Welcome to Keto Sister. The term “nutrient density” is floating around the blogosphere and is the latest catch phrase for healthy foods. Unfortunately, I have seen photographs of meals that include conventional meats, iceberg lettuce and then drowned in butter or coconut oil labeled nutrient dense. For this reason, I’ve decided to offer some concrete definitions and examples to guide you on your journey to the land of Nutrient Density.
What is nutrient density?
The first time I came across this term was during my days as a vegan. Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a well known vegan physician who wrote the book Eat to Live and has since authored a number of books on topics like diabetes, heart disease and immunity. As a vegan nutrition advocate, he advocates following a strict plant based diet. There are aspects of his protocol with which I disagree, but he was the first person I saw use nutrient density as the basis of a nutrition protocol. He defines it as predicting health by dividing nutrient intake by calorie intake with this formula:
Another way to say this is that your health will be determined by the amount of nourishment you get for the calories you eat. If you eat a lot of food that is nutritionally empty, then you will not have the building blocks required to create a healthy body and you will end up sick, fat and miserable. Now do you get it?
This concept is simple. This does not have to be a complicated calculation, but this is a concept that requires commitment to make happen with every meal. Below I am going to share some of my favorite nutritious foods and explain why its worth incorporating these foods into your diet every single day.
My favorite nutritious foods
- Organ meats: Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D. says this about organ meats: “Organ meats are the most concentrated source of just about every nutrient, including important vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and essential amino acids” (1). Compared with muscle meat like steak and chicken thighs, organ meats are higher is also every single nutrient needed by the human body. Every day, I eat some liverwurst made with beef liver, heart and kidney, but there are other sources. A great way to get started is to check out the organ meat products made by US Wellness (2). They taste surprisingly delicious and make it easy to incorporate organ meats into your diet. https://grasslandbeef.com/
- Seafood (fish, shell fish and sea plants): Seafood is an excellent source of protein that also contains selenium and omega 3 fats, in addition to being a great source of iron, zinc, copper and vitamin B12. My favorites are salmon, sardines, oysters and squid.
- Grass fed, pasture raised meats: Compared with grain-fed traditional meats, their grass fed counterparts contain higher amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (3), higher in precursors for vitamins A and E and cancer-fighting antioxidants. Grass fed steak can be an expensive treat, but ground beef is very affordable and practical for family meals of meatloaf, meatballs, and meat sauces services over spiralized zucchini or sweet potatoes.
- Pasture raised egg yolks: The type of egg you buy really does make a difference. I am lucky to have local farmers who pasture raise both chicken and duck eggs that I can buy from them directly. The most nutritious eggs—those that are deepest in color—come from chickens with free access to grass (labeled “pasture raised”, or if unavailable look for “free range” eggs). Besides being a great source of vitamins A, B12, D, E, K, folate and omega 3 fats, pasture raised egg yolks are high in choline, lutein and zeaxanthin (4). Despite the many benefits, eggs continue to have a reputation as being a source of unwanted fat and cholesterol, but those of us on a low carb diet know that the myths surrounding fats and cholesterol are unfounded. Thus, I see no downside of eating egg yolks.
- Fermented foods: Traditionally prepared fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, pickles, relishes, and dairy foods for those who tolerate dairy (yogurt, kefir, cheeses, cultured butter, etc.) have an incredible range of scientifically recognized healing properties (5). Many who suffer from chronic digestive ailments such as leaky gut, hormone imbalances, and autoimmune conditions are known to have an imbalance of gut bugs which is believed to be a contributing cause of autoimmunity (6). My favorite home ferment is kkukdagi, a korean radish kimchi made from daikon radish. I could eat this with every meal!
- Leafy greens: The benefits of leafy greens have long been known. Besides being a delicious source of vitamins and minerals, leafy greens are one of the best sources of fiber which helps to support regular digestion and provides food for gut bugs. My favorites include spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, beet greens … the list is long!
- Cruciferous vegetables: The cancer preventive properties of cruciferous vegetables are well explained on this website. They are abundant in a phytochemical called sulforaphane whose benefits are still being studied, but this is the reason that they are anti-carcinogenic. These foods include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage and bok choy.
- Colorful root vegetables: Root vegetables are great sources of potassium and magnesium, as well as being high in dietary fiber. This list includes starches that are low carb and high carb, such as beets, carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, white potatoes, parsnips, turnips, rutabaga, squash, artichokes and more.
- Colorful berries and citrus fruits: While most fruits are great sources of glucose and fructose, berries and citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, fiber, antioxidants and are also the lowest in carb content. Berries include fresh or frozen strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, acai berries and more. Citrus fruits include lemons, limes, grapefruits, oranges and clementines.
- Fat rich plants (avocados, coconuts, olives, nuts and seeds): Most following a low carb diet are familiar with these foods already. Many eat and cook with the fats of these foods, but I am a bigger fan of eating the whole food. When you can, eat avocado, coconut and olives instead of just their fats. Additionally, nuts and seeds in moderation are excellent sources of fiber and lignans, especially flax seed (7, 8).
Whether you are sick and fighting illness or healthy, eating a diet that is based on the foods listed above is scientifically proven to produce your greatest potential for health and longevity. Next week, I will share sample meals and recipes to show you what nutrient density looks like on my plate. Thanks for reading.
- Fuhrman: https://www.drfuhrman.com/learn/library/articles/55/nutrient-density
- The Paleo Mom: https://www.thepaleomom.com/why-everyone-should-be-eating-organ/
- Fatty acid and antioxidant profiles for grass fed vs. grain fed beef: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846864/
- Egg and Egg-Derived Foods: Effects on Human Health and Use as Functional Foods: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303863/
- Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S095816691630266X
- The four best probiotics for Hashimoto’s: https://thyroidpharmacist.com/articles/the-four-best-probiotics-for-hashimotos/
- Health benefits of nut consumption: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257681/
- Flaxseed lignans: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00105.x/full