Maintaining a balanced diet is essential to performance. In order to reach adequate levels of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients, we need to eat a wide variety of vegetables. Sounds easy enough, right?
I want you to think back to the last five vegetables you ate. Can you list them? Unfortunately, most Americans limit their veggies to iceberg lettuce, tomato sauce, and the starchy potatoes found in French fries. How sad.
New York Times writer Jane E. Brody shared that “Vegetables are loaded with vital nutrients: potassium, beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A), magnesium, calcium, iron, folate (a B vitamin) and vitamins C, E and K, as well as antioxidants and fiber,” in her article titled “Even Benefits Don’t Tempt Us to Vegetables.” Brody also explained that veggies provide excellent nutrients at “minimal caloric cost, an important attribute in a society where obesity is ballooning out of control.”
While we may agree with Brody’s research, many athletes want to know how to 1) choose the best vegetables, and then 2) prepare those vegetables to preserve nutrients.
Let’s start with nine easy-to-find vegetables that pack a punch at the dinner table.
Top 9 Healthiest Vegetables
Broccoli: Big surprise, huh? One medium stalk of broccoli can help build your bones—containing more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin K requirement and almost 200 percent of your recommended daily dose of vitamin C.
Spinach: Another shocker. Spinach contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two immune-boosting antioxidants important for eye health. Recent research found that among cancer-fighting fruits and veggies, spinach is one of the most effective.
Red Bell Peppers: Red bell peppers are an excellent source of vitamins A and C, and they are also high in beta-carotene. They are kind of pretty, too.
Sweet Potatoes: High in the antioxidant beta-carotene, this may help slow the aging process and reduce the risk of some cancers. They are also a great source of fiber, vitamin B6, and potassium.
Avocados: Avocados are rich in oleic acid that may help lower your bad cholesterol, raise your good cholesterol, and protect against breast cancer. They also help increase your absorption of beta-carotene by more than 15x and your lutein absorption by 5x.
Kale: This deep green superfood is high in vitamins and minerals. Kale is a great energy booster and key source of calcium.
Onions: Offering the plant chemical quercetin, onions have been found to fight inflammation. They also contain antioxidants and may protect against a wide variety of diseases including cancer.
Edamame: Young soybeans, edamame have more fiber per serving than shredded wheat. And as for protein, it contains the same amount as roasted turkey. Bam!
Pumpkin: Overflowing in antioxidants, this winter squash keeps skin healthy and the potassium inside helps lower blood pressure.
Now, we have some nice options, but do we know how to prepare them to preserve nutrients? Let’s find out if steaming, cooking, or keeping it raw is best.
The Break Down
In her article “Ask Well: Does Boiling or Baking Vegetables Destroy Their Vitamins?” New York Times writer Tara Parker-Pope explained that many people believe raw vegetables contain more nutrients than cooked vegetables, but it actually depends on the type of nutrient.
She referenced a study of 200 people in Germany who ate a raw food diet and found that they had higher levels of one nutrient while other levels were well below average. Apparently some nutrients require cooking in order to release nutrients. “Cooking breaks down the thick cell walls of many plants, releasing the nutrients stored in them,” Parker-Pope said.
But other “Water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C and vitamin B and a group of nutrients called polyphenolics seem to be the most vulnerable to degradation in processing and cooking,” she shared. “Fat-soluble compounds like vitamins A, D, E and K and the antioxidant compounds called carotenoids fare better during cooking and processing.”
Parker-Pope provided several examples to help clarify. “Canned peas and carrots lose 85 to 95 percent of their natural Vitamin C. After six months, another study showed that frozen cherries lost as much as 50 percent of anthocyanins, the nutrients found in the dark pigments of fruits and vegetables. Cooking removes about two-thirds of the vitamin C in fresh spinach.”
Some more examples Parker-Pope shared show that boiling was better than steaming, frying, or eating raw when it comes to carrots, broccoli, and zucchini. “However, raw carrots have far more polyphenols, which disappear once you start cooking them.” The key is to use the water in soups, gravy, or sauces after boiling. That way any nutrients that leach during boiling can still benefit you.
On the record, frying is the worst method for preserving nutrients. It had to be said.
Now, an interesting point is brought up by writer Sarah Albert with WebMD. Referencing nutritionist Christine Filardo, Albert explained that, “The key is to watch out for cooking vegetables too long, and with too much water.” Filardo recommends blanching your vegetables, “which is when you quickly cook vegetables in boiling water, and remove them when they’re still very crisp, to help preserve the color and nutrients.”
Time is also a critical factor. That’s why Filardo highly recommends frozen vegetables. These are often just as “healthy as fresh veggies, especially if the fresh ones have been collecting dust for a few days in your fridge.” These vegetables are often harvested straight from the field, then blanched and frozen right away.
Plants are beneficial on so many levels from disease-fighting potential, restoring our body’s nutrients, to slowing the process of aging. We absolutely need to eat more of them. Harvard’s School of Public Health recommends between five and 13 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, which rounds out to about 2.5-6.5 cups per day.
If you take their advice and rotate between raw, cooked, frozen, steamed, boiled, and blanched vegetables, your health can only improve. So go shopping, try something new, get energized the right way, and keep up the good work.