Nutrient Density – Part One
Understanding Nutrient Density
The first thing to consider about any food you eat is its proportions of nutrients to calories, or how nutrient dense it is. Ideally there should be an abundance of nutrients in your diet and enough calories to get you through your day. Nutrients are essential substances like vitamins and minerals, fats (fatty acids) and proteins (amino acids), bioflavonoids and anti-oxidants. Calories come from all of your foods, but are much more abundant in high-carbohydrate foods like roots, grains breads, pasta and of course junk food, which is why it is called junk or “not so useful”.
Your body can use many nutrients as fuel. You gain calories by breaking down fats and oils into fatty acids and proteins into amino acids. You get the fuel from large carbohydrates such as starches and plants by breaking them down into glucose, a simple carbohydrate, which is the primary fuel for your brain and muscles.
In general, the more natural and fresh a food is the more nutrient dense it is and the more processed a food is the more anti-nutrient and calorie intense it is. I think most of us can agree that a fresh berry smoothie with healthy oil, hemp hearts, raw cacao, greens powder and yogurt is a more nutrient dense breakfast than a bowl of processed and sweetened breakfast cereal with pasteurized milk and extra sugar to boot. If you recall my simple advice about sticking to the wall of your grocery store you are well on your way to a nutrient-dense diet. Below is a list of nutrient-dense foods. It is not in any precise order and I have focused primarily on foods that are readily available in North America.
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The challenge, for most of us, is to limit (or eliminate) the calorie intense “foods” like sugar, chips, pasta, bread and processed foods like cereals and frozen meals. Substances like soft drinks and alcohol are obviously not foods. The common link among all of these “foods” is they are primarily carbohydrates and contain very little nutrients. We have all heard that carbs are bad and are aware that most people are trying low carb diets. Well, here is why…
Calorie Intense Foods
Starches like bread and pasta are made of two kinds of carbohydrates: amylose and a very calorie intense molecule called amylopectin. Amylose burns slowly and is not very high in glucose, while amylopectin is a very dense starch molecule is actually made of 160,000 glucose molecules. Again, glucose is a fuel and is very useful but is not so healthy by itself. In terms of molecules a high starch meal is not a lot different than a bowl of sugar, except that the calories from starch just move into your bloodstream slower. Then there is sugar or sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide, or a double glucose molecule. It is difficult to get into this without getting technical, but think of sugar as something that makes your body more and more sensitive and addictive to every other carbohydrate that you eat. The more sugar you eat, the more your body will addict to these foods and the worse your body will respond to starches like flour, pasta and chips.
The rate at which the glucose from any food enters you bloodstream is described as its Glycemic Index. Below is a table of the Glycemic Index of some common foods. The Glycemic Index is a rating from 0-100, glucose having a rating or index of 100. The higher the Glycemic Index (GI) of a food, the faster the carbohydrates break down to glucose and enter your blood stream. More importantly, the higher the GI index, the more irritating and addicting it is to your body. Also, the higher the GI, the more likely it is to be a factor in high blood pressure, weight gain, kidney disease and diabetes.
Glycemic Index of Common Foods
A low GI rating is from 0 – 55, a moderate GI is from 55-70 and a high GI is anything above 70. If you are focused on your health or on weight loss it is best to choose foods that are below 70. If you like the odd parsnip or other high glycemic food, mix it with other foods that have a GI that is as low as possible and some healthy fats or oils.
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Other factors on Glycemic Index
Depending on how you prepare your foods, you may make the Glycemic Index better or worse. For example a boiled potato has a GI of 56 and a baked potato has a GI of 93. Starches that are cooked in fats and oils typically reduce their GI by 10 or more points because they are absorbed much slower. Refined flour foods like white bread have GI over 70 and whole grain sourdough dough breads have a GI under 52. Also most processed cereals have a GI over 80 while most natural kinds of porridge are under 55.
There is another scale for Glycemic Index that uses a range from 0 – 140, with white bread measuring in at 100. As confusing as this can be, just make sure which scale is being used when researching the GI of a particular food.
Go to part two