The dictionary defines nutrient as: a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life. So, nutrient density would be: food relatively rich in nutrients for the number of calories contained. The idea, in this culture of abundance, is to get the nutrients we need without overconsumption of calories.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of macronutrients: fat, protein, and carbohydrate. What you may not know much about are the micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, and various phytochemicals. It is not difficult for most people in America today to obtain (more than) adequate quantities of the macronutrients, but micronutrient deficiency is rampant. We are awash in a sea of empty calories. You can eat yourself into obesity yet still be malnourished. Processed foods such as donuts, cookies, chips, sodas, fast food, etc. will keep you alive and may make you overweight, but they will not provide you with the micronutrients you need, you will not thrive.
Ok, so you may be thinking that processed foods have been fortified with vitamins and minerals, so that makes them ok. While technically it may be true that foods have been fortified, how this plays out in the body is a little different, or, when is Vitamin A not really Vitamin A?
Vitamin A refers to retinol which is found only in animal sources. Beta-carotene and other carotenoids that are sometimes called Vitamin A are in reality Provitamin A. They must be converted by the body into retinol or true Vitamin A, which is an inefficient process at best. This is not to say that carotenoids aren’t important, they are, they just aren’t Vitamin A.
Vitamin A has many functions, the most well-known is its role in vision. Vitamin A deficiency leads to night blindness which is reversible, then to permanent damage and eventual loss of sight. On a personal note, I was able to reverse my night blindness by adding liver, which is the best source of Vitamin A, to my diet. It is also thought that macular degeneration, a very common cause of vision loss in the elderly, is not inevitable, but rather a preventable condition caused by inadequate intake of Vitamin A.
The best source of Vitamin A is liver which can easily be hidden in things like meatloaf, burgers, meatballs, etc. If you don’t think you’re ready to eat liver I recommend Vital Proteins Beef Liver Capsules. They use liver from pasture raised cows, dry it, and put it into a capsule so there’s no flavor. They also contain all your B12 which is a nice energy boost in the morning.
Vitamin D is commonly added to foods as it is a common deficiency due to our indoor lifestyle. Again, understanding the differences in the forms of vitamins is important to maintaining sufficiency. Most processed food is fortified with Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) which isn’t a very effective form of Vitamin D. Foods with naturally occurring Vitamin D (with the exception of mushrooms) contain D3 (cholecalciferol), which is also the form our bodies make when our skin is exposed to sunlight.
Most people are probably aware of the role Vitamin D plays in bone health, but it is also thought to protect against some types of cancer, and inadequate Vitamin D may be a contributing factor in the development of auto-immune disease.
Fatty fish such as salmon and sardines are good food sources of Vitamin D, as well as organ meats. But, exposing your skin to the sun is the best way to obtain Vitamin D. There are many factors that determine how long you need to spend in the sun, your skin color, age, latitude, etc., but for many people 15-20 minutes is sufficient. Supplementation may be necessary to remediate deficiency.
Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are compounds produced by plants to protect themselves. They can’t run away from danger so they produce chemicals to defend against pests, ultraviolet light, etc. These compounds have many beneficial effects in the human body including, anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory properties, hormonal balancing effects, better liver function, eye protection, artery health, and immune modulating properties.
Phytonutrients work best when consumed in whole food form. There have been over 8,000 different phytonutrients identified and there are several hundred in each plant. For the majority of these we don’t even know what they do. Research consistently shows that a diet high in vegetable consumption reduces the risk of disease and death. Furthermore, synthetic forms of nutrients are often not identical to the natural forms and don’t work the same way. There’s no getting around it, you’re just going to have to eat your veggies.
Ideally, we would get all our nutrition from food, and this is generally what I recommend, but in some cases supplementation is necessary or helpful to get started. Many of us suffer from poor digestion making it harder to absorb nutrients, and due to farming and breeding practices many of our foods/soils are not as nutritious as they should be. Supplements should not be used in place of nutritious food; think of them as a temporary helping hand.
Some examples of nutrient dense foods:
- Organ meats, especially liver
- Leafy green vegetables like kale and collard greens
- Fatty fish like salmon and sardines
- Wild greens like dandelion, purslane, and lamb’s quarters
- Darkly colored berries like blueberries and blackberries
In the next post, I’ll give tips on getting more nutrients into your diet.