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.
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.