Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods

Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods Family Doctor Logo

What is a “nutrient-rich” food?

A nutrient-rich food contains many vitamins and minerals (also called micronutrients) but not very many calories. Vitamins and minerals nourish your body and help to keep you healthy and reduce your risk for chronic diseases. You can get these micronutrients through a variety of healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, low-fat and fat-free dairy products, and lean meats and fish. Getting vitamins and minerals through food ensures that your body is able to absorb them properly.

What happens if I don’t get enough nutrient-rich foods in my daily diet?

If you don’t eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods, you may not be getting all the micronutrients your body needs. In fact, Americans tend to eat foods that are high in calories and low in micronutrients. These foods often also contain added sugar, sodium (salt), saturated fat or trans fat. Choosing these high-calorie, low-nutrient foods contributes to weight gain and chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

What might be missing?

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), adult Americans may not get enough of the following nutrients:

NutrientFood Sources
CalciumLow-fat and fat-free dairy and dairy substitutes, broccoli, dark leafy greens, sardines
PotassiumBananas, cantaloupe, raisins, nuts, spinach and other dark greens, fish
FiberLegumes (dried beans and peas), whole-grain foods and brans, colorful fruit and vegetables, apples, strawberries, carrots, raspberries, seeds
MagnesiumSpinach, black beans, almonds, peas
Vitamin AEggs, milk, carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe
Vitamin COranges, strawberries, tomatoes, kiwi, broccoli, red and green peppers
Vitamin EAvocados, nuts, seeds, whole-grain foods, spinach and other dark leafy greens

What foods are nutrient-rich?

You’ll find most nutrient-rich foods around the perimeter (outer circle) of the grocery store. Fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, lean meats and fish and low-fat milk products are excellent choices.

The amount of nutrient-rich food each person needs depends on their daily calorie needs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website offers good information on nutrition for adults and children.

Following are some ways to make healthier food choices.


Whole-grain foods are low in fat; they’re also high in fiber and complex carbohydrates, which helps you feel fuller longer and prevents overeating. When you choose bread or cereal, look at the ingredient list and check to see that the first ingredient says “whole” in front of the grain. For example, “whole wheat flour” or “whole oat flour”; enriched or other types of flour usually have the important fiber and nutrients removed. Look for whole-grain foods that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.

Good examples include:

  • Rolled oats, steel cut oats
  • Whole-wheat pasta
  • Whole-grain crackers, breads and rolls (such as whole wheat or whole rye)
  • Brown rice, barley, quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, whole corn and cracked wheat
  • Whole-wheat tortillas

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat. They add flavor, nutrients and variety to your diet. Look for colorful fruits and vegetables, especially dark green and orange vegetables. If you can, choose organically grown produce and fruit, as it can be more nutritious and should be free of pesticides.

Good examples include:

  • Broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts
  • Leafy greens, such as spinach, chard, kale, cabbage and bok choy
  • Romaine and other darker green lettuces
  • Squash (winter and summer), carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and turnip
  • Snap peas, green beans, peppers and asparagus
  • Apples, plums, mangos, papaya, pineapple and bananas
  • Blueberries, strawberries, cherries, pomegranate and red or purple grapes
  • Citrus fruits, such as grapefruit and oranges
  • Peaches, pears and melon
  • Tomatoes and avocados

Meat, Poultry, Fish and Beans

Fish – Fresh fish should have a clear color, a moist look, a clean smell and firm, springy flesh. If good-quality fresh fish isn’t available, choose frozen or low-salt canned fish. Poaching, steaming, baking and broiling are the healthiest ways to prepare fish. Wild-caught oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel and sardines, are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, but all fish contain some amount of this healthy fatty acid.

Poultry – Remove skin and visible fat before cooking. Chicken breasts are a good choice because they are low in fat and high in protein. Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry.

Beans and other non-meat sources – Nutrient-rich, non-meat sources of protein can also satisfy the protein recommendations. A quarter-cup of beans, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter or ½ ounce of nuts or seeds counts as an ounce toward your protein needs.

Beef, Pork, Veal and Lamb – Choose low-fat, lean cuts of beef or pork. Trim outside fat before cooking. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating. Lean beef and veal cuts have the word “loin” or “round” in their names. Lean pork cuts have the word “loin” or “leg” in their names. Baking, broiling and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat. It is best to limit how often you eat beef, pork, veal and lamb, because even lean cuts contain a lot of fat and cholesterol when compared to other protein sources.

Good examples include:

  • Wild-caught salmon and other oily fish, haddock and other white fish
  • Wild-caught tuna (canned or fresh)
  • Shrimp, mussels, scallops and lobster (without added fat)
  • Turkey bacon
  • Ground chicken or turkey
  • Legumes (chickpeas, kidney beans, soy beans, edamame, lentils)
  • Nuts and seeds, including nut butters
  • Lean beef (round, sirloin and loin)
  • Lean pork (tenderloin and loin chop)

Dairy and Dairy Substitutes

Choose skim milk, low-fat milk or enriched milk substitutes. Try swapping evaporated skim milk for cream in recipes for soups, sauces and coffee.

Try low-fat or fat-free cheeses. Skim ricotta can replace cream cheese as a spread or in desserts and dip recipes. Use part-skim cheeses in recipes and try 1 percent cottage cheese in salads and for cooking. String cheese is a low-fat, high-calcium snack option.

Plain nonfat yogurt can replace sour cream in many recipes. (To maintain texture, stir 1 tablespoon of cornstarch into each cup of yogurt that you use in cooking.) Try mixing frozen nonfat or low-fat yogurt with fruit for dessert.


  • National Dairy Council. Live Well! Health Education Kit. Accessed 05/12/10
  • American Dietetic Association. The Importance of Nutrient-rich Foods in Planning Nutritious Meals for Children. Accessed 05/12/10
  • Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition. Achieve Better Health: Your guide to nutrient-rich eating. Accessed 05/12/10
  • United States Department of Agriculture. Choose “nutrient-dense” forms of foods. Accessed 05/12/10
  • United States Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005: Adequate nutrients within calorie needs. Accessed 05/12/10