosphorus, niacin, dietary fiber, and pantothenic acid. Sure, it might take awhile to bake a potato, but the results will be worth it. Just don’t drown them out with butter, cheese, sour cream, and bacon.
  • Spinach — Like other leafy greens, spinach is high in potassium and folic acid, but it loses roughly two-thirds of its vitamin C after cooking, so eat it raw in a salad. If you must cook it, opt for baking.
  • Tomatoes — Tomatoes are filled with cancer-fighting lycopene, and cooking them—especially in the form of tomato sauce—can help you body absorb it. If you prefer raw tomatoes, add some olive oil, as it will similarly aid in absorption.
  • Zucchini — In addition to being a great source of manganese and vitamin C, zucchini is a fantastic source of dietary fiber. While it is best cooked steamed, zucchini can also be grilled, roasted, and baked with minimal nutrition loss
zuchinni cup up

Note: You may have noticed that we didn't mentioning frying or pressure cooking in our above recommendations. That's because we don't recommend either method. Not only can frying rob your vegetables of their nutrients, it can also add a ton of fat to your meal. And while pressure cooking won't add any extra fat, it's even worse than frying when it comes to dissolving nutrients.

But What About Frozen Veggies?

freezer filled with bags of frozen vegetables

We can't always buy and cook fresh veggies. Sometimes, our busy schedules or budget won't allow it. When that happens, don't fret: Head to your grocer's freezer for some frozen veggies.

While not all frozen foods are particularly healthy for you, frozen veggies typically are—just look out for added salt, butter, cheese, and other extra ingredients. Opt for microwave versions, if available, as they will retain the most nutrients. In fact, one recent study showed that microwaving vegetables was one the best ways to preserve their antioxidants.

Your local grocer should have healthy frozen versions of all of these:

  • Corn
  • Broccoli
  • Green beans
  • Cauliflower
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Carrots

In the end, eating more vegetables- whether they are boiled, cooked, microwaved, steamed or raw- is better than less vegetables. Once you've gotten onboard with adding a good mix of veggies to your diet, these tips should help you understand the best way to cook different the different types in the way that retains the most amount of nutrients.