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Raw vs. Cooked Vegetables: What's Healthier?

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A man holding bunch of fresh vegetables versus a chef tossing flaming vegetables in a frying pan

Raw, unprocessed foods – particularly fruits and vegetables – are generally considered to be healthier than cooked or processed alternatives. But is that always true?

“There are a lot of benefits to whole, raw and unprocessed foods, but there are upsides to including more variety and cooking vegetables to improve nutrient absorption,” says University Hospitals registered dietitian Elizabeth Traxler, MS, RDN, LD.

The Benefits of Whole, Raw and Unprocessed Foods

Whole, unprocessed plant foods have a variety of health benefits. They’re naturally lower in sodium, sugar and saturated fat, which are associated with chronic disease. They’re also good sources of healthy nutrients, fiber and antioxidants that fight inflammation and reduce disease risk.

In addition, avoiding high temperature heating or cooking can reduce the intake of certain byproducts that are associated with disease risk. However, there are potential downsides to choosing raw vegetables over cooked.

How Cooking Affects Nutrients

Cooking can have positive effects on vegetables, increasing the bioavailability of nutrients and improving absorption by the body.

Fiber: Cooking vegetables or fruit may improve digestion. It decreases the amount of insoluble fiber that can be challenging to digest. This is especially true for those with gastrointestinal disorders like inflammatory bowel disease. Beans and certain grains are better digested when cooked because heat deactivates compounds that these foods make to fight digestion.

Vitamins, minerals and antioxidants: Boiling decreases certain water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C and B vitamins, but fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D and E are not affected. Cooked carrots, for example, are higher in the antioxidant beta-carotene than raw, and cooking cabbage, kale and tomatoes makes nutrients easier to absorb by the body.

Oxalates: Oxalates are compounds found in plant foods such as leafy green vegetables and beets that are known to bind to calcium and contribute to the development of kidney stones. Cooking reduces the absorption of oxalates and is recommended for those trying to prevent kidney stones.

Enzymes: Enzymes are proteins that help break down nutrients and ease digestion. Cooking can destroy some plant enzymes in fruits and veggies. But when functioning properly, the body makes enough of these enzymes to aid the digestive process without added plant enzymes.

When to Boost Nutrient Value with Fat

Certain vitamins are better absorbed by the body when combined with fat. These include vitamin A (carrots, sweet potatoes and squash), vitamin K (leafy greens, broccoli and onions), vitamin D (mushrooms) and vitamin E (leafy greens, red bell pepper and asparagus). To get the most from these foods, be sure to include a healthy amount of nutritious fat with the meal.

More Benefits of Cooking Fruits or Veggies

Cooking vegetables can also enhance their flavor and texture, improve digestibility and reduce the risk of foodborne illness:

  • Under certain temperatures, fruits and vegetables may develop a sweeter taste and crispier texture due to caramelization or browning. This can make fruits and vegetables more palatable and we may eat more of them.
  • Heat can provide moisture and modify the texture to make it easier to chew and physically digest.
  • Eating cooked fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of contamination from bacteria that cannot withstand heat.

The Optimal Salad

A salad can provide a healthy, nourishing meal with fewer calories. But it’s important to include a wide variety of ingredients for satisfying, complete and balanced nutrition. Traxler recommends the following:

  • In addition to lettuce and leafy greens, include a variety of vegetables such as carrots, broccoli, cucumbers, bell peppers, shredded cabbage or onions. These provide different textures and nutrients and increase fiber.
  • Add whole carbohydrate sources to make the salad more filling and provide a good source of energy. Consider high fiber carbs like fruit, sweet potatoes, brown rice, peas, corn or quinoa.
  • Add high protein foods to keep you full longer. If you avoid meat and dairy, plant-based options include eggs, beans, lentils, edamame or tofu.
  • To aid nutrient absorption and increase satiety, choose a healthy fat source like avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil or vinaigrette dressing.

Related Links

University Hospitals has a team of clinical dietitians with the expertise to provide counseling and personalized eating plans for anyone looking to enhance their health, meet nutritional goals or lose weight safely and effectively.

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