Have you heard the term “nutrient density”? It’s gotten to be a bit of a buzz word in the nutrition world, but let’s talk about what it really means. Nutrient density is the amount of nutrients a food provides for how much it costs you, in terms of calories. A nutrient-dense food gives you the most “bang for your buck” with a high percentage of vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytonutrients, and essential fatty acids, just to name a few.
So, if you were to eat a piece of white bread that was, say 100 calories, it would contain a small fraction of the nutrients as a banana, which is also about 100 calories. This concept is why many people are beginning to call themselves “nutrivores”, a term coined by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, instead of “omnivores”, to more accurately describe their whole food, nutrient rich diet that’s low in processed, inflammatory, refined foods.
The more nutrient-dense foods we eat, the more nutrients we get for fewer calories – it’s the best way to prioritize our food!
So how do we start eating more nutrient-dense foods? It can certainly feel overwhelming. Some of the overwhelm comes from the feeling that you need to restrict or cut out foods, or follow strict rules in order to live more healthfully. I want to stress that this is not about restriction, this is about making room for more nutrient dense food, which will give you more energy and contribute to a longer, more vibrant life. These foods I suggest swapping below don’t have to be off-limits; we can just be more mindful of providing our one body with as many nutrients as we can. Here are some simple, incremental steps to get more nutrients into your diet.
Eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies
We go to the grocery store and often we’re on autopilot. We cruise the produce section, picking up the same items we always get. I do this too! This week, try to be a little more conscious and choose a couple things you didn’t get last week, or maybe choose something that you’ve never tried. (Jicama is great for snacking! Parsnips are excellent roasted! What is that huge citrus fruit I’ve never seen before?) Look at your cart and make sure you’ve hit all the colors of the rainbow + white. Fruits and vegetables all offer different nutrient profiles, and it’s by eating a wide range from different color groups that we get everything we need.
Swap out your flour-based foods
The truth is that anything made with flour (yes, this includes whole grain and gluten-free flours, though some to a lesser degree) is just simply not as nutrient-dense as foods in their whole form. The goal of swapping out flour is not to focus on what you’re cutting out, but what you will eat instead (when you’re not so full from the bread or pasta) – namely your meat, seafood, or eggs, and a heck of a lot more vegetables.
- Instead of buns or bread, use a lettuce wrap, or turn the same ingredients into a salad. I love a hamburger salad or a Italian “hoagie” salad. You simple replace your bread with greens, chop all the ingredients you’d normally place between the buns, add some extra veggies and your favorite salad dressing.
- Instead of pasta, try roasted spaghetti squash or zoodles (zucchini noodles). Roasting spaghetti squash couldn’t be easier, and gone are the days when you have to make zoodles yourself – most grocery stores will have these available frozen or in the fresh section. And, trust me, your “pasta” will still be really delicious. Not ready to give up regular pasta? Try doing half pasta, half spaghetti squash or zoodles.
- Instead of flour-based crackers, try a flour-free version, such as Mary’s Gone Crackers. You still get the satisfying crunch without the refined-flour blood sugar spike.
Cut back on sugar, the easy way
Since the introduction of refined sugar, we have steadily been adding it to our diets. Now, Americans consume about 66 lbs of added sugar on average per year, per person. It’s no surprise when you start looking at the things we eat that contain sugar. Sugar is highly-inflammatory and is now being blamed as a key cause of our chronic diseases. Being more mindful about what sugar we’re consuming will keep our added sugar intake in check.
- Instead of adding refined white sugar to sweeten things up, use honey, maple syrup, or blackstrap molasses. These sweeteners are still calorie-dense (and they’re still sugar, so go easy!), but they have some naturally occurring vitamins and minerals, particularly blackstrap molasses. If you’re making something pureed, such as a smoothie, try adding a medjool date. It’s a great whole-food source of natural sweetness.
- Look for lower-sugar options of your favorite go-to’s. Sugar is hiding everywhere, so get ready to read some labels!
- Ketchup: Swap out your standard Heinz, which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup for a brand such as Annie’s, or, better yet, an unsweetened version like Primal Kitchen. But watch out for ketchup that says “no sugar added” – these often contain fake sugar, like Sucralose, which is arguably worse than processed real sugar.
- Granola: Again, read the labels and choose one with a less processed sweetener and with a lower amount of “Added Sugar”. I love any of the Elizabeth’s granola, such as this one.
- Yogurt: Buy grass-fed, whole milk plain yogurt and sweeten with fruit and/or honey at home to control how much sugar you add. It’s delicious!
- Sweetened beverages: Swap your traditional sugary drinks with a fruit-infused carbonated water like Spindrift or, for some added sweetness and a hit of healthy probiotics, kombucha or jun tea. My favorite store-bought flavors at the moment are GT’s Strawberry Lemonade and Watermelon. These are really a treat.
Reduce your consumption of seed oils
These highly-processed inflammatory oils – think canola, “vegetable”, soybean, safflower, sunflower, and rapeseed – are fairly new to our diets, and they wreak havoc in our bodies. And, like sugar, they’ve snuck into much of our packaged foods. Here are some common seed oil-containing foods and what you can buy instead.
- Mayonnaise: Most mayo you’ll find in the store uses soybean or canola oil. Instead, buy an avocado-based mayo, such as one from Primal Kitchen or Chosen Foods. Careful to read labels, as some types of mayonnaise are labeled “olive oil”, but the majority of the oil is still a seed oil with a little bit of olive oil thrown in the mix for marketing’s sake.
- Chips & Popcorn: Again, most chips are made with canola, safflower, sunflower, or soybean oil. But many companies are starting to make versions with good quality oil, such as avocado or coconut oils. I love these plantain chips, Siete lime chips, and this popcorn when I’m in the mood for something salty.
- Salad dressings: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bottled salad dressing in the store without canola or soybean oil, but they’re starting to creep onto the shelves. I like dressings by Primal Kitchen, or, make your own at home.
- Cooking oils: This one is pretty straightforward. If you’re cooking with any of these seed oils, I suggest you toss them and trade them in for healthy fats. I typically use: extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, ghee, butter, or pastured lard. Need to make a baked good that calls for vegetable oil? Use melted coconut oil in its place.
Upgrade your meat quality
Now, this is something that isn’t available to everyone due to cost, but it’s a great way to get a better fat profile (more omega-3’s) and a much higher concentration of vitamins and minerals in your meat and seafood. Look for:
- 100% Grass-fed (or it will say grass-fed & finished) beef
- Pastured pork (this is harder to find in stores)
- Organic, free range (ideally pastured) chicken
- Organic, free range turkey
- Pastured eggs
- Wild-caught seafood, including canned items
Depending on where you live, some of these things may be harder to come-by. Luckily, there are a few companies that are making good-quality foods more accessible. I use Thrive Market myself, and love that I can get all my quality pantry items in one spot. If you’re interested in shopping online and getting these shipped right to your door, I encourage you to try it out.
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