Filling in the Gaps: The Importance of Nutrition Density

Dr. Christopher McGowan
julio 8, 2021

It is not without some irony that the food many people eat in the United States is called the Standard American Diet, or “SAD.” With obesity rates going up every year, more and more people are finding that the foods we are used to eating may not be as healthy for us as we think. 

Many people in the developed world, and particularly in the United States, eat a high-energy, low-nutrient diet. This means that while our food has a lot of calories, it does not necessarily have the nutritional value to match. Processed foods, white bread, alcohol, and unhealthy fats all make up what are called “empty calories” by dietitians. Eating a diet high in these foods can mean that you consume more calories than you should while still not getting the nutrients your body needs.

With so much emphasis on the links between obesity and conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, you might think that cutting calories is the most important thing you can do for your health if you are carrying around more pounds than is healthy. It turns out that cutting calories if you don’t have a nutrient dense diet can make it even harder for your body to maintain itself. This can affect many basic metabolic processes like managing blood sugar levels, cholesterol, and blood pressure. 

What are High Density Foods?

High density foods are those with a low level of calories to the overall amount of nutrients. A perfect example of this would be comparing a serving of grapes to grapefruit. Though a standard serving of grapefruit has only 60 calories compared to the 90 in a serving of grapes, the grapefruit has 100% of your daily recommended level of vitamin C and 35% of your vitamin A, while the grapes have almost none of either of these vitamins. 

Just from this simple example, you can see the principle of high density food at work. By looking through the entire diet of the average American, it would be easy to identify examples of foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients that could be replaced to provide a higher nutrient density without adding a lot of calories. 

How Do You Start a High Density Diet?

Small changes can make a big difference in the nutrition density of your diet. Finding foods that provide essential nutrients with fewer calories is often the key to healthy eating. This may seem like a daunting task at first, but a little digging can usually unearth lots of ways to get healthy foods into your diet. This is good news if you find the prospect of a wholesale change in your diet daunting.

One of the first things you will likely need to do is get more vegetables, and leafy greens in particular, into your diet. There is no denying the health benefits of vegetables, and nearly all medical advice aimed at improving your diet will agree that maintaining a high quantity of nutritious veggies in your diet will help. You may have your bases covered on macronutrients from fat or essentials like vitamin C if you are eating a lot of fruit, but for micronutrients like phosphorus, selenium, and folate, adding more vegetables to your plate is going to be the best answer. This doesn’t mean just spinach salad; collard greens, lentils, legumes, quinoa, and other plant-based whole foods are great sources of nutrients missing in many peoples’ diets. 

In some cases, simply swapping out the foods you are already eating is the first step. Though some people pursue a vegetarian diet for health reasons, others may find that simply exchanging unhealthy protein sources for lean meats, eggs, and a mix of other lean proteins is a better solution. Fish and plant-based proteins are also great options, as long as you are careful to ensure you are including the full range of amino acids your body needs. 

When it comes to the carbs, there are similar choices to make. Rather than cutting out carbohydrates altogether, you might start by choosing bread made from whole grains. Swapping out the empty calories of white rice with brown rice, or exchanging regular potatoes for the complex carbs of sweet potatoes are other great examples of how to get nutrient-rich foods into your diet with simple changes that don’t involve rethinking everything you eat. 

Another easy step is to begin replacing food and beverages in your diet that have added sugars with options that contain natural sweeteners or even those that have no added sugars at all. This will almost certainly mean cutting back on sugary drinks and sodas that have no nutritional value, but are typically loaded with added sugars or sweeteners. 

Are Fats Part of a High Density Diet?

There is a lot of confusion about whether fats are healthy for you and what role they play in weight loss. For many years, nutritionists recommended low-fat diets, but this advice is changing. If you are looking to eat a nutrient-rich diet, it is more important that you maintain a proper level of healthy fats while cutting the unhealthy trans fats that have been popular in the American diet for the last several decades. Even when cooking at home, where trans fats are less common, you still have choices to make. Using less fat when you are cooking is probably a good idea, but when a recipe does call for a fat source, using saturated fats like butter or ghee when cooking at high heat, or unsaturated fats like olive oil can help ensure you are consuming fat in the healthiest way possible. 

How Do You Identify Nutrient Dense Foods?

To make good food choices, you need to have good information. This means taking the time to read the nutrition facts on the products you buy, and asking about the nutrition information of meals you eat in restaurants whenever possible. When looking through the nutritional information on food, you are looking to make sure that you are getting the full recommended daily allowance of nutrients such as:

  • protein
  • calcium
  • vitamin D
  • potassium
  • magnesium
  • iron
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C
  • vitamin E
  • fiber

Even superfoods like blueberries or salmon are not going to have the full allotment of these nutrients, but looking for foods that have high levels of these nutrients relative to the amount of calories per serving will help you build a diet that is rich in nutrients but as low as possible in calories.

Kicking the SAD Habit

Losing weight, and keeping it off, is no simple matter. This is especially true if you have been eating the diet so many of us eat in the western world. With high-calorie treats available at every turn, and processed foods on offer everywhere, it can be difficult to establish and stick to a nutrient-dense diet that gives you the vitamins and minerals your body needs.

If you are already struggling with obesity or have been trying to lose weight for years, getting the nutrients you need is vital. Losing a lot of weight can be hard on your willpower, but it can be devastating on your body if you don’t get the nutrients you need. 

Nutrition is important for everyone, but careful attention to your diet is literally a life-or-death matter for people who have gone through bariatric surgery. With the severe restrictions on your caloric intake that a gastric bypass brings about, dangerous malnutrition is possible, and has resulted in fatalities in cases when people have not been able to meet their nutritional needs as their body changes. 

Thankfully advances in medically assisted weight loss mean that gastric bypass is no longer the only option available for people who are considering a weight loss procedure to help them win a long-running battle with their waistline. Options such as the ORBERA® Managed Weight Loss System, or ESG can allow people to have more control over their diet and weight loss process without risking some of the dangers of traditional bariatric surgery. 

Nutrition density is just one of the challenges you will have to navigate if you are considering a weight loss procedure. If you want to know more about the options available, and what it takes to find freedom from excess weight for the long term, solicitar una consulta with True You today.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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