Health and Nutrition

Nutrient Density: Its Significance in Our Everyday Health

Gregg Carroll - Thursday, February 28, 2013

When you visit a food market, how do you choose your food? Do you favor natural, whole foods, or do you prefer convenience foods? Many of us succumb to impulse buying at a food store, often choosing convenience foods which are packaged to attract buyers. The fruits and vegetables that are truly nutritious and rich in fiber sit isolated in a corner of the store, while packaged cereals touting more than 50% of fiber in a serving are out in the open.

According to the American Dietetic Association, the average neighborhood grocery store offers a choice of more than 30,000 items, which significantly influences the food choices we make. Poor dietary choices do not translate to optimal health and longevity. So how do we get past "pseudo foods" and move toward natural foods and, more importantly, distinguish between real food and pseudo food? Here is where nutrient-density plays a major role.

 

What is Nutrient Density?

Nutrient-density has more than one definition, and there is no official definition yet established. The concept of nutrient density is built around the amount of nutrients present in 100 calories of a given food. Specifically, it is the ratio of the amount of nutrients to the energy provided by the food. Nutrient-dense foods provide high quantities of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and other beneficial compounds relative to the calorie content of the food. Going by this definition, a nutrient-dense food is the exact opposite of junk food.

 

Understanding Nutrient Density

Let's compare and contrast the nutrients we will get when choosing between an apple and a snack from the vending machine; potato chips, for example. An apple will provide dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber), vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals with 80 calories. Potato chips come with more than 200 calories and saturated fats, but no fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins or minerals. An apple provides the most nutrients along with its 80 calories, while the potato chips yield more calories than nutrients. An apple will appease your hunger until lunch, but the odds of not feeling full and reaching for another bag of chips is high. So with more nutrients per calorie, an apple is clearly the nutrient-dense choice.

Dr. Joel Fuhrman in his book Eat to Live states that all food provides calories and nutrients, and that all calories come from only 3 elements – carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Nutrients from noncaloric sources include vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. It is the noncaloric factor that plays an important role in determining the nutrient-density of a given food. Dr. Fuhrman suggests that for those aiming at permanent weight loss and optimal health benefits, following the noncaloric factor is crucial. He suggests a simple formula to determine the health factor of a given food:

H (Health) = N (Nutrients) / C (calories)

 

Why is it Crucial to Choose Nutrient-dense Foods?

There is more than one health benefit associated with choosing nutrient-dense foods. The most important ones are:

• They supply the most nutrients and do not leave you hungry sooner.

• They help to maintain a healthy body weight as well as aid in shedding excess body weight for overweight individuals.

• They alleviate nutritional deficiencies and their associated symptoms.

• They benefit patients suffering from high cholesterol and high blood pressure by maintaining healthy blood pressure levels.

• The most nutrient-dense foods are rich in fiber and are beneficial in stabilizing blood sugar levels.

• The amount of phytochemicals and antioxidants are higher in nutrient-dense foods and they promote better heart and nerve health.

• According to a study, nutrient-dense foods may also lower the risk of metabolic syndrome.

 

Examples of Nutrient-dense Foods

Fruits and vegetables.

Sprouts.

Whole grains and lentils.

Beans, nuts and legumes.

The basis for choosing nutrient dense foods are:

Natural; providing only nutrients, without unwanted chemicals and additives.

Less processed: so they are not stripped off their original nutrients.

Wholesome: all natural ingredients are intact and can work in combination with nutrients.

 

The bottom line is that all plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, lentils, grains are nutrient-dense because they are wholesome and do not contain unwanted chemicals and additives. It is important to consume organically-grown produce so that you receive only nutrients and not unwanted chemicals and pesticides. Plant foods are naturally designed to provide more nutrients with lower calories and this route is certainly the best path towards optimal health.

Dietary guidelines for Americans released in 2005 recommended consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods for better health and protection from diseases. The best way to stick to a nutrient-dense food habit is to ask yourself if the food that you are about to eat will supply more calories or more nutrients. If the calories surpass the nutrients, it is wiser to move to a healthier food choice that can provide more nutrients. That said, it is okay to consume foods that are calorie-rich as well as nutrient-rich such as avocados, nuts, and so on. The vital element in choosing a nutrient-dense food depends on factors such as being natural, less processed, and wholesome. If these three factors are adhered to, it is easier to stay on a healthy path and protect yourself from illness.

Are We Deficient in Phytonutrients?

Gregg Carroll - Thursday, February 21, 2013

"On average, 8 out of 10 Americans (76%) have a phytonutrient gap" — America’s Phytonutrient Report: Quantifying the Gap

"Phytonutrients" is the latest buzz word in the health and nutraceutical industry. But for an average consumer the word is simply "fight–o–what?!". The name may sound complex, but phytonutrients are indeed "fight–o" nutrients in the sense that these plant compounds help fight against disease and protect us from illness.

Fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone of good health, and increased intake is linked to decreased risk for diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Scores and scores of scientific publications conclusively associate the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption to the presence of vitamins, minerals, and also non-nutrient components, phytonutrients.

What Are Phytonutrients?

Phytonutrients are biologically complex chemicals, exclusive to plants, and are produced as a part of its defense mechanism. Phytonutrients are naturally produced by plants in order to survive harsh environmental conditions, ultraviolet damage form the sun, and to develop resistance against fungal attacks and bacteria. Phytonutrients are also known as phytochemicals, because these compounds do not fall under the macronutrient or micronutrient food category. It is estimated about 5,000 phytochemicals have been identified so far, and researchers say that a large percentage of them still remain to be identified.

Health Benefits of Phytonutrients

Studies show that the potent anti-cancer and antioxidant activity demonstrated by fruits and vegetables are attributed to the combinations of phytonutrients present in them. Phytonutrients are found to work in combination, and display a synergistic action to aid in the following health benefits:

• Boosts the immune system

• Anti-carcinogenic

• Heart-protective effects

• Powerful antioxidants

• Lower the risk of degenerative diseases

• Reduces platelet aggregation and thereby blood clots

• Regulate blood pressure

• Anti-inflammatory effects

Examples of Phytonutrients

Phytonutrients are available in abundance in all plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, as well as sea vegetables. The table below is the partial list of phytonutrients present in commonly consumed foods:

Phytonutrient Food Health Benefit
Allicin Onions and garlic Eliminates toxins
Anthocyanins Red and blue colored fruits (blueberries, raspberries) and vegetables Prevents clots, fights inflammation and allergies, heart protective effect
Carotenoids Bright orange, yellow coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, parsley Antioxidant and anti-cancer effects
Flavonoids Whole grains, herbs and spices Antioxidants and anti-aging
Indoles Dark greens like broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, etc. Anti-cancer effect, antioxidants
Lignins Seeds such as flax seeds and whole grains Lower cholesterol, antioxidants
Phenols Whole grains, nuts and seeds Protects brain health, antioxidant, lower cholesterol, prevents premature aging
Phytosterols (sigmasterol, campesterol) Nuts and seeds Lower cholesterol, promote bone health

* Table adapted from Nutrition to reduce cancer risk, Stanford Cancer Institute, Stanford Medicine Center

Phytonutrient Gaps in Our Diet

Despite awareness about their health benefits, there is poor intake of fruits and vegetables by the majority of us. This is evident from the recent study on the phytonutrient intake by adults in the U.S. The study analyzed the food consumption data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys for 2003 - 2006, and phytonutrient concentration data from USDA, to estimate phytonutrient intake. The report focused on selected phytonutrients – carotenoids, flavonoids, phenolics, isothiocyanates, isoflavones and allicin — that were grouped into color categories. Based on the color categories, the study reported that 76% were deficient in phytonutrients. The split based on colors showed that 69% of Americans fall short in green, 74% in red, 83% in white, 76% in purple/ blue and 80% in yellow or orange coloured phytonutrients sources.

Taking the cue from this study, if our daily meal is not inclusive of colored and varied plant foods such as dark greens, nuts, whole grains, colored fruits and vegetables and seeds, there is a clear and definite lack of phytonutrients in our diets.

How Can You Boost Your Phytonutrient Intake?

It is not difficult to include phytonutrients in our diets. If our diets are predominantly plant-based, the amount of phytonutrients in the diet automatically rises. Other ways to increase the phytonutrient intake include:

• Consuming a variety of coloured vegetables and fruits (yellow, red, purple, green and white) provides phytonutrients from each food group category in the plant kingdom.

• Include a variety of nuts, seeds and whole grains.

• Choose organic produce, the phytonutrient availability is higher than conventional produce.

• Grow your own indoor or outdoor garden.

• Include a variety of herbs and spices.

Although phytonutrients are an essential part of the health equation, there are no DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) established as yet. A practical way to ensure that we don't fall short of them is to consume plant foods in their most wholesome form. By creating a menu plan that accommodates foods from different colors is an easy and simple approach to ensure that we getting sufficient quantities of phytonutrients.

Easy Phytonutrient Breakfast Recipe

Ingredients

¼ cup Love Raw Foods™ Sproutable Barley

¼ cup Love Raw Foods™ Quinoa

4-5 Medjool dates

1 cup Love Raw Foods™ Rolled Oats

¼ tsp. cinnamon

Fruits, nuts and seeds of choice can be used as a topping.

Method of preparation:

1. In a sauce pan bring water to boil and cook the barley until done. Drain and shake off excess water.

2. Cook quinoa with a pinch of salt, cover and simmer.

3. Soak the dates in boiling water for a minute. Allow it to cool, pit the dates and chop them into small bits.

4. Cook oats in a separate sauce pan until done, while still in medium heat, add cooked barley, quinoa and dates pieces to the oats and stir well.

5. Spoon in breakfast bowls, add cinnamon, blueberries, flax seeds, walnuts for topping and serve warm.

(Alternatively, quinoa and barley can be cooked ahead and stored in refrigerator for up to 5 days to save time)

Phytonutrient advantages:

• Barley provides the phytonutrient lignan which exhibits anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic effects.

• Quinoa provides the phytonutrient polysaccharides (arabinans, rhamnogalacturonans; hydroxycinnamic and hydroxybenzoic acids). Polysaccharides bind with toxins and excrete them from body and also lower cholesterol.

• Oats provides the phytonutrient beta-glucan which lowers cholesterol and provides avenanthramides prevents plaque formation.

• Medjool dates are rich in phytonutrients – carotenoids and phenolics that demonstrate potent antioxidant activity.

The Nutritional Profiles of Nuts

Gregg Carroll - Thursday, February 14, 2013

Nuts are a concentrated source of nutrients, and typically provide all the major nutrients – carbohydrates, protein and fat — in a crunchy, convenient form. Nuts are highly valued as a convenience food and as a healthy snack alternative to chips or other processed foods. They are a part of the U.S. food guidelines for healthy eating, and due to their low water content, have a long shelf life.

Nuts are rich in calories, but they also provide plenty of nutrients like vitamins minerals, phytonutrients, phytosterols and antioxidants, making them a perfect example of nutrient-dense foods. Different varieties of nuts have unique proportions of nutrients and phytochemicals, so it is necessary to consume a variety of nuts to maximize the health benefits of nuts.

The majority of nuts, except peanuts (which is a legume), are tree nuts. Tree nuts include almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. Research has clearly underscored the benefits of regular nut consumption to lower the risk of heart disease. Several cohort studies including the Adventist study, the Iowa Women's health study, the Physicians' Health Study, and Nurses's Health study have shown a defined and consistent lowered risk of myocardial infarction and other heart problems. The health benefits of nuts are not only due to the presence of vitamins, minerals, fiber and unsaturated fats, but also due to the presence of phytonutrients.

Let's look briefly at the nutrition profile of various tree nuts. Nuts differ in the minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrient composition and therefore display different health benefits.

ALMONDS: Almonds are rich in monounsaturated fats, fiber and alpha-tocopherol. The important phytonutrients in almonds include catechin, protocatechuic acid, methylquercetin, p-hydroybenzoic acid, flavaonoids, vanillic acid, resveratrol and kaempferol. The phytonutrients in almonds are responsible for the cholesterol-lowering effect of these nuts. The presence of antioxidants prevents plaque formation, and decreases the risk of cancer and heart diseases. The presence of triterpenoids – betulinic, oleanolic and ursolic acid — is attributed to the anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activity. Almonds are gluten-free and are popular in many gluten-free recipes.

BRAZIL NUTS: Brazil nuts are higher in selenium than any other food source, a single nut provides 160% of the U.S. RDA of selenium. Other important compounds include phenolics and flavonoids. Due to their high selenium content, brazil nuts exhibit anti-cancer effects. The presence of chief phytochemicals betacarotene and gadoleic acid are responsible for the powerful antioxidants and anti-cancer effects. Many studies have linked the consumption of brazil nuts to lower risk of cancer.

CASHEWS NUTS: Cashews are rich in heart healthy fats – oleic and palmitoleic acids — which help to lower bad cholesterol and raise the good cholesterol in the blood stream. Cashew nuts are particularly rich in the trace minerals copper, selenium and zinc. Only an ounce of cashews helps to eliminate many trace mineral deficiency in the diet. The phytonutrients in cashew include betacarotene, alpha-catechin, beta-sitosterol, gallic acid, cardanol, and epicatechin.

HAZELNUTS: Hazelnuts are an excellent source of manganese and a good source of copper, magnesium and iron. They are particularly high in vitamin E, and the phytonutrients in hazelnuts belong to the flavonol group and phytosterol groups. Flavanols demonstrate potent antioxidant, and the sterol groups display a cholesterol-lowering effect.

MACADAMIA NUTS: An ounce of macadamia nuts provides 24 mg of calcium, 36 mg of magnesium and 1 microgram of selenium. Magnesium and calcium are important for maintaining bone health. The nut is rich in phytosterol – beta-sitosterol that aids in lowering blood cholesterol — and the presence of selenium aids in antioxidant activity and heart protective effects.

PECANS: Pecans are naturally low in sodium, and high in zinc, iron, potassium, selenium and magnesium. The phytonutrients include betacarotene, caryatin, catechin and quercetin derivatives. An ounce of pecan nuts provides 28.6 mg, with beta-sitosterol contributing to 24.9 mg of sterols. A cup of pecans used in a recipe can provide 69.3 mg of calcium, 120 mg magnesium, 406 mg of potassium, and 4.5 mg of manganese (200% of DV).

PINE NUTS: Pine nuts contain omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, oleic acid and omega-9 fat pinolenic acid. They are a significant source of B vitamins, and antioxidant vitamin E, as well as manganese and copper. About 100 g of pine nuts provides 8.8 mg of manganese and 251 mg of magnesium. Both the minerals are necessary for bone health, and manganese also plays a role in decreasing the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

PISTACHIOS: Pistachios are naturally low in sodium and high in potassium. Phytonutrients include betacarotene, beta-sitosterol, pectin, and stigmasterol, which aid in decreasing high cholesterol levels.

WALNUTS: Walnuts have an array of neuro-protective nutrients such as vitamin E, melatonin, folate, polyphenols, alpha linolenic acid (omega – 3) and several other micronutrients. The phytonutrients include juglone, betacarotene, ellagic acid, myricetin, tannin, and sakuranin.

The best way to reap the benefits from these nuts is to consume a variety of nuts rather than consuming any one type of nut alone. The presence of non-nutrient factors like phytosterols and phytochemicals contribute to the health benefits through different mechanisms.

Understanding the Carbohydrate Puzzle

Gregg Carroll - Thursday, February 07, 2013

Obesity in the United States has become a major epidemic, and according to a report published in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA), at any given time 45% of women and 30% of men are trying to lose weight. With so many people trying to shed pounds, there are a multitude of programs that claim to be successful in losing weight. One option is a low-carbohydrate diet, which has become a recent trend advocated by weight-loss books. While weight loss is possible on a low carbohydrate diet, the results are not long lasting, and indicate that carbohydrates are not the only source of weight gain.

Companies and individuals cashing in on the weight-loss trend have demonized carbohydrates, creating a notion that carbohydrates are bad for your health. On the other hand, clinical studies and medical establishments recommend a high carbohydrate, low calorie diet for sustained weight loss. Clearly there is a gap in the common understanding on carbohydrates. There is a huge difference between whole carbohydrates and refined carbohydrates. Not all carbohydrates are the same.

Are All Carbs the Same?

A statement for health professionals from the American Heart Association recommends the following dietary guidelines for Americans, “Consume a diet low in (refined) sugar and high in unrefined carbohydrates.”

Carbohydrates are our body's primary and most preferred fuel source. So how could our body's chief fuel source be harmful to our health? The difference is in the type of carbohydrates we consume. To differentiate between carbohydrates, it is necessary to understand different carbohydrate types and their influence on our bodies.

What is a Carbohydrate?

Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is a common disaccharide. It is composed of two monosaccharides: D-glucose (left) and D-fructose (right).

Carbohydrates are produced exclusively by plants through photosynthesis as carbondioxide and water combine to form a carbohydrate. They are a plant's storage form of energy, and because of this, they produce different types of carbohydrates for different requirements. The simplest form are called monosaccharides (“saccharide” means sugar), and the complex form of carbohydrates are called polysaccharides. Regardless of the type of carbohydrate, all break down into sugar, carbon, and water. One gram of carbohydrate reulsts in 4 calories.

Types of Carbohydrates and Their Structure

Type Structure Example Food Source
Monosaccharides Glucose, fructose
(one sugar molecule)
Table sugar, honey, processed foods, refined flour, white bread, chips, cakes, sweets, fruit juices, etc.
Disaccharides Made of two monosaccharides
(two sugar molecules)
Sucrose – beets, cane sugars, maple syrup
Lactose - Milk and milk products
Oligosaccharides Made of 3–10 monosaccharides
(more than 2 sugar molecules)
Raffinose
Cabbage, broccoli sprouts, whole grains, beans, etc.
Polysaccharides Made of very long chains of hundreds or thousands of monosaccharides (either straight or branched) Cellulose, starch, pectin
Cellulose is present in spinach, seeds, apples,and most fruits and vegetables.
Pectin is present in nuts, oats, beans.

The time taken for carbohydrate to be digested (broken down) and release glucose (sugar) after consumption is a crucial factor in raising blood-glucose levels. The slower the breakdown, the steadier the rise in glucose level. The faster the breakdown of the carbohydrate, the quicker the rush of glucose into the blood stream, characterized by a high peak level and a quick drop. The rate at which consumed food raises blood sugar is determined by the factors of glycemic index and glycemic load. It should be noted that our bodies perform better if our blood glucose levels are kept at a relative constant.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

Glycemic index (GI) is a numerical measure that shows the ability of a given food to raise the blood-glucose level. It indicates how fast a carbohydrate is digested and released as sugar into the blood stream. The GI measure only takes into account the quality of carbohydrates, while the amount of carbohydrate, and other factors such as fiber and water in the food, and portion size consumed are not. Because of this limitation, a measure called glycemic load was introduced.

Glycemic load (GL) is a numerical measurement which indicates the ability of an actual portion size of carbohydrate-rich food to raise blood glucose levels. The glycemic load places emphasis on the quantity and quality of carbohydrates. GL is a better indicator of how a carbohydrate-rich food will influence an increase in blood sugar. Consuming foods with high GL raises the blood glucose level at a faster rate. To arrive at GL, GI and the number of carbohydrates in the food are both taken into consideration:

GL = GI / 100 x net carbohydrate



Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load of Different Foods

Food Serving Size Glycemic Index Glycemic Load
Apple (regular) 120 gram 39 6
Apple juice 250 ml
(1 cup)
44 30
Watermelon 1 cup 72 3
Whole wheat flour (whole grain) 1 cup
(120 g)
292 40
White wheat (refined) flour 1 cup
(120 g)
280 66
Oat bran (raw) 1 ounce
(28 g)
55 5
Instant oats (quick cooking) 1 ounce
(28 g)
60 + 7 11


How to Differentiate a Wholesome Carbohydrate from Refined?

The healthiest carbohydrates are natural, wholesome, and are always bound to fiber components. Examples include whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. A wholesome carbohydrate becomes a sugar when the nutritional components of natural carbohydrates are lost during the refining process, altering the texture and colour of a natural food. A perfect example is refined flour, originally from a whole grain, stripped of its essential nutrients leaving simple sugars. It is the refined sugar and not the whole carbohydrate that is the culprit.

The “Whole” Story About the Grains

Whole grains are the complete seed of a plant composed of bran, endosperm, and germ. The bran is the outer layer, rich in antioxidants, vitamins and fiber. The endosperm is the starchy part that is the food supply for the germ. The germ is what sprouts into a new plant, and it is rich in B vitamins, healthy fats, and protein. Any whole grain will contain all the three parts, but during the process of refining, the bran and germ are removed leaving only the starchy endosperm.

Before the invention of iron rollers, stone grinders were used to convert whole grains into flour, which retained the fiber, essential fats and many other nutrients, but left an unappealing white color. Once iron rollers replaced stone grinders, the bran and germ were easily removed and crushed the starchy endosperm, resulting in a product of white flour that lacked fiber and 17 key nutrients of whole grains. Consequently, refined grains have a higher glycemic load (66) than whole grains (40). Grains in their natural form have a lower glycemic index because it takes longer for our digestive enzymes to reach the starch inside whole grains, slowing down the conversion of starch into sugar. The carbohydrate (sugar) in whole grains exist in a complex matrix of dense nutrients that include vitamins, minerals and fiber. A whole grain is composed of both soluble and insoluble fiber which has a crucial role in influencing the glycemic load index. This is the primary factor behind the low GL of the whole grains compared to processed ones.

Dr. Andrew Weil demystifies the carbohydrate puzzle in his book Eating Well for Optimal Health. In it, he explains that if we are able to chew on grains or see grains in our food products, it is an assurance that they are natural whole grains with a low GI ranking. Examples are wild rice, barley, wheat berries (spelt), and millet. The more your jaw has to work, the better. But when grains are pulverized into flour, whether whole or not, their surface area expands dramatically, providing a huge, starchy surface area on which enzymes can work. Consequently, the conversion to sugar happens very quickly. Consuming more natural and less processed grains is key in consuming low GL foods. Note the difference between the glycemic load values of natural oats with bran and instant oats (processed) in the GI and GL table.

The best way to stay on a healthy track is to ask yourself if the food you're eating is wholesome, unprocessed, and provides calories along with nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Clearly, carbohydrates are not the villain, but the refining and processing techniques which turn naturally nourishing carbohydrates into empty calories and deprives us of their inherent nutrients.

Carbohydrates, if eaten in the context of a food that naturally provides fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, are certainly healthy. The real culprits are the processed, refined and manufactured foods which are digested quickly and increase blood glucose level quickly. Cutting back on such processed carbohydrates helps weight loss. Consuming the wrong kind of carbohydrates is the primary cause for obesity epidemic and other health disorders.

It seems prudent to distinguish between refined carbohydrates and whole grain carbohydrates for making the right dietary choices. There are plenty of tools available online to estimate the glycemic load of various foods, easing our goal of choosing the right carbohydrates to enjoy the maximum health benefits.


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