What goes into our mouth can determine our level of health and well-being. (See: Healthy Eating page) To maximize our health it is essential that we choose to eat foods that are nutrient dense. Note, I did not say calorie dense foods, although calorie dense foods can be OK if they are also nutrient dense. However, many calorie dense foods are nutrient poor, not nutrient dense.
Choose Nutrient Dense Foods
So, what exactly is a nutrient dense food? These are foods which contain a lot of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meat, fish and non-fat dairy products are good sources of vitamins and minerals. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds provide us with phytochemicals as well as vitamins and minerals. Nutrient dense foods give us the nutrients we need to maintain our health and prevent disease.
Avoid Nutrient Poor Foods
Nutrient poor foods are foods that give us calories but not much in the way of nutrients. Some examples are: soft drinks, candy, desserts, fried foods, high sugar breakfast cereals, white breads and pastas, mayonnaise, salad dressings, processed meats, chips, dips, and many convenience foods that come in a bag or box.
If it didn’t come from a plant, farm, ranch or ocean in a fairly direct path to you, then it probably doesn’t contain a lot of nutrients.
Decide on an Action Plan
Always check with your doctor before making significant changes to your diet. Take into consideration any health challenges you have such as food intolerance, diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, etc.
As you strive to make changes in your diet, think about what nutrient poor foods you are eating and replace those foods with nutrient dense foods instead. Also consider how much you are eating of each kind of food (fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, seeds, oils, dairy products, and animal protein). Try to eat more plant foods and less animal foods. Animal products, if eaten at all, should be eaten in small portions, more like a garnish than the main attraction of the meal. Oils should be restricted as well (if used at all). Review these resources for information:
- Dr. Furhman’s Nutritarian Food Pyramid and Food Plate
- Dr. McDougall’s Lesson in Basic Nutrition
- Dr. McDougall’s article on Plant Foods
- Harvard’s School of Public Health’s Healthy Eating Plate
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s Power Plate
You can begin to make changes at breakfast, at lunch, or at dinner. Or you can jump in and improve all three at the same time. Any changes that you make will be beneficial for you. Just keep on substituting nutrient dense foods for nutrient poor foods until you are eating mostly (or all!) nutrient dense foods.
If you limit the amount of animal products, oils and alcohol that you consume and eat primarily nutrient dense food, your weight will normalize. You won’t even need to count calories. The fiber content of the nutrient dense foods that you eat will cause you to feel full with a lower caloric intake resulting in weight loss. If you don’t wish to lose weight, then simply eat more of the higher calorie, nutrient dense foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds.
Plan Your Meals with Nutrient Dense Foods
Decide how often you like to grocery shop and plan your meals accordingly. I usually shop twice a week for food, so I will plan meals for 3 or 4 days at a time.
Breakfast: Good nutrient dense breakfast foods include: fruit, skim milk, whole grain breads, low -fat whole grain muffins, whole grain pancakes, whole grain hot and cold cereals, lean meats, legumes, nuts, and freshly made smoothies.
Lunch: Nutrient dense lunch items include:
- Salads made with any fresh vegetable or fruit, canned or cooked beans, lean meat, nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and low-fat salad dressing.
- Sandwiches or wraps made with whole grain breads or tortillas, lean meat, legumes or a bean spread (such as hummus), lettuce, tomato, avocado, sprouts, cucumbers and any other vegetable that appeals to you.
- Soups or stews made with fresh vegetables, legumes, barley, brown rice, whole grain pastas, and if desired, small amounts of lean meats.
- Leftovers from dinner make great lunches too!
You may feel that you don’t have time for lunch at work or school, so you don’t pack a lunch from home. This is a mistake, for you will get hungry, and then you are at the mercy of having to buy whatever food item is available nearby…and that item may or may not be healthy.(Usually not.) Always pack something to have with you such as low-fat whole grain crackers, unsalted nuts, fruit or a smoothie in a cold insulated beverage container.
Snacks: It’s nice to have snacks available at work, school or home that are nutrient dense. Try unsalted nuts, fruit, vegetables (carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes and pea pods are great for snacking on), and low-fat whole grain crackers.
Dinner: Some examples of nutrient dense main dishes include: White Bean Chili, Split Pea Soup, Fajitas (with legumes, tofu or chicken) and Stir Fry Vegetables (with legumes, tofu or chicken).
Round out the main course with a fruit or vegetable salad, and a whole grain side dish (bread, rice, pasta, etc).
Make Your Menu
Make a menu for however many days you will need food until you shop again. Here is a sample two day menu. Having a menu written down will allow you to make a specific shopping list, which will ensure that you have the necessary food on hand to prepare and eat.
Breakfast: Red River hot cereal prepared with chopped dates and almonds; smoothie made with banana, orange juice and plain non- fat yogurt; fresh fruit
Snack: Whole grain, low fat crackers and carrot sticks
Snack: Unsalted nuts
Dinner: Baked wild-caught salmon; brown rice; steamed broccoli and carrots; whole wheat bread; fresh orange slices
Breakfast: Whole wheat toast with freshly ground almond butter; sliced bananas and blueberries; skim milk or non-dairy milk such as soy or almond milk
Snack: Home-made granola bars
Lunch: Salad with mixed greens, legumes, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, avocado, diced cooked beets, sunflower seeds and low-fat salad dressing; whole wheat bread
Snack: Smoothie with strawberries, blueberries and orange juice
Dinner: Chicken or tofu fajitas; whole wheat tortillas; baked corn tortilla chips; guacamole and salsa; Spanish rice
Make Your Grocery List
Based on what you wrote down for your menu, you can now make your grocery list. It helps to divide your list into sections. I usually divide mine into four sections: (1) produce items (2) dry and canned goods (3) refrigerated and frozen items (4) other
For the 2 day sample menu the grocery list would look like this:
fruit (1), orange (1), apple (1), banana (2), carrot (3), lettuce, tomato (2), cucumber (1) sprouts, broccoli, blueberries, mixed salad greens, zucchini (1), avocado (2), beet (1), strawberries, onion (2) red pepper (2), green pepper (1), lime (2)
Dry and Canned Goods:
Red River hot cereal; whole, pitted dates; almonds; whole grain low-fat crackers; whole wheat tortillas; unsalted nuts; brown rice; whole wheat bread; (or if you are making the recipe- whole wheat flour, bread flour, honey, vegetable oil, vital wheat gluten, salt, bread machine yeast); low-fat granola bars (or if you are making the recipe- oats, honey, nuts, raisins, salt, vanilla extract, dates, whole wheat flour, vegetable oil); canned beans for the salad; low-fat salad dressing; baked corn tortilla chips, salsa, brown rice, canned tomatoes; ground almond butter; sunflower seeds
Refrigerated and Frozen Items:
Hummus; non-fat plain yogurt (1); wild caught salmon; skim milk or non-dairy milk of your choice; orange juice; boneless, skinless chicken breast or extra firm tofu
Once you have your shopping list written, check your list with the food items at home and cross off the list what you already have in stock. Now you are ready to go shopping!
Bring your list with you to the store. Also bring any reusable grocery bags to pack your groceries into and any plastic shopping bags that you wish to recycle. Deviate from the list only if you are going to purchase nutrient dense items. You can always purchase extra produce if you are sure that you will eat it. Buying food that spoils is a waste of money! Don’t shop when you are hungry or you will tend to purchase ready to eat convenience foods that are less healthy.
In addition to shopping at your regular grocery store, consider shopping at farmer’s markets, co-ops or your local health food store. These places offer fresh, local produce as well as unusual grains and items pertaining to specific dietary needs (such as gluten free).
Be willing to try a food item that is new to you, but is still healthy. If you’ve never eaten a kiwi fruit, or quinoa, try them! I’ve recently enjoyed cooking and baking with amaranth grain. Health food stores often have tasting days where you can try new food items.
You can change the way you eat, but it will take some planning. Today is a great day to start! Think about what needs changing in your diet, plan your menu around nutrient dense foods, and make your grocery list. I’ll see you at the produce aisle in the store! :-)