By Matthew Kadey, M.Sc., R.D., Environmental Nutrition Newsletter
When you turn over a packaged product in the grocery store to read the nutritional breakdown, it’s tempting to look at the calories first. We’ve been bombarded for years with messages that calories count most when it comes to the battle of the bulge. Yet, nutrition experts are increasingly using the terms “nutrient density” and “nutrient-rich” to describe the foods–fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins–we should be eating more of, with less focus on their calories.
What does nutrient-rich mean? Nutrient-density equals nutrients per calorie, says Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., C.P.T., author of The Vegiterranean Diet.
“Thus, the more nutrients packed into a food calorie, the more beneficial it is toward making every calorie count most efficiently,” Hever notes.
In addition, nutrient-dense foods are items that have not been diluted by the addition of calories from added solid fats or added sugars, according to The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Hever says foods from nature, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole-grains, nuts and seeds are often the most nutrient-dense edibles in the grocery store. In particular, she extols brightly colored vegetables like red bell peppers and dark, leafy greens for giving you a significant nutrient and antioxidant windfall for little caloric cost.
A University of Washington study found that among whole vegetables it was potatoes (both sweet and white), carrots and broccoli that deliver the most nutrients for the least cost. In addition, items like lower-fat dairy, eggs and seafood are also often rich in nutrients without an appreciable caloric cost.
The Nutrient-Rich Bonus
A nutrient-rich eating style gives you a concentrated amount of the valuable vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids and antioxidants needed for healthy aging.
A University of Florida study discovered that people who consumed more plant-based foods and, in turn, higher amounts of nutrients, such as phytochemicals and minerals, maintained healthier body weights and experienced less internal inflammation linked to chronic diseases than people with lower intakes of nutrient-dense foods, even though both groups took in about the same number of daily calories.
Consider, too, that people who spend a greater amount of time on home food preparation consume a diet consisting of higher quality calories, reports a 2014 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
“These would be foods that are high in calories, but low in nutrients, such as processed foods, oils, refined grains and sugars,” says Hever. Many highly processed, packaged foods marketed as “low-calorie” or “low-fat,” such as baked potato chips or white bread, provide little in the way of vital nutrients in their calorie load.
For example, refined white rice contains fewer calories cup for cup than brown rice (205 vs. 216, respectively), but you’d have to consume about four times as much white rice just to get the same amount of magnesium found in the brown rice, a mineral linked to lower heart disease risk.
Diets too heavy in foods that provide mainly empty calories, such as soda and pastries, are the reason people can be overweight yet still nutrient-malnourished.
All Calories Are Not Equal
Increasingly, science shows that a calorie from a nutrient-loaded avocado is not the same as a calorie from a nutrient-poor, sugary muffin. Indeed, nutrient-rich items can be both very low and, surprisingly, higher in calories.
Almonds, for example; while a mere ounce of the nuts delivers about 164 calories, it possesses a range of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that make them a nutrient-rich food, despite the calories they contain.
Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.
Photo: Prayitno via Flickr