School is in full swing and although I'm not teaching this semester the teacher in me still has a message to share.
Usually, the first lesson of the semester for my nutrition students is understanding the key principle of healthy eating. There are many opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet. Our government has outlined recommendations for us to follow which are not exactly science-based and most of us are not following them anyway. We have the “authorities” telling us to avoid saturated fat and eat plenty of whole grains. Unfortunately, these recommendations won't help you meet your nutritional needs.
The conventional textbooks will say the key principle of healthy eating is to consume a variety of low-calorie foods in moderation. That doesn't really convey how someone can meet their nutritional needs. The best way I've discovered to summarize healthy eating is to eat nutrient dense whole foods. This one key principle, when applied appropriately, works for everybody whether your vegetarian or paleo, ketogenic or carboholic.
What is nutrient density?
Nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients per volume of food, sometimes described as the amount of nutrients per calorie of food. But calories are not the most accurate way to measure food intake. Technically the definition of density is mass per volume. So when we are talking about nutrient-dense foods we are describing foods that have larger amounts of micronutrients, per volume of food. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, and other compounds found in foods that are beneficial to our health, like phytochemicals and zoochemicals. Phytochemicals are plant-based compounds and zoochemicals are animal-based compounds. There are a variety of food compounds that don't technically fall into the vitamin or mineral categories. For example, certain antioxidants which can be found in both plants and animals. Compounds like choline and carnitine are primarily found in animal products that are necessary for proper cellular function.
Simply stated, nutrient dense whole foods are foods that are minimally processed and contain a wide array of naturally occurring essential and beneficial micronutrients. Micronutrients are those vitamins and minerals that occur in smaller milligram quantities but are necessary for health. Processed foods that have been fortified with synthetic vitamins do not fall under this definition. Most fortified foods contain synthetic vitamins which are poorly utilized by the body.
What are examples of nutrient-dense whole foods?
Nutrient-dense whole foods are foods that come from nature with minimal processing. Of course, we automatically think of vegetables as being top of the list.
You may have heard of Kale being the most nutrient dense plant food you can eat. Kale is a super food, as some people like to say because it contains higher amounts of vitamins and minerals per volume.
However, there are other foods that are more nutrient dense than kale. For example, liver is more nutrient dense than kale. Yes, liver contains more essential and beneficial micronutrients per calorie than kale does. Now, I'm not a liver lover but properly raised liver from a healthy animal is a great traditional food to include in your diet on a regular basis. It provides higher amounts of bioavailable fat-soluble vitamins and choline than plant-based foods. Here's a chopped chicken liver recipe you can try.
Other nutrient-dense foods are actually from animals, properly raised meats, eggs and dairy are more nutrient-dense than grains and beans. In fact, of all the food categories grains are the least nutrient-dense whole foods. It doesn't make sense for grains to be the base of our food recommendations if they are the least nutrient dense food group.
Why does nutrient density matter?
The food you consume provides the building blocks to build and power every cell in your body. The quality of the food you eat will determine your level of cellular resiliency or fragility. In other words, the quality of the diet you eat sets the stage for building and maintaining a healthy body.
Unfortunately, the standard American diet is 58% ultra-processed foods (1). These are foods that have had the nutrients refined and processed out of them. That's over half of the American diet being based on refined flours, refined sugars, and refined oils. Over 60% of food worldwide is based on these four highly subsidized, industrialized crops: corn, rice, soy, and wheat (2). All of which are lower on the nutrient density scale than vegetables and animal products. We are basically eating a diet that is based on the least nutrient-dense foods and then processing them to the point that they aren't even food anymore and that is what most of us are eating. Do we really wonder why we have a chronic health epidemic?
Just eat real whole food.
Just eat real food is a phrase a mentor of mine came up with years ago. It's so simple. Choose foods that are as close to nature as possible. Eat lots of vegetables and quality raised animal products, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and some properly prepared whole grains. Grains are not tolerated well by everyone, like me for example. Refined grains are damaging to the lining of the gut, contribute to blood sugar imbalances and nutrient deficiencies and should not be considered a staple food.
Making the switch to real food is easy. Start with breakfast and make a veggie omelet instead of having a bowl full of sugary cereal. For lunch, choose a salad or lettuce wrap over a lunchmeat sandwich. At dinner time, eat a baked potato with grass-fed butter instead of chips or fries cooked in rancid oils. The more vegetables and properly raised animal products on your plate the higher the nutrient density. At least half of your plate or bowl needs to be vegetables at each meal. You can adjust your macros to be ketogenic and still follow this principle.
You can start with one meal, pick one meal that is easy for you to make the switch and celebrate that. Then pick another meal. You don't have to jump in head first if it's too much for you. You don't have to be strict paleo or vegan, just find what works for you. The more you can incorporate nutrient-dense whole foods the better your health will be. Find what is doable for you and make the decision to eat better food for the sake of your health and the health of your family.
The key principle to a healthy diet is to eat nutrient-dense whole foods. It's that simple.