Cooking

To cook or not to cook

To cook or not to cook?

My clients often ask me whether it’s better to eat their food – particularly vegetables – cooked or raw. It’s not one or the other, it’s both, really. Raw vegetables, especially if eaten or frozen very soon after harvest, contain more vitamins than cooked. Scientists think that the discovery of cooking might even be what gave humans the edge over other primates: It allowed us to consume a lot more food – and thus calories – which then enabled us to grow a bigger (and very hungry) brain. Moreover, cooking of course reduces the risk of infection as it kills most microbes.

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Yes, vitamins tend to degrade through cooking (and storage), minerals are indestructible, but they, too, may be lost if you throw out the water you cooked your veg in. However, all the vitamins in your vegetables will do you no good if you cannot absorb them. You are, after all, not so much what you eat, but what you absorb. Some foods even contain ‘anti-nutrients’, compounds that can be harmful if overconsumed, and cooking or soaking can render those harmless or reduce the amounts present in the food.

Carrots, for example, are not easy to digest. They are a good source of beta-carotene, a phytonutrient (plant nutrient) that is converted into vitamin A in the body. But you must first be able to absorb it, and that is easier when the carrots are steamed or roasted. Add a little olive oil, because beta-carotene is fat soluble and needs fat for proper absorption.

Tomatoes contain a phytonutrient called lycopene. It is responsible for the tomato’s red colour. Lycopene is thought to protect the arteries from oxidative damage and is anti-inflammatory, and cooking significantly increases the absorbability of lycopene, so don’t eat all of your tomatoes raw, make sure to have some cooked, whether that’s as tomato sauce, soup or in a casserole or on a homemade pizza.

Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale etc.) contain nutrients called sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol, which are said to have cancer protective properties. These are made available when you simply chop the veg … but are destroyed by heat. So, to make the best use of those nutrients, you would want to eat your cruciferous veg raw. The downside of that is that they also contain goitrogenic compounds, which can affect the thyroid. Cooking renders those harmless. So, it’s a bit of a toss-up, depending on what you need and how healthy you are. If you have thyroid issues, it is best to limit raw brassica, but if you are healthy, you’d have to eat an awful lot for the goitrogens to affect your thyroid. The best of both worlds may be to lightly steam and soften the veg, which will still preserve some of the sulforaphane and I3C.

Green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, watercress, rocket, and kale, are a great source of vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C, B vitamins (incl. folic acid), vitamin K, magnesium and calcium and of course fibre. Vitamin C is very sensitive and quickly diminishes once a vegetable is harvested. Heat reduces vitamin C even more and folic acid is lost as well when the leaves are cooked, so salads and raw green smoothies sound like a good idea. But green leaves are also a source of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid interferes with the absorption of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and iron – the very nutrients that are so abundant in green veg. Oxalic acid also contributes to the formation of kidney stones, so if you have had problems with those in the past, you’ll want to be more careful. Cooking the leaves destroys the oxalic acid, while – remember – leaving the minerals intact and then ready to absorb. Now, don’t let me scare you: A couple of handfuls of green leaves per day are not going to kill you. Rotate your leaves (i.e. don’t eat the same every day) as different plants contain different types of oxalates. Make sure to cook some of your leaves, too, for the improved absorption of minerals.

Mushrooms, too, are not easy to digest. Their cell walls don’t break down easily, so it’s really quite difficult for us to get to the nutrients they contain. Again, cooking helps us out, breaking down the cell walls for us. And a rather peculiar thing happens with mushrooms: While normally vitamin C decreases with cooking, in mushrooms it increases – at least in shiitake mushrooms.

Whole grains, beans, lentils and nuts contain a substance called phytic acid. If it binds to minerals in the gut, it takes prevents them from being absorbed and they will be excreted in the waste. This could, for example, affect your iron levels. Cooking, soaking, sprouting and fermenting reduces the amount of phytic acid in foods.

Does cooking decrease fibre? No! Like minerals, fibre is virtually indestructible until it reaches the large intestine, where our good bacteria get to work on it. Processing (chopping, blending, cooking) and chewing breaks fibre down mechanically, making it easier to digest, but it is not going to disappear and will still work its magic in the digestive tract.

How to cook?

Steaming is one of the gentler ways of cooking. Either use a steamer, where your food doesn’t touch the water at all, or cook it in very little water with the lid on. Most veg soften in just a few minutes.

Slow-cooking is a great way to gently cook your veg. The temperature is kept low (that’s why it takes hours) to preserve as many nutrients as possible. As slow-cooked meals are usually soups, sauces, or stews, you won’t be throwing out the water and therefore get to eat the minerals.

 

Food by John Lawson

I am delighted to be working with the most imaginative and creative young chef Essex has to offer. John Lawson is on a mission to serve local and seasonal food to his customers in Leigh-on-Sea that is not only beautiful and delicious, but also nutritious and healthy. Read on to find out more about John, his restaurant and our cooperation. 

Who says it's got to be turkey?

Don't get me wrong: There's nothing particularly wrong with turkey and all the trimmings - at least nothing you don't already know. Yes, it's usually too much, and yes, it can be a bit high on the carb side (but doesn't have to be), but hey, it's Christmas! Nobody eats like that all the time, and in any case this particular post is not about the calories. 

If you know me, you'll know that I'm not British. I'm German, and I have always been fascinated by the fact that apparently every family in a whole country (and some other countries) eats the exact same thing at Christmas, every Christmas. In Germany, we don't do that. 

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Christmas Dinner is something you see on restaurant menus everywhere right now and in fact many Britons have had three or four Christmas Dinners already before Christmas even arrives. Many of you – as I know from asking friends - don’t even care all that much for turkey with all the trimmings. “It’s bland,” some say. “Turkey is such a dry meat.” – “You have to keep eating it until the New Year, when it’s FINALLY gone!” Many truly HATE Brussels sprouts, and yet they’ve got to be bought, cleaned and cooked, even if they are destined for the bin.


Our 'big day' at Christmas is Christmas Eve - at least that's the day when we open our presents. Some choose to have their big meal then, others have it on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is not a bank holiday, so shops are usually open in the morning, and some offices are, too. Growing up, we had a grocery shop and of course Christmas Eve was very, very busy and our dinner was kept simple: potato salad and Wiener sausages - and that's actually a very common meal on Christmas Eve in Germany. 

WHEN the main Christmas meal is may differ, but so does what we'll eat. Yes, there is a traditional German Christmas Dinner: goose, potato dumplings, braised red cabbage with apple, gravy - but I honestly don't know anyone who would ever actually have that at Christmas. For many families a whole goose is too big a bird anyway. But it's something that is on offer in restaurants around Christmas time and - like the Christmas Dinner here - a popular option for work Christmas lunches. 

So, what do we eat? Whatever we fancy, is the answer. Christmas is a time when we might cook something that’s perhaps a little expensive and luxurious, something we wouldn’t normally allow ourselves to have. Or maybe it is something more elaborate and time-consuming, too special to have on a ‘normal’ day. Or it’s something easy, yet social, such as fondue or raclette – which can mean many happy hours around the table.

Yes, Germans overeat at Christmas, too, and yes, the Christmas meal is not usually the healthiest, there is plenty of alcohol flowing and desserts, biscuits, Lebkuchen and chocolate are on offer 24/7. We, too, flop on the sofa after the meal, waistband taught, watching the usual Christmas TV offerings. There’s no difference there at all, but this post is not about health (for once), but enjoyment: Who says that you have to endure a dinner you don’t really like? Would the world end if you didn’t have a traditional Christmas dinner? Wouldn’t it be exciting to rebel and cook something different?

Push the boat out! Be brave! (And while you're at it, you could theoretically even have a healthy Christmas dinner. Only saying.)

Have a merry, yummy Christmas!

Go nuts!

Do you avoid nuts because you are worried about the calories? Don't! Nuts are a great addition to the diet and there is much more to them than 'calories' (which don't even matter all that much). On the flipside, there are some health concerns to consider with nuts, not only for those that are allergic, so have a read of the pros and cons. 

Why I cook

I know, not everybody likes it and it can be a chore: Cooking. But at the same time I think the arduousness of it and level of difficulty is often overestimated by those who never cook. There are a lot of dishes you can rustle up very quickly, that only takes as long as it takes to thaw a frozen pizza in the oven.

So, what’s so good about cooking (by which I mean ‘preparing food from scratch’, even if it was ultimately eaten raw)?

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The Obvious First

Of course it’s healthier. Food cooked from fresh ingredients doesn’t contain artificial flavouring, preservatives, emulsifiers, colouring, transfats and whatever else goes in, plus it’ll have much less salt and sugar.

Your food will be more interesting

If you rely on take-aways and ready meals, you’re restricted to what there is to be had, and - let’s face it - the selection is limited and boring: lasagne, Bolognese, Chicken Kiev, Maccaroni Cheese, burgers, Chicken Tikka Masala, … It’s always the same. If you cook your own food, the possibilities are endless and you may discover flavours you never knew existed.

You decide what goes in

If you don’t like or can’t tolerate something – say, garlic – your options are even more limited as garlic is in a lot of ready-made dishes. When you cook your own food, you’re the one who decides what goes in, and even if garlic is on most ingredients lists: So what? Don’t put it in. You’re in charge.

It’s cheaper

Yes, believe it or not. You get better quality food for less money. If you pick your ingredients according to season and special offers, reduce the meat and add some lentils and extra veg instead, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck. Don’t you sometimes think those ready-meal portions are a bit small? If you cook from scratch, a second helping won’t break the bank.

You can be creative

Sometimes you may not get around to shopping for food and just have to make do with what you’ve got. Most of us have enough food at home at all times to make a meal of it: tinned tomatoes, tinned beans, tinned tuna, some onions, a bit of cheese, eggs, sun-dried tomatoes and grilled peppers in jars, pasta, rice, or quinoa, dried herbs and spices … That’s plenty to come up with something. And then there’s still the freezer; who knows what lurks in there? Coming up with ideas of what to make with what you’ve got can yield surprisingly delicious results. And a sense of accomplishment.

You’ll learn a life skill

It’s not only extremely satisfying, but also very useful to know how to cook. The more you do it, the better you get. As you hone your chopping skills, you’ll get faster. With a little experience, you’ll know what will work, if you haven’t got all the ingredients in the recipe: You need red chillies, but only have green ones? Who cares, they’ll do. You have no chillies at all, but dried chilli flakes – that’ll be fine. You don’t like spicy food or have no form of chilli in your cupboard? It may be just as nice or even nicer without any chilli at all.

It’s relaxing

When I used to work in the City, I’d use that cooking time to unwind. As soon as I got home – at around 6:30 pm, if I was lucky – I’d change into jeans and T-shirt, put on my apron and start chopping while listening to a podcast. And yes, I did cook dinner every day. Commuting was no excuse. The time for a healthy meal is always there. It’ll just have to come off my TV or Facebook time.

It's social

If you cook with your kids, your partner or your friends, the time spent in the kitchen together adds to your quality time. At the same time, it speeds up the process and saves you some time. Bonus: Kids that have helped prepare food are much more likely to actually eat it. 

It starts off your digestion

Thinking about what you’re going to have, preparing, stirring, tasting, smelling what you’re cooking gets stomach acid and digestive enzyme production going. Your body is getting ready for the meal that is about to arrive, and the more time to give it to do that, the better. If all your preparation is to open the door to the pizza delivery man and start eating, you’ll take your digestive system by surprise.

For more of this last and many other useful and practical tips on how to improve digestion, come and join me at my Happy Gut Workshop on 18 November 2017!