OK, so you got the e-mail on vegetables, right? You know produce of all kinds is beneficial to hair and skin, and even might be able to mitigate some forms of hair loss. The Centers for Disease Control tells us we might do better with nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day, not five as previously recommended. And now there’s a “raw foods movement” that follows the belief that cooking above 116 degrees F destroys nutrients, therefore you’d be smart to eat your vegetables uncooked. Goodbye grilled zucchini, hello raw carrots?
Really, do we have to make it this hard?

The fact is that heat, light moisture and air all lead to nutrient loss in produce. Heat is the most controllable factor at home, so below are some tips to help you accomplish that.

Facts about cooking food and raw food

Cooking separates some nutrients from your foods.
Indeed, heat and hot water applied to vegetables can leach vitamins and other nutrients from vegetables or destroy them altogether. Baking and boiling are the worst at this; steaming and stir-frying are better. The less time spent cooking, the better. When you see color in the water after boiling or even steaming, those are the “lost” nutrients (some people reuse that water in soups, or simply drink it).

Cooking is essential for some vegetables.
Starch in potatoes would cause significant indigestion if not cooked. Raw kidney beans can be toxic. The only way humans can eat these foods is after they’ve been cooked.

Some plant foods just need water and no heat.
You don’t need to cook all grains – simply soaking quinoa or rolled oatmeal in water makes them palatable. So if you want to have a cool breakfast with oatmeal and fruit, go ahead – no need to cook anything. Sometimes raw works.

Cooking makes some nutrients more bioavailable.
In fact, certain foods become more nutritious when cooked. The star example of this is tomatoes: the antioxidant lycopene (associated with lower incidences of certain malignancies, including prostate cancer, is more abundantly available from cooked tomatoes. The heat breaks cell walls, enabling your gut to absorb this nutrient more readily. Pasta and pizza sauce are notably nutritious.

How you cook makes a BIG difference.
As mentioned above, the amount of time spent cooking, the temperature and the opportunity for water to leach nutrients out of a vegetable affects the food’s nutrient retention. Foods steamed with just a little water in the microwave are a recommended method. Blanching (dropping vegetables for a minute or less in boiling water) is better than boiling for many minutes.

Juicing and even commercially prepared juices can be beneficial.
V-8 and other commercial brands of juice suffice as a source of important nutrients, but nutritionists argue they are not a precise vegetable replacement (some fiber is removed, while salt is added). Juicing at home, or reducing to a puree with a blender, is optimal, but when the process removes fiber, that’s roughage your body is missing out on. Try to repurpose that fiber in a soup.
Optimal cook times depend on vegetable density.
The thicker the vegetable, the more cook time it will require. That said, many vegetables (potatoes, carrots) can be cut into smaller pieces that then require less cook time. An excellent chart from Better Homes & Gardens Magazine provides directions for an extensive list of vegetables (free login required). Others advocate pressure-cooking vegetables as both a time saver and for nutrient retention.

Nutrients from cooked vegetables are still better than processed foods.
Every packaged food product lists certain key nutrients on its label, as required by law. These particular nutrients represent a tiny fraction of the fiber, antioxidants, enzymes and other micronutrients found in, say, a sweet potato.

Enjoying your food is a primary consideration.
A study of tasty versus bland foods at McMaster University ( Warwick, et al. 1992) found that tastier foods are more satiating – create a greater sense of satisfaction – than the bland options. Effectively, hunger was decreased by good tasting foods even while nutrient values were constant. So aside from nutrient considerations, you’ll benefit from foods that you enjoy eating.

Your food should taste good. That’s a raw fact.