1. Eat locally grown food soon after its been picked.
Eating locally grown and “straight from the earth” maximizes the vitamins and minerals (and deliciousness) you get from your produce. Plucking them from the soil (or vine, or bush, or tree) means separating them from their nutrient source. The longer they’re separated, the more nutritional value they lose.
2. Soak, chop, crush, blend.
Cutting up fruits and vegetables generally frees up the nutrients by breaking down rigid plant cell walls.
Crushing and chopping onion and garlic releases alliinase, an enzyme in these foods that helps form a nutrient called allicin. Allicin, when eaten, helps form other compounds that may protect us against disease.
Soaking grains and beans reduces phytic acid, which might — in part — block your absorption of iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.
3. Store fruits and vegetables the right way.
When thinking about storage, balance two things: Make it easy to eat your plants: Keep fruits and vegetables where you’re most likely to access them.
Slow down nutrient loss: Heat, light, and oxygen degrade nutrients.
That’s why you should store…
all vegetables — except those of the root variety — in the refrigerator until you need them.
all fruits except berries — this includes tomatoes and avocados — at room temperature away from direct light.
all cut fruits and vegetables with a squeeze of lemon juice on them and in an airtight container. (Cut produce rapidly oxidizes and vitamin C, an antioxidant, slows decay.)
all herbs — with their amazing phytonutrients — chopped up and frozen in an ice cube tray with water.
4. Eat most sources of water-soluble and heat-sensitive nutrients raw.
Heat breaks down vitamin B1, vitamin B5, folate, and vitamin C, so you get more of these when you eat certain foods raw.
Thus, foods like:
- sunflower seeds, peas, beet greens, and Brussels sprouts (sources of vitamin B1),
- broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and avocado (sources of vitamin B5),
- spinach, turnip greens, broccoli (sources of folate), and
- bell peppers, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts (sources of vitamin C) are generally best eaten raw to maximize absorption of these water-soluble nutrients.
Vitamin C and many of the B vitamins are the most unstable nutrients when it comes to cooking. Because they’re water-soluble, they leach out of vegetables into the cooking water. If you boil your vegetables or microwave using too much water, you’ll end up with less thiamine, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and a lot less vitamin C.
Polyphenols, phytochemicals plentiful in kale, spinach and broccoli, are also susceptible to degradation during cooking.
Water is the enemy when it comes to nutrient losses during cooking. That’s why steaming is one of the best methods to preserve easily damaged nutrients, such as vitamin C and many B vitamins. Since vegetables don’t come in contact with cooking water during steaming, more vitamins are retained.
Dry cooking methods such as grilling, roasting and stir-frying also retain a greater amount of nutrients than boiling. If you prefer to boil your vegetables, save the nutrient-rich cooking water to add to soups and sauces.
5. Know which foods are best when cooked.
There’s actually a wide range of nutrient loss from cooking — anywhere from 15 to 55 percent. In most cases, you lose the most nutrients by boiling in water. But some foods actually deliver the most nutrients when cooked.
Raw versus cooked
Raw vegetables are more nutritious than cooked, but that’s not the case. Cooking vegetables breaks down the plants’ cell walls, releasing more of the nutrients bound to those cell walls. Cooked vegetables supply more antioxidants, including beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene, than they do when raw.
Cooked vegetables also deliver more minerals. Spinach, beet greens and Swiss chard are high in calcium, but a compound called oxalic acid binds with calcium. Heating releases bound calcium, making more of the mineral available for the body to absorb. Cooking vegetables also increases the amount of magnesium and iron that are available to the body.
6. Pair food strategically to maximize nutrient absorption.
Pair fat with fat.
Eat foods that contain the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K with dietary fats, which help dissolve the vitamins and ready them for absorption.
Pair iron with vitamin C.
To absorb the nonheme iron from our plant friends up to 6 times better, pair them with foods rich in vitamin C.
Pair iron and zinc with sulfur.
Finally, foods rich in iron and zinc are usually best eaten with foods rich in sulfur. Sulfur binds to these minerals and helps you absorb them better.
7. Keep it simple.
It’s still better to eat broccoli any way you can get it than to not eat it because it’s not “perfect”. Here’s a great rule of thumb in case you carry a little of the “to cook” or “not to cook” angst.
- Water soluble vitamins (vitamins B and C) lose the most nutrients when cooked.
- Fat soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, K) lose the fewest nutrients when cooked.
- Just eat some darn vegetables already.
8. Don’t discount frozen foods.
Reality is that frozen or canned fruits and veggies come in handy when you’re busy. And a little vitamin C is better than none.
Fresh versus frozen
Cooking isn’t the only way vegetables can lose nutrients. Before fresh vegetables reach your steamer basket or microwave, some of their nutritional value can be degraded during the time they’re transported to a distribution center, displayed in the grocery store and stored in your crisper. When possible, buy produce from farmers’ markets to reduce the time from harvest to table.
Frozen vegetables closely match the nutrient content of their freshly picked counterparts because they’re flash-frozen at peak ripeness, a time when they’re most nutrient-packed. Vegetables that are shipped to the produce section of grocery stores are usually picked before they are ripe, giving them less time to develop their full nutritional potential.
9. If possible, try an animal source.
Many animal-based sources of vitamins and minerals are more bioavailable than plant-based sources. The iron you get from meat is more available for absorption than the iron you get from plants:
- Heme iron, found in animal protein, is encased in hemoglobin molecules, which protect the nutrient from getting degraded by other nutrients and minerals in your GI tract. That means you’re absorbing the iron intact via gut cells that are specifically designed to take up the nutrient.
- Nonheme iron, from vegetable sources like spinach, starts to change the minute it comes into contact with other stuff in your intestines, meaning you can only absorb a small fraction of it.
10. Monitor your tolerance.
Nutrients don’t do you much good if you’ve got an undetected food intolerance that keeps you from absorbing them. Unfortunately, not everyone tolerates raw foods very well even if they’re technically “better for you” sometimes. If you have GI symptoms such as gas, bloating, or problems with your stool, consider an elimination diet to figure out what you’re not tolerating, and see a doc (nutrient deficiencies are more common than you might think). Once you eliminate the foods that affect you the most, you can better optimize your nutrient intake.