The trendy way to consume your vegetables in recent decades has been to simply eat them plain and raw to reap the most benefits. New studies show that a large number of vegetables, including antioxidant superstars like carrots and tomatoes, are better absorbed when cooked or prepared with fat.1 Cooking vegetables enough to soften them adds to the body's ability to absorb nutrients by breaking down food before it is eaten. Adding oils or cooking vegetables with meat in turn further increases the body's ability to absorb those nutrients. That means eating a salad dressed with fat-free dressing provides less nutritional value to your body than a steak fajita, a chicken Caesar salad, your favorite pasta smothered in a marinara meat sauce or — dare I say it — a Big Mac.® Even eating eggs as part of a different meal can improve the absorption of lutein and zeaxanthin consumed later in the day2 (you need these carotenoids to keep your eyesight from deteriorating, among a host of other forms of cell damage caused by free radicals).1
Scientists have known that fat is an important part of nutrient absorption for quite a while. A study was conducted at Iowa State University by Wendy White, associate professor of food science and nutrition at the university, and ISU graduate student Melody Brown back in 2004. It showed that participants eating salads with fat-free or no salad dressing didn't absorb the carotenoids at all.3 Those who ate salads with oil-based dressings did get the nutrients.1 "We're certainly not advocating a high-fat diet, or one filled with full-fat salad dressing," White noted. "If you'd like to stick with fat-free dressing, the addition of small amounts of avocado or cheese in a salad may help along the absorption."3
Sorry vegans. I think I'll add a pot roast to my carrots from now on.
No, PETA. I never make anything up:
1 "Get The Most Nutrition From Your Veggies;" Allison Aubrey, Reporter, Consumer Health, Science Desk; NPR, July 27, 2009
2 "Eating for Your Eye Health;" Sherri Nordstrom Stastny, Ph.D., LRD; Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D. LRD; North Dakota State University, FN-709, July 2008
3 "Carotenoid bioavailability is higher from salads ingested with full-fat than with fat-reduced salad dressings as measured with electrochemical detection;" Melody J Brown, Mario G Ferruzzi, Minhthy L Nguyen, Dale A Cooper, Alison L Eldridge, Steven J Schwartz and Wendy S White; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 80, No. 2, 396-403, August 2004
4 "Got Fat? You Need It to Reap Cancer-prevention Benefits of Vegetables," July 23, 2004, Newswise
"Big Mac" registered trademark of McDonald's.