Nutrient-dense foods: Getting more bang for your buck

Want to get the most out of your dollars when you are buying food? Pick foods high in nutrition and low in empty calories; they are good for your body and your wallet!

What’s a better food choice…an apple or a serving of pretzels?

They have roughly the same number of calories, but if you answered apple you are right!  That’s because nutrients count, too.

An apple provides fiber, vitamin C and potassium for the same amount of calories. Therefore, we say the apple is more “nutrient-dense.”

Let’s try another one:  what’s a better food choice…a serving of watermelon or a 12-ounce can of soda?  

You got that one correct!  Though they both have about 150 calories, the watermelon is a better choice.  It’s more nutrient-dense, because it adds good things to our body, like vitamin C and fiber. The soft drink contains only simple sugars or “empty calories.”

So, what is nutrient density?

Nutrient density is a measure of the nutrients provided per calorie of food, or the ratio of nutrients to calories (energy).  Foods that supply a larger amount of one or more nutrients compared to the number of calories they supply are referred to as nutrient-dense foods.

Eggs, for example, have a high nutrient density, because they provide protein, many vitamins and minerals in proportion to their calories.

Potato chips, on the other hand, have a low nutrient density. Though they may have small amount of nutrients, they also have a higher number of calories, proportionately.  So they are no nutritional bargain!

Less nutrient-dense foods may:

  • contain a lot of white sugar
  • contain high amounts of fat
  • be refined products (like white bread) instead of whole grains
  • be lighter or whiter in color

Stay away from a diet that consists of mostly processed or refined foods.  These are less nutritious for us.

Instead, choose:

  • A variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.  Limiting starchy veggies.
  • Fortified foods.
  • Meats with the fat removed, eggs and lower fat versions of dairy products.

As we age, we often are not as hungry as we were during our younger years.  Or, perhaps we are trying to lose weight.  That means every bite of nutritious food is important.  Michigan State University Extension recommends:

  • Eating fruit for dessert, instead of cake
  • Enjoying a potato, instead of potato chips
  • Drinking flavored water, instead of a soda
  • Having a banana, instead of ice cream
  • Having cut up veggies, instead of candy and salty snacks

For more information on nutrition or other issues of interest to families, contact your local MSU Extension office. You may also want to visit the Food and Nutrition Information Center (FNIC), located at the National Agricultural Library (NAL) of the United States Department of Agriculture. The FNIC is a leader in online global nutrition information with a website containing over 2,500 links to current and reliable nutrition information.

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