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Ask a Registered Dietitian: What Do I Need to Know about Nutrient Density?

As we prepare to say "farewell" to 2021 and welcome in the New Year, most of us have our 2022 resolutions mapped out. For some, improving your diet might be at the top of your list. But part of this "New Year: New You" attitude starts with understanding what your body needs to thrive and how you can fill your shopping cart and pantry with snacks and meals that help provide essential macro and micronutrients.

If you follow our blog already, then you've likely heard us talk about nutrient density and the benefits of nutrient-rich snacks. But when it comes time to shop at your local grocer, you may still have questions about how to choose smart food options, especially when comparing two similar items. 

We recently sat down with registered dietitian Marissa McCormick to give us the scoop on how to identify nutrient-rich foods and what to look for on food labels.

Marissa McCormick, MS, RDQ&A with Marissa McCormick, MS, RD

Q: How do you calculate nutrient density?

Marissa: I like to think of nutrient density as getting the most nutrients and food groups out of your calories. That means the next time you find yourself shopping at the grocery store, pay attention to each item's nutritional facts and ingredients. This way you can determine whether or not your food choice falls on the spectrum of more nutrient-dense or more calorie-dense.

A simple way to do this is by first looking at the number of calories per serving. Next, look at the daily percentage of nutrients. Information on vitamins and minerals is typically located at the bottom of the food label. Also, look for recommended food groups, like whole grains, dairy, and nuts and seeds in the ingredients.

For example, whole wheat pasta would be considered more nutrient-dense than refined pasta since it contains a similar number of calories per serving but also provides whole grains, which are recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Q: What are 3 things you should look for on a nutrition label before adding it to your cart?

Marissa: As I mentioned, check calories per serving first, so you can then compare that amount against the total number of vitamins and minerals and key food groups. 

Next, look out for sodium and saturated fat listings. Without moderation, these nutrients can be harmful to your health long term.

Added sugars are also something many Americans tend to over consume. The FDA now requires all nutrition labels to identify the number of added sugars per serving in the product. 

This is usually found beneath the total sugar count. Ingredients like agave nectar, molasses, corn syrup, and even honey are considered added sugars. 

Q: Is there ever a worry of getting "too many" nutrients (e.g., like protein)? And if so, how do we keep this in check?

Marissa: It's hard to say whether or not people are getting too much of this macronutrient, or not enough of that micronutrient. Certain people, for example, may experience vitamin deficiencies, which means they require more of a certain micronutrient than you do or vice versa. 

Age, weight, and other components will also factor in this equation, so it's best to talk to your doctor to help understand what your daily recommended amount of nutrients are.

This is why I like nutrient density so much. It helps shift the focus from getting one key nutrient to getting a balance of vitamins, minerals, and food groups into your diet. 

Q: What are nutrient-dense foods that are easy to have on your shopping list?

Marissa: Most people don't realize this, but nutrient-dense foods can be fresh, frozen, canned, or shelf-stable. This opens up more variety for food choices—not to mention tasty recipes.

I'd recommend choosing the following nutrient-dense foods:

  1. Veggies
  2. Fruits
  3. Whole grains
  4. Nuts
  5. Seeds
  6. Seafood
  7. Dairy 

Just be sure to check your food labels to make sure that the balance of nutrients and food groups fit into an overall healthy diet. 

Q: How do you teach your kids about nutrient density?

Marissa: Try to make the topic of nutrition a part of everyday conversation. Our kids count on us to provide them with nutritious meals that help them grow and develop into adults. Since you spend all that time planning and preparing healthy meals, why not involve them in the process?

I'd recommend introducing cooking and grocery planning into your child's routine as soon as you can. Reminder: kids tend to follow the same eating habits as their parents—therefore, this is a great opportunity to be a positive role model. If you want to ensure they'll make healthy choices when they're not at home, help them understand a whether or not a certain food is nutrient-dense. 

Q: What resources would you recommend (e.g., apps, guides, etc.) for people who want to learn more about nutrient density?

Marissa: USDA’s MyPlate is a great resource to learn more about nutrient density and to help guide individualized calorie and food group intake.

Q: Are all carbs bad?

Marissa: It seems like carbs are getting a bad rep these days. But many important food groups that deliver essential nutrients also contain carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. These are food groups that we tend to not eat enough of so seeking out these nutrient-dense carbohydrates is a great way to build a healthy diet. 

Q: Marissa, any final tips about nutrition for the New Year?

Marissa: Staying mindful of your food choices will help ensure you provide your body with the essentials—but with fewer empty calories. Though it takes a little adjusting, you'll start to like the way good nutrition feels. Enjoy!

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