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  • Writer's pictureIsabel Hemmings

Cut the junk food, but don't stop there - choose nutrient-dense foods for optimal health!

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Many of us are now cutting out the junk food, but unless we’re careful, we could still end up missing out on key nutrients. In the UK today, many people are deficient in important vitamins and minerals. To truly flourish, we need to do more than give up the junk food. To achieve optimal health we can choose the right range of nutrient-dense foods in our diets and make every mouthful count!


Here we describe why we need to move along the nutrient-density spectrum and provide

8 simple steps you can take to ensure you get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy!

Why do we need to consider the nutrient density of our foods?


The quality of the food we eat declined dramatically in recent years mainly as a result of the rise of highly processed foods (UPFs). Eating a lot of these foods greatly increases our risk of disease. There are many reasons UPFs are harmful, such as their impact on weight, but another important reason is that they lack nutrients. We can become malnourished and sick when eating these foods, despite eating plenty of calories!


Minimising highly processed foods helps us to be healthier. However, if we want to really flourish, we need to do more than minimise UPFs, we need to maximise the nutrient-density of the foods in our diets. We all want to eat well and to get the health benefits of a good diet. But in the UK today many of us lack key nutrients, such as the vitamins and minerals we need to ensure we resist infection, have energy, stay healthy and get the most out of life. Even when you cut the junk food it can still be difficult to get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy.


We would like to invite you to think about shifting along the nutrient-density spectrum! This means leaving behind highly processed foods, but then taking a further step, and to actively choose the most nutrient-dense foods in your diet. This is route by which you can avoid nutrient deficiencies and move towards optimal health.



Nutrient deficiency in the UK


Many people are deficient in important nutrients, for example, teenage girls, are, on average, significantly deficient in many important vitamins and minerals, including iron, selenium, calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium. We know this because the UK government carries out a National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) which uses a survey and blood tests on a representative sample of the UK population to assess nutritional intake.


The NDNS reports show the average intake of specific nutrients, along with the proportion of participants who have an intake below the LRNI (Lowest recommended nutrient intake). The Department of Health previously stated:


‘If individuals are habitually eating less than the LRNI they will almost certainly be deficient.’


The survey identifies many nutrient deficiencies, several of which have worsened since 2008, some examples are shown below:


Table: Showing average intake of nutrients against RNI (Reference Nutrient Intake) and % of population below LRNI – i.e deficient in specific nutrients.


What happens when we become deficient in nutrients?


The impact of nutrient deficiencies are many and varied. In some cases, deficiency can cause overt ill-health or increase the likelihood of infection. For example, many nutrients support the proper functioning of the immune system and deficiency can increase risk and severity of infection. Deficiency in iron, and folate or vitamin B12 can cause anaemia, with symptoms including tiredness, shortness of breath and heart palpitations. Insufficient calcium can lead to bone weakness. Deficiency may also result in more general symptoms such as difficulty with concentration and work, fatigue, low mood or digestive issues. You may just feel that you’re not firing on all cylinders!


Why did it all go wrong - what happened to the quality of our food?


The quality of our food fell dramatically following the introduction ultra-processed foods. These foods are energy-dense convenience foods, often high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, made with industrially produced fats, additives and other chemicals and preservatives. They are hyper-palatable and drive unhealthy eating behaviours. They make us fat and deprive us of key nutrients and these factors increase risk for disease.


Over half the food we eat in the UK is ultra-processed and the decline in our food quality was matched by a decline in health. The massive rise in obesity in recent years reflects this change in our diets. Fifty years ago, just 3% of adults were obese, now 26% of adults are obese. The UK is now one of the highest consumers of UPFs in Europe and also has one of the highest levels of obesity (Monteiro et al 2018)


Prevalence of obesity among adults v. household availability of ultra-processed foods (percentage of total energy) in nineteen European countries (1991–2008) (Monteiro 2018)



The risk of many diseases rises in proportion to amount of UPFs in the diet. This includes Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic renal failure, NAFLD (non-alcoholic liver disease), and a number of mental health conditions including depression and dementia.


So what are nutrient-dense foods?


At the opposite end of the spectrum to ultra-processed foods are nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are ones which contain the highest levels of nutrients per calorie – these are the foods that pack a punch and provide a multitude of vitamins, minerals, and other key nutrients per calorie. Many of these foods are high in protein but also rich in other nutrients. An assessment by Ty Beal from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition of the nutrient density of foods, has identified that foods such as seafood, meat, especially organ meat, fish, dairy and eggs are particularly nutrient-dense. There are also some highly nutritionally dense plant foods, such as dark green leafy vegetables and soybeans.


When you compare foods for nutrient value per calorie, you can see major differences between foods. As an extreme example suggested by Ted Naiman, a portion of salmon and a doughnut contain roughly the same number of calories, but the nutritional content of the two foods is wildly different! They also have different effects on our hunger – protein-rich foods like salmon fill us up and make us fee satiated, whilst highly processed foods like doughnuts will make us want to eat more


6. How do we improve the quality of our diets?


Essentially our dietary intake provides us with the energy and nutrients needed for life. When we try to gauge the quality of a diet, we can assess it against a spectrum based on the nutrient intake provided by the diet. At one end of the spectrum, you have a diet high in ultra-processed foods, which substantially lacks nutrient value, and at the other end you have a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods. The latter is a high quality diet in that it provides all the nutrients needed for health.


Many of us want to improve our diets and understand the importance of minimising highly processed foods. However, even when these foods are removed, there is still a risk you may not get the full range of nutrients at sufficient quantities for optimal health. Many of us are situated mid-way along the nutrient density spectrum, having made improvements to our diets, but there further steps we can take to move towards a highly nutritious diet.

Our 8 Steps to take you to a Nutrient Dense Diet!


If you’ve cut right down on junk food and cut out supermarket cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, pizzas and ready meals you have already made a major improvement to the nutritional content of your diet. So, what are the next steps you can take towards a nutrient-dense diet?


Here we provide some suggestions about steps you can take to move along the Nutrient -Density spectrum!


STEP 1: INCREASE PROTEIN IN YOUR DIET


Many people are not eating enough protein, but protein-rich foods are highly nutritious. Increasing the amount of protein in your diet you will automatically add more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to your diet.


Animal sourced protein including meat, fish, seafood dairy foods and eggs are amongst the most bioavailable and complete sources of protein and are also rich sources of nutrients such as iron, zinc, B vitamins. Nutrients such as iron and zinc are more bioavailable from animal sources than plant sources. For example, 20% or iron from meat is absorbed compared to 10% from plants


The best plant based sources of protein are soybean and Quorn, which is a protein made from the made from a fungus. However, soybean and foods such as tofu, are the best options as they are rich in important vitamins and minerals, including B vitamin, calcium, iron, copper, magnesium and zinc.


If you're upping your protein, it's probably best to start with breakfast - as this is the meal where most people miss out on a good dose of protein - think eggs, yoghurt, fish, meat, nuts and seeds!


Recommendations:


- Aim for 1.2 - 1.5g/day of good quality protein per kg of body weight

- Aim for 25 - 35g of protein at every meal

- Eat plenty of protein at breakfast





STEP 2: EAT OILY FISH EVERY WEEK

Oily fish, such as sardines, salmon, herring and mackerel are highly nutritious as they are good sources of protein, calcium and vitamin D. But oily fish are also rich in important omega 3 fatty acids – EPA (Eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (Docosahexaenoic Acid), which cannot be made by the human body, so need to be eaten in food. Omega 3 fatty acids are especially important for brain health and for the immune system.


Recommendation:

- Eat oily fish two or three times each week.

- If you are vegetarian take an algae-based Omega 3 supplement


STEP 3: INCLUDE HIGHLY NUTRIENT - DENSE FOODS IN YOUR DIET

If you can, try to include some of the highest nutrient dense foods in your diet. These are foods which contain the highest number of key nutrients, so provide the greatest level of nourishment per calorie. These foods include:


- Organ meats, such as liver, kidneys, heart,

- Seafood – such as clams, mussels, oysters, scallops

- Crustaceans – crabs, lobsters, prawns and shrimp

- Small whole fish – e.g sardines, anchovies, small dried fish


Recommendation:


- Include some highly nutrient-dense foods in your diet every week



STEP 4: DON’T FEAR HEALTHY FATS


We need fats in our diet for many reasons, including energy, for maintaining cell membranes and protecting our organs. Another reason why fat are so important is that it is required for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins – vitamins A, D, E and K. Nowadays we are more aware of the importance of including healthy fat in the diet, and the days of low-fat diets have gone. Instead, we should focus on making sure we use natural fats, such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, butter and ghee, and avoid highly processed vegetable (seed oils).


Recommendations:


- Include natural fats in your diet and avoid industrial vegetable oils

- Always include a source of fat, such as butter, or olive oil, with vegetables so you can absorb the vitamins


STEP 5: EAT GREEN LEAFY VEGETABLES REGULARLY


We know how important it is to eat plenty of vegetables, but dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale, chard, rocket, spinach, Swiss chard, collard greens and bok choy are particularly important as they are highly nutrient-dense. These vegetables are rich in vitamins A, C, K and calcium. As with all vegetables it’s important to protect the nutrients in your greens when you cook them, so steam or sauté them rather than boiling, and don’t overcook.


Recommendations:


- Eat green leafy vegetables regularly

- Steam or sauté, rather than boiling vegetables


STEP 6: INCLUDE NUTS AND SEEDS


Nuts and seeds are an important source of a number of key vitamins and minerals, some of which are more difficult to get from animal sources. So if you’re trying to cover all bases when it comes to nutrients, it’s good to include some nuts and seeds. Most nuts and seeds contain magnesium, and many contain manganese. Almonds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E, sesame seeds, cashews, sunflower seeds and hazelnuts are all good sources of copper, and Brazil nuts are great for selenium. All nuts and seeds are also rich in fibre, and chia seeds and flax seeds are particularly good sources.


Recommendations:


- Include a range of nuts and seeds in your diet

- Include chia seeds and/or flax seeds for fibre

- Eat a small handful (no more) of Brazil nuts every week for selenium





STEP 7: EAT FERMENTED FOODS


Looking after your digestive system can help you to make sure you can absorb nutrients from your food. Eating fibre and regularly including fermented foods in your diet can help support a healthy gut. Fermenting foods, such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut, improves the bioavailability of protein and vitamins in foods such as legumes, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fermentation also breaks down anti-nutrients in plant foods, and the process of fermentation can produce vitamin B12.


Recommendation:


- Regularly eat fermented foods


STEP 8: EAT A LITTLE DARK CHOCOLATE!


This might surprise some people – but cocoa is rich in important minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, copper, iron, manganese and zinc.


Recommendation:


- Eat a little dark chocolate, preferably 85% cocoa solids regularly.



In conclusion


Highly processed foods have led to obesity and chronic disease in recent decades. By shifting along the nutrient density spectrum away from ultra-processed foods towards nutrient-dense foods we can minimise nutrient deficiencies and become healthier. Nutrition is complicated, but by following our 8 simple steps you can ensure you're covering all the bases!



A SUMMARY OF OUR 8 STEPS:


  1. Plenty of protein

  2. Oily fish every week

  3. Include highly nutrient-dense foods

  4. Don't fear healthy fats

  5. Lots of green leafy vegetables

  6. Include nuts and seeds

  7. Eat fermented foods

And finally, don't forget to:


8. Eat a little dark chocolate!




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