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Is raw always better? Surprising facts you need to know

Author’s note: This is the second of three columns on fruits and vegetables. The first column covered the truths and myths about ‘juicing’, and the third will offer top tips for minimizing possible exposure to synthetic pesticides on fruits and vegetables.

According to the World Health Organization, the incidence of non-communicable diseases are directly linked to inadequate consumption of fruits and vegetables  — and cite 5.2 million deaths in 2013 as a result. Including fruits and vegetables as part of the daily diet may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers, and daily consumption can reduce the risk of obesity, an independent risk factor for many NCDs.

Cuenca mercados offer an impressive array of produce

Raw and Cooked: Eat Your Fruits & Veggies
A daily dose of fruits, leafy greens, and other vegetables is critical for maintaining good health.

But, is raw always better? Of course not, especially when it comes to animal foods. Topping the list of foods that are more enjoyable, safer and even more nutritious when cooked are the obvious — meats, fish and eggs. Humans have lengthened our lifespan partly because we’ve learned how to make these foods safer with heat.

However, some plant foods are healthier when eaten raw, so definitely include raw produce in your diet! Let’s look at some raw and some cooked nutrient profiles.

Raw beets are better. Beets lose about 25% of their folate when cooked — so try beets raw, shredded in a salad with carrots and radishes.

Raw garlic’s allicin is a more potent antioxidant when uncooked, but it’s pretty sharp tasting; I prefer it roasted.

Raw cacao’s micronutrients are excellent but unsweetened, so bitter! Make it sweeter by pairing cacao with a sweet fruit, like mango or pitahaya (dragon fruit).

Raw chia seeds are good sources of soluble fiber, calcium, magnesium, and antioxidants.  Many prefer to soak first or grind — I like to add soaked chia to my oatmeal or quinoa breakfast cereal.

Cooking enhances plant nutrition, too.

Proper cooking brings out the flavor, enjoyment, and boosts nutrition in many foods.

Research shows that carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, and bell peppers pack more antioxidants when cooked — but not overcooked.

MushroomsSauté, grill, or roast mushrooms to release the muscle-building potassium.

SpinachLightly steamed or quickly sauté with some olive oil to promote absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K. Add some vitamin C by adding lemon juice or vinegar to help you absorb the iron in spinach too.

BroccoliHeating broccoli deactivates myrosinase, an enzyme in broccoli that helps cleanse the liver of carcinogens, however, the fiber-related components in broccoli do a better job of binding together with bile acids in your digestive tract when they’ve been steamed. When this binding process takes place, it’s easier for bile acids to be excreted, and the result is a lowering of your cholesterol levels. Raw broccoli still has a cholesterol-lowering ability — just not as much. I enjoy broccoli both raw and cooked. Read more about broccoli here.

TomatoesLycopene is the red pigment in tomatoes and other rosy fruits, including guava, papaya, and watermelon. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that’s linked to a lower risk for cancer and heart attacks. Research shows that turning up the heat on tomatoes enhances lycopene’s potency, transforming it into a more easily absorbable form. The best source of lycopene in the entire store is canned tomato paste.

Roasting brings out the natural sweetness and flavors of vegetables.

If a little is good, is more always better?
More is not always better when it comes to vitamins and minerals. Although a blended smoothie can pack a punch of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, it’s best to not overdo on certain leafy greens.  If you enjoy a fresh vegetable/fruit smoothie, combine a variety of ingredients in single-serving amounts to avoid overloading on any nutrients.  Be careful about throwing in the whole fruit, for example, some peels and seeds are absolutely indigestible and are known to be toxic (cherimoya for one). Read more about food safety here.

What is a serving size anyway?
Your daily needs are dependent on your age, sex, and level of physical activity, but roughly speaking, aim for at the minimum 2 servings of fruit and 2 1/2 servings vegetables daily, or for a 2,000 calorie eating plan, 4 servings of fruit and 5 servings of vegetables.

A serving size looks like this —

Vegetables: 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables, ½ cup of other vegetables or  ½ cup of vegetable juice.

Fruits: 1 medium fruit (medium is defined as the size of a baseball); ½ cup chopped, cooked or canned fruit; or ONLY 1/4 cup of dried fruit or 100% fruit juice (they are very concentrated in fructose).

How To? Top tips for eating more fruits and vegetables

  • Add fresh fruit to your cold or hot cereal in the morning; cook oatmeal with bananas — so sweet!
  • Snack on vegetables and whole fruit — fruit is portable, just remember to rinse all fruit, even fruit you’re going to peel.
  • Roast for more flavor! Toss asparagus, potatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, bell peppers with a little extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and roast for about 45 minutes. Email me at susanthedietian@gmail.com for the recipe. Feel free to add your favorites to the comments below.
  • Eat vegetables first. Add crunchy vegetables like broccoli florets and green beans to soups or casseroles, omelets or to your typical leafy greens salad.

We’re so lucky to be living here in Ecuador where fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful and inexpensive. !Buen provecho!


Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally — a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to her – SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com


Sources:
American Heart Association. Fruits and Vegetables Serving Sizes.
CNN.com. Health. The healthiest ways to cook veggies and boost nutrition. 
NutritionData.com. Kale, raw: Nutrition facts & calories. 
Ohio State University: Research. Turning up the heat on tomatoes boosts absorption of lycopene. 
Scientific American. Fact or fiction: raw veggies are healthier than cooked ones.
The World’s Healthiest Foods. Broccoli: What’s new and beneficial about broccoli.