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Add more nutrient-dense foods to your diet

Foods such as kale, cantaloupe, and quinoa can boost the amount of nutrients you consume without increasing calories.

Getting enough nutrients through diet is challenging as we age. Our bodies don’t absorb nutrients as well as they once did, yet we tend to need fewer calories and eat less. So it’s important to make the most out of the foods we do eat. One way is by choosing more nutrient-dense foods, which provide more nutrition bang for the calorie buck. “They contain an abundance of nutrients and other healthful substances—vitamins and minerals, fiber, lean protein, and unsaturated fats—but are not excessive in calories. This is compared with foods of low nutrient density that are high in calories,” says Liz Moore, a registered dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.


If you’re not already eating a healthy diet, or you’re not eating enough healthy foods, nutrient-dense foods will help fill in the gaps. For example, one slice of white bread has about 70 calories, but very few vitamins and minerals. One slice of whole-wheat bread, however, has about the same amount of calories as white bread, but four times the amount of potassium and magnesium and three times the zinc.

Many nutrient-dense foods also contain fiber. “Fiber can help prevent constipation, stabilize blood sugars, and lower cholesterol, issues that are often common in older adults,” says Moore. For example, that same slice of whole-wheat bread has double the fiber and protein as the white bread.

Where to find them

Examples of nutrient-dense foods include leafy greens such as spinach, kale, and broccoli; whole grains such as wheat, corn, quinoa, and barley in the form of breads and cereals; fruits such as blueberries, strawberries, and pomegranates; oily fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and sardines; low-fat dairy products, such as yogurt and milk; lean meats; and vegetables such as mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and bell peppers.

Foods rich in healthy plant-based fats—such as nuts, seeds, and some oils—are also considered nutrient-dense. “However, they are higher in calories, so portion size needs to be taken into consideration,” says Moore.

Fitting them in

To boost your nutrient-dense food intake, change your approach to meals and snacks. Think in terms of power-packed plates, even if there isn’t much on them, and make every calorie count. Use the USDA Nutrient Database to check the nutritional values of foods (, or work with a dietitian to come up with a plan.

If that idea is overwhelming to you, Moore says it’s okay to make a gradual increase in nutrient-dense foods. “If you don’t eat a lot of fruits and vegetables to begin with, just add one serving of one or the other every day, and increase it from there,” says Moore. “The more variety, the more vitamins and minerals you’ll get.”

Another reason to make a gradual increase: adding more fruits and vegetables will boost your fiber intake. Adding too much fiber too fast can cause gas and bloating. Along with the gradual boost in fiber, make sure to get plenty of water to help with digestion. 

Examples of nutrient-dense foods


Serving size



Brussels sprouts

½ cup


Vitamins A, C, and K; fiber; calcium; and folate


1 cup, diced


Calcium; magnesium; potassium; vitamins A, C, and K; numerous antioxidants


1 cup


Disease-fighting phytonutrients; vitamins A, C, and K; fiber; and plant-based omega-3 fatty acids


½ cup, cooked


A complete protein rich in fiber, iron, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, and calcium


3 ounces


A great source of protein, magnesium, potassium, selenium, vitamins B12 and D, and omega-3 fatty acids

Sweet potato

1 medium


Potassium; vitamins A, B6, and C; great source of beta carotene, an antioxidant that fights free radicals


¼ cup, chopped


Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, iron, potassium, zinc, and also unsaturated fats, which help us absorb vitamins A, D, E, and K

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database.

Image: Thinkstock

Posted by: Dr.Health

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