Nutrient dense foods are foods that provide a lot of nutrients (fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, etc.) with a low number of calories. According to Medical News Today nutrient-dense foods help decrease the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related chronic illnesses.
A typical Western diet is high in energy dense foods including fried foods, packaged snacks, processed meats and refined carbohydrates; but can be low in nutrient dense foods which aren’t so healthy.
So, whether you are trying to shed a few pounds, trying to reduce inflammation in your body, or just trying to fight off the signs of aging, you need to focus on nutrient dense foods whenever possible.
No matter what your goals are when it comes to getting healthier, you need to start in the kitchen.
What Makes Nutrient Dense Food Healthy?
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, vitamins and minerals included in Nutrient Dense meals are necessary components that our bodies require to function efficiently. The known vitamins include A, C, D, E, and K, and the B vitamins: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxal (B6), biotin (B7), and folate/folic acid (B9), cobalamin (B12).
A number of minerals are considered essential for health as well: calcium, chloride, cobalt, copper, fluoride, iron, iodine, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, sulfur, selenium and zinc.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 states that,
“a healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits”
So, what are nutrient dense foods? Let’s dig in.
18 Nutrient Dense Foods
Fruits and veggies are probably the first healthy foods that come to mind but other whole foods have high nutrient density values as well.
Wild-caught fish, cage-free pasture-raised eggs, beans and peas, raw nuts and seeds, grass-fed lean meats and poultry, as well as ancient/whole grains are all nutrient dense foods.
Cage-free pasture-raised eggs are considered by most to be an excellent choice — because in just 75 calories per large egg, there is a good amount of B vitamins, choline, vitamin D, plus healthy fats like omega-3s, and they are an excellent source of protein as well.
Nutrient-dense foods include:
1. Green Leafy Vegetables (e.g. Spinach and Kale)
Dark green leafy vegetables are great sources of nutrient rich foods. Salad greens, kale and spinach are rich in vitamins A, C, E and K and also contain high levels of Chlorophyll, while bok choy and mustard greens are also rich in many of the B-vitamins.
Dark leafy greens are incredibly versatile and can be enjoyed in a variety of ways, such as raw in salads, sauteed as a side dish, blended into smoothies, or incorporated into soups and stews.
2. Legumes (e.g. Beans and Lentils)
Beans, peas and lentils are all legumes and are among the most nutritious foods available.
Legumes are a valuable source of plant based protein, making them particularly important for vegans and vegetarians.
Legumes are rich in dietary fiber and typically low in fat which can aid in digestion and help regulate blood sugar levels.
Quinoa is rich in antioxidants. Unlike most plant-based foods, quinoa is a complete protein, which means it contains all of the essential amino acids.
Amino acids are organic compounds that serve as the building blocks of proteins that make up your muscles, bones, skin, and blood.
The nine amino acids classified as “essential” must be obtained from food daily — your body cannot produce or store them — and quinoa provides all nine of them.
Quinoa and quinoa flakes are also good sources of:
Garlic is high in vitamins C and B6, as well as manganese and selenium, and is low in calories. Scientists currently believe that the sulfur compounds generated when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed, or chewed are responsible for the majority of garlic’s health benefits.
Berries, according to Harvard University, provide potassium, magnesium, vitamins C and K, fiber, prebiotics, and carbs that improve gut health.
Frozen berries provide the same health benefits as fresh and storing your berries in glass jars in the fridge will help them stay fresher longer.
6. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are a group of vegetables belonging to the Brassicaceae family. They are named “cruciferous” due to the shape of their flowers, which have four petals arranged in the shape of a cross.
Low in calories and high in fiber, cruciferous vegetables also help you feel fuller longer, making them helpful for those who want to lose weight.
There are more than 3,000 different cruciferous species, with the most common vegetables including:
- Brussel sprouts
Avocado, a distinctive and incredibly nourishing fruit indigenous to Central and South America, boasts an array of nutrients contributing to its numerous health advantages. Its notable attributes encompass a velvety consistency, rendering it a favored element in dips, spreads, and salads.
Enriched with wholesome monounsaturated fats, especially oleic acid, avocados contribute positively to cardiovascular well-being.
Furthermore, this fruit stands as a plentiful source of essential vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamin K, vitamin E, vitamin C, and several B-vitamins. Its abundant dietary fiber content supports digestive processes and aids in the management of blood sugar levels.
The presence of antioxidants like lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamin E in avocados bolsters ocular health and overall vitality.
Notably versatile, avocados find application in both savory and sweet culinary creations, commonly gracing dishes like guacamole, salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and as a garnish for various fare.
When choosing avocados, opt for those yielding a slightly yielding touch without excessive softness.
8. Sweet Potatoes
Studies show that sweet potatoes may help with cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration, heart disease and obesity.
Sweet potatoes are rich in the following nutrients:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
Seaweed refers to a diverse group of marine algae that grow in aquatic environments, particularly in the ocean. Seaweed is a common name used for various types of marine plants, including algae like kelp, nori, wakame, dulse, and many others.
Seaweed contains vitamins (A, C, and E) and protective pigments. It also contains iodine, a trace mineral vital for the health and function of the thyroid.
As with any new food, it’s a good idea to introduce seaweed gradually and be mindful of any allergies or sensitivities.
Salmon is a popular and highly nutritious fish known for its delicious flavor and rich, oily flesh. Salmon can be prepared in various ways, including baking, grilling, pan-searing, or smoking. It is commonly served as a filet, but it can also be canned or used in sushi and sashimi.
When purchasing salmon, it’s essential to choose sustainably sourced options to support the health of fish populations and marine ecosystems.Choose wild caught varieties instead of farm raised salmon.
Salmon is a great source of protein, healthy fats, and various essential vitamins and minerals.
Liver is a nutrient-dense organ meat that has been consumed as a food source in many cultures for centuries. It is primarily sourced from various animals, with the most commonly consumed types being beef liver, chicken liver, and pork liver.
While some people may find the taste and texture of liver to be an acquired preference, it is highly regarded for its nutritional value.
Liver is an excellent source of several nutrients including Vitamin B12, A, Riboflavin, folate, iron, copper and choline. It is a very high-quality protein, as it provides all of the essential amino acids.
Sardines are one of the best sources of essential fatty acids that the body cannot produce so they must come from our diets.
Omega-3 fats are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, and research shows that omega-3 fats help manage and reduce the risk for inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, asthma, allergies, and so much more.
13. Dark Chocolate
A good quality dark chocolate is rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, and a few other minerals.
Dark chocolate typically has a cocoa content ranging from 50% to 90% or more. The higher the cocoa percentage, the more intense and less sweet the chocolate taste.
Dark chocolates typically contain some sugar, but the amounts are usually small and the darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. Look for70% or higher cocoa content.
14. Red, Yellow, Green and Orange Bell Peppers
Bell peppers, also known as sweet peppers or capsicums, are colorful and flavorful fruits that belong to the Capsicum annuum species.
These peppers are actually fruits that belong to the nightshade family. They are low in calories and rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants.
Bell peppers are mainly made up of water and carbohydrates. Most of the carbs are sugars, such as glucose and fructose. Bell peppers are also a good source of fiber.
Asparagus is a low-calorie, nutritious and flavorful vegetable that belongs to the Asparagaceae family. It is known for its tender, spear-like shoots, which are typically green, but can also be found in white and purple varieties and is an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, especially folate and vitamins A, C and K.
Asparagus promotes regularity and digestive health due to its high fiber content and may help reduce your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Beets are a rich source of fiber, manganese, copper, and folate and are known for their vibrant red color, but they can also come in other colors such as golden yellow and white.
Beets are popular for their sweet and earthy flavor and are commonly used in various culinary dishes. Beets even offer a surprising amount of protein while being naturally low in fat and free of cholesterol.
17. Wild Mushrooms
Mushrooms are a high-fiber, protein-rich, low-calorie source of antioxidants. They may also reduce the risk of getting serious illnesses like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
18. Bone Broth
Because bones are high in vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, bone broth is highly nutritious. Brewing connective tissue into bone broth provides the body with natural compounds from the cartilage.
Bone broth may provide trace amounts of these nutrients:
- Vitamins A and K
- Fatty acids
How to Include Nutrient Dense Foods in Your Diet?
Small swaps in our everyday meals can help us increase the nutrient density of our diets. Besides prioritizing nutrient dense food groups when possible, opting for more nutritionally balanced versions of our frequently consumed products or minding the way we cook foods can make this easier.
For most individuals, following a healthy eating pattern will require an increase in total vegetable intake shifting to nutrient-dense forms, and an increase in the variety of different vegetables consumed over time.
Vegetables can be part of many types of mixed dishes, from burgers, sandwiches, and tacos, to pizza, stews, pasta dishes, grain-based casseroles, and soups. Strategies to increase vegetable intake include increasing the vegetable content of mixed dishes or eating less of a main dish to allow for more vegetables as side dishes—keeping these nutrients dense.
Adding finely grated carrots or zucchini to pasta sauce, meat loaf, chili, or a stew is one way to get an extra serving of vegetables and your kids won’t even notice it!
Also don’t hesitate to jazz up your veggies with spices, chopped nuts, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or a specialty oil like walnut or sesame oil. Most grocers carry several spice blends made
specifically for vegetables. Even a dash of grated Parmesan cheese can liven up the blandest green beans.
Keep in mind, your home environment has a huge impact on your health and diet – you will use more fruits and vegetables if they are available instead of less healthy items which are very hard to resist if they are right there.
A healthy diet is more than just the right number of calories, it involves consuming a balanced variety of foods from different food groups in appropriate portions.
Nutrient-dense foods are foods that provide a high concentration of essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals relative to their calorie content. These include various healthy foods such as whole vegetables, fruits, cocoa, seafood, eggs, and liver.
Most dietary guidelines encourage us to eat plenty of nutrient dense foods to keep a healthy weight and reduce risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diet-related chronic illnesses.
Featured photo credit: Alex Kotomanov via unsplash.com
|||^||Medical News Today: Nutrient Dense Foods|
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|||^||Dietary Guidance for Americans: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025|
|||^||Nutrients: Allicin Bioavailability and Bioequivalence from Garlic Supplements and Garlic Foods|
|||^||Harvard:Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat | News | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health|
|||^||Harvard: Avocado Nutrients|
|||^||WebMD: Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes|
|||^||Int J Microbiol.: Edible Mushrooms: Improving Human Health and Promoting Quality Life|
|||^||WebMD: Health Benefits of Bone Broth|