By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
One of my main goals when talking to patients about nutrition is to encourage a nutrient-dense diet. This short article will explain the importance of a nutrient-dense diet and some simple steps to take.
Discussion around nutrition has changed in the past decade to focus more on nutrient density, rather than on high or low fat, high or low-carb, vegetarian or not. The aim with this diet approach is to reduce empty calorie foods such as rice, bread, low-fat dairy products, cereals and other ‘filler’ foods which offer very little additional nutrients, and replace them with more fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and oils, nuts and seeds and clean protein sources. What this does, is to greatly increase the daily intake of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids and antioxidants, all of which improve our health.
Let’s look at a concrete example of how this works. Here is a typical diet plan that has very little nutrient density – a large portion of the calories come from filler foods:
- Breakfast: organic whole grain cereal with almond milk and berries + coffee with almond milk
- Morning snack: low-fat sweetened yogurt with granola
- Lunch: Whole wheat wrap with hummus, salad greens and avocado
- Afternoon snack: cookie and tea or Larabar or other snack bar
- Dinner: Whole grain pasta with tomato sauce and cheese
- Snack: Low-fat frozen yogurt
Although this diet is certainly not terrible, it comes up very low in nutrients when carefully analyzed. For example, protein intake is only at 25-30 grams, the fibre intake is low at around 20 grams, and the intake of vitamins A, C, niacin and thiamine are also lower than required.
If instead, a nutrient-dense meal plan was eaten for a similar caloric intake, here’s what it would look like:
- Breakfast: breakfast smoothie made from almond milk, 1/2 banana, 1 cup of frozen berries, 2 tablespoons of hemp hearts, 1 tablespoon flaxseed, large handful of baby spinach + top with water
- Snack: Apple with 15 almonds or pecans
- Lunch: Big salad containing: salad greens, 1/2 avocado, slices of carrot, cucumber, tomato, celery, onion, olive-oil based salad dressing + chickpeas / chicken or salmon
- Snack: Hummus with raw veggies or coconut milk yogurt with berries, chia seeds and cinnamon
- Dinner: Stir-fried vegetables with garlic and ginger + protein (animal or vegetarian) + small baked sweet potato
- Snack: chia pudding made with almond milk + 1/2 cup of berries, a sprinkle of coconut flakes and cinnamon
What we have here is a day that greatly surpasses dietary requirements of all nutrients – proteins, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals, resulting in much better energy levels, less reliance on caffeine and better overall health.
Here are some quick tips to improve your nutrient density, and greatly reduce the amount of supplements you need to take:
- Try a grain-free diet for a month. This will quickly break some of your empty-calorie habits. Replace your grains with more vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, and baked sweet potatoes or squash. If you’re looking for a treat on this diet plan, include nuts with dried fruit, maple syrup covered nuts (Prana brand is delicious!), roasted chestnuts, or even an occasional raw-food dessert.
- Add vegetables juices, smoothies or green drinks to your routine. This is a simple way to add at least 3 more vegetable or fruit servings every day.
- Start with one meal at a time, looking for ways to make it more nutrient-dense: for example, switch your toast or cereal in the morning for a smoothie; eggs with veggies; plain full-fat yogurt or coconut yogurt with fruit, nuts and flax or chia seeds.
- Add a vegetable snack every day – the simplest way is to cut up lots of raw veggies every 2-3 days to make snacking very convenient. Add a hummus dip for extra flavour.
- To increase nutrient-density in your kids diets, talk to them about eating all of the colours in the rainbow every day, let them help you grocery shop in the produce section, make trying new foods a fun adventure, and of course set a good example.
One thing to keep in mind though, is that balance and moderation are still encouraged, rather than labeling foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Taking anything to extremes is not healthy!
As we transition into fall, give yourself the challenge of increasing your nutrient density through foods. You will quickly notice great improvements in your energy, mood and overall health. Take the challenge now!