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Take It In: Get more nutrients out of food

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

Selecting healthful foods at the supermarket is the first step to making sure you get all the nutrients you need. But, don’t stop there. There are many ways to maximize the health-promoting, disease-preventing vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients of the groceries in your shopping cart. This magic happens in the galley. Here are three ways to make this culinary wizardry happen:

Maximize menu-making.
The old saying that “two heads are better than one” applies to good nutrition, too. That is, combining foods in a dish or on the plate can boost the absorption of nutrients in these foods.

This is becoming a well-recognized way to maximize health benefits. In fact, research published earlier this year in the journal Food Chemistry highlighted several of these good-for-you couplings. One example is eating foods that contain iron and vitamin C at the same time. The vitamin C aids in iron absorption and is a time-honored way to combat anemia. Examples are a hamburger with orange juice to drink, bean salad made with tomatoes, and iron-fortified breakfast cereal topped with strawberries.

Another case is the on-trend serving of a poached egg over a tossed salad. Food scientists at Purdue University in the U.S. discovered a few years ago that the fat in the egg’s yolk can increase absorption of carotenoid phytonutrients such as beta-carotene and lycopene in veggies like tomatoes, shredded carrots, baby spinach and romaine lettuce.

Carotenoids are potent cancer fighters, and also keep skin, vision and immune systems functioning well. Eggs aren’t the only food to have this effect. Avocados work too. U.S. and German researchers reported in a Journal of Nutrition article published in 2014 that eating slices of avocado with carotenoid-containing foods like carrots increased the conversion of the carotenoids to more easily absorbable vitamin A.

Knife skills – a double-edged sword.
In general, it’s best to cut fruits and vegetables in large chunks rather than small. The smaller the slice or dice, the more surface area exposed to the air – and the greater the vitamin and mineral loss as a result. Therefore, think chunkier fruit and vegetable salads and vegetable soups.

There is an interesting exception to this rule: garlic. Do chop or mince finely. Cutting garlic kicks off a natural reaction in the clove that leads to the formation of the phytonutrient allicin. Letting the cut clove sit for 10 minutes at room temperature allows the concentration of this phytonutrient to increase. Iranian researchers writing in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine in 2014 linked the allicin in chopped garlic to a slew of benefits, such as heart health, lower blood pressure and anti-cancer, antibacterial and antiviral effects.

Nutrient-preserving cooking methods.
Some nutrients, such as vitamin C, are water-soluble and easily lost during cooking. For example, Italian researchers reported in the Journal of Food Science in 2007 that steaming and boiling fresh broccoli caused nearly one-quarter (22 percent) and more than one-third (34 percent), respectively, of the vitamin C to be lost. Microwaving was best, with nearly all the vitamin C retained in the broccoli after cooking.

Similarly, the longer fresh tomatoes are cooked – say, to make a tomato sauce – the more vitamin C they lose. However, cooking actually increases the amount of the phytonutrient lycopene in tomatoes. Lycopene is a potent protector against prostate cancer. This delicious nugget of information comes out of research reported in 2002 in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

There’s another old saying that’s also true: You are what you eat. You – and the foods that you eat – can be healthier if you pay attention to menu planning, knife work and cooking methods.

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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