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Cooked or Raw? The Best Ways to Eat 9 Healthy Veggies

Plus vegetables to eat together for higher nutrition and some that don’t pair well


spinner image overhead view of raw organic vegetables whole and chopped on a kitchen counter
Carlos Gawronski / Getty Images

Many people assume veggies are always healthier raw; that chopping, slicing, dicing or grating them after they’ve been washed is all they need to work their nutritional magic, but that’s not always the case. In some instances, cooking releases nutrients that aren’t available from vegetables if you eat them straight from the farmers market or supermarket.

From beets (think cooked)  to tomatoes (either raw or cooked), find out how to get the most nutrients from these nine vegetables.

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1. Beets

Raw or Cooked? Cooked. Low in calories and high in nutrients, cooked beets reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Benefits: Naturally occurring compounds in beets improve blood flow, help keep arteries healthy and reduce LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ kind). Beets also provide an impressive helping of fiber (or roughage) to help lower blood pressure and keep you feeling full longer. A bonus: Some research has found that drinking beet juice before you exercise increases endurance.

Tip: To avoid spatters of red juice everywhere when cooking beets, wear disposable gloves and an apron before you start to prep, and cover your cutting board with parchment paper before you begin slicing.

2. Carrots

Raw or Cooked? Both. Raw carrots can help lower blood pressure, and cooked carrots support a healthy immune system.

Benefits:  Both raw and cooked, carrots help keep you healthy. Raw carrots are rich in fiber, which helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and cooked carrots release carotenoids, compounds the body converts to vitamin A to help ward off infections and support a healthy immune system, notes Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University.

Tip: If you plan to serve cooked carrots, the best way to preserve their nutrients is to steam them, which minimizes cooking time and maximizes nutrient content.

3. Cauliflower

Raw or cooked? Both. Cauliflower contains a variety of cancer-fighting compounds that are released when chopped, but some people find that raw cauliflower causes indigestion. Steaming it solves that problem.

Benefits: This creamy-white vegetable is high in Vitamins C and K and provides a good amount of folate (vitamin B-9), which is important in the formation of red blood cells. Folate also helps to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, it helps prevent macular degeneration, an eye disorder that affects vision.

Tip: The nutrients present in cauliflower are not easily destroyed by heat or prone to leaching into cooking water, but it’s still best to steam cauliflower to lock in nutrients and flavor.

4. Green Salad

Raw or Cooked? Raw. Salad greens are a rich source of vitamins and other nutrients. Great things happen when you add salad dressing.

Benefits: Mixing in a tablespoon or two of oil-based dressing not only perks up the taste, but makes the salad more nutritious by promoting the absorption of vitamins and minerals your body needs.

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“The best way to explain it is to say that adding twice the amount of salad dressing leads to twice the nutrient absorption,” says Wendy White, associate professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University and lead author of a study on the subject in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Tip: “That doesn’t give salad eaters license to drench their greens in dressing,” White cautions, but they can be comfortable following the U.S. dietary guidelines and use about two tablespoons of salad oil a day.

These Don’t Pair Well

Sometimes food partnerships can go awry. Here are some combinations to avoid:

  • Substances in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cabbage can block the body’s absorption of iodine, so don’t load up too much on these veggies in one meal.
  • Rhubarb and sweet potatoes, both high in oxalic acid, interfere with the absorption of calcium; eat them a couple of hours before or after you consume calcium-rich foods like milk, yogurt, cheese or calcium-enriched orange juice.
  • And finally, tea inhibits the absorption of iron from plants, so avoid drinking that beloved cuppa an hour or two before or after a meal.

5. Kale

Raw or Cooked? Both. Raw kale provides vitamin C to keep your immune system strong; steamed kale can help lower cholesterol.

Benefits: A close relative of brussels sprouts and cabbage, kale is low in calories and packed with vitamins and minerals — one reason it’s called a vegetable superstar. Kale is a good source of calcium for strong bones and potassium for healthy blood pressure. It also provides vitamin K to help your body heal from injury. A snack of popular roasted kale chips sprinkled with olive oil and sea salt retains its nutritional value.

Tip: To steam kale, cut away the tough stem, then cut the leaves into bite-size pieces, run them under cold water and steam for 5-10 minutes. When they’re cool enough to handle, squeeze out the excess water and serve with a squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt at lunch or dinner.

6. Mushrooms

Raw or cooked? Cooked. Cooked mushrooms offer the most health benefits.

Benefits: Mushrooms are rich in B vitamins, which help convert the food you eat into energy your body needs, and cooking makes them more available, notes Andrea Glenn, a postdoctoral research fellow in nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Mushrooms also add a savory flavor called umami to food.

Tip: Be gentle with the way you cook mushrooms, advises Glenn. “They lose B vitamins if they’re boiled or microwaved,” she says, “and thus lose some of their nutritional value.” So keep the heat low or sauté and let the mushrooms barely simmer. 

7. Spinach

Raw or cooked? Cooked. Cooking makes spinach’s rich supply of calcium and iron available.

Benefits: Spinach is a powerhouse of nutrients the body needs. The vibrant green leaves of this low-calorie food boost the immune system — your body’s defense against germs. And its calcium, manganese and vitamin K are important for healthy bones.

Tip: To make the most of this bonanza of vitamins and minerals, blanch a bunch of spinach leaves in boiling water for a minute or so and then plunge them into ice water for a few minutes. Drain well, wrap in waxed paper and store in the fridge so you’ll have it ready to mix in salads, smoothies or soups for several days.

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8. Sweet potatoes

Raw or cooked? Cooked. Nutrients are more easily absorbed from boiled sweet potatoes than from any other cooking method, but they can also be steamed, roasted or broiled.

Benefits: Sweet potatoes are incredibly rich in beta carotene, a plant-based compound that the body converts to vitamin A. This fat-soluble vitamin is important for normal vision. The orange spud’s store of vitamins plays a role in controlling blood pressure. Bonus: The potato skin’s fiber content helps promote a healthy digestive system.

Tip: It’s fine to eat the skin as long as it’s well-scrubbed. Potato skins pick up microbes from the soil they grow in, so they should be washed before cooking.

9. Tomatoes

Raw or Cooked? Both. Cooked tomatoes help protect against heart disease, but heating tomatoes destroys vitamin C. Leaving them raw helps your immune system work properly.

Benefits: Raw and cooked tomatoes are both low in calories and fat, and rich in vitamins and minerals that help you stay healthy. Raw tomatoes offer vitamin C to keep your immune system in good shape, but heat destroys it. Cooked tomatoes help protect against heart disease. Eating a combination of raw (sliced) and cooked (roasted) at the same meal gives you the best of both worlds. Bonus: Tomatoes contain lycopene, a nutrient that gives tomatoes their color. Lycopene lowers blood pressure and helps protect against prostate cancer.

Tip: Processed tomato products have more lycopene than fresh, so go ahead and have a glass of tomato juice with breakfast, use canned tomatoes to make a sauce for dinner or dab some jarred salsa on a cracker for a midafternoon snack.

Save the best for last

“When I prepare dinner, I leave the vegetables for last,” says Ardisson Korat. “I start with a grain, which takes 30 minutes or more to cook, especially if it’s a whole grain. Then I prep the protein part of the meal and finally, as close to serving time as possible, I prepare the vegetables. Doing it that way preserves their flavor, their texture and their nutrients.”

Smart Veggie Combos

Here are some food combinations that provide an extra nutrition boost

Combining certain foods when you eat can influence the way your body absorbs nutrients, notes Penny Kris-Etherton, Evan Pugh University professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University. Although all of these foods are good on their own, they’re even better with a partner.

1. Salads with dressing: Pair salads and vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and carrots that are high in fat-soluble vitamins with an oil-based dressing. A basic vinaigrette with salad oil, lemon juice, mustard and pepper does trick.

2.   Vitamin C boost: Non-heme iron, a mineral found in vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, brussels sprouts and string beans, carries oxygen throughout the body so that our cells can produce energy. Help it do its job by pairing these vegetables with vitamin C-rich foods such as oranges, grapefruit and surprisingly, roasted russet potatoes.

3.  Greens and avocado: Mixing leafy greens with avocado can increase the absorption of nutrients that are essential to keep your eyes, skin and immune system healthy.

4.  Tea with lemon: Tea and lemon make a dynamite combo. Both green tea and black tea contain a substance with the tongue-twisting name epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is linked to reduced inflammation. The body can better absorb EGCG when tea is flavored with citrus.

5.  Tomatoes and oil: Roasted tomatoes with oil, tomato sauce and salads with oil-based dressing all help increase the body’s absorption of lycopene, a plant pigment that gives tomatoes their vibrant color. Lycopene helps protect the body’s cells from damage and has been linked to good oral and bone health, as well as a reduced risk of heart disease and some cancers.

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