Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods

Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods

Nutrient-rich (or nutrient-dense) foods contain a lot of vitamins and minerals and few calories. They also are low in sugar, sodium, starches, and bad fats. Your body needs vitamins and minerals, known as micronutrients. They nourish your body and help keep you healthy. They can reduce your risk for chronic diseases. Getting them through food ensures that your body can absorb them properly.

You should choose a diet made up of nutrient-rich foods. Try to eat a variety of foods to get different vitamins and minerals. Foods that naturally are nutrient-rich include fruits and vegetables. Lean meats, fish, whole grains, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds also are high in nutrients.

Path to improved health

You may not get all the micronutrients your body needs. Americans tend to eat foods that are high in calories and low in micronutrients. These foods often also contain added sugar, sodium (salt), and saturated or trans fats. This type of diet contributes to weight gain. It can increase your risk of health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

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

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

 

All of the above foods are good choices. Below are suggestions for changing your diet to be more nutrient-rich.

Grains

Whole-grain foods are low in fat. They’re also high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. This helps you feel full longer and prevents overeating. Check the ingredient list for the word “whole.” For example, “whole wheat flour” or “whole oat flour.” Look for products that have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving. Some enriched flours have fiber, but are not nutrient-rich.

Choose these foods:

  • rolled or steel cut oats
  • whole-wheat pasta
  • whole-wheat tortillas
  • whole-grain (wheat or rye) crackers, breads, and rolls
  • brown or wild rice
  • barley, quinoa, buckwheat, whole corn, and cracked wheat.

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables naturally are low in fat. They add nutrients, flavor, and variety to your diet. Look for colorful fruits and vegetables, especially orange and dark green. If you can, choose organic produce. It is free of pesticides and can contain more vitamins and minerals.

Choose these foods:

  • broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
  • leafy greens, such as chard, cabbage, romaine, and bok choy
  • dark, leafy greens, such as spinach and kale
  • squash, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, and pumpkin
  • snap peas, green beans, bell peppers, and asparagus
  • apples, plums, mangos, papaya, pineapple, and bananas
  • blueberries, strawberries, cherries, pomegranates, and grapes
  • citrus fruits, such as grapefruits and oranges
  • peaches, pears, and melons
  • tomatoes and avocados.

Meat, poultry, fish, and beans

Beef, pork, veal, and lamb

Choose low-fat, lean cuts of meat. Look for the words “round,” “loin,” or “leg” in their names. Trim outside fat before cooking. Trim any inside, separable fat before eating. Baking, broiling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare meat. Limit how often you eat beef, pork, veal, and lamb. Even lean cuts contain more fat and cholesterol compared to other protein sources.

Poultry

Chicken breasts are a good cut of poultry. They are low in fat and high in protein. Remove skin and outside fat before cooking. Baking, broiling, grilling, and roasting are the healthiest ways to prepare poultry.

Fish

Fresh fish and shellfish should be damp and clear in color. They should smell clean and have a firm, springy flesh. If fresh fish isn’t available, choose frozen or low-salt canned fish. Wild-caught oily fish are the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. This includes salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines. Poaching, steaming, baking, and broiling are the healthiest ways to prepare fish.

Beans and other non-meat sources

Non-meat sources of protein also can be nutrient-rich. Try a serving of beans, peanut butter, other nuts, or seeds.

Choose these foods:

  • lean cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb
  • turkey bacon
  • ground chicken or turkey
  • 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)
  • legumes, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
  • seeds and nuts, including nut butters.

Dairy and dairy substitutes

Choose skim milk, low-fat milk, or enriched milk substitutes. Try replacing cream with evaporated skim milk in recipes and coffee. Choose low-fat or fat-free cheeses.

Choose these foods:

  • low-fat, skim, nut, or enriched milk, like soy or rice
  • skim ricotta in place of cream cheese
  • low-fat cottage cheese
  • string cheese
  • plain nonfat yogurt in place of sour cream.

Things to consider

Most nutrient-rich foods are found in the perimeter (outer circle) of the grocery store. The amount of nutrient-rich foods you should eat depends on your daily calorie needs. USDA’s website ChooseMyPlate.gov offers nutrition information for adults and children.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How can I be sure I’m eating enough nutrient-rich foods if I’m on a strict diet, like vegetarian or vegan?
  • Can I take any supplements or multivitamins to increase my nutrients?

 

Resources

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Eat Right, Tips for Choosing a Nutrient-rich Diet

U.S. Department of Agriculture: ChooseMyPlate.gov, Nutrient Density