Nutrient-rich foods: The foundation of a healthy diet

As a registered dietitian, one of the questions people most commonly ask me is, “What should I eat?”

This is something all of us have struggled with at some point in time. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans stresses the importance of eating nutrient-rich foods because many Americans are overfed -- but undernourished. Due to sedentary lifestyles and poor food choices, many Americans exceed their caloric needs without meeting their nutrient requirements. This has been shown to cause obesity and related diseases but also leads to malnutrition. The number of overweight Americans has increased to a record high; nearly two-thirds of adults are classified as overweight or obese. In a society where many of us are counting calories, it is imporatant to make calories count. By choosing nutrient-rich foods -- which provide the most nutrients per calorie -- we can build healthier diets, strengthen our immune systems and prevent chronic diseases.

Nutrient-rich foods provide substantial amounts of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and relatively few calories. Low nutrient-rich foods supply calories, but small amounts of micronutrients. For example, choosing a snack of baked chips or low-fat popcorn instead of regular potato chips would be a way to include a more nutrient-rich food into your diet. When making your grocery list and shopping for foods, start selecting foods because of the nutrients they do have, instead of the nutrients they don’t have such as saturated fat, sugar and salt. These foods are typically found around the perimeter -- along the outer walls -- of the grocery store, and some examples include:

Brightly colored fruits or 100 percent fruit juice

Vibrantly colored vegetables and potatoes

Whole, fortified and fiber-rich grain foods

Low-fat and fat-free milk, cheese and yogurt products

Lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and nuts

Eating a diet high in nutrient-rich foods is easier than it sounds. It may take some time, though, as you’re cooking. Before you start, think of ways you can get the most bang for your buck. For instance, instead of making oatmeal with water, add fat-free milk and mix in some raisins or other dried fruits, too. When making sandwiches, focus on using whole-grain breads such as whole wheat or rye, and choosing lean meats such as turkey and ham. You even can add slices of tomato, cucumber or lettuce for extra nutrients.

Or, the next time you make a pasta dish, try using whole-wheat pasta in place of regular pasta. When eating away from home, look for nutrient-rich choices such as entrée salads with grilled seafood or chicken and low-fat dressing; baked potatoes instead of French fries; and grilled vegetables instead of vegetables with cheese or cream sauces.

Eating nutrient-rich foods is a quick, easy way to make sure your body is receiving adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. By making a few substitutions to your diet, you can begin building your body’s foundation by eating in a way that will improve the quality of your life -- and your overall health, too.

Whitney Roberts is a registered dietitian who works with patients of the Blount Memorial Cancer Center. Roberts also is on the staff of the Blount Memorial Weight Management Center, which provides surgical and non-surgical options for weight loss, as well as diabetes management.

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