It can be really confusing to navigate the world of nutrition with so many theories and approaches out there, not to mention experts and research that seem to contradict each other.
For many of us, feeling overwhelmed by information can lead to confusion or just plain giving up on our nutrition goals.
There is a simpler way to approach this – with one general guideline: Go dense.
Choosing nutrient-dense foods, rather than foods that are nutrient-depleted (or refined), will guarantee you’re always making the right choice for you. Foods that are closer to their natural state tend to be more replete in vitamins and minerals and tend to have a better balance of macronutrients (like protein, fat and fiber). The more foods are altered by humans, the more nutrition we lose.
Processes that expose foods to high levels of heat, light or oxygen cause the greatest nutrient loss. This would include canning, baking, milling (making flour) and blanching. Water-soluble vitamins like C and B vitamins are particularly sensitive to high temperatures. Grains such as wheat can be ground to remove the fibrous husks. The husks contain most of the plant’s dietary fiber, B vitamins, essential fats, phytochemicals and some minerals. It is impossible to add back everything that is taken out, especially the phytochemicals, even with artificial fortification.
Other factors like how a food is grown/raised can seriously affect its micronutrient content. In 2008, a meta-analysis was published that looked at about 100 studies related to the nutrient value of organic vs. conventionally farmed foods. Overall, organic foods were found to be higher in polyphenols, antioxidants (including vitamin C), nitrates and protein. The study concluded that common conventional agriculture practices such as reduced pest pressure from pesticide use, higher nitrogen levels from soil additives and rapid plant growth from fertilizers reduce plant nutrient production, especially antioxidants.
Given these well-documented studies, USDA data tracking nutrient declines for the last 70 years, and nutritional deficiencies found in human testing samples, even moderately more nutrient-dense foods are a desirable addition to the American diet.
There are simple shifts you can make in where you buy your food and what you choose to eat. Buying local, fresh food is more nutrient dense as most produce loses 30% of nutrients three days after harvest. Because most nutrients tend to lie close to the skin surface, washing produce instead of peeling it can mean a huge increase in a vegetable’s nutrient value. Making foods at home allows you to choose which ingredients you include, such as using cacao powder, coconut milk and maple syrup for hot chocolate instead of Swiss Miss. Taking a closer look at your diet, you’ll be surprised to discover simple substitutions that are delicious. For example, chia pudding or super-packed smoothies instead of cereal. Letting go of flour and flour-based products (think bread, crackers, cookies) will go a long way to boosting the nutrient density of your food. Dip cucumbers and carrots instead of chips into your guacamole or eggs with black beans, greens and roasted sweet potato instead of toast.
With a little curiosity and creativity, you can significantly increase the quality of your diet while not sacrificing on fun, variety and ease.
Nicola Dehlinger is a naturopathic doctor at Pura Vida Natural Healthcare in Durango. She can be reached at 426-1684 or www.puravidahealthcare.com.