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Dietitian Dish: Nutrient Density

May 10, 2011 at 12:10 a.m.

By Linda Crisp

With spring weight loss on everyone's mind, it may be a good time to discuss calories and nutrient density. All calories are not created equal.

Nutrient-dense foods are foods that are relatively low in calories while providing substantial amounts of vitamins and minerals. In other words, these foods give lots of nutritional bang for your calorie buck, which is very important when weight loss is the goal.

When you cut out extra calories in order to lose weight, it's easy to become nutritionally depleted. For many people, getting rid of calories in order to lose weight is the be-all-to-end-all goal. Attention to staying well nourished with adequate vitamins, fiber, protein and minerals is often ignored. It's possible to stay well nourished and lose weight at the same time by eating nutrient-dense foods.

Nutrient-dense foods are generally those that have little or no processing, and have not had sugar or fats added. Examples of nutrient-dense foods are fresh whole fruits, fresh or frozen vegetables, whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa, legumes, low-fat milk products, eggs and lean meats.

When you stick to these basics and add only a few teaspoons of sugars or fats per day, you know you're getting lots of minerals, vitamins, protein and phytochemicals without the extra calories. The result is maintaining a great nutritional status while losing weight.

Non-nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, are sodas, potato chips, French fries or candy. These foods contain very few vitamins and minerals to help us reach our daily nutritional needs, but provide lots of extra calories from fat and sugar. You may also hear these foods described as having "empty calories."

Some foods are not exactly empty calories, but have extra sugar or fat added making them less nutrient dense. Examples of these are snack bars, sweetened cereals, milkshakes and smoothies.

Other foods with less nutrient density are foods prepared with high fat sauces, gravies, salad dressings or mayonnaise. Just remember to limit foods with added sugar and fat.

In meal planning for weight loss, strive to include nutrient-dense foods. Fill half of your plate with vegetables, leaving one-quarter of the plate for starches and one quarter for low fat protein-rich foods. The USDA is on the nutrient density bandwagon by promoting this eating lifestyle as a part of its 2010 Dietary Guidelines.

Stay in good nutritional shape this spring while cutting the calories and dropping a few pounds by focusing on nutrient density.

Linda Crisp is a registered and licensed dietitian who is a board certified specialist in oncology nutrition. Send questions or comments to



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