Easy ways to get the most nutrients from your meals…

Loading up your grocery cart with fruits and vegetables is a great start to a healthful diet. But even if you hit the produce section on a regular basis, chances are you’re not getting the same level of nutrients in your fruits and vegetables that earlier generations did.

Modern agricultural methods have stripped soil of important nutrients, so produce that is eaten today may be less healthful than it used to be.*

Troubling findings: A study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found “reliable declines” in the amount of key vitamins and minerals in 43 fruits and vegetables compared with nutrient levels of those foods in 1950.

Other research has found that the levels of calcium in 12 fresh veggies dropped, on average, by 27%…iron by 37%…and vitamin C by 30% over a 22-year period. Such changes in nutrient values can have a hidden danger by contributing to nutrition deficiencies, which are more common than one might imagine finding in the US.

For these reasons, it’s crucial for you to do everything you can to squeeze all of the available nutrition from your foods. Besides stocking up on fruits and veggies, studies have shown that how you store, prepare and cook foods—and even how you combine them—can make a difference. Six tricks that will help you get the greatest nutrition from your foods…

Make steaming your first choice. Vegetables are good for you no matter how they’re prepared. But to get the most nutrients, steaming is the best choice.

Scientific evidence: Steamed broccoli retained virtually all the tested antioxidants in a study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, while microwaved broccoli lost 74% to 97% of these disease-fighting nutrients—possibly because microwaves can generate higher temperatures than other cooking methods.

Boiling is also problematic. The liquid—combined with the high heat and lengthy cooking time—strips out significant levels of important nutrients. Example: Broccoli that’s been boiled loses large amounts of glucosinolate, a compound that’s been linked to cancer prevention. Helpful: The liquid does retain nutrients, so consider using it in a soup.

A caveat: If you simply don’t have time to steam your veggies and, as a result, risk not eating them, microwaving can be an acceptable option—if you add only a teaspoon or so of water and cook for the shortest time possible to retain nutrients.

Even though microwaving has been found to remove certain nutrients, it can be one of the best ways to preserve vitamin C and other water-soluble nutrients because the cooking times tend to be shorter. Other methods, such as sautéing and roasting, retain nutrients if you don’t cook vegetables at high temperatures or for too long.

Cooked beats fresh. Fresh, minimally processed foods should usually be your first choice—but not with tomatoes. Cooked tomatoes or canned tomato sauce or paste (best in a BPA-free can or glass jar) provides more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. Lycopene is a well-studied antioxidant that’s been linked to reduced risk for prostate and other cancers, along with reduced risk for stroke.

Scientific evidence: A study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the lycopene in tomato paste has 2.5 times the bioavailability of the lycopene in fresh tomatoes.

Why: The heat used during processing breaks down cell walls and releases more of the compound. Also, the oils that are added to processed tomatoes make it easier for the body to absorb lycopene.

Cook first, chop later. Many people chop their veggies first, then add them to dishes before they go on the stove or into the oven.

Smart idea: Chop most veggies after you’ve done the cooking. Here’s why: Vitamin C and other nutrients oxidize when they’re exposed to air for an extended period of time. An oxidized vitamin loses some of its bioactivity. In addition, chopped or diced vegetables have a greater surface area than whole ones, which allows more nutrients to leach into cooking liquids. Exception: Onions and garlic should be chopped first (see below).

Scientific evidence: A recent study found that carrots, chopped before cooking, had 25% less falcarinol, a natural anticancer compound, than cooked whole carrots.

Try lemon (or lime) to boost iron levels. Iron deficiency is among the most common nutrition deficiencies in the US, particularly among women of childbearing age. Meats are high in iron, but women with heavy periods might need more.

Low iron can also be a problem for vegetarians/vegans. That’s because the non-heme iron in plant foods isn’t as readily absorbed as the heme iron in meats. Helpful: Add a little vitamin C–rich lemon or lime juice to recipes. Research shows that vitamin C can boost the absorption of non-heme iron by fourfold.

Add a spoonful of fat. A garden-fresh salad or a plate of steamed broccoli is undoubtedly healthy. But for an even greater nutrient boost, add a teaspoon of olive oil.

You need fat to absorb vitamin E, beta-carotene, vitamin A and other fat-soluble nutrients/antioxidants. The average meal contains more than enough fat to get the job done, but simpler, fat-free meals won’t provide that extra boost.

My advice: Add a little bit of olive oil to dishes…or dress up fat-free dishes with ingredients that contain healthy fats, such as nuts, olives, feta cheese or a hard-boiled egg.

Chop garlic, and let it sit. Many people love the robust flavor of whole garlic cloves that are roasted to buttery smoothness. But you’ll get more health benefits from garlic that’s been chopped.

Garlic (as well as onions) contains alliin and other sulfur-containing compounds that are locked within cell walls. The cells rupture when these foods are minced or chopped (or well-chewed), which releases enzymes that transform alliin into allicin, a compound with cardiovascular and anticancer benefits.

Good rule of thumb: Chopping and letting garlic or onions sit for about 10 minutes will allow the enzyme to make the healthful conversion. Heating garlic or onions before the completion of the enzymatic reaction will reduce the health benefits.

*Organic fruits and vegetables may have more nutrients than those that are conventionally grown.

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