I’ve been asked this question A LOT by clients, friends, and social followers alike.
Which is better: raw or cooked?
Some philosophies will emphasize one over the other: for example, traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda considers specific conditions of the chi or the doshas as requiring cooked food and avoidance of raw.
For my clients suffering with low iron and heavy periods, I’ll often recommend eating certain foods in certain ways to make sure they absorb as much iron from their food as they can. I’ll touch on that again below.
Of course, in the grand scheme of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense, varied, whole-foods diet, the cooked vs. raw debate isn’t that critical for most people.
Where this can become a consideration is for vitamin and mineral insufficiency, which may be due to digestion or absorption issues, or avoidance of certain foods (due to allergies, intolerances, or choice).
And I’ll tell you that the answer isn’t as simple as “raw is always better” or “cooked is always better.” As with most nutrition science, it depends on several factors. Some vitamins are destroyed in cooking, while others become easier to absorb (i.e. more bioavailable).
Let’s look at some of the differences in raw foods versus cooked foods.
Foods to eat raw
As a general rule, if you’re looking to maximize absorption of water-soluble nutrients vitamin C and the B vitamins, which are found mostly in fruits and vegetables, these foods are best eaten raw.
The reason why is two-fold.
First, when these nutrients are heated – such as by steaming, boiling, roasting, or frying – they tend to degrade. Vitamin C and the B vitamins are a bit more delicate and susceptible to heat compared to other nutrients.
Of course, the obvious way to combat these nutrient losses is to eat foods high vitamin C and B vitamins in their raw form (like in an awesome salad, added to smoothies, or simply assorted crudités with dip) or to cook them for as short a time as possible (like quickly steaming or blanching).
Fun fact: Raw spinach can contain three times the amount of vitamin C as cooked spinach.
The second reason why foods high in vitamin C and the B vitamins are best eaten raw is that because they’re water-soluble, guess where the vitamins go when they’re cooked in water? Yes, they’re dissolved right into the cooking water; this is particularly true for fruits and veggies that are boiled and poached but even for foods that steamed as well.
Of course, if you’re a savvy health nut, you’ll probably keep that liquid to use in your next soup or sauce to preserve those nutrients that are left after cooking. Just don’t overheat it or you may lose what you were aiming to keep.
But, how much loss are we talking about? Well, of course, it ranges but can go from as low as 15%, up to over 50%.
In short, the water soluble vitamins like vitamin C and the B vitamins degrade with heat and some of what’s left over after they’re heated dissolves into the cooking water. So be sure to cook your fruits and veggies as little as possible, and keep that cooking water to use in your next recipe.
Soaking nuts and seeds
Regarding raw nuts and seeds, it may be beneficial to soak them. Soaking nuts and seeds (for several hours at room temperature) allows some of the minerals to become unlocked from certain binding molecules, such as phytic acid, so they’re more absorbable.
Foods to eat cooked
Cooking certain orange and red carotenoid-rich veggies (e.g. tomatoes, carrots, & sweet potatoes) can help make the pre-vitamin A compound beta-carotene more absorbable.
Fun fact: One study found that absorption of beta-carotene was 6.5 times greater in stir-fried carrots than in raw carrots!
Of course, eating your fat-soluble vitamins – this includes vitamin A as well as D, E, and K – with a bit of fat will help you to absorb more of them, so that’s another factor to consider.
One vegetable that’s best eaten both raw and cooked
And I’m not just saying this to get everyone to eat it any way they can (although, I would love for this to happen… unless you’re allergic, of course).
Spinach contains so many beneficial compounds that it’s great eaten both raw and cooked.
Eating raw spinach preserves the water-soluble vitamins C & the B vitamins.
Eating spinach cooked allows the pre-vitamin A, as well as some of the minerals – like iron – to be better absorbed. Not to mention how much spinach reduces in size when it’s cooked, so it’s easier to eat way more cooked spinach than raw spinach.
Remember how I mentioned eating certain foods in certain ways for low iron and heavy periods? Spinach (and dark leafy greens in general) is one of those foods. To eat it raw, I love it most in a salad with an olive oil and fresh lemon juice dressing, with avocado, hemp hearts, and chickpeas. Keep reading for a super simple cooked version too!
The old nutrition philosophy of making sure you get a lot of nutrient-dense whole foods into your diet holds true – now it’s time to make sure to get a variety of cooked and raw. Mix up how you eat them by trying different methods of cooking, preparing, and serving them. Just make sure you eat them!
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 package (about 140g) baby spinach leaves
- Pinch of each sea salt & black pepper
- 1/2 fresh lemon
- In a large cast iron pan (bonus iron in your food!) heat olive oil.
- Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.
- Add spinach, salt, pepper and toss with garlic and oil.
- Cover pan and cook on low for about 2 minutes.
- Saute cook spinach for another minute, stirring frequently, until all the spinach is wilted.
- Squeeze fresh lemon juice on top.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: Enjoying the cooked spinach – even though it may have lost some of its water-soluble vitamins – with the combo of extra vitamin C in the raw lemon juice and the healthy fats in the olive oil helps your body absorb more of the iron.