It’s no secret that eating vegetables can help you stay healthy and lower your cancer risk. We know that eating a plant-based diet is a great way to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk for several types of cancer. And the phytonutrients found in plant foods encourage cell growth, strengthen the immune system and decrease inflammation.
But are you getting as much nutritional value as you can from your vegetables? Lindsey Wohlford, MD Anderson employee wellness dietitian, gave us six ways to maximize the health benefits of your vegetables to get even more nutrients.
Eat your vegetables as close to picking time as possible
Making the most of your vegetables starts before you even get them to your kitchen.
Vegetables get their nutrients from the soil. Once they are picked, they no longer have that connection to their source of nutrients.
“Loss of moisture, respiration, enzymes and storage conditions all contribute to nutrient decline once vegetables have been harvested,” says Wohlford. There are several ways to reduce this loss of nutritional value, she says.
- Buy local. If you’re shopping for produce, odds are the locally grown items are fresher because they had a shorter travel time. Because they’re fresher, they will have more nutrients.
- Eat seasonally. Vegetables in season are generally less expensive, so your healthy food budget will go farther, and it’s easier to buy local.
- Buy small amounts and use them quickly. Avoid stocking up on large quantities that can go to waste or stay in your fridge too long, losing their nutritional value as they linger.
- Avoid pre-chopped veggies. They begin losing their nutrients as soon as they’re cut. So you may gain a little convenience, but the trade-off is probably not worth it.
And of course, if you have the space and the time, you can grow your own.
Help your vegetables keep their a-peel
If it is a vegetable with a skin that can be consumed, you should not peel it.
“The peel and the portion of the vegetable just beneath the peel are full of nutrients. By peeling them, you miss out on these nutrients,” says Wohlford.
Prepare your vegetables in a variety of ways
Some vegetables have more vitamins and nutrients when they’re cooked a certain way. For example, tomatoes contain lycopene, a nutrient that can help lower your cancer risk.
“But when you cook the tomatoes, like in a tomato sauce, the amount of lycopene in them skyrockets,” Wohlford says.
It can be difficult to remember which ways to prepare your vegetables. “The key is to prepare them in a variety of different ways so you get a variety of nutrients,” Wohlford says.
Don’t overcook your vegetables
Whether you’re roasting or steaming them, remember not to cook vegetables for too long.
If you overcook vegetables, it’s likely you’ve greatly reduced the vitamin and mineral content.
“Light cooking and steaming is preferred to soften, moisturize and warm the vegetables,” Wohlford says. “Avoid frying and other high heat cooking methods that typically destroy many nutrients.”
Deciding whether to steam or boil your vegetables?
“Steaming is best because the vegetables themselves never reach a high temperature, which can damage nutrients. Boiling can be damaging to nutrients,” says Wohlford.
The exception is blanching, which involves submerging raw vegetables in boiling water for a few seconds, then placing them in an ice bath to quickly stop the cooking process.
Pair vegetables for extra benefits
Sometimes pairing certain vegetables together can make them even more nutritious. For example, a healthy fat like olive oil can help you better absorb the nutrients in leafy greens like kale.
Here are a few food combinations that can help you build an even healthier plate:
- Pair iron with vitamin C. Try adding citrus or strawberries to your salad so your body can better absorb the iron found in spinach, kale and other greens.
- Pair iron and zinc with sulfur. Sulfur binds to zinc and iron so your body can absorb them. Try adding garlic or onions to your protein.
Eat a rainbow of veggies
If you eat many different colored vegetables, you’re getting many different vitamins and nutrients. Carotenoids, which improve immunity and support vision, are often found in orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, apricots, carrots, cantaloupe and oranges. Indoles and glucosinolates, which help prevent tumor growth, are found in some green vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts.
“When it comes to eating healthy, it’s all about variety and moderation,” Wohlford says. “And vegetables are no exception to that rule.”
If you have limited access to fresh produce, don’t be discouraged. Fresh produce is great, but canned and frozen vegetables can be healthy too. Just watch out for added salt.