There’s no doubt that a nutrient-rich diet reduces the risk of disease. But how do you make it work? If you’ve tried, you already know that making huge, sweeping changes—such as swearing off sugar, eating fish four times a week, or tripling your intake of vegetables—is easier said than done. And when those efforts fail, it makes us more likely to throw up our hands in disgust and revert to our old habits.
A better approach to a more nutrient-rich diet: make one small change every day such as swapping green tea for coffee. Here are 24 more sneaky ways to make your diet more nutrient dense:
1. Buy organic vegetables whenever possible. Besides avoiding pesticide residues, you may get more nutrients—some studies and reviews have found that organic fruits and vegetables contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentrations of 11 nutrients than their conventional counterparts.
2. Dress your salad with avocado instead of store-bought creamy dressings. You’ll increase your intake of folate and lower your intake of unhealthy fats—which ultimately will protect your heart. For a simple dressing, purée avocado and lemon juice, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Choose an English muffin instead of a bagel for a 220-calorie savings. The average whole-grain bagel is 350 calories, versus 130 for an English muffin. If you really need a bagel fix, try Rudi’s new Bagel Flatz with just 110 calories per Flatz (in Plain and 100% Whole Wheat). And top it with almond butter instead of cream cheese to get a protein boost without added calories.
4. Choose whole-grain instead of multi-grain. Whole-grain means the entire grain kernel, including all the fiber, has been included. Multi-grain means only that more than one type of grain was used—and those grains could be refined and stripped of fiber and nutrients.
5. Use white bean spread instead of mayo on your sandwiches. This gives you an extra boost of fiber and protein with fewer calories. Purée white beans, olive oil, garlic, and a splash of apple cider vinegar to make a creamy spread; season with salt and white pepper.
6. Spend your dairy calories on yogurt, not milk. Yogurt is rich in probiotics, beneficial bacteria that keep digestion healthy, boost immunity, and may protect against some cancers. Instead of a bowl of cereal with milk,
try a bowl of plain yogurt topped with homemade granola (see number 19).
7. Fortify your mashed potatoes: Use a combo of half potatoes and half cauliflower, cook them together, then drain and mash as usual. Try olive oil instead of butter, and load it up with garlic and herbs instead of salt.
8. Choose dried apples over dates or cranberries; apples rank higher on the ANDI scale (see sidebar) and contain half the sugar of other dried fruits. Or choose prunes. They’re high in sugar, but rank at the top of the ORAC (antioxidant rating) scale.
9. Buy pastured eggs. From hens raised on pasture, these eggs contain five times more vitamin D, twice as much omega-3 fats, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene than their conventional cousins. Look for them at farmer’s markets, local farms, and health food stores.
10. Make a smart soda. Ditch the store-bought stuff, and mix up your own blend of organic pomegranate juice and sparkling water. You’ll add cancer-preventive compounds and lots of antioxidants to your diet.
11. Eat a raw salad every day. Make sure it contains at least three colors from five or more different sources—for example, spinach and arugula (green) combined with peppers (yellow), carrots (orange), beets, tomatoes, and shredded cabbage (red).
12. Swap beans for meat. In soups, stews, and chilies, cut the meat in half and add more beans; you’ll dramatically increase fiber and slash fat by 50 percent. Make ’em red kidney beans, and you’ll triple your antioxidant intake.
13. Give your pasta sauce a boost. Mix in a cup of pumpkin purée for a day's worth of beta. carotene plus added fiber; or purée cooked broccoli, sweet potatoes, and carrots, and stir into sauce for extra carotenoids and cancer-fighting compounds.
14. Make your chocolate count. Cacao beans are rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. But you’ll only find the good stuff in raw cacao nibs and extra-dark chocolate—not the sugar-laced, watered-down versions of chocolate most of us grew up with. Cacao nibs are bits of dried, roasted, and crushed cacao beans, with a rich, cocoa butter flavor. Add them to nutrient-dense muffins (see tip 22) or smoothies. Or choose packaged bars that are at least 70 percent cacao.
15. Eat plants, not grains, for fiber. You’ll get added nutrients for fewer calories. A cup of raspberries, for example, has 9 grams of fiber—the most of any fruit—for only 64 calories. A cup of broccoli has 6 grams of fiber and only 52 calories Compare that to brown rice: A cup has a paltry 2 grams of fiber per 100 calories.
16. Try seaweed noodles instead of grain-based varieties. Kelp-based noodles are extremely low in calories and rich in iodine (good for thyroid health). Serve them Asian-style, with tamari, toasted sesame oil, ginger, garlic, and black sesame seeds.
17. Get your calcium from greens. They contain fiber, beta carotene, and more nutrients than dairy products, with a fraction of the calories. Collards are especially rich in this vital mineral. One cup of cooked collards has as much calcium as a cup of milk, with a savings of 100 calories. Collards and other greens are also rich in magnesium, another key nutrient for bone health.
18. Skip store-bought granola (it’s loaded with fat and sugar), and make your own. Combine rolled oats with chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds; stir in a little honey mixed with hot water; bake at 200°F until golden; stir in dried cranberries and let cool.
19. Make vegetables easy. Buy pre-cut versions or cut a variety of vegetables at home and store them in air-tight containers. You’ll be more likely to use them if they’re ready-to-go. Good candidates: sweet potatoes, kale, broccoli, red peppers, and celery.
20. Eating out? Choose Chinese. Skip the fried rice and sauces, and order stir-fried vegetables. Ask for extra bok choy, cabbage, and broccoli, and you’ll get a week’s worth of cancer-preventive glucosinolates. Add shrimp, not beef, for lean protein.
21. Rethink your plate portions; at least 50—60 percent of your plate should be vegetables, with small portions of protein and starch. Make sides count: steam asparagus and tie into bundles with chives or scallion tops; shred Brussels sprouts, sauté in olive oil and shallots, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts; or steam artichokes, and serve with red pepper hummus.
22. Supercharge breakfast muffins. Make them with gluten-free flour, and add ground almonds, flax seeds, shredded carrots, and shredded zucchini. Swap applesauce for half the fat, and sweeten with mashed bananas and raisins.
23. Choose grass-fed over conventional beef. Studies show it’s lower in saturated fat and calories, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a compound with cancer-protective and anti-obesity effects.
24. Try cauliflower couscous instead of the grain variety. You’ll add tons of cancer-preventive nutrients and save calories. Chop cauliflower florets in a food processor until they resemble small grains, then cook in ¼ inch of water until tender. Add coconut oil, cumin, curry, and dried apricots for a twist on the traditional Middle Eastern grain.
What is Nutrient Density?
Nutrient density measures the benefits you get from a food compared to the number of calories it contains. Nutrient-dense foods give you the most nutrients possible for the fewest calories. For example, some energy bars provide 15 percent of your daily folate requirement for about 200 calories. A cup of raw spinach packs the same folate punch for only 7 calories.
One way to measure nutrient density is with the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scale. Developed by Joel Fuhrman, MD, ANDI measures the amount of key nutrients in a food, relative to its calories. The nutrients included in the ANDI scale are calcium, carotenoids, lycopene, fiber, glucosinolates, iron, magnesium, niacin, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C and E, and zinc, plus ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scores—a method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of foods.
The ANDI scale is only one way to measure nutrient density, and it does have some shortcomings; for example, it doesn't measure protein, so even nutrient-dense sources of protein—such as pastured eggs, wild Alaskan salmon, and lean, grass-fed cuts of beef—have low ANDI scores. Nor does the scale measure fats, so high-quality monounsaturated fats such as olives and avocados come up short. Be sure to keep those points in mind when you're formulating your diet. Otherwise, it's a great way to start.