Are Your Foods Nutrient Dense?
You’ve probably heard you should avoid foods that provide empty calories, like candy or soda. These foods offer little, if any, health benefit while filling you up with calories and contributing to your weight gain. On the other hand, what are the best foods to look for instead?
Experts agree: choose nutrient dense foods, which are foods that have a high nutrient to calorie ratio. In other words, these foods are rich in nutrients when compared to their calorie content and give you the “biggest bang for your buck.” With nutrient dense foods, you get lots of nutrients without the cost of lots of calories.
Eating nutrient dense foods, such as whole-grain breads, pasta, cereals, and rice; seeds and beans; vegetables and fruit, is one of the healthiest ways to eat. Why? Because these foods offer a concentrated amount of valuable nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids, and phytonutrients. Consuming these nutrients (and maintaining a healthy weight) offers important benefits, namely normal growth and development of children, health promotion for people of all ages, and reduced risk for a number of chronic diseases that are major public health problems.
So how do you determine if a food is nutrient dense and a good choice? There is no scientifically agreed upon equation for calculating nutrient density, however, the following guidelines may help make your decision:
0.0 - 0.6 calories per gram - Great choices! Foods in this category really do defy the logic of portion control. Load your plate and enjoy! (example: blueberries, apples, peaches)
0.6 - 1.5 calories per gram - Good choices. Again, there’s no reason to worry about portions too much when you’re consuming so few calories per bite. (example: bananas, cooked long grain brown rice, baked potato)
1.5 - 4.0 calories per gram - Keep your eye on how much you eat of these foods. While they're fine in moderation, you shouldn't overdo them. (example: skinless cooked chicken breast, cooked salmon, tofu, ice cream)
4.0 - 9.0 calories per gram - This is a great time to look for a substitute or a Calorie Bargain - a food you can substitute that you find satisfying and that falls into one of the first two categories. That being said, we all have some special treats we don't want to give up - but this is the time when portion control matters the most. (example: chocolate, chips, soda)
For busy families like yours, we suggest the following for nutrient dense foods that you can snack on or make ahead of time to eat on the go:
- sandwiches, such as egg salad, tuna, or peanut butter on whole grain bread;
- hummus on rice cakes or whole grain crackers;
- beans and peas added to salads;
- low-fat cottage cheese with fruit;
- yogurt with flax seeds or sunflower seeds;
- vegetable soup; and
- tomato slices with cheese and basil and olive oil.
Selecting nutrient-dense versions of foods allows you to meet your nutrient needs while avoiding the overconsumption of calories and of unhealthful sugars and fats. For more information on nutrient density, please visit “Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score” found in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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Have questions regarding this article? Ask the Nutritionist.