I used to feel guilty about how rarely I felt the urge to throw together a big ol’ salad and gobble it up. After all, a bed of beautiful dark greens with bits of red pepper, cucumber, carrots, red onion, and maybe even some hard-boiled egg makes for the ultimate in health-inducing cuisine. Yes? How could I betray my well-being by leaving the salad tongs off the dinner table every night?
When I finally confessed my lack of interest in this quintessential eat-the-rainbow side dish to our clinical nutritionist, I thought I’d get a list of all the reasons why I should just suck it up and make it a priority. Instead, that was the day I discovered the vegetable controversy that’s been there all along: raw vs. cooked—which is healthier?
The truth is…it all depends. I should have known.
Get this. Some vegetables offer up a bounty of nutrients by never being exposed to any heat source other than the sun’s rays. But other vegetables need to spend a little time in your sauté pan or swim around in a pot of soup before they can bring out their best. But which is which?
Health Magazine provides a basic guide on how to prepare some of the more common veggies to best maximize their nutrition in an article titled “Raw or Cooked: Which Vegetables Are Healthier?” I was relieved to see that spinach is a vegetable that profits from being cooked as it gives our bodies better access to the iron, magnesium, and calcium in those gorgeous green leaves. My salad guilt vanished. Since I love throwing baby spinach in everything from my eggs at breakfast to meatloaf for dinner, my whole family is covered.
Surprisingly, cooking tomatoes draws out the lycopene that made them famous. Scientific American provides an in-depth discussion on this topic in “Fact or Fiction: Raw Veggies Are Healthier Than Cooked Ones.” Cooking tomatoes at a gentle heat breaks down their tough cell walls, making nutrients such as lycopene more accessible to the eater of said tomato. On the flip side, heating a tomato reduces its vitamin C levels by 10 percent. Huh. Vegetables are more complex than we give them credit for.
Heck, our nutritionist even pointed out that the seasons influence whether our bodies crave raw or cooked vegetables. In the summer, when it’s hot outside, we’re more drawn to cold, raw vegetables. But during the winter, we’re more likely to seek out cooked vegetables that will warm us up.
The good news is that you can’t go wrong with eating vegetables no matter which way you prefer them. The key to providing your body with the vitamins and minerals it requires is to include a wide variety of veggies on your weekly menu.
Now, most discussions about vegetables often lead people to throw around the word “antioxidant” quite a bit, so make sure your self-health education includes reading Mark Anderson’s “Is a Vitamin an Antioxidant?” In it, he explains why the never-proven “antioxidant theory” is a troubling nutritional myth that continues to do harm.