Did you know that when you prepare, chew, and digest your food, a host of chemical changes occur that affect the food’s nutritional content and how well those nutrients can be absorbed by your body?
You’ve probably already heard that many foods are at their most nutritious when you eat them raw. But it turns out that many nutrients are also better absorbed by the body if the food is cooked, chopped, or paired with certain other nutrients.
Here are six ways you can maximize the nutrition in your diet, even if you’re already eating healthy, whole foods.
Eat the freshest food possible.
Separating a fruit or vegetable from the soil or plant means that it has been separated from its nutrient source. And the longer it’s separated from that source, the more nutritional value it loses.
Whenever possible, choose locally grown food that’s recently been harvested to maximize the nutrition in your diet. The fresher the food, the more vitamins and minerals it contains, and the better it will taste.
Fruits and vegetables that have been transported across the country and sitting at your for more than 72 hours have already lost anywhere from 15 to 60 percent of their nutritional value.
Shopping at farmers’ markets or purchasing directly from local farmers is the best way to ensure that you’re getting the freshest, most nutritious food.
Pair the right nutrients together to maximize absorption.
Have you ever noticed that certain cuisines always pair certain foods together? For example, the Italians always use lemon and olive oil on their greens, and many Asian and Caribbean cuisines favor specific spice blends.
Well, it turns out this isn’t just about flavor, but also maximizing nutrition in the diet. Pairing certain nutrients together can help you absorb them more efficiently.
For example, fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K should be eaten with healthy fats for best absorption. So, if you’re having orange veggies for vitamin A, eggs for vitamin D, spinach for vitamin E, or kale for vitamin K, be sure to have some healthy fats at the same time. Plant oils, nuts, and avocados are all great options.
If you’re looking to increase the amount of iron in your diet, be sure to eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C because it assists with iron absorption. Sulfur-rich foods can also help you absorb iron better, so serve iron-rich foods with garlic and onions, too.
Of course, if you want an easy way to ensure that you’re getting the right nutrients at the right time, the easiest way is to take high-quality organic supplements with your main meal each day. A complete multi-vitamin and mineral formula is a fool-proof way to provide your body with everything it needs for maximum nutrient absorption.
The way you prep can make a huge difference.
Choosing the right food prep method can make nutrients more available to your body. Here are some examples:
- Soaking your legumes, nuts, and grains reduces the amount of phytic acid they contain. Phytic acid can interfere with the absorption of minerals like magnesium, calcium, zinc, and iron.
- Chopping or crushing garlic and onions releases an enzyme called alliinase. This enzyme is used by the body to create a nutrient called Allicin, which is used to form compounds that are vital for immune function and protecting the body against illness and disease.
- Chopping fresh fruits and vegetables frees up vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients by breaking down plant cell walls.
Proper storage is key.
We’ve already talked about how fruits and vegetables can lose a lot of nutrients the longer it takes them to find their way to your plate. However, storing them properly can slow down nutrient loss by minimizing their exposure to light, oxygen, and heat, which all degrade nutrition.
Here’s how fruits and vegetables should be stored for maximum nutritional value:
- Most vegetables: Most vegetables should be stored in the refrigerator in their whole form until you’re ready to eat them. The only exceptions are root vegetables, which should be stored in a cool dark place, and squash or pumpkins, which should be stored in the dark at room temperature.
- Most fruits: Most fruits, including tomatoes, peppers, and avocados store best at room temperature in dim light. The only exceptions are berries, which do best when stored in the refrigerator.
- Cut and chopped produce: If you want to cut or chop your produce in advance to save time, it will retain its nutritional value best when drizzled with lemon juice and stored in an airtight container. The vitamin C in the lemon juice will slow the degradation of nutrients. However, you should still try to use it up as quickly as possible.
Know which foods should be eaten raw.
Water-soluble vitamins, like B-vitamins and vitamin C, are heat sensitive. They break down during cooking, so eating foods that contain these nutrients raw will increase your intake.
Here’s a list of foods to eat raw, depending on which water-soluble vitamin they contain:
- Vitamin C: Brussels sprouts, peppers, broccoli, and most fruits
- Folate: Broccoli and leafy greens like spinach
- Vitamin B5: Kale, cauliflower, avocado, broccoli
- Vitamin B1: Brussels sprouts, peas, sunflower seeds, and beet greens
If you don’t enjoy some of these vegetables in their raw form, you’ll retain the most nutrients by cooking them over the lowest heat possible. Blanching, roasting, steaming, and sautéing are all better than boiling or microwaving.
Know which foods are best cooked.
On the other hand, many nutrients are made more available to the body only if the food is cooked.
- Lycopene: Lycopene is a valuable antioxidant that becomes more bioavailable in tomatoes after they’ve been simmered for 30 minutes.
- Beta carotene: Beta carotene, another antioxidant, becomes more absorbable by cooking red, orange, and yellow plants like sweet potatoes, carrots, and tomatoes.
- Protein: The protein in eggs and meat becomes more digestible after cooking.
- Iron: The iron and other minerals in leafy greens like kale and spinach become more available after cooking. That’s because cooking decreases the oxalates, which can interfere with mineral absorption.
Cooking grains and beans also reduces possible anti-nutrients, making their nutrients more accessible by the body. If you cook any of your vegetables in water, be sure to save the liquid to make stock. Any nutrients that were cooked out of the vegetables will then be in your stock, so they’re not really lost.
At the end of the day, eating a variety of fresh, whole foods and taking a quality multivitamin each day is still the easiest and best way to maximize the nutrition in your diet.
Many times, the raw and cooked versions of vegetables are equally nutritious, just in different ways, so you don’t have to limit yourself to one or the other.
Just focus on the bigger picture and try not to make things too complicated!