Vegetables are, without question, the most important foods in the human diet. They are generally low in calories and rich in fibre, nutrients and disease fighting phytochemical compounds.
People who eat more vegetables tend to be healthier in pretty much every way. They tend to weigh less, have better mental health outcomes, have better digestive health and, most importantly, they tend to live longer and live with a lower risk of chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease.
I would be quite comfortable going on record saying that vegetables are pretty much the only group of foods that just about every single person needs to be consuming (much) more of.
In fact, I spend a great deal of my time educating people on the importance of vegetable consumption and one of the most frequent questions that I am asked in return is, what is the healthiest way to cook vegetables?
This question is actually a lot more complicated to answer than you’d think, and you will understand why by the end of today’s article.
Here’s what you need to know:
- Some cooking methods are better than others
Generally speaking, steaming vegetables is considered the gold standard when it comes to maintaining the overall nutritional and sensory qualities.
Other popular cooking methods have limitations which you need to be aware of.
With boiling, for example, it is quite easy to overcook vegetables and the healthy compounds in certain items, like broccoli, tend to leach into the water (which is why it turns green).
That’s not a good thing! If you do choose to boil, I recommend using as little water as possible, discontinuing boiling before the water changes colour or reserving boiling for when you prepare soups, so that the nutrient-filled water will be consumed with the meal.
Frying (or sautéing) also has its limitations.
First and foremost, these cooking methods are associated with using liberal amounts of oil, which can really rack up the calories.
The other, arguably more important, issue is that high heat (especially when the veggies get burned/browned/charred) may damage the healthy compounds in the vegetable and also form compounds that are detrimental to your health.
If you do opt to fry your veggies, do so on medium heat, don’t overcook them and be sure to use a very modest amount of oil.
If you are a fan of how vegetables turn out fried, I would suggest giving roasting your vegetables a try.
I find this method is excellent at retaining texture, flavour and colour all while avoiding excessively high temperatures.
350F for 5-10 minutes works great for popular favourites like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts.
- Some nutrients are actually absorbed better when vegetables are cooked
Personally, I am a huge proponent of consuming raw vegetables because of all the time, energy and calories it tends to save.
For many people, preparation time is a massive deterrent to vegetable consumption.
Although variety is the spice of life, I often tell my clients that if all you are able to have is leafy greens and tomatoes for the rest of your life, you won’t be doing that badly.
Speaking of tomatoes though, did you know that one of most important compounds that they contain ( lycopene – associated with prostate cancer prevention) is actually made more available for absorption by our bodies when the tomatoes are heated in the presence of oil?
In fact, the same could be said for other foods that contain similar compounds such as bell peppers and carrots too.
Take Home Message
Variety is the spice of life, not just when it comes to what you eat, but also how you prepare it.
Enjoy vegetables raw AND cooked, and don’t be afraid to utilize different cooking methods to enhance the absorption of the different nutrients within different vegetables.
The only thing you want to avoid is exposure to extremely high temperatures ( high heat frying/deep frying), overcooking/ charring and discolouring vegetables. Beyond that the most important thing about vegetables is not how you prepare them, but that you prepare and eat them in the first place.
Bonus Veggie Cooking Tip
Popular leafy greens like spinach, chard, arugula, kale, asparagus all contain iron. If you splash some lemon juice on them while they cook, the added vitamin C will help your body absorb the iron.
Andy is a Toronto-based private practice dietitian and nutrition writer/blogger. He also holds a master’s degree in public health nutrition from the University of Toronto. If you are interested in learning more about Andy and his services, or you’d like to read more of this nutrition content, you can do so at AndyTheRD.com