We have all heard of the many benefits of eating our vegetables.
From dark leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens to cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts, the countless health benefits of eating an array of vegetables are one of the most undisputed concepts in the otherwise often controversial world of nutrition and diet.
However, where things get a little murky and debatable is whether it is better to cook your vegetables or eat them raw.
Some evidence has suggested that cooking certain vegetables can help release some of the nutrients contained within them to increase their bioavailability, whereas research has also found that certain types of vegetables retain more of their nutrients and antioxidants when they are eaten raw.
So, are raw vegetables good for you? What are the benefits of eating raw vegetables?
In this article, we will discuss the benefits of eating raw vegetables, as well as the raw food diet benefits in general, which involves consuming all foods—vegetables, fruits, seeds, and even proteins—in their uncooked state.
We will cover:
- What Are Raw Vegetables?
- Are Raw Vegetables Good For You?
- 5 Benefits of Eating Raw Vegetables
Let’s jump in!
What Are Raw Vegetables?
It sounds straightforward enough, but what exactly are raw vegetables?
Although most people assume that raw vegetables and all food consumed on the raw foods diet are completely uncooked, nutrition experts suggest that the food is considered “raw“ if it has never been heated over 104–118°F (40–48°C) during its preparation.The definition of raw vegetables or raw foods also extends to include alternative preparation methods aside from the very low-temperature cooking or eating the food in its uncooked form.
Examples include dehydrating, juicing, sprouting, and fermenting.
Are Raw Vegetables Good For You?
There’s abundant evidence to suggest that consuming vegetables provides an array of health benefits.
Vegetables are high in water, fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants and polyphenols that can help support optimal health, decrease inflammation, promote satiety, help regulate digestion and bowel function, and can decrease the risk of certain diseases.
However, when it comes to the specific benefits of raw vegetables vs. cooked vegetables, there are far fewer studies and an overall lack of conclusive evidence demonstrating that raw vegetables are better for you than cooked or vice versa.
5 Benefits of Eating Raw Vegetables
#1: Eating Raw Vegetables Can Contribute to Disease Prevention
One study found that the consumption of both raw and cooked vegetables is inversely related to epithelial cancers, gastrointestinal cancers, and possibly breast cancer.
However, the associations were more pronounced when raw vegetables were consumed rather than cooked vegetables, suggesting that eating raw vegetables may be more beneficial for disease prevention than cooked ones.
The researchers suggested that the cooking process alters the availability of some nutrients, destroys the digestive enzymes naturally present in the vegetables, and modifies the overall molecular structure and digestibility, potentially decreasing their health benefits and the ability of vegetable consumption to decrease cancer risk.
When trying to decide whether it is better for you or healthier to eat raw versus cooked vegetables, it’s important to consider what factors matter most to you in terms of what it means for a vegetable to be “better” for you.
For example, one of the potential risks of eating raw vegetables is contamination with certain bacteria or parasites.
The cooking process can potentially destroy these pathogens, making the vegetable “healthier“ in the sense that you will not be introducing these harmful species into your body. However, the cooking process will not necessarily provide a better nutritional profile of the vegetable itself.
It also seems that the type of vegetable matters when considering the benefits of eating raw vegetables vs. cooked vegetables.
For example, although dark leafy green vegetables like kale are nutritious and packed with essential vitamins and minerals, they also contain compounds known as oxalates, which can be harmful to your health and are associated with the formation of kidney stones.
Studies suggest that the cooking process helps destroy some of these harmful compounds, meaning that eating cooked kale can be better for you than eating raw kale.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that the bioavailability of the powerful lycopene antioxidant found in tomatoes is enhanced by the cooking process, making it better to eat cooked vs. raw tomatoes.
#2: Eating Raw Vegetables Allows For Better Antioxidant Consumption
On the other hand, evidence suggests that it’s better to eat certain vegetables in their raw state because it preserves some of the beneficial antioxidants.
Research studies have found that cooking vegetables reduces the bioavailability of carotenoids, which are the potent antioxidants found primarily in orange and red vegetables such as carrots, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, yams, acorn squash, and orange and red peppers.
Researchers found that the levels of these beneficial compounds were highest in the raw state and that various cooking methods decreased levels to different degrees, with grilling and microwave cooking being the most detrimental to carotenoid preservation.
Therefore, one of the benefits of eating raw vegetables is that you are getting all of the antioxidants without decreasing the potency and bioavailability of these beneficial compounds.
#3 Eating Raw Vegetables Can Decrease the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease
Perhaps due to differences in antioxidants and enzymes in raw vs. cooked vegetables, a massive study published by Frontiers in Nutrition in February 2022 found that eating raw vegetables may be superior to eating them cooked.
The study followed nearly 400,000 UK Biobank participants over 12 years.
Interestingly, only raw vegetable consumption was associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, whereas cooked vegetable consumption was not.
Furthermore, the inverse association of raw vegetable intake with both cardiovascular disease incidence and cardiovascular disease mortality was dose-dependent, and the more raw veggies people ate, the lower their resultant risks.
After adjusting the data for various confounding variables, results showed that eating raw vegetables decreased the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 82% and the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by 87%.
#4: Eating Raw Vegetables Maximizes Nutrient Absorption
Cooking vegetables can also reduce the fiber content because the heating process breaks down some of the cellulose and inulin found.
Additionally, raw vegetables usually retain all of their natural digestive enzymes. These are natural proteins found in certain vegetables, such as spinach, asparagus, and tomatoes (technically a fruit), that can help increase the bioavailability of the nutrients and antioxidants contained in the vegetable.
Heating a vegetable through any cooking process can denature proteins and enzymes; therefore, your body may not be able to absorb as much of the nutrients contained within the cooked vegetable.
#5: Eating Raw Vegetables Decreases Your Carbon Footprint
Although not necessarily a health benefit of eating raw vegetables, but still a raw vegetable benefit nonetheless is the fact that eating raw vegetables instead of cooked ones is better for the environment.
In other words, eating raw vegetables is better for the health of the environment in addition to potentially being better for your own physical health.
One of the raw foods diet benefits that encourages many people to adopt this dietary and lifestyle approach is indeed the environmental benefits of eating raw foods.
The cooking process of any food increases your carbon footprint because it requires energy and creates greenhouse gas emissions, especially if you are using a microwave (which creates radiation in addition to us using a lot of energy) or other energy-intensive forms of cooking.
You can further increase the sustainability and environmentally friendly nature of eating raw vegetables or following a raw foods diet by purchasing locally grown vegetables, joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture), or even growing your own veggies at home.
It’s important to note that not all vegetables can be safely consumed in their raw state.
Certain vegetables contain either harmful enzymes or natural toxins that must be deactivated through the cooking process before they are safe to consume. Examples include lima beans, castor beans, cassava, red kidney beans, and eggplant.
Ultimately, eating as many fruits and vegetables as possible is ideal for your overall health.
Whether you choose to eat raw vegetables, or you prefer your vegetables steamed, sautéed, grilled, baked, broiled, boiled, microwaved, or even prepared in the air fryer, whatever type of preparation method or cooking state that will encourage you to maximize your consumption of vegetables is going to be best for your health overall.
You won’t reap the benefits of eating vegetables if you aren’t eating them at all or aren’t eating them in appreciable quantities.
In other words, even though there are some benefits of eating certain raw vegetables vs. cooking them, there’s certainly no harm in cooking your vegetables if it will encourage you to enjoy more of these nutritious superfoods and make them a central component of your diet.
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