What does “nutrient-dense” mean?
While there isn’t a specific measurement or number to look out for, a food is considered nutrient-dense when it packs a lot of healthy nutrients (healthy fats, fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants) in a small package. Think blueberries or chia seeds. For a diet to be nutrient-dense, generally the majority of the foods in it possess some type of health-promoting quality. An example would be the Mediterranean Diet – packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from fish and oils, and low in processed foods and red meat.
On the food label, look for higher numbers of Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated fats (vs. saturated or trans fats), dietary fiber, and many vitamins and minerals at the bottom, under the protein.
How do I know if my diet is nutrient-dense? How can I “beef it up?”
A majority can indicate about 80% - meaning that around this much of your diet includes the following examples of nutrient-dense foods/food groups. It is important to get a variety of each, which means different colors of produce and different sources of protein:
- Fruits – fresh and frozen are ideal, then opt for canned in water/own juice. Fruit juice still contains some vitamins, but lacks fiber.
- Vegetables – again, opt for fresh and frozen, and in their whole form rather than juice.
- Nuts and seeds – packed to the brim with healthy fats, fiber, a splash of protein, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. Just a small handful packs a huge nutrition punch!
- Minimally processed protein – fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel; chicken and turkey, fresh cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and deer.
- Opt for animals that live and die in humane conditions and fed healthier diets (think free-range, antibiotic/hormone-free, wild caught, grass-fed, and Kosher/Halal which indicates humanely slaughtered), as they promote much less inflammation than their processed counterparts with a lower quality of life (it makes a difference!).
- Beans and lentils – high in fiber, protein, and minerals, plus inexpensive and versatile. Edamame is an often-overlooked nutritional powerhouse that falls into this family as well.
- Bonus foods: tea and coffee, dark chocolate with four or fewer ingredients, oils (olive, avocado, coconut, sesame, safflower), and spices and herbs (as varied as possible), and high-nutrient whole grains (oats, barley, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, bulgur, spelt).
Sources: Healthline.com, Harvard Health
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– Samantha Marks, RD, LDN
Registered Dietitian | Email Samantha