The typical UK diet is increasingly energy-rich but nutrient-poor. In other words many of us are consuming foods which are high in sugar and unhealthy fats and contain little in the way of vitamins, minerals and fibre, which we need for good health. To help improve the nutrient-to-energy ratio, health experts recommend we replace some foods in our diets with more nutrient-dense options.
Simply put, “nutrient density” is a measure of the amount of nutrients a food contains in comparison to the number of calories. With our increasingly sedentary lifestyles we are using up less and less energy throughout the day. Even if you’re a regular exerciser, you can still be considered sedentary if you spend much of the day desk-bound, travelling or relaxing in front of the television. We need to eat but we must choose foods that are low in calories, yet filling, and deliver high levels of the essential nutrients we need for good health. These include; protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids and fibre.
Obvious examples of nutrient dense foods are brightly coloured fruits and vegetables such as carrots, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, kale, watercress, spinach, berries, apples and pomegranates. These “super foods” are rich in vitamins and compounds such as soluble fibre, which can help to keep cholesterol levels healthy. They also contain phytochemicals, which can act as antioxidants, protecting cells from damage that can lead to various diseases including cancer.
Other nutrient-dense foods include oily fish, oatmeal, whole grains, soya beans, pulses, nuts and strained yogurt. On the other hand, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods include refined white breads, pasta, pastries, processed meats, ice cream, sweets and fizzy drinks.
You can compare nutrient density by taking two foods that would give you roughly the same amount of calories. For example, you can snack on a couple of biscuits or opt for a pot of high protein yogurt, such as Danio. Both snacks contain roughly 125 calories, however the yogurt contains:
■ Six times as much protein
■ 10 times as much calcium
■ Eight times as much zinc
■ Twice the amount of magnesium
The yogurt also provides about a quarter of your daily vitamin A, compared to none in the biscuits. The higher protein content also helps you feel fuller for longer, so it satisfies cravings and helps you last until your next meal.
Dr Sarah Schenker