Why You Should Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods + What That Really Means

Nutrient-dense brussels sprouts

Updated Mar 23, 2020 @ 4:50 pm

By Gretchen Lidicker

We all want to eat foods that are healthy. But it can be hard to nail down which ones actually are. “Avoid sugar, but eat plenty of fruit” and “Cut out grains — but make sure you’re getting fiber!” are just a few of the confusing messages we receive. Keto, paleo, and low-FODMAP are just a few of the many, many complicated nutrition plans that have taken the wellness world by storm.

How do you know what’s healthy, and what’s not?

If you’re you have a case of information overload when it comes to food, it’s time to simplify. And luckily, there’s one rule you can follow that will cover your bases, guaranteeing you’ll be eating the right foods and avoiding the ones everyone agrees are best

The rule is sticking to nutrient-dense foods only. Here’s what that means:

What is a nutrient-dense food?

In simple terms, a nutrient-dense food is a food that contains high levels of nutrients in reference to how many calories it contains. According to Abigail King, R.D., CMS, a functional nutritionist in Charleston, South Carolina, “Nutrient-dense means that a food contains high amounts of naturally occurring nutrients.”

But why is this so important? “Our body and cells need these nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, protein, and fiber, to function properly and carry out metabolic processes,” says King.

Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of empty calorie foods, which have very few nutrients but are high in calorie. As King explains: “Nutrient-poor foods are refined and processed; think fried foods, cookies, chips, processed meats, and vegetable oil,” she says. Unfortunately for us, most of the foods on the list are staples of the standard American diet. But the truth is, “they provide minimal or no nutritional value and can contribute to inflammation in our bodies,” says King.

On the flip side, almost all experts agree that nutrient-dense foods are the foods we should be eating. Generally speaking, they include foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and complex carbohydrates. According to King, they also include famously healthy foods like:

  • Brussels sprouts, which are rich in vitamins A, C, and K, fiber, calcium, and folate
  • Kale, which are full of antioxidants, vitamins A, C, and K, and fiber
  • Quinoa, which is a complete protein rich in fiber, iron, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and calcium
  • Sweet potatoes, which are rich in potassium, vitamins A, B6 and C, and are a great source of beta carotene, an antioxidant that fights free radicals.

How to incorporate nutrient-dense foods into your diet

An easy way to make sure you’re getting plenty of nutrient-dense foods is to add them to every meal. For example, at breakfast, sprinkle nuts on your oatmeal. Nuts contain healthy fats, protein, and essential minerals. King recommends opting for walnuts since they are “rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, iron, potassium, zinc.”

At lunch, make sure you never forget to add greens to your plate. Greens are massively high in nutrient content and low in calories, so they’ll help fill you up and provide essential vitamins and minerals. Don’t forget to drizzle olive oil on them, too; olive oil is a great way to add massive nutritional benefits to your meal. As an added bonus, fats will help you feel satiated and keep you fuller for longer.

When you get to the dinner table, opt for more complex carbs like sweet potato and quinoa instead of “empty carbs” like white bread or pasta. Luckily, there are a ton of pasta alternatives made with more nutrient-dense ingredients like chickpeas, lentils, and quinoa (try this quinoa spaghetti recipe) so you don’t have to miss out on your favorites.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with so many opinions, diets, and eating plans out there. But if you take a step back, you’ll see that it doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems at first glance.
Sometimes you just have to choose foods that are nutrient-dense and call it a day.

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