We all know we should be eating ‘nutrient-dense’ foods—but what does that even mean? Here’s my quick definition: Nutrient-dense foods are rich in valuable nutrients and beneficial components like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, to name a few. The calories found in these foods do your body good.
For example, you get more health bang per your calorie buck with a nutrient-dense berry than with that piece of candy. Think of it this way: “While one calorie of a berry provides carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, one calorie of a piece of candy contains only carbohydrates and added sugar,” says Natalie Rizzo, M.S., R.D.
To provide your body with as many nutrients as possible, you want to fill your diet with a variety of these foods. “Nutrient-dense foods may be good fats, fiber, high quality protein, or natural plant compounds, but no one food can be everything to everyone,” says Jenna A. Bell, Ph.D., R.D., Senior Vice President, Director of Food & Wellness at Pollock Communications. So to help you make the most of these super-valuable foods, I recruited my nutrition pro pals to help you fill you shopping cart, and your plate, with the good stuff. Below are seven of the most nutrient-dense foods we came up with!
1. Red Cabbage
“When I think of nutrient-dense foods, I typically think of dark-colored fruits and vegetables, like red cabbage,” says Rizzo. Not only is red cabbage high in fiber and low in calories, but it contains antioxidants called anthocyanins that are typically found in blue and purple plants. These compounds may help to reduce inflammation, boost cognitive function, and protect cells from damage.
Because they pack plant-based protein, fiber, vitamins (like thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, and biotin), minerals (like iron, magnesium, phosphate, calcium, zinc, and potassium), and phytonutrients, beans are personal favorite of author Elizabeth Ward, M.S., R.D.
What better way to enjoy beans than a warm bowl of chili? Ward’s recipe has some meat in it, but you can go meatless by swapping out the ground beef or turkey breast for extra black or red kidney beans or another type of bean, like white kidney beans.
A member of the cruciferous veggie family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, cauliflower contains powerful compounds known as glucosinolates, which may help protect cells against cancer. It also packs vitamin C and vitamin K, as well as other nutrients including folate and fiber.
This roasted veggie recipe from Rosanne Rust M.S.,R.D.N., L.D.N., author of DASH Diet For Dummies, includes cauliflower, garbanzo beans, and Swiss chard, for a side dish that’s as flavorful as it is nutritious.
Nope, nutrient-dense foods aren’t always low-calorie! Higher-calorie foods like almonds and avocados deserve a spot in your nutrient-filled grocery cart, but just be mindful of portion sizes, suggests sports dietitian Kelly Jones M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., L.D.N. Avocados contain valuable nutrients like heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, fiber, potassium, and vitamin E. (A serving of avocado is about a quarter of a medium fruit.)
As a vegetarian, Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., loves chickpeas because they provide filling protein and an excellent source of satiating fiber. Chickpeas offer many other nutrients, including iron and manganese.
Gorin likes to toss chickpeas in spices and roast them for a crunchy snack with a kick. Her recipe includes flavor options to satisfy your cravings, whether you’re feeling Italian seasoning or a paprika-cayenne combo.
Rich in the antioxidant lycopene, tomatoes are a power food when it comes to fighting off damage in your cells. (And lycopene is even more powerful when tomatoes are cooked—so get that marinara sauce bubbling!)
7. Green Lentils
One cup of lentils contains 18 grams of protein and 16 grams of fiber—plus magnesium. Talk about a nutritious bang for your calorie buck!
Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, author of Plant-Powered for Life loves this French green lentil salad with cherry tomatoes as a quick nutritious meal or side dish.
*Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., C.D.N., is an award-winning author, spokesperson, speaker, consultant, and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC. She has been featured on TV, radio, and print, as well as in digital media, including Everyday Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Women’s Health, and U.S. News & World Report. She is a recipient of The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Media Excellence Award.