It's a simple equation: Calorie-dense foods tend to also be nutrient-poor, while nutrient-dense foods tend to be lower in calories.
Is your diet calorie-dense, or nutrient-dense? As a society, the answer is definitely calorie-dense. Overall, we eat few nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits but a lot of calorie-dense refined grains, fats and sweets — in other words, foods that have more calories per bite. And most people don’t need more calories.
Can a food be both calorie-dense and nutrient-ense? Not really. Research has found that calorie-dense foods tend to also be nutrient-poor, while nutrient-dense foods tend to be lower in calories.
Nutrient-dense foods are high in the nutrients we need more of for good health, like fiber, vitamins and minerals, and low in those we need less of, like salt, sugar and unhealthful fats.
Nonstarchy vegetables have the highest nutrient-density, followed closely by fruit. Next are legumes (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, then eggs. After that, you have meat and poultry, milk and dairy and grains. Not all foods within a group rank the same: For example, whole grains, plain yogurt and lean meats are more nutrient-dense than refined grains, sweetened yogurt and fatty cuts of meat.
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Because nutrient-dense foods contain lots of nutrients with relatively few calories, they are good for your health as well as your waistline. If you want to reduce the calorie density of your meals, lowering fat is one way to do it (fat has nine calories per gram, carbs and protein have four), but this isn’t necessarily the best road to health, because some fats (nuts and seeds, avocados, olives and olive oil) have health benefits.
Rather than simply subtracting fat, add more vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits are tops for nutrient-density because they are full of fiber and water. Fiber gives us only two calories per gram, because we don’t fully digest it.
Water has zero calories, but it adds satisfying weight and volume to food. According to research by Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., author of the “Volumetrics” books, people decide how much of a food to eat based on portion size, not calories.
When you reduce your calories per bite by choosing nutrient-dense foods, especially nonstarchy veggies (greens, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, asparagus, etc.) it’s easier to eat enough nutritious food to satisfy hunger while still lowering calories. Consider this: 1 cup of chopped broccoli has 31 calories and 1 cup of brown rice has 216 calories.
- When doing the traditional protein plus starch plus veggie, fill half your plate with veggies. Including a cooked nonstarchy veggie and a green salad is an easy way to do this.
- Add more veggies to soups, stews and meat-based pasta sauces.
- Add chopped or shredded vegetables to scrambled eggs.
- Lighten burgers and meatloaf with the addition of finely chopped mushrooms (which have a “meaty” flavor of their own).
- Eat more broth-based soups and moist casseroles with lots of vegetables. Both the veggies and the added water or broth help fill you up on fewer calories.
- Swap veggies for some of your starches and grains. Buy a spiralizer, and embrace the zoodle (zucchini noodle). Make stir-fries with tons of veggies and a healthy portion of protein (beef, chicken, fish, tofu or tempeh), and skip the rice.
- Toss your favorite sandwich fixings on top of salad greens, instead of between two slices of bread.
- Use fruit for snacks. Have an apple and a small handful of nuts rather than just a large handful of nuts.