By Wayne Kalyn
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In 2005, the government's revised Dietary Guidelines for Americans introduced the term "nutrient density," which sounds complicated but simply refers to how much nutrition a food provides. For example, a slice of 100 percent whole-grain bread is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while a slice of regular white bread is lower in all three.
We asked nutrition consultants Lola O'Rourke, M.S., R.D., spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., L.D., also with the ADA, as well as Ann Yelmokas McDermott, Ph.D., M.S., L.N., of the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, to talk about nutrient-dense foods and how to add them to meals to boost nutrition and flavor.
Cooking Light: What is nutrient density?
Ann Yelmokas McDermott: It refers to the amount of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber in a given portion of food -- for the fewest number of calories. Nutrient-dense foods generally tend to be lower in calories. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and poultry are all nutrient-dense foods that give you a big bang for your buck: plenty of vitamins and minerals for the calories. (CookingLight.com: Five goals to improve your diet. )
CL: What are ways to get more fruits and vegetables into your diet?
Lola O'Rourke: Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and low in the things you want to minimize, like fat, cholesterol, sodium, and calories. Fresh fruit, as a rule, is preferable to dried because it has much more water, so you feel fuller longer. The nutrient profile of dried fruit is similar to that of fresh (though vitamin C is destroyed by the heat used in the drying process) but contains more calories cup per cup because the water has been removed. You should eat dried fruit in moderation.
Fruit combines easily with main-course dishes. Include apples, diced pear, or mango on a salad, for example. Pour a fruit-based salsa over chicken or fish. If you like dried fruit, sliced or diced dried apricots in yogurt or on cereal is also a quick, convenient way to increase nutrient density of those foods.
A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Cancer Institute suggests that most Americans aren't consuming the recommended daily amount of vegetables -- 2˝ cups a day. To eat more servings, combine them with the main course rather than eating them separately as side dishes. Grill a flank steak with a medley of peppers, onions, celery, and carrots, and serve it on a bed of brown rice. Add finely diced or shredded carrots to classic tomato sauce -- or broccoli or cauliflower to macaroni and cheese. While eating a variety of vegetables should be your goal -- each one has its own nutrient profile -- dark green and orange veggies are especially important because of their high antioxidant and vitamin levels.
CL: Are canned fruits and vegetables as nutrient dense as fresh?
Lona Sandon: Both are comparable to fresh and frozen in terms of nutrients, and they come in handy when you don't have time to slice, dice, or peel. When you think about it, canned veggies are fresh foods already cooked. Because of their high levels of sodium, look for low-sodium veggies -- or, with higher sodium varieties, drain the water in the can and rinse off the veggies. I do that with black beans and kidney beans -- and then add them to a green salad, ground beef, or brown rice.
The same goes for canned fruits, which have nutrient levels similar to fresh. Look for varieties packed in natural juice or light syrup rather than heavy syrup, which is high in sugar and calories. It's wise to drain off even the natural juice and light syrup to reduce calories.
CL: What role does fat play in nutrient density?
O'Rourke: In general, you want to reduce fats because they have the highest number of calories compared with carbohydrates and protein. Any food with a lot of fat is going to increase the calories and, in essence, make the food less nutrient dense. We do need some fat -- it transports fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), carries flavors, and helps you feel satisfied after eating -- but look for monounsaturated and omega-3 types and avoid saturated and trans fats. Salmon, walnuts, and flaxseeds are good sources of omega-3s. Nuts, especially almonds, are rich in monounsaturated fats, as are olive and canola oils. Add nuts in small amounts to salads, main courses, and morning cereal for flavor and crunch. (CookingLight.com: Peanut butter vs. cream cheese)
Fat-free foods don't fit into a nutrient-dense diet unless they're naturally free of fats, like vegetables and fruit. Fat-free baked products -- like cakes or muffins -- replace fat with sugar, so you're still consuming lots of calories. Compare a snack of walnuts and dried fruit to a fat-free processed cookie. The nuts are higher in good fats -- omega-3s in this case -- and you're getting vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants from the fruit. Yes, the cookie is lower in calories, but it doesn't measure up on the nutrient side.
CL: Why are whole grains considered nutrient dense?
Sandon: A whole grain is the entire edible part of any grain -- the bran, endosperm, and germ. Whole grains provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a wealth of antioxidants. There are many whole-grain impostors in the supermarket. Look for "100 percent whole grain" on the package or ingredient list. A food label that says "whole grain" or "made with whole grain" only means that product contains some amount of whole grain, but it may also contain enriched wheat flour, corn meal, or rye flour.
Some whole-grain products take time to adjust to -- like whole wheat pasta, which has a strong taste and chewy texture. One trick: Mix whole wheat pasta with white to slowly acclimate your palate. Also, rather than topping whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce, mix it up with steamed vegetables, which complement the pasta's firmer texture.
Rice is a surprising choice when it comes to nutrient density. Brown basmati rice, for instance, is whole grain, and long-grain varieties are mostly whole grain. To add more nutrients and fiber, add wild rice to long-grain.
Plain air-popped popcorn is whole grain, fiber dense, and low in calories, but it isn't great when it comes to nutrients. Still, it's fun to eat on occasion. (CookingLight.com: Test your food IQ)
CL: How can people identify nutrient-dense foods?
Yelmokas McDermott: Any time you have an option, pick the most natural version of the food. If it's oatmeal, choose the least processed version. If it's oranges, go with the orange rather than juice. If it's a potato, eat the potato with the skin on instead of peeled in a gratin. Strive to include four colors on your plate each time you eat. When you go to a salad bar, don't just have a big plate of greens; add the yellow and orange (peppers and carrots), the red (dried cranberries, beets, or red cabbage), and the beige and white (cauliflower and sunflower seeds). If you're making a ham and cheese sandwich, add plenty of lettuce and tomatoes -- and have it on whole-grain bread. Instead of eating a plain apple, spread a little peanut butter on your slices. This approach will guarantee that you eat a nutrient-dense diet.
Wayne Kalyn is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Additional reporting by Maureen Callahan, M.S., R.D.
Try to include four colors on your plate each time you eat. And when making a sandwich, include lettuce and tomato and make sure it's on whole wheat bread.
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