Are You Eating Your Vegetables the Right Way?

Eat Veggies Right Way

We all know we need to eat our veggies. But is it better to eat them raw or cooked? Is a fresh broccoli slaw, for example, better than cooked asparagus? The answer is yes. And no. Raw vegetables have some nutrients that their cooked counterparts lack. And vice versa.

That’s why Jonathan Aviv, MD, at Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York, and author of The Acid Watcher Diet recommends eating a pound of vegetables every day, half of them raw.

“Vegetables, across the board, are extremely high in antioxidants, which are powerful natural anti-inflammatory agents,” Aviv says. “When inflammation is kept down, there is a wide range of health benefits, including improved longevity.”

A pound may seem like a lot, but if you eat some veggies throughout the day it can be easily accomplished, Aviv says. “For example, one pound of veggies is in five medium-sized carrots or four handfuls of string beans or five cups of spinach. The typical salad one gets at a salad bar is often at least a pound.” This advice is similar to guidelines from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA,) which recommends 2 to 2.5 cups of vegetables a day (or 4 to 5 cups of leafy greens) for women and 2.5 to 3 cups a day (or 5 to 6 cups of leafy greens) for men.

The next step is to make sure half of them are raw. Aviv says there are a couple of reasons for that. “One, you will better retain certain vitamins, such as vitamin C. And two, there will be less tendency to alter the vegetable healthiness by, for example, frying them.”

Aviv notes in his book that particular veggies are chock-full of unique nutrients. “Broccoli is one nutritional powerhouse that you should try to eat raw at least some of the time, as raw broccoli is higher in sulforaphane,” a known cancer-fighting substance, he writes.

“Water-soluble vitamins, which include vitamins C and the eight B-complex vitamins (thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, etc.) are easily destroyed by several factors, including heat,” explains Toby Amidor, MS, RD, a nutrition expert and author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen and the forthcoming The Healthy Meal Planning Cookbook. “That's why you’ll find vitamin C added back into juices in the form of ascorbic acid, because much of the vitamin C was destroyed during pasteurization.” So any food, when cooked, loses some amount of its water-soluble vitamins, depending on the temperature used and how long it is cooked. But that vitamin loss may be less significant when weighed against the benefits of heat.

Cooking can provide unique nutritional benefits that can’t be reaped from raw food. “For example, lycopene is found in significantly higher amounts in canned versus raw tomatoes,” says Amidor. That phytochemical, which is responsible for the red hue of tomatoes, is a potent antioxidant that has been linked to a decrease in cancer and heart disease risk, and research shows that cooked tomatoes contain a significantly higher amount than raw ones.

Some raw food enthusiasts take things even further--perhaps too far--by adopting a fully uncooked diet. Some believe that heat destroys important digestive enzymes in plants that are crucial for adequate nutrition. While cooking does indeed destroy some enzymes, the very act of digestion does, too, via stomach acid. So most experts agree that plant enzymes aren't necessary for adequate nutrition anyway.

But, there is one other advantage to uncooked veggies. “When we eat raw vegetables, our bodies need to work harder to break down the cell wall to use the nutrients,” says Leah Groppo, clinical dietician with Stanford Health Care, noting how much longer it takes to chow down on a raw floret of broccoli than a cooked one. “The benefits of this are slowing down how we eat by forcing us to chew longer. Adding raw vegetables to our diet can also add texture and new flavors.”

The main goal should be to just get your veggies whatever way you can. It’s well established that people who eat more vegetables are less likely to suffer from chronic diseases. Likewise, diets rich in fiber may reduce the risk for obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. But, “according to the latest 2015 dietary guidelines for Americans, 90 percent of the US population doesn’t meet their recommended daily amount of vegetables,” Amidor says. “The first step is eating even close to the recommended amount. As such, whichever form you prefer--just eat your vegetables!”

To take the next step of incorporating raw foods into your diet, experts say that a slow and steady introduction is best. “There’s no such thing as too much,” says Victoria Albina, integrative medicine nurse practitioner and founder of Heart Beets Holistic. “But, like everything else, start low and go slow.”

Here are some other easy ways to start reaping the benefits of raw foods:

  • Skip the chips and dunk raw broccoli, carrots, celery, or cauliflower into wholesome dips and sauces, like hummus and guacamole. Have them on hand pre-cut, so you can grab them as a snack whenever you get peckish.
  • Instead of bread, wrap sandwich fixings in large romaine lettuce leaves.
  • Invest in a spiralizer to replace spaghetti and pasta with raw zucchini spirals.
  • Groppo recommends a rice-free, homemade sushi dishes, with or without fish. Try combining thin slices of eggplant or zucchini rolled with vegetables like julienned raw carrots or bell peppers.
  • Mix cooked and raw vegetables. A salad doesn’t have to be a pile of raw leaves. Add some roasted veggies if it makes it more interesting for you. Try the same with grain bowls and noodle dishes.
  • Go old school and try ants on a log: raw celery filled with peanut butter and topped with raisins.

Selected References

Dewanton, Veronica, et al. “Thermal Processing Enhances the Nutritional Value of Tomatoes by Increasing Total Antioxidant Activity.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. April 17, 2002.

Wanjek, Christopher. “Reality Check: 5 Risks of a Raw Vegan Diet.” Scientific American. January 16, 2013.

The Nutrition Source: Fiber.” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

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