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Ways to Help Identify Nutrient-Dense Foods

Most of us are on the lookout for a ready-made snack that conveniently checks three important boxes:

  1. Great taste
  2. Nutritious
  3. Few ingredients

Sounds like a daunting task, especially when the only way to figure this out is by decoding nutritional labels. 

The good news is you can learn how to decode them. And once you know what to look for on each label, you'll feel more confident choosing the right snack.

Nutrient Density Defined

Before we get started, let's first do a quick pop quiz on what nutrient density is. Nutrient density refers to the contribution of nutrients and food components per calorie. More specifically, the higher the nutrients per calorie serving, the more nutrient-dense the food is.

Nutrient Dense vs. Calorie Dense

Follow-up question (and this one's for bonus points), what's the difference between nutrient-dense foods vs. calorie-dense foods? 

When you see calories, think about energy content—as it refers to how much energy is provided per unit measure of food. Remember, we need calories (i.e., energy) for our bodies to function properly. But too much of a good thing can lead to weight gain or other health issues. And the amount of calories (energy) you need will differ from the person in the aisle next to you. That's why when it comes to calories, you'll want to stick with food items that pack a real nutrient punch per calorie serving. That way, you're getting the most out of each calorie. 

A good comparison might be choosing between salted caramel-covered almonds vs. raw almonds. Just from the title of the former option, you can probably guess there are added sugars included in its recipe. Since nuts already have a higher amount of calories per serving, you'll want to aim for plain almonds to avoid adding empty calories from added sugars.

Low Nutrient-Dense Foods

Examples of less nutrient-dense foods may include potato chips, ice cream, baked goods, soda, concentrated fruit drinks...the list goes on! One way to help alert yourself to these types of food choices is to read the nutrition labels for added sugars, (this can include honey, agave nectar, brown sugar, corn syrup, etc.), salt, and saturated fats.

Foods high in these ingredients don't always provide your body with many important nutrients. So consuming these foods in moderation is best for your health.

Okay, now that we know what these terms mean, let's talk about a few other important nutritional facts you'll want to pay attention to:

List of Ingredients

Food labels make it pretty easy to know exactly what’s in your food. These items are listed in order of weight. That means if you see whole foods listed first, like apples, or nuts, you know that this food item contains more of this particular ingredient vs. what follows after it on the list.

Carbohydrates

If you’re trying to stick to a specific number of carbs per day, or you just want to reduce your total carbohydrates in general, take a look at the total carbs, as well as the added sugars listed on the nutrition facts panel. 

Pro Tip: Think about added sugars in terms of teaspoons—this is a good visualization for putting a product’s sugar content into perspective. 

In general, experts recommend that women should aim for less than six teaspoons of added sugar per day, and men about 9 teaspoons.

Four grams of sugar equals about one teaspoon, so a food that contains 25 grams of sugar will already exceed that limit of six teaspoons a day for women. That’s something to consider when buying products. 

Fiber

A final, crucial check for carb content is fiber. Certain types of fiber can help slow the digestion of carbs, and more specifically, help slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream.

Protein

Protein and fat both play very important roles in helping you stay full and satisfied. So, check the label to see how many grams you're getting per serving. Try to opt for products that offer a few grams of protein each.

One caveat is that fat packs more calories per gram than carbs, so don’t forget to glance at the overall calorie count, too—and make sure it fits within your recommended daily calorie count.

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