Nutrient Density: Establishing a Healthy Dietary Ideal
It’s almost weekly that I’m asked what kind of diet is best for losing weight and restoring health. My response is always something along the lines of, “It depends.” I fully believe that we are each highly unique in our nutritional needs and there is no one single diet that can improve the health and wellbeing of every single person. However, I believe that there is one concept that can add a tremendous amount of value to every dietary philosophy, no matter what they may suggest.
Nutrient density, popularized by Dr. Furman, is a method for measuring a foods “value” in promoting health according to its micronutrient profile with respect to their caloric value. According to Furman, assessing a food’s nutrient-to-energy ratio in this way will help guide people towards more healthful foods that promote the proper function of all the body’s systems because of their exceptional vitamin and mineral composition.
Here is a nice little chart that illustrates the micronutrient value and, therefore, the nutrient density of a few common foods.
As you probably noticed from the chart above, proponents of nutrient density, including Dr. Furman, often observe completely vegetarian or vegan diets in order to obtain the greatest nutrient bang for their caloric buck.
Although a completely plant-based diet can undoubtedly help improve the health and wellbeing of individuals whose nutritional needs are adequately met by an animal-food-free diet, a vegetarian or vegan diet may not be best for those with conditions or constitutions that warrant the occasional piece of meat. Being one such individual, I would like to advance the theory of nutrient density to include the promotion of foods that contain a variety of nutritionally beneficial substances like healthy fats and complete proteins. Further, and in accordance with Dr. Furman’s original ideal, our modified theory of nutrient density discourages foods that they contain potentially problematic ingredients like refined carbohydrates, added sugar, sodium, saturated fat and hydrogenated oils. I believe that such an approach will allow the broader application of a nutritionally sound and health promoting dietary ideal so that more people can overcome the physical detriment caused by the Standard American Diet (SAD).
A modified nutrient-density food pyramid should be built upon the following foods:
- Fruits and vegetables – all of them and placing extra emphasis on cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts), leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard, arugula and bok choy), fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, ginger and aloe vera), and low GI fruit (berries, cherries, apples, pears, peaches and grapefruit).
- Beans and Legumes – lentils, peas and all variety of beans. It may be best for some to avoid peanuts because they are highly allergenic and are susceptible to mold. Learn our 20 best bean recipes!
- Unrefined whole grains – quinoa, brown rice, wheat, barley, rye, amaranth, millet, teff, oats and buckwheat. If you are trying to avoid or completely eliminate gluten, steer clear of wheat, barley, rye, and oats not labeled as “gluten free”.
- Nuts, seeds and other healthy fats – “other healthy fats” typically refers to those found in non-animal products like avocados, coconut and olive oil. Nuts and seeds that should be emphasized include those which contain omega-3 essential fatty acids like walnuts, flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
- Organic, free range, wild, hormone and antibiotic free animal foods – chicken, lamb, beef, fish, eggs and dairy foods like butter, ghee, milk and cheese.
Nutrient-poor foods and substances that we should do our best to avoid, include:
- Refined carbohydrates – white flour, white rice and the carbohydrates synonymous with packaged foods.
- Sugar – added sugars and artificial sweeteners
- Pro-inflammatory fats – a.k.a. omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in abundance in corn, soy, animals fed a grain based diet, vegetable oils and virtually all processed goods.
- Excess sodium
- Chemical preservatives and flavor enhancers
- Farmed fish, industrial meat and animal products.
Following this modified approach to following a nutrient dense diet encourages us to eat an ample amount of whole foods found in their natural form while limiting the consumption of processed, packaged goods that are highly refined and nutritionally altered. I fully believe that whole foods– fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains and ethically sourced meats– inherently contain all the dietary factors the human body needs in order to be healthy in every facet of life. Conversely, the packaged foods typically contain an abundance of ingredients with little nutritional value, many of which can actually remove vitamins and minerals from bones and tissue and lead to a nutrient depleted body.
So, what does a nutrient dense plate look like? One of my favorite nutrient dense, healing meals are Shiitake Tacos that utilize a wealth of healthful ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, coconut oil, kale, and parsley. Find the recipe and learn more about the health benefits of mushrooms on Twelve Wellness. What are some of your favorite newly defined nutrient dense meals?
Nutrient density chart courtesy of DrFurman.com and Shiitake Tacos image courtesy of Matthew Lovitt.