In these fast-paced times, it's almost impossible to imagine getting through our days without using the microwave. It's the fastest, easiest, most convenient way to cook food, and you probably use it at least once a day.

But in those few minutes that you're waiting to hear the beep, I bet you've found yourself wondering about the trade-offs. Rest assured - the microwave is no worse (and may be even better) than more conventional cooking methods.

The nutrient depletion issue

Vegetables provide us with important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants such as vitamins B, C, and D, calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium that are necessary for staying healthy and fighting off illness.

In addition to these benefits, cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage) also contain large amounts of a sulphur-containing compound that is thought to protect against cancer.

There has been concern about the possibility of microwaves depleting these nutrients. If we do not get the nutrients we think we are getting from our veggies, we could be at risk for illness and disease.

How big is the nutrient loss?

Heating food in any way can cause a loss of nutrients. When food is exposed to heat, certain components are broken down, changing its chemical makeup. For some nutrients, this can result in a decrease in their concentration or in their availability to your body. The most sensitive to heat are the water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins B and C and folic acid.

Studies have been done on all kinds of cooking - steaming, microwaving, boiling, stir-frying - and all of these methods have been shown to decrease the nutritional value of veggies compared to their fresh, unprocessed counterparts.

How big is the loss? In one study, any type of cooking caused a general decrease in vitamin C content of 20% to 40% as compared to the raw vegetable. And guess what? Microwaving does not appear to be the worst option. In fact, boiling and stir-frying may cause the greatest loss of some nutrients, since larger amounts of water are typically used and this causes vitamins to leach out.

The bottom line

Factors such as cooking time, temperature, and amount of water seem to influence nutrition content much more than the method of cooking. The longer you keep food exposed to heat, and the hotter it gets, the greater the chance that nutrients will be broken down. And the more water you use for cooking, the greater the loss due to leaching.

If you just can't give up the irresistible taste of boiled vegetables, then try salvaging the lost nutrients by using the water in sauces and soups. While steaming still seems to be the healthiest cooking option for most veggies, keep in mind that some veggies (like carrots) take a long time to cook this way, which can increase nutrient loss.

Microwaving may be the best way to preserve nutrients in this case, since it takes the shortest cooking time. So stop feeling guilty about using this convenient mini oven. And remember, no matter how you cook them, vegetables are always really good for you!

Lisa Tourountzas