The Best Ways to Get Nutritional Value From Food

March 11th 2016

Alison Mowlds

If you’ve been making an effort to eat healthier, the last thing you probably want to hear is that there’s more to it than just adding more fruits and veggies to your grocery list. When it comes to actually getting the nutritional benefits from your food, many factors come into play, such as how fresh the food is when you buy it, how it is stored, how it is cooked, and what other foods you eat it with.

Research shows that fresh vegetables start losing nutritional value as soon as they are harvested and can actually lose up to 45 percent of their nutrients by the time they reach the grocery store. At this point, it is likely that it will still be several days before they are purchased, prepared, and consumed. Although this is not a reason to give up on vegetables completely (there’s still plenty of nutrients left!), it is something to consider when buying produce that wasn’t grown anywhere near the store where you found it.

There’s a lot of information out there about the best practices for buying, storing, and cooking your food, but it can be hard to keep it all straight, especially since different rules apply to different foods.

To help out, here are a few tips to help you maximize nutrition and get the most out of your food:

1. Buy local and in season.

If you can’t, buy frozen. Frozen produce is often packaged shortly after it is harvested, and it actually retains more nutritional value than “fresh” produce that has been transported great distances.

2. If possible, don’t wash, cut, or prepare foods too long before you’re going to eat them.

Busy schedules often make it necessary to pre-wash, pre-cut, or pre-juice fruits and veggies so they’re ready to go when you need them, but these practices can cause the plant cell walls to break down, and the extra exposure to oxygen causes the food to lose vitamins and spoil more quickly.

3. Pay attention to which foods should be cooked and which are better eaten raw.

Some vegetables — such as carrots, tomatoes, leafy greens — need to be cooked to make the nutrients more absorbable and bioavailable. Others — especially those containing vitamin B1, vitamin B5, folate, and vitamin C — should be eaten raw in order to keep the vitamins and antioxidants intact. To make things more complicated, some foods — such as broccoli and spinach — lose some nutritional value no matter which way you go, and it is best to incorporate them into your diet both raw and cooked.

4. Try not to use too much heat or water when cooking.

In general, overcooking causes nutrients to be lost. This is important to remember when cooking garlic, which is best to add toward the end rather than the beginning of cooking so that you don't lose its antibacterial and disease-preventing qualities by exposing it to too much heat. Steaming and light sautéing are usually the best ways to prepare vegetables. Boiling is another healthy option, but since many nutrients can be lost in the cooking water, try saving it and using it as a base for soups and sauces.

5. When planning snacks and meals, think about how foods interact in your body.

While certain foods groups can cause digestive distress and block nutrient absorption when eaten together, some combinations of foods can boost your body's intake and incorporation of important vitamins and nutrients and promote overall health. Check out this helpful listof superfood combos to get a few ideas on how to pair foods in order to maximize their nutritional potential.