Despite often being overlooked, nutrient density is without question the most impactful component of any way of eating, and it was for this reason that I decided on this topic for my newest book, The Nutrient-Dense Kitchen!
Whether you find yourself in the strictest phase of an elimination diet like the Autoimmune Protocol or just trying to make good dietary choices to prevent future disease, an approach that places nutrient density at its core will pave the way to deep healing and vibrant health. In this excerpt from my upcoming book, I’m going to share some ideas that you can apply to your own personalized approach to eating. But first…
What is a “nutrivore”?
By my own definition, a nutrivore is a person who prioritizes eating nutrient-dense, high-quality, and in-season foods.
What is interesting about the concept of eating like a nutrivore is that it transcends any other diet or food philosophy. No matter where you find yourself on the dietary spectrum, you can ask yourself the same questions: Am I eating a diet that first, provides the nutrients I need to be healthy and prevent future disease, and second, supports deeper healing or helps me meet my wellness goals?
A nutrivore asks further questions when choosing which foods to include in their diet. First, they consider nutrient density. How many different nutrients does a food provide, whether those be micronutrients, essential fatty acids, phytonutrients, or fibers, and in what quantities? A second consideration is quality. How was a food grown or raised, and what is known about the nutrition provided due to that method? Third, seasonality. Was a food harvested at the peak of its growing season, giving it the best nutritional profile? And lastly, variety. Is a food unusual, or does it bring some nutritional value to the table that is unique or otherwise hard to find?
As you can see, nutrivores don’t choose foods simply based on a binary good or bad, healthy or unhealthy system. They put thought into asking the deep questions about where that food came from and how it is going to support their own unique healing journey. A nutrivore takes the time to consider which nutrient-dense foods land on their plate, replacing or crowding out other neutral or nutrient-poor foods.
Let’s dig into these four categories right now.
1. Nutrient Density
The nutrient density of a food refers to the micronutrient amounts a food contains relative to the energy it provides (we’ll talk more about micronutrients more in the book, but for now just know they are comparatively small yet incredibly essential components of a healthy diet). This is in contrast to the energy density of a food. An example would be a commonly eaten protein source, chicken breast, which you might include as part of a salad. While this choice might technically satisfy your requirement of protein for a meal, it provides little in the way of vitamins or minerals.
In contrast, you could open a can of sardines and put them on the same salad, taking up the same space on your plate and meeting the same requirement for protein. And here’s the thing! As well as being delicious, sardines come with four times the recommended daily amount (RDA) of Vitamin B12, 100 percent of Vitamin D and selenium, and a whopping 1.8 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, all of which can be difficult to get into our diets. In addition, sardines are a good source of the B vitamins riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine.
You can see from this table that when micronutrients are considered, one choice is far superior than the other. This doesn’t mean you need to stop eating chicken breast, but it does help you understand why prioritizing foods that are low on the nutrient density spectrum—even if they still fit within a healthy eating framework—may not help you reach your goals.
To eat with a nutrient-density focus means that you have an eye for those foods that are providing you the “most bang for your buck.” Including these foods in your diet consistently makes it far easier to cover all your bases for both general health and even deep healing.
The quality of a food has a major impact on the nutrient density it contains. Most nutrition data we have access to today is based on studies of conventionally grown or raised foods, but research is beginning to emerge about the effects of different growing or raising methods on nutrient content, whether we are looking at plant or animal foods.
First, there is the question of conventional versus organically grown produce. Produce that is grown organically is done so without chemical pesticides or genetic engineering. As far as the way this impacts nutrition content, a meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2014 showed that organically grown produce had significantly higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Some crops were found to have over 50 percent more antioxidant content. Why would this be? Researchers hypothesized that plants grown without the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides naturally increase their production of compounds that help them resist disease, pests, and other environmental factors, which in turn boosts their antioxidant content (this is due to the phytonutrients they create, which we’ll be learning about later in this chapter). Not only does buying organic produce mean less exposure to chemicals and genetically modified foods, but it also means that we will receive the benefit of a higher nutrient content, especially where phytonutrients are considered.
Next, there is the issue of soil health and how growing conditions affect nutritional content. Decades of modern industrial agriculture has stripped our soils of nutrients, meaning that plants’ uptake of these nutrients is far less than in the past. One study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in 2004 showed a steady nutrient decline in forty-three vegetables from 1950 to 1999. Researchers found significantly less protein, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, iron, and vitamin C when they tested modern vegetables and compared them to values taken only fifty years before. These results may be in part due to selective breeding, as modern agriculture is focused on large size, high yield, and pest resistance—not nutrition. But we also know that depleted soils and overproduction leave fewer nutrients for future crops to uptake, meaning fewer nutrients for us to benefit from when we eat them. Purchasing fruits or vegetables from a grower who takes soil fertility seriously is likely to provide us the highest nutritional value.
The quality discussion doesn’t just apply to produce—there is an even wider spectrum of possible nutrient content in meat, poultry, and seafood. A review of thirty years of research on the topic published in Nutrition Journal in 2010 found that grass-fed beef has a more favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids and a higher content of conjugated linolenic acid. It is also higher in precursors to vitamins A and E, as well as containing higher levels of antioxidants. Raising cows on their traditional diet, pasture grass, translates not only to better health for the animals themselves, but better nutrition for us when we eat them.
Similarly, a recent study in 2017 by Singing Prairie Farm in Missouri compared the nutritional content of meat from three groups of pigs: conventionally raised, those on a 50 percent grain reduction, and those fed no grain. The conventionally raised pork had an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 29:1, while in the pork fed no grain, the ratio was reduced to 5:1. You will learn more about the importance of the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 later in this chapter when we discuss fats, but this is a stunning indicator that how animals are raised and what they eat really does affect the nutrients they provide when they end up on our plate. It doesn’t matter what species we are talking about—good nutrition isn’t simply about what we eat, but also about what what we eat eats!
Lastly, the nutrient density of a food is affected by any processing or storage it undergoes. During the processing of many modern foods, nutrients are stripped out, which is why fortification is so common in modern processed foods. Choosing to purchase whole, unprocessed or minimally processed ingredients ensures that you are getting the maximum amount of nutrition available. This is especially important with fats and oils, as they can be easily degraded by light and heat.
The nutrient density of a fruit or vegetable is dependent on its ripeness level in a traditional growing season, and how long it took to be transported to your local grocery or farmers’ market. It is a modern marvel that highly seasonal fruits and vegetables like asparagus, blueberries, tomatoes, and tangerines can be purchased on grocery store shelves year-round. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means they have the same flavor or nutrient content!
Some nutrients, like vitamin C, are quite fragile and degrade quickly. One study compared the vitamin C content of broccoli purchased in the spring and in the fall. The values for vitamin C content when the broccoli was in season (in the fall) were twice as high as those in the spring, when it needed to be transported a long distance or grown in suboptimal conditions. The modern agricultural system has some slick tricks up its sleeves for keeping produce on the shelves year-round, like long-distance shipping (often halfway around the world!) and using chemicals or gases to ripen fruit that was picked prematurely, thus preventing spoilage during shipping. In this case, fruits that are harvested before they are fully ripe have not had as much time to draw nutrients from the plant they came from. Buying produce locally and in season, ideally from a nearby farm, significantly cuts down on the chance that your fruits and vegetables were subjected to long-distance shipping or chemical ripening.
In addition to their rich micronutrient content, fruits and vegetables also contain phytonutrients, which are compounds they create to protect themselves from their environment. During a plant’s life cycle, it is exposed to various stressors like weather anomalies (such as a heat wave or an early frost), drought, pests, or blight. It may seem counterintuitive, but these stressors stimulate plants to both grow their strongest and to develop the highest amounts of phytonutrients (to protect themselves). In turn, these phytonutrients offer some great health benefits for us.
Eating new or unusual foods is likely to bring a different spectrum of nutrients to your diet, whether that includes micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, or different types of fiber. While there are an estimated 30,000 edible species of plant foods worldwide, humans only cultivate about 150 of those, with an even smaller thirty varieties making up the bulk of our diets. It’s safe to say that we are not even beginning to tap into the diverse resource of plant foods available to us on this planet!
Most of the fruits and vegetables on our plates today are the product of hundreds of years of selective breeding and cultivation (and most recently, genetic modification). These plants have been selected and bred over and over again for their high yields and pest resistance, leaving flavor and nutrition behind. Many plants that were originally wild (like corn) have had so many traits bred out of them to achieve higher yields and easier cultivation that they can no longer survive without a farmer.
Wild plants have been shown to have a higher nutrient content than those that are cultivated, especially in vitamin A precursors, vitamin C, omega-3 fatty acids and phytonutrients. While there are some wild plants that can occasionally be found on grocery store shelves, like dandelion greens, purslane, watercress, stinging nettle, and chanterelle mushrooms, most people obtain wild foods by foraging. This might seem like a strange practice, but there are many wild plant experts in various regions around the country teaching classes in plant identification and leading foraging expeditions. In addition to getting some extra nutrients on your plate, by engaging in this practice you also get to connect with your local community and spend some time outdoors, harvesting food at little or no cost!
Beyond diversifying your sources of plant foods, there is also an argument to be made for switching up your protein sources. Of all the animal protein sources Americans eat, chicken is by far the most common. We eat chicken at twice the frequency of beef and pork, which are the next two contenders. Seafood, categorized as a whole, is eaten much more infrequently—about twenty times less often than chicken. This is a troubling fact, as chicken is one of the more nutrient-poor animal protein choices (unless you are eating the organs!), and seafood is easily the most nutrient-dense of these common sources of animal protein.
As far as red meat is concerned, beef is not the only option. Although eaten far less often, lamb, bison, or wild game like elk or venison are excellent sources of red meat. For poultry, you can branch out beyond chicken and turkey to try duck, pheasant, or goose. Seafood brings the highest opportunity for diversity, as you can not only try dozens of different types of fish, but also many different varieties of shellfish, crustaceans, and sea vegetables. In general, just about everyone can stand to increase their seafood intake. Look into what types of seafood are fresh and local to your area and explore from there! Even if you live in a land-locked part of the country, don’t discount the ability of your local fishmonger to get their hands on some interesting and high-quality varieties for you.