When it Comes to Healthy Cooking, There's Something in the Water

January 18, 2018 Cali Kent, MS, RDN


It's time to cook dinner and you must make that often difficult choice of what to fix for your family, so do you pull some beef or chicken, or maybe tempeh and vegetables out of the fridge? Do you roast it, grill it or sauté it like most people, or do you poach it or steam it? The latter options may not be the most common home-cooking methods, but they may be the healthiest.

Research suggests that cooking food with water-based methods--which, in addition to poaching, can include boiling, steaming, stewing or pressure cooking--may reduce the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes. "That's because cooking with dry heat, such as in an oven or on a grill, produces substances called advanced glycation end products [AGEs], which may trigger insulin resistance and inflammation in the body," says Cali Kent, MS, RDN, the Supervisor of Clinical Dietetics at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. Many researchers agree the topic of AGEs and their effect on the body are deserving of more study, such as their possible role in skin aging, polycystic ovarian syndrome, cancer and the development or worsening of many chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular, liver, and Alzheimer’s diseases.

AGEs form naturally inside the body when proteins or fats combine with sugars (glycation). The body naturally rids itself of harmful AGE compounds, but it doesn’t eliminate them effectively when too many are ingested through food. “Consumers must make positive food choices, as well as modify their cooking methods,” says Kent, “eliminating processed foods and animal-derived foods that are high in fat and protein to prevent ingestion of the harmful AGEs. Add more fruits and vegetables to your diet which are naturally low in AGEs and rich in phytonutrients.” Reference the table below for additional food tips.

Foods High in AGEs

Foods Low in AGEs

Sugary items such as candy, cookies, cakes, soda, and pastries

Fruits and vegetables

Processed foods, including packaged meats and cheese


High fat meats, especially red meat

Whole grain, low fat breads

Fats including butter, margarine, and oil

Whole grain pasta and rice

Fried foods

Plant-based burgers

Cooking with water has another health benefit as well, Kent adds. "When you are sautéing, grilling or roasting, for instance, you need to cook the food in some sort of liquid and it is natural to use butter or oil. Butter isn't ideal for cooking with its saturated fat content and even if you use a heart-healthier oil, you want to be mindful that any oil has substantial calories--for example, just one tablespoon of olive oil has approximately 120 calories. With water-based cooking methods, you can skip the oil or butter. Instead, food gets its tenderness from the water and can be flavored during cooking, such as squeezing lemon juice over steamed vegetables or adding herbs to a lentil stew."

"Once you get the hang of some of these cooking methods, you'll find they are easily adaptable for a wide variety of foods," says Kent. "They're also a nice way to diversify your daily diet with the textures and flavors you can bring out in your food." Try your hand at one of the following cooking styles.


Foods are cooked at low to medium heat--producing a gentle simmer--in water (or wine or a vegetable stock). This is a delicate cooking method, which is one reason why eggs work so well in poaching. Aside from chicken and eggs, poaching can also work well with salmon and veggies; for dessert, try poaching some pears.


Boiling is probably the most familiar cooking style on this list, as anyone who's ever made pasta can attest. Put a pot of water on the stove and heat until bubbles start moving rapidly to the water's surface. It works with pasta, of course, as well as grains such as rice and quinoa, eggs and veggies; boiling vegetables quickly to retain their color and taste is called blanching.


If you know how to boil water, you know how to steam food. Once the pot of water is boiling, bring the heat down a little so there's still enough steam coming out of the pot, put food in a steamer basket that sits on top of the pot (without touching the water) and put a lid on it. The trapped steam cooks the food so it's tender. Steaming can be done with vegetables, chicken and fish, and tamales. Any type of seasoning is usually added after the cooking process is done.


With stewing, food is cooked for longer periods of time on medium heat in simmering water. It's also closely related to braising--chunks of meat are submerged in water for stewing, while in braising one large piece of meat cooks in water that may not entirely cover the meat. Stewing or braising tenderizes tougher cuts of meat during the extended cooking time. In addition to meats, produce is another good candidate for stewing--think apples or tomatoes--and you can save your stewed produce for a rainy day by learning how to jar them.

Pressure cooker

If some of these cooking methods sound a little too time consuming for an average weekday meal, it may be worth investing in a pressure cooker. Water boils in the cooker, which has a lid to retain steam. Boiling the water in that sealed cooker increases the pressure, which raises the liquid's temperature beyond the boiling point, so food gets done faster. Rice, potatoes and soups are all good for a pressure cooker.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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