Swetha Vijayan, a young nutritionist from Kerala, prepares for her `daily bread’ the night before. As she scours her pantry her professional instinct is to stir up something healthy with what she has at home.
She says, “Planning the meals ahead keeps me from resorting to quick fixes and ensures that I eat healthy.”
Four years ago, Vijayan, then a hostel student, would barely meet her daily nutritional requirements. She recalls that she often developed gastric trouble and common cold. However, once she started living on her own and started cooking her food, she could enjoy healthy eating. She leveraged her knowledge of nutrition to plan wisely.
Vijayan says, “My immunity has improved, and I have started to recover from illnesses faster than before. I also feel my energy levels have picked up as I have corrected my food habits.”
She adds that for healthy eating, one needs to be mindful in every step of the way, right from choosing the raw food inputs, vegetables and ingredients up to putting the prepared food on our plates. She says it is also important to ensure that the food we eat serves its purpose i.e., all its nutrients become available to our body as much as possible.
So, what is healthy cooking all about? How should one plan, prepare and cook the right way? Here is a quick, three-step guide to food `prepping’ and cooking, the nutritionist’s way.
#1. The first step: washing well
In its journey from the farm to the kitchen, our food is exposed to several microbes, chemicals and pesticides. It is important to clean the inputs thoroughly before chopping or processing them.
A 2017 study published in American Chemical Society Publication detailed the efficacy of baking soda in removing pesticides from food articles. It concluded that 10 mg/ml of baking soda water is far more potent than tap water or bleach in removing the chemicals.
The team concluded that soaking vegetables for 12-15 minutes in the baking soda removed pesticide residues on the surface. Washing them under running water further cleared the residue.
However, force washing after peeling the vegetables is not advised as it also takes away the nutrients in the vegetables.
Vidhyapriya R, nutritionist and founder of Nutricomms Wellness, Bengaluru, says, “Vitamin C is water soluble and sensitive to heat, so it can leach out of vegetables and greens when they are immersed in hot water for a long time. It is therefore best to wash them under running water.”
#2. Cut and dried
In a conversation with Happiest Health, Divya Naik, sports nutritionist at SportyLife, Bengaluru, says the methods we employ to cut vegetables or fruits – such as chopping, dicing, or slicing – have a significant effect on their nutritional value.
She says, “Vegetables diced (`macedoine cut’), sliced or cut into sticks (juliennes) retain the potassium, magnesium, fibre and antioxidants in the vegetables better than when they are finely chopped (`brunoised’).”
#3. Mind the pot
In the different ways we cook, we try to enhance how the food tastes and smells Its sensory impact as aromas and flavours stimulates digestive enzymes and aids digestion.
There are many forms of cooking to suit the foods being prepared or the palates to please – be it stewing, roasting, braising, baking, grilling or frying. Nutritionists point out that cooking methods also dictate how much nutrition we get out of the food.
Let us look at right ways to cook one of the most important food ingredients – vegetables.
Naik suggests steaming vegetables before putting them in a pan – instead of directly frying or sautéing them. This keeps their colour and nutrients intact as well as improves the appeal and palatability of the food.
Vijayan says, “Cooking food items in an open pan for 4-5 minutes initially to let the anti-nutrients vapourise and then closing the lid will improve digestibility.”
Also read: Why is it important to soak pulses
Cooking should not only retain nutrients in the food, but also kick the anti-nutrients that interfere with digestion out. Vijayan says, “Chickpeas, kidney beans (rajma), soyabeans, horse gram, and other pulses should be soaked in water [for several hours] before cooking. This removes anti-nutrients such as phytic acid [an acid that makes them difficult to digest].”
Vidhyapriya adds, “Meat and poultry foods must be cooked to a safe minimum internal temperature of 75°C to destroy any harmful bacteria. Cooking also improves the protein availability of eggs when soft boiled or scrambled instead of frying.”
Sprouts of health
Naik suggests going beyond soaking of pulses and legumes overnight – sprouting them. Sprouted green gram (moong dal), lentils (masoor), whole black gram (urad), bengal gram and horse gram, are rich in proteins, and their nutrients become bioavailable or easily absorbed by the body.
She adds, “Sprouts have great antioxidant properties that may help to prevent cancer and cardiac issues; for they keep triglyceride levels in check and contribute quality fibre to the diet.”
The rule of three
There are three things to remember while cooking vegetables. Vijayan says that cooking time, the amount of water we use, and amount of heat given to the food must be heeded to preserve the nutritional value of the ingredients.
She says, “Most vegetables have high water content and require minimal addition while cooking. Adding excess water increases cooking time and leaches out water-soluble vitamins and minerals.”
Each vegetable and each dish have their own cooking time. Undercooking and overcooking can both upset our stomach. Thus, it is important to cook only for an optimum time, neither less nor more.
That was about vegetables. How should fruits be eaten? While juicing may seem to be an easy way to get all the nutrients in one go, it is not as nutritive as eating whole fruits. Juicing generates heat and destroys all the nutrients, besides taking fibre away.
According to a 2014 meta-analysis, packaged fruit juices contain substantial amounts of sugar which can increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Hence, people with diabetes are often told to have whole fruits that have low glycaemic load, such as apples, pears and oranges.
Preserving and storing
Today, markets are filled with products that have a lot of preservatives to improve their shelf life. There is nothing better than consuming fresh food. The longer a food item is stored, the less is its nutritional value.
Meat and poultry are two such items that are highly perishable and are at a high risk of contamination and spoilage if not handled carefully.
Vidhyapriya says, “Meat must be stored below 4°C and must be consumed within days of storage under chilling conditions. Always keep them well wrapped, separate from other foods to avoid cross contamination.”
“Refrigerate or freeze meat, poultry and eggs within hours of cooking or buying them. Look out for dark bits on the edges of the meat – it indicates poor storage and refrigeration,” she cautions.