Last month, I wrote about some of the ‘healthy-in-name-only’ items, such as energy bars and coffee shop-smoothies, as well as truly nutrient-dense options, like red meat and eggs, which may not come to mind when you use the term ‘healthy.’
Hold on. Have we talked about the term ‘nutrient-density’ before? If we haven’t, we should. It’s a great way to get away from using the terms ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when you’re referring to a certain food. One of my pet peeves as a dietitian—and it’s hard not to do it myself sometimes—is when food is labeled as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Food doesn’t misbehave, nor does it have (or lack) morals. All food items contain a certain nutrient ‘profile’ that lends them to being nutrient-dense or not.
According to the dictionary, ‘nutrient density’ refers to a food that ‘has a high amount of vitamin and mineral content in proportion to its weight.’ The National Institutes of Health Cancer site expands the definition to include complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fat in addition to vitamins and minerals. Basically, a nutrient-dense food is one that has a lot of things in it that are good for your body, but not a whole lot of calories. Good examples of nutrient-dense foods are fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein sources such as meat and eggs, as well as healthy fat, like avocados and olive oil.
On the other side of the coin, ‘energy-dense’ foods have a lot of calories in relation to their weight. These foods typically do not have a lot of vitamins, minerals, etc. Good examples of energy-dense foods are processed snacks, like cookies and crackers, sugar-sweetened beverages, and desserts.
Our goal should be to eat nutrient-dense foods most of the time. These are the foods that give us lasting energy and satiety (meaning they keep us feeling full), vitamins and minerals our bodies need to work properly, and help us maintain a healthy weight. Nutrient-dense foods are the backbone of our daily intake, and should take up a decent amount of real estate in our fridges and pantries.
However, because we’re human and we live in a fast-paced world, it’s not realistic to think we will ONLY eat the most nutrient-dense foods ALL the time. Sometimes, we are going to give our kids the orange fish crackers they so desperately want (I’m guilty!), and we are going to grab a couple chocolate-and-crème cookies to dunk in milk while we binge-watch the latest show at night (Guilty, again.)
It’s what we do most of the time that counts. If you take away one thing from this column, I hope the concept of ‘nutrient-density’ really sinks in. Those are the items you should keep around all the time, so that even in a pinch, you can grab a handful of nuts and an apple and race out the door. Personally, I’ve been challenging myself to give my daughter more nutrient-dense foods (which are often messier and require a bit of prep) for her afternoon snack, instead of a quicker option, like crackers or dry cereal.
Food isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’, nor are you ‘good’ for eating an apple and ‘bad’ for eating a cookie. Our bodies need lots of nutrient-dense foods, so let’s give it to them, shall we?