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To Cook or Not to Cook — That Is the Question

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on October 3rd, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

 

My food goals are simple. I want to eat healthy, nutritious foods that taste good and are easy to prepare. Plus, I need to eat a lot to feel satisfied, so I eat a lot of vegetables. Whenever possible I buy my vegetables from organic sources, especially if they’re on the Dirty Dozen list, because they provide the most bang for my nutritional buck. Vegetables are nutrient-dense, meaning they’re packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other good things such as:

  • antioxidants, including vitamins A, E, and C, which strengthen the immune system and may help protect against certain types of cancers, including breast cancer
  • polyphenols, including flavonols in green tea, a type of antioxidant that may help protect against certain cancers and heart disease
  • carotenoids, including lycopene and beta carotene, plant compounds that can act as antioxidants and may help protect against certain cancers, heart disease, and macular degeneration (an eye disease)

Plus, unlike a lot of fruit, most veggies have little or no sugar.

After reading an article about raw foods, I started wondering how I should be eating my veggies — raw or cooked? — to make sure I was getting the most nutrients I could from them. It turns out the answer is a little more complex than I thought. Besides depending on the particular veggie you want to eat, the answer also depends on the particular nutrient you want to maximize. For example, some cooking methods can destroy the antioxidant vitamin C, but boost levels of the carotenoid lycopene. Other methods, such as boiling, can enhance vitamin C.

So I made myself a cheat sheet of my five favorite vegetables with notes about their nutrients and whether to cook them or not — and I thought I would share it with you. If you find it helpful, let me know. Likewise, if your favorite veggie isn’t on here, let me know that, too, as well as how you like it prepared.

*One note, when I’m talking about “cooking,” I mean any cooking method EXCEPT for deep frying. Deep frying removes almost all the antioxidants from the oil and the vegetables and adds free radicals, which may damage cells. For the nutritional numbers below, the serving size is one cup.

Kale

Kale is a vegetable that’s nutritionally great either raw or cooked. I always have a few bunches in my fridge. Kale is a good source of lutein, a carotenoid.

Raw: A cup of raw kale provides more than 100% of the daily recommended values (DV) of vitamins A (206% DV), C (134% DV), and K (684% DV) — vitamins A and C are antioxidants.

Cooked: Cooking the cup of kale enhances its vitamin A (354% DV) and vitamin K (1,328% DV) content, but lowers its vitamin C levels (89% DV).

Broccoli

Broccoli is good both raw and cooked, but nutritionally I feel like I get more value when I eat it cooked. Broccoli also is a great source of beta carotene.

Raw: A cup of raw broccoli florets (I don’t like the stems raw so much) has 43% of the DV of vitamin A, 110% DV of vitamin C, and 0% of vitamins E and K.

Cooked: Cooking broccoli really lets most of its nutrients shine. Vitamin A goes up to 87% DV, but vitamin C shoots up to 303% DV, vitamin E goes up to 20% DV, and vitamin K rockets up to 494% DV.

Red Bell Peppers

Red peppers enliven just about anything they’re in – the color is festive and the sweet tang complements many, many foods. They’re also a great source of lycopene and vitamins A and C.

Raw: A cup of chopped raw red peppers gives you 93% DV of vitamin A, 317% DV of vitamin C, and 12% DV of vitamin E.

Cooked: Boiling red peppers bumps up its vitamin C levels to 385% DV. Vitamin A and E levels go down slightly to 79% DV and 11% DV, respectively. Cooking also increases red peppers’ lycopene levels by 33%.

Spinach

Tender raw baby spinach is one of my favorite salad ingredients, but cooking these green leaves really boosts their nutrition. Spinach also is a good source of the carotenoid lutein.

Raw: Raw spinach has 56% of the DV of vitamin A, 14% DV of vitamin C, 181% DV of vitamin K, 6% DV of iron, and 15% DV of folate (folate helps your body produce and maintain new cells).

Cooked: Cooking spinach increases its vitamin A levels to 377% DV, vitamin C levels to 29% DV, vitamin K levels to 1,111% DV, iron levels to 36% DV, and folate levels to 66% DV.

Beets

With their dark red color, beets seem to make any dish just a little more special. I used to eat most of my beets cooked until I discovered that they’re more nutritionally powerful when they’re raw.

Raw: Raw, beets contain 11% of the DV of vitamin C, 37% of the DV of folate, and 15% of the DV of fiber. Raw beets taste great grated in a salad or sprinkled on top of other veggies.

Cooked: Cooking reduces just about all the nutritional components of beets. Vitamin C levels drop to 5% DV, folate levels drop to 17% DV, and fiber levels drop to 7% DV.

Don’t sweat it if you like a certain veggie cooked when it might have slightly higher nutritional levels raw. Eating vegetables either way is still better for you than eating a processed sugary snack. Plus, you get to eat a lot with a low caloric content!

Let me know which foods you prefer cooked or raw in the comments section below. Bon appetite!

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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