Get The Most From Your Foods

A secret: The smartest food choices aren’t necessarily those lowest in calories or fat. Here’s what matters most—and how to find it in foods you love.

Many of us are trying to eat healthier. But 52 percent of Americans say figuring out their income taxes is easier than knowing what they’re supposed to eat to be healthier, according to a recent survey.

But you can simplify your healthy-eating goals with one idea: Choose foods that are nutrient dense. Still confused? No need to be. Chances are you are already eating a number of foods that are considered nutrient dense.

What Is Nutrient Density?

Fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, and unrefined whole grains are all good choices when it comes to nutrient density. In fact, almost any diet rich in fresh whole foods will likely have a high percentage of nutrient-rich ingredients on the menu.

So what exactly does the term “nutrient dense” mean, and why has it become a nutritional buzz phrase? Nutrient-dense foods are the opposite of what are commonly referred to as “empty-calorie” foods. In other words, the amount of nutrients and fiber in a given item is high, and the calorie content is low. For example, a handful of broccoli florets has fewer calories and packs more nutrition than the same size serving of chips, so the broccoli is obviously the smarter choice

“The notion that it’s better for your health to eat foods that are less processed, more natural, and that by their nature have high nutritional value, is one that most people can relate to,” says Dan Kish, head chef at Panera Bread®. “It’s something many of us are already doing.”

A nutrient-rich diet is usually also a varied one. The more variety you allow in your food choices, the more vitamins, minerals, and disease-fighting antioxidants you’re exposed to. Plus, a varied diet is full of different flavors and textures, so don’t be afraid to try something new. It will go a long way toward making meals fun, Dan says.

Making Nutrient-Dense Choices

“There are so many ways to get the most from your food,” says Dan, who suggests choosing whole grain breads, substituting spinach and kale for other leafy greens, and eating more lean protein, including turkey, chicken, and fish. “It’s really about the choices we make,” he adds.

Here are some ideas for adding more nutrient density to your diet:

  • Substitute tender baby spinach for romaine or iceberg lettuce in a salad. (You can even make this request when ordering at your local bakery-cafe, says Dan.)
  • Layer thin slices of fresh vegetables on a turkey or roasted chicken sandwich.
  • Snack on apples, cherries, pomegranate seeds, and berries.
  • Eat more colors. Go beyond green to include carrots, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, cantaloupe, tomatoes, and mushrooms—all rich in important nutrients.
  • And don’t forget the whole grains: Oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, and popcorn (yes, popcorn!) are good examples.