For so long, we've focused on just a few parameters when it comes to food: fat, calories and carbs. But what about all of the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants that should be in our food? After all, a meal should do more than fill you up; it should provide your body with the tools in needs to repair damage, build strength, and provide energy. When a food can do all of these things without bogging you down with too many calories, it's considered a nutrient-dense food. And health experts agree that this may be a much better way to look at our diets.
The nutrient density of foods was first explored by family physician Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Fuhrman is a nutritional researcher who specializes in developing diets that prevent and reverse the course of disease. According to Fuhrman, we should be stacking our diets with foods that contain the most micronutrients per caloric buck. Hence, the term "nutrient density."
Fuhrman developed the aggregate nutrient density index, aka ANDI, a guide that ranks foods based on their nutrient density. ANDI scores are calculated by evaluating an extensive range of micronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidant capacities. The guide is used by Whole Foods Market to help customers make healthy choices while they shop.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recently released a list of 40 or so powerhouse foods that are most strongly associated with reducing the risk of chronic disease. These foods were evaluated based on the availability of vitamins and minerals such as iron, riboflavin, niacin, folate, vitamin B, vitamin C and potassium.
The lists are somewhat different (ANDI gives kale a top score of 1,000 on a scale of 1-1,000 while the CDC rates the green veggie as 49 on a scale of 1-100) because the nutrients used for evaluation were somewhat different. But overall, a general theme emerges when looking at the two lists about the nutrient dense foods that should be on your dinner plate. Veggies — especially green veggies — rule. As do carrots, cauliflower and peppers. Here's a look at some foods and their ANDI scores from Dr. Fuhrman's site:
A sample list of some common foods and their ANDI nutrient density score. (Chart: Dr. Fuhrman)
Pile up your dinner plate with vegetables, beans, fruits and nuts that have a high ANDI score and you will be all set for a healthy, well-balanced and nutrient dense meal.
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