Building a healthy eating pattern to promote optimal health, weight and performance is not just about calories. It is also about eating nutrient-dense foods. Some experts even advise that it is more important to focus on nutrient-dense foods more than counting calories.
Choose nutrient-dense foods
This is because these foods provide more nutrients than calories and are great at filling you up and providing a good source of energy. For example, MyPlate recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables because they have more nutrients than they do calories. And foods made with whole grain offer a greater nutrient density than their refined counterparts.
Tips for eating nutrient-dense foods
- Choose lean protein foods most of the time
- Be cautious with the amount of spreads & butters used
- Limit food choices with added sugar
- Aim to have at least 80% of your diet made up of nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes & low-fat dairy. (This should include foods that are sources of healthy fats, like fatty fish, nuts, avocados, etc.)
Simple Substitutions for Refined Grains
- Trade white breads for whole wheat breads & pastas
- Trade breakfast cereals with added sugars for oatmeal
- Trade white rice for brown rice
Limit your empty calories
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming mostly nutrient-dense foods and limiting consumption of so-called “empty-calorie foods” – that is, foods that are high in empty calories. This will help control your weight by helping to limit your intake of excessive calories.
Unlike nutrient-dense foods, empty-calorie foods are usually nutritionally poor food choices. This is because they tend to have more calories than nutrients and don’t offer the volume to help you feel satisfied and stay that way. It’s also easy to eat a lot of them and still be hungry, which easily leads to excess calorie consumption. How many of us can really feel satisfied with a small order of french fries?
What foods contain excess empty calories?
Examples of these foods include:
- Baked products, like cookies, cakes & pies
- Fried foods, like french fries & chips
- Battered foods
- Sugar-sweetened beverages, like juices & sodas
- Dips & sauces
- Ice creams
Tips for keeping empty-calorie foods in check
- Aim to limit your consumption of empty-calorie foods to no more than 20% of your diet
- Be mindful when you eat empty calories
- Limit your portion sizes
- Avoid using empty-calorie foods as the main items of your meals or your go-to foods when you are truly hungry
Our website’s Healthy Living section offers many recipes approved by our dietitian that feature nutrient-dense foods, which you can find here. We’ve featured a few below… what’s your favorite?! Let us know in the comments!