Why would you choose a piece of fresh fruit for a snack over a bag of pretzels?  What is the healthier choice?

These foods have roughly the same number of calories, but not in nutrients.  The fresh fruit provides fiber, vitamin C, and potassium for an equal number of calories. Which means the piece of fruit has a higher nutrient density. A Nutrient Density diet is recommended for maintaining optimal diabetic health.

Here is another example; a serving of watermelon and a 12-ounce soft drink both have about 150 calories.  However, the watermelon is more nutrient-dense, because it has vitamin C and fiber.  The soft drink contains only simple sugars or “empty calories.”

What is Nutrient Density?

It is a measure of the nutrients provided per calorie of food or the ratio of nutrients to calories (energy).
Foods that supply generous amounts of one or more nutrients compared to the number of calories they supply are called nutrient-dense.  There are lists of nutrient-dense foods; foods that provide substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients with relatively few calories.  Beans and peas are a good choice for nutrient-dense food.   Many kinds of beans and peas exist including kidney beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, lima beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, and lentils. Beans and peas provide us with nutrients such as iron, zinc, potassium, and folate.  They are an excellent source of fiber and can be considered a protein source because of the nutrients they bring to our diet.  On the other hand, there are low nutrient-dense foods; foods that supply calories but relatively small amounts of micronutrients (sometimes none at all).  The term “nutrient-rich foods” is used to describe nutrient-dense foods including those from the five basic food groups, such as:

  • A variety of colorful fruits and 100% fruit juices
  • A variety of vibrantly colored vegetables, including dark green vegetables, starchy vegetables, red-orange vegetables, beans and peas, and other vegetables
  • Whole, enriched, and fiber-rich grain foods
  • Low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans focus on maintaining calorie balance over time to achieve and sustain a healthy weight and focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods and beverages.  These recommendations, along with physical activity, can help people reduce their risk of chronic disease and promote overall health.

When eating a healthy diet, brightly colored fruits and vegetables are the big winners in nutrient density.  That’s one reason why so many fruits and vegetables qualify as superfoods or foods that are rich in nutrients and other compounds that have health benefits such as fiber, phytochemicals, and essential fatty acids.  Some superfood examples include carrots, watercress, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, collards, bok choy, spinach, berries, apples, cherries, pomegranate, and oranges.  Other nutrient-dense superfoods include salmon, tuna, trout, low-fat dairy products, oatmeal, and whole grains, soy, dry beans, and even some fortified foods. Again nutrient-dense poor foods include things that are high in sugar and fat such as refined white bread, pasta, pastries, processed lunch meats and cheeses, ice cream, candy, soda, potato chips, and corn chips. In other words, junk food.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods at the grocery store can be easy if you stay along the edges of the store, where the produce, fresh lean meats, low-fat dairy, and fresh bakery goods are found.  If you choose some packaged foods for convenience, be sure to read the food labels for smart choices.  You can easily find the Nutrition Facts labels on the backs or sides of the packages.  Look at the serving sizes, note the number of calories per serving, and look at the amount of fiber, vitamins, calcium, and iron.  The packaged food that has the better combination of lower calories, higher nutrients, and less sodium is the best choice.

You can make any meal nutrient-dense by including one serving of a healthy protein source such as legumes, fish, poultry, or lean meat (one serving of protein is typically about the size of a pack of playing cards).  The rest of the meal should be made up of healthy side dishes. Vegetables are always great, even with a little bit of cheese or sauce.  Choose wheat pasta instead of regular pasta, and brown rice instead of white rice.  Add a green salad with lots of vegetables as a side dish or serve a big salad as a meal.  Vegetable soups made with clear broth are nutrient-dense and have fewer calories than a comparable rich creamy soup.

Eating nutrient-dense foods will ensure you are getting the right nutrients, will make you full, and won’t leave you feeling hungry later.  Choosing nutrient-dense foods can become a habit in your daily eating routine. Now that you understand which foods are more nutrient-dense, the rest is easy. Just remember that the foods you eat can affect your health in a very big way.  The choice is yours.  Choose healthily!