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  • Denise Scott

Improving the Nutrient Density of Meals


Making meals that are nutrient-dense rather than energy-dense is easy and affordable. Nutrient-dense refers to foods high in nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and relatively low in calories - think vegetables, fruits, and grains; energy-dense are foods high in calories and low in nutrients, usually from fats or sugars. There are numerous ways to make meals more nutrient-dense: choosing healthier macronutrients (fats, protein, carbohydrates), increasing fiber content, and making simple substitutions. Eating a nutrient-dense diet benefits all organ systems, is anti-inflammatory, keeps blood sugar stable, is heart healthy, and improves the gut microbiome. I will outline some guidelines to help!


Picture of nutrient-dense foods (fruit and vegetables) on the left of the tape measure and energy-dense foods (fried foods, chips, and sugar-laden pastries) on the right.


Let’s start with macronutrients, components of every meal and most snacks, and the basis of any diet.


Skillet with macronutrients - protein, fats, and carbohydrates - spelled out in wooden tiles.


FATS


You have probably heard of good and bad fats, but healthy and unhealthy fats are better descriptions since no food is inherently good or bad. The unhealthy fats are saturated fats. These fats are often solid at room temperature. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, saturated fats should be no more than 10% of your total daily calories (food and beverage). Healthy fats are unsaturated fats - monounsaturated and polyunsaturated (MUFAs and PUFAs) - which contain omega-3 essential fatty acids. 


Saturated fats are found primarily in animal sources - fatty meats, sausage, bacon, cured meats, cheese, full-fat dairy, butter, lard, ice cream, and non-animal sources - pastries, pies, cakes, biscuits, coconut and palm oils, and deep fried foods.


Here are ways to incorporate healthy fats and reduce unhealthy fats.


  1. When shopping, read labels to choose items with a low saturated fat content, listed as Saturated fat under Total fat. A low saturated fat content is 1.5 grams or less; high is 5 grams or more.

  2. Choose lean cuts of meat or trim the fat and skin prior to cooking.

  3. Choose grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef.

  4. Bake, grill, air fry, poach, or steam foods rather than fry.

  5. Choose low-fat dairy options (except for children under 2, who need more fat for brain development).

  6. When making soups, stews, and chilis, use less meat and more vegetables and beans.

  7. Try meatless meals twice weekly or more, using seafood or vegetarian meals.

  8. Switch cooking oils to olive and avocado rather than corn, safflower, or seed oils. 

  9. Consider pesto, hummus, or mashed avocado on sandwiches rather than mayonnaise or butter.

  10. Instead of buying pre-made salad dressings, make your own with extra virgin olive oil. 

  11. When baking, look for recipes using saturated fat substitutes such as avocado, ripened bananas, yogurt, olive oil, and legumes. 

  12. Use tomato-based sauces on pasta instead of creamy or cheesy sauces. 


These steps can significantly reduce saturated fat intake and improve the quality of fats in your diet by increasing omega-3 fatty acid intake. A child’s diet should contain 30% fat but minimal saturated fat. Simply avoiding most processed and fast foods eliminates many sources. These steps will also help to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and inflammation.


PROTEIN


Protein comes from numerous sources, from plants and animals. This macronutrient should make up 15-20% of our diet. Babies and children need less protein than adults due to their smaller size. 

Various types of protein, including meats, seafood, nuts, eggs, cheese, and vegetables. Protein comes from both animal and plant sources.


Protein from animal sources are typically higher in fat, including saturated fat. Protein from seafood and plant sources are lower in fat and higher in unsaturated fats. 


Protein can also be complete or incomplete. Complete proteins contain all nine amino acids and are from animals except for quinoa, amaranth, and whole soy products. Incomplete proteins from plants, can be combined to make a complete protein, such as combining beans and rice, legumes with nuts or whole grains, or combining dairy with a plant-based protein.


To improve the protein quality of your diet, try the following:


  1. Incorporate seafood twice a week (as recommended in the Mediterranean Diet)

  2. Choose plant-based proteins such as legumes, tofu, and mushrooms.

  3. Incorporate protein-containing vegetables into recipes, including spinach, broccoli, peas, corn, Brussels sprouts, kale, and artichokes.

  4. Choose high-protein whole grains such as quinoa, farro, wild rice, amaranth, teff, sorghum, spelt, oats, and whole wheat pasta. 

  5. Add nuts and seeds to rice and pasta dishes, salads, and snacks for those over 4; under 4, serve nut butter.

  6. Reduce red meat consumption with chicken, turkey, seafood, and plants.

  7. Minimize processed, cured, and dried meats such as prepackaged sandwich meat, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, pepperoni, salami, etc. 

  8. Increase vegetarian meals in your weekly schedule. There is a wealth of recipes online; these are often less expensive than meat-based meals. 

  9. Add beans to salads, soups, stews, chilis, casseroles, and dips.

  10. Don’t leave out milk, eggs, yogurt, and cottage cheese as protein options.


Increasing plant and seafood-based protein also increases fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake.


CARBOHYDRATES


Carbohydrates come from plants, dairy, and processed foods. They include sugars, starch, and fiber. Carbohydrates can be simple (refined) or complex. Complex carbohydrates include starches and fiber. These carbs come from whole plant foods and include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.


Pictured are a variety of simple carbs such as candy, cookies, pastries, white flour pasta, white rice, bread, and jam. These are all sugar sources and will raise the blood sugar quickly.


When we eat simple or complex carbs, they break down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream to cause a rise in blood sugar and insulin. A blood sugar rise occurs quickly with simple carbs or slowly and steadily with complex carbs.


Sugar content is highest in processed foods, which are simple carbohydrates. These lead to a rapid sugar and insulin spike. Processed foods contain mainly sucrose and fructose.

One of the main contributors to sugar consumption is sugar-sweetened beverages - sodas, sports drinks, flavored “dessert” coffees, juices, and sweetened teas. Diets high in simple sugars contribute to heart disease, high lipids, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and obesity.


The American Heart Association recommends that children have fewer than six teaspoons of added sugar daily or less than 24 grams. Adults should stay under 30 grams. Added sugars include sugars and sweeteners added to foods or drinks during processing or preparation.


Here are ways to add healthy carbs and decrease unhealthy carbs:


  1. DECREASE SUGAR-SWEETENED BEVERAGES.

  2. Switch to whole wheat, sourdough, and whole-grain bread instead of white.

  3. Eat whole wheat pasta or pasta made from vegetables, such as lentils or chickpeas, rather than pasta made with white flour.

  4. Look for whole-grain cereals that don’t have added sugar.

  5. Choose brown rice instead of white rice.

  6. Try a variety of whole grains - quinoa, couscous, farro, barley, oats, and buckwheat.

  7. Incorporate fruits and vegetables into snacks and each meal.

  8. Explore healthy dessert options using avocados, sweet potatoes, bananas, and legumes to make brownies, cakes, and cookies - you can find recipes online!

  9. Bake with flour made from whole wheat, oats, almonds, or whole grains.

  10. Choose corn, wheat, or vegetable tortillas over flour.

  11. Read labels to look for items with 5 grams or fewer of added sugars and an ingredient list that doesn’t list sugar in the first 3-5 items.

  12. Choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit and toppings.

  13. Look for zero-added-sugar items for nut butter, marinades, ketchup, salad dressings, and sauces.

  14. Minimize processed foods.


FIBER


Fiber is a complex carbohydrate with numerous benefits. Fiber feeds our microbiome, keeps blood sugar stable, increases our feeling of fullness, can lower LDL cholesterol, decreases the risk of colorectal cancer, and makes stools easier to pass. Adults need 25 - 35 grams of fiber daily, and children need their age + 5 (for example, 10 grams for a 5-year-old). Plant-based foods are the richest sources of fiber - whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts.


Bowls of various beans and whole grains which are terrific sources of fiber, along with fruit and vegetables.


Ways to increase fiber daily include: 


  1. Swap out white rice and pasta for brown rice and whole-grain pasta varieties.

  2. Eat whole-grain or whole-wheat bread and crackers rather than white bread.

  3. Add chopped or shredded vegetables to sauces (such as lasagna or spaghetti sauce), salads, soups, stews, chili, casseroles, ground meat, and cooked eggs.

  4. Eat fruit as a snack and for dessert.

  5. Substitute beans or legumes for meat in soups, casseroles, stews, chili, and sauces.

  6. Choose whole-grain, high-fiber cereals or oatmeal.

  7. Substitute whole fruit for fruit juice.

  8. Add seeds or nuts to salads, yogurt, oatmeal, and baked goods.

  9. Snack on raw vegetables with hummus, cottage cheese, or nut butter.

  10. Try a new variety of grains such as quinoa, barley, farro, wheat berries, and amaranth.  


Improving your family’s diet is not difficult. It involves making mindful choices and substitutions that significantly improve eating habits and protect future health. 


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