A handful of Oreos or a bowl of frozen yogurt with fresh strawberries and a few pieces of dark chocolate? Which do you choose?
Both can be a quick treat after dinner. Both contain sugar, fat, and calories. But the Oreos get a failing grade when it comes to nutritional benefits, while the yogurt “sundae” packs a serious punch of calcium, protein, fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants. While still considered a treat, the sundae is a nutrient-dense option.
Nutrient density simply refers to the nutrients in your food relative to the calories. It’s an easy concept, but one that many people struggle with (or don’t bother thinking about).
So let’s look closer at the above example.
Just four Oreos contain 308 calories, 13.2g of fat, and 26.4g of sugar. A 1/2 cup of regular frozen yogurt with 100g strawberries and 1 oz dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa solids) has 316 calories, 16g fat, and 24g sugar (29 if we count the 5g naturally occurring sugars in the berries).
So far, the nutritional information is pretty similar. But that’s where the similarities end.
The yogurt option also contains 6g protein, 150mg calcium, 5g fiber, loads of vitamin C, plus iron, antioxidants, and probiotics. This combo can help reduce inflammation and promotes heart and gut health while also helping you feel fuller longer.
Consuming nutrient-dense options means making your food work for you. They actually fuel your body, giving it the vitamins and minerals it needs to function effectively and efficiently.
So why does our body need nutrients?
“The human body uses nutrients for everything it does,” according to Oxford Medicine. “Growth and repair, metabolism, energy, and keeping healthy, and, for females, pregnancy, and lactation.”
Another way to think of nutrient-dense foods is through macro- and micronutrients. “Macros” refer to carbohydrates, fats, and protein, while micronutrients refer to the vitamins and minerals in your food. If it helps, think of maximizing the micronutrients in the macros that you eat. Let’s look at how that works.
Protein (and the amino acids protein is composed of) are the body’s building blocks - every cell in your body contains and needs protein, as stated in Harvard Health. Growth and development, body maintenance, hormone production, and muscle building all need protein.
Carbs fuel your body, and as such, they aren’t all bad. Your body and brain need the energy in carbohydrates to function. Choosing nutrient-dense carbs – like whole grains, sweet potatoes, legumes, and fruit – gives you a longer-lasting energy boost than, say, white bread and rice and helps meet your nutritional requirements.
Fats help with vitamin and mineral absorption, blood clotting, building cells, improving brain function, balancing blood sugar, and more. (Yes! Fat can be good!) Choose healthy, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, fatty fish like salmon, avocado, and nuts and seeds, and always remember Omega 3 fatty acids—even in supplement form—which is essential to brain health.
And why do we need micronutrients? Vitamins (like A, B, C, D, and K) and minerals (like iron and zinc) are essential to our overall health. Our eyes need vitamin A, our whole body can benefit from B vitamins (and some research suggests that they even combat anxiety and depression), vitamin C aids in cell renewal, vitamin D is needed for strong bones and immunity, and K for blood clotting and healing. Iron is essential to our blood, and zinc is an immune booster (among other things).
Eating nutrient-dense food can also help with:
- Consuming fewer calories
- Losing weight/maintaining a healthy weight
- Supporting mental health
- Boosting energy and focus
Give me options! And make it simple.
When looking for nutrient-dense options, go for fresh! Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables more often. Other suggestions include low-fat dairy (look for low-sugar or no-sugar yogurt and Greek over regular to get a huge protein boost), fresh meats (instead of processed deli meats), and fresh seafood are good options. Fiber is another biggie (whole grains and fruit and veg have lots), and limit foods whose labels show high percentages of saturated fats, added sugar, trans fat, and sodium.
And while reading food labels is important, remember that just because a nutrition label may show a high fat or calorie content, it doesn’t mean it’s all bad. What other nutrients are you getting in those calories? Avocados, for example - are high in fat, but they’re healthy fats that your body needs. They’re also packed with fiber, vitamin A and folate.
Eating nutrient-dense foods includes swapping less healthy options for healthier ones; but, it’s also about adding in powerhouse foods whenever you can:
- Add fresh fruit to breakfast cereal.
- Scrambled eggs? Throw in some bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
- Baking muffins? Use apple sauce for some of the sugar and whole wheat flour for part of the all-purpose. Toss in some blueberries or grated apple.
- Ham and cheese sandwich for lunch? Add some lettuce and cucumber between that whole grain bread and some carrots sticks on the side.
- Smoothie? Sneak in some leafy greens.
- Making homemade marinara? Shredded zucchini is a sneaky addition, but also try mushrooms, peppers, and extra garlic.
- Homemade pizza? Throw on extra veggies and go lighter on the cheese.
- Snacking on chips at night? Try fewer chips and add some nuts.
Eating a nutrient-dense diet doesn’t mean eliminating all unhealthy foods. It just means making healthier choices more often, and if you do have a treat, choose something with added value. Have high expectations for your treats! You may have a craving for something to satisfy that sweet tooth, but it can also offer the nutrient density you need to look and feel your best.