There’s no doubt that a nutrient-rich diet (see sidebar) reduces the risk of disease. But how to make that work? If you’ve tried, you already know that huge, sweeping changes–like swearing off sugar, eating fish four times a week, or tripling your intake of vegetables–rarely work. And when those efforts fail, it makes us more likely to throw up our hands in disgust and revert to our old (bad) habits.
A better approach to a more nutrient-rich diet: make one small change every day like swapping green tea for coffee or adding an extra cup of beans to soups and stews. Try these 30 sneaky ways to make your diet more nutrient dense every day:
1. Make noodles more nutritious: halve the amount of (whole-grain or gluten-free) pasta and double the sauce. Better yet, go puttanesca-style with your sauce; add lots of garlic, onions, chili peppers, olives and anchovies (they’re high in omega-3 fats).
2. Dress your salad with avocado, instead of store-bought creamy dressings, to increase your folate, lower unhealthy fats, and protect your heart. For a simple dressing, puree avocado and lemon juice, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Choose an English muffin instead of a bagel for a 200-calorie savings (the average whole-grain bagel is 350 calories, versus 130 for an English muffin); spread it with almond butter instead of cream cheese, for the same calories and a big protein boost.
4. Load up your pizza to boost nutrients and fiber: add green peppers (rich in vitamin C), onions (they contain cancer-preventive compounds), olives (for healthy monounsaturated fats) and artichoke hearts (they’re great for your liver).
5. Use white bean spread instead of mayo on your sandwiches. You’ll add fiber and protein, for fewer calories. Puree white beans, olive oil, garlic and a splash of apple cider vinegar to make a creamy spread; season with salt and white pepper.
6. Spend your dairy calories on yogurt, not milk. Yogurt is rich in probiotics, beneficial bacteria that keep digestion healthy, boost immunity and may protect against some cancers. Instead of a bowl of cereal with milk, try a bowl of plain yogurt topped with homemade granola (see number 18).
7. Fortify your mashed potatoes: use a combo of half potatoes and half cauliflower; cook in the same pot until soft, then drain and mash as usual. Try olive oil instead of butter, and load it up with garlic and herbs instead of salt.
8. Drink smoothies; you’ll squeeze in five servings of fruits and vegetables. Add a handful of spinach for vitamin K and folate (you’ll never know it’s in there). Try this: puree frozen blueberries, half a banana, almond milk, a scoop of whey powder and spinach until creamy and smooth.
9. Buy pastured eggs; they contain five times more vitamin D, twice as much omega-3, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene. Look for them at farmer’s markets or local farms.
10. Make a smart soda; swap your store-bought variety, and mix up your own blend of organic pomegranate juice and sparkling water; you’ll add cancer-preventive compounds and lots of antioxidants.
11. Give your pasta sauce a boost; mix in a cup of pumpkin puree for a day’s worth of alpha carotene plus added fiber; or puree cooked broccoli, sweet potatoes and carrots, and stir into sauce for extra carotenoids and cancer-fighting compounds.
12. Eat a raw salad every day, and make sure it contains at least three colors from five or more different sources–for example, spinach and arugula (green) combined with peppers (yellow) , carrots (orange), beets, tomatoes and shredded cabbage (red).
13. Swap beans for meat. In soups, stews and chilies, cut the meat in half and add more beans; you’ll dramatically increase fiber and slash fat by 50 percent. Make ’em red kidney beans, and you’ll triple your antioxidant intake.
14. Make your chocolate count. Cacao beans are rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. But you’ll only find the good stuff in raw cacao nibs and extra-dark chocolate–not the sugar-laced, watered-down versions of chocolate most of us grew up with. Cacao nibs are bits of dried, roasted and crushed cacao bean, with a rich, cocoa butter flavor; add them to nutrient-dense muffins (see 29) or smoothies. Or choose bars that are 70 percent cacao, or higher, for the most nutrition.
15. Eat plants, not grains, for fiber; you’ll get added nutrients for fewer calories. A cup of raspberries, for example, has 9 grams of fiber–the most of any fruit–with only 64 calories. A cup of broccoli has 6 grams of fiber, and only 52 calories Compare that to brown rice: a cup has a paltry 2 grams of fiber per 100 calories.
16. Cut your coffee with Teeccino, a caffeine-free mix of roasted grains, nuts and herbs; it’s acid-free, rich in potassium, and contains prebioitics that encourage the growth of beneficial probiotics in your intestines.
17. Get your calcium from greens. They contain fiber, beta carotene and more nutrients than dairy, with a fraction of the calories. Collards are especially rich in this vital mineral; one cup of cooked collards has as much calcium as a cup of milk, with a savings of 100 calories. And collards and other greens are also rich in magnesium, another key nutrient for bone health.
18. Choose mustard, instead of mayo, when you’re eating out. If you’re buying condiments, choose ketchup varieties with no added sugar, and look for mayo blends made with heart-healthy olive and/or flax oils.
19. Skip store-bought granola (it’s loaded with fat and sugar), and make your own: combine rolled oats with chopped walnuts, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds; stir in a little honey mixed with hot water, bake at 200 until golden, then stir in dried cranberries and let cool.
20. Make vegetables easy. Buy pre-cut versions or, better yet, cut a variety of vegetables at home and store them in air-tight containers. You’ll be more likely to use them if they’re ready-to-go. Good candidates: sweet potatoes, kale, broccoli, red peppers, celery.
21. Rethink your plate portions; at least 50 to 60 percent of your plate should be vegetables, with small portions of protein and starch. Make sides count: steam asparagus and tie into bundles with chives or scallion tops; shred Brussels sprouts, saute in olive oil and shallots, and sprinkle with toasted walnuts; or steam artichokes, and serve with red pepper hummus.
22. Make your fries count. If you choose sweet potatoes over white potatoes, you’ll get more beta carotene but less potassium; calorie and fiber differences are negligible. More important: swap frying for baking. Toss potato strips in olive oil, season lightly with sea salt and spices, and roast at 400 until crispy.
23. Choose grass-fed over conventional beef. Studies show they’re lower in saturated fat and calories, and higher in omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a compound with cancer-protective and anti-obesity effects.
24. Try cauliflower cous cous, instead of the grain variety; you’ll add tons of cancer-preventive nutrients, and save calories: chop cauliflower florets in a food processor until they resemble small grains, then cook in 1/4 inch of water until tender. Add coconut oil, cumin, curry and dried apricots, for a twist on the traditional Middle Eastern grain.
25. Buy organic vegetables, whenever possible. Besides avoiding pesticide residues, you may get more nutrients; some studies and reviews have found that organic fruits and vegetables contain, on average, 25 percent higher concentrations of 11 nutrients than their conventional counterparts.
26. Choose dried apples over dates or cranberries; apples rank higher on the ANDI scale (see sidebar) and contain half the sugar of other dried fruits. Or choose prunes; they’re high in sugar, but rank at the top of the ORAC (see sidebar) scale.
27. Try seaweed noodles, instead of grain-based varieties. Kelp-based varieties are extremely low in calories and rich in iodine, for thyroid health. Serve them Asian style, with tamari, toasted sesame oil, ginger, garlic and black sesame seeds.
28. Choose whole-grain instead of multi-grain. Whole-grain means the entire grain kernel, including all the fiber, has been used. Multi-grain means only that more than one type of grain was used–and those grains could be refined and stripped of fiber and nutrients.
29. Supercharge breakfast muffins: make them with gluten-free flour, and add ground almonds, flax seeds, shredded carrots and shredded zucchini; swap applesauce for half the fat, and sweeten with mashed bananas and raisins.
30. Eating out? Choose Chinese. Skip the fried rice and sauces, and order stir-fried vegetables; ask for extra bok choy, cabbage and broccoli, and you’ll get a week’s worth of cancer-preventive glucosinolates. Add shrimp, not beef, for lean protein.
What is Nutrient-Dense?
Nutrient density measures how many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains. Nutrient dense foods give you the most nutrients possible, for the least amount of calories; for example, in some energy bars, you’ll get 15 percent of your daily need of folate for around 200 calories. A cup of raw spinach has the same amount of folate, and only 7 calories.
One way to measure nutrient density in foods is with the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index). Developed by Joel Fuhrman, M.D., the ANDI scale measures the amount of key nutrients in a food, relative to its calories. The nutrients included in the ANDI scale are calcium, carotenoids, lycopene, fiber, glucosinolates, iron, magnesium, niacin, selenium, B vitamins, vitamin C and E, and zinc, plus ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) scores–a method of measuring the antioxidant capacity of foods.
The ANDI scale is only one way to measure nutrient density, and it does have some shortcomings; for example, it doesn’t measure protein, so even nutrient-dense sources of protein–like pastured eggs, wild Alaskan salmon and lean, grass-fed cuts of beef–have a low ANDI score. Nor does the scale measure fats, so high-quality monounsaturated fats like olives and avocados come up short in this system. Be sure to keep those points in mind when you’re formulating your diet. Otherwise, it’s a great way to start. On the ANDI scale, the top 20 nutrient dense foods include:
3. Bok choy
5. Brussels sprouts
11. Green peppers
16. Pomegranate juice
19. Iceberg lettuce