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Nutrient Density Matters, Not Calories

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

In the previous posts, I have shared a few ideas on how to eat well during Chinese New Year and some tips on how to keep healthy while travelling on holidays. Now, let's see if we can say farewell to calorie counting and the old fashion way of quitting certain foods cold turkey. We will do this by focusing on nutrient density.

Macronutrient versus Micronutrients

When was the last time you looked at a nutrition label? What do you look out for? Calorie, carbs, fat or protein? Do you ever look at the amount of vitamins, minerals and fibre? How familiar are you with macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fat and protein, and micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre?

In this blog I'd like to focus on the nutritional content rather than the calorie content of food. We will consider nutrient density, how to identify nutrient dense foods, and how to add these to our daily routine in a sustainable manner.

Not That D Word Again

Chinese New Year is almost over and given the coronavirus epidemic and the flu season, it is a great opportunity to consider how we can improve the quality of our diet. Whether we want to maintain or change our weight, it is important for all of us to eat in a way that supports our health and immune system. How can we maximise the amount of nutrients in our food without compromising our taste buds? How can we get rid of all the processed junk food from our diet?

Crowding Out

The answer is to add. We add nutritious food to crowd out unwanted cravings or junk food. Because adding one thing to replace another is much easier than taking it away, especially when it is an old habit. Would you like to start now? All it takes is to add one small, positive change to your existing habit. Just one change can be the start of a successful and sustainable health journey.

Think Beyond Calories - Donut vs Banana

As an example, consider 100kcal of donut and 100kcal of banana. Which one is more likely to make you fat? Which one is more likely to make you well? Imagine going on an extreme diet - one that consists of 2,000 kcal of donuts or 2,000 kcal of bananas every day for one week. Which one would you choose? How would you look at the end of the week? How would you feel in terms of mood, appetite and energy levels?

Nutrient Density

What do we meant by nutrient density? It is the amount of micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fibre per 100g or 100 kcal of food. For more about the definition of nutrient density and nutrient-rich foods index, read here.

Nutrient Dense Foods

When it comes to choosing what to eat, we should always try to maximise nutrient density per gram or calorie of food. Nutrient dense foods are likely to be whole food, such as vegetables and fruits grown organically, animals raised on pasture, or fish or seafood wild caught from the sea.

Here are some common features of nutrient dense foods:

  • Single ingredient

  • Grown from a plant, picked from a tree, raised on pasture, or caught from the sea

  • Minimally processed

  • No packaging

  • No health claim

  • No nutrition label

  • No expiry date

  • No preservatives

  • No artificial colouring

  • No artificial flavours

Can you think of any examples of nutrient dense foods? They are everywhere if you pay attention.

Freshly Grown, Pasture Raised or Wild Caught, Not Manufactured

Picture all kinds of food that is freshly grown in a farm or in the wild, picked from a tree, raised on pasture, caught from the sea, or even algae cultivated in ponds. Think carrots, apples, pasture-raised chicken eggs, wild-caught salmon, spinach, onions, radish and cabbage.

Remember that quote by Michael Pollan, "if it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t."

Fresh, Local and Organic

Ideally we want to eat fresh organic vegetables and fruits grown locally and seasonally without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers. If you can access and afford organic produce, these will likely contain higher nutritional content than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

Organic vs Certified Organic

Wherever you are, it is always worth learning more about the labelling standards applicable to your region. Make a distinction between 'organic', 'certified organic' and 'made with organic ingredients'. Organic certification can provide some guarantee for the safety and quality of the food. You can learn to support small organic farms which use sustainable organic methods but are not necessarily certified organic. These local farmers focus their time and energy to grow high quality produce and may not have the manpower or resources to get their products certified organic.

Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Since organic food can be expensive, you can save money by learning which fruits and veggies contain the most pesticide residues (strawberries, blueberries, apples, kale, spinach, grapes, bell peppers) and the least contaminated (avocados, mangoes, asparagus, cabbage). There is no need to splash our hard earned money on organic avocados, because conventional avocados are one of the least contaminated produce.

For more on organic produce, the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists, please read my blog.

Grass-Fed not Grain-Fed

Grass-fed beef is one of the most nutrient dense foods rich in protein. Always buy grass-fed and grass-finished meat whenever you can. These animals are fed grass and allowed to exercise on pasture which means their meat is lower in fat and calories, and contains more omega 3 fatty acids to help inflammation. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef is also found to contain higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid ("CLA") which may reduce the risk of cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes and help modulate body composition.

Grass-fed animals are more humanely raised than their grain-fed counterparts. You are also doing your bit for the environment as these animals help to recycle and replenish the soil through their poop.

Some cattle are grass-fed but grain-finished. Go for 'grass-fed AND grass-finished' if possible, do so for your health and the planet.

Pasture-Raised Is Better than Organic

This term refers to animals being raised on pasture in a humane manner. Cows can eat nutritious grass and other plants and exercise. Chickens can peck away at little bugs and insects on the grass, roam around freely and behave naturally. Note that 'pasture-raised' is very similar to 'grass-fed'. The label "pasture-raised" is clearer on whether the animal was raised outdoors on pasture, because animals can be fed grass and remain indoors (due to seasonal weather conditions).

Also note that "organic" meat, dairy or egg or even salmon generally means that the animal is fed organic corn or soy or other grain. Animals in an organic farm has a controlled diet and environment, which may not be better than "pasture raised" or "wild-caught".

Free Range

Always buy pasture-raised eggs whenever you can, because they are healthier, contain more omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D and E, and beta carotene than traditional eggs, If you are unable to find pasture-raised eggs, the next best would be "free range or free roaming". Free range means the animals have some outdoor access and the animals are not necessarily cruelty-free or antibiotic-free, or spent the majority of their time outdoors

Healthy Fats

The last but very important category - healthy fats. Where does your dietary fat come from? It could be your last dinner of fried chicken, coconut curry, a grilled salmon steak or the mayo in the salad? Are you getting enough omega 3 fatty acids from natural sources like extra virgin olive oil, avocados, fatty fish like sardines, tuna, salmon, mackerel, anchovies, nuts and seeds like chia, flax, hemp. What sort of cooking oils do you use? If you are still using vegetable oils like canola, sunflower or safflower oil, I would strongly encourage you to replace them with nutrient dense grass-fed ghee, coconut oil or avocado oil.

Processed and packaged foods like pizzas, biscuits, cakes, potato chips, deep fried and baked convenient foods tend use vegetable (seed) oil, that is high in omega 6 fatty acids and has little to none in terms of micronutrients. It is best if you can avoid them and have more home cooked and fresh food.

Take Control or Delegate

When it comes to healthy eating, the best is always to prepare your own meals. I understand it is not a viable option for those with very busy schedules, young children to feed, or simply do not know how to cook (yet). You may be forced to eat out a lot because of your working hours, your kitchen is too small or you have many social commitment. If you have to delegate control of your food, what are the least bad options you can take?

Add A Side of Veggies or A Piece of Fruit

In case you don't have a helper, or you don't live in Hong Kong or you just don't cook. You can try to make an effort by thinking if there are healthier restaurants or food delivery services. When it comes to snacking, you can try to eat something fresh and seasonal. It's best if you can eat a rainbow. Try to have an apple, a banana or some carrot sticks before you reach out for any snack bars. Or just add a side of vegetables when you dine out or have a takeaway. The little extra costs will be worth it. Maybe a green tea instead of a coffee? Just start with a healthy snack that you enjoy, make a very simple habit that can be easily incorporated into your routine.

Make Health Your Priority

When it comes to your personal health versus your other personal goals like career, family and various responsibilities. It is a matter of your priorities, intention, and motivation. What other ideas do you have about crowding out unwanted foods or habits? I would like to hear from you and learn what we can do to achieve better health. Get in touch with me for a free health consultation.

Further information

1. A proposed nutrient density score that includes food groups and nutrients to better align with dietary guidance

2. Organic foods contain higher levels of certain nutrients, lower levels of pesticides, and may provide health benefits for the consumer.

3. Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce

4. Dirty Dozen

5. Clean Fifteen

6. Eating Organic - The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen

7. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content of grass-fed beef and grain-fed beef

8. Fat Is Our Friend

9. Cooking Oils

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