Dense is better

Pick nutrients over calories, nutritionist advises

Why choose an apple over a bag of pretzels if they have about the same number of calories? It would be a simple matter if taste was the only thing that mattered. But nutrients count, too. For an equal number of calories, you would also get fiber, vitamin C and potassium by choosing the apple.

The concept of “nutrient density” may be new to many consumers. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages as part of a healthful diet, and it’s important to educate consumers about the importance of choosing foods based on nutrient density, according to Eileen Kennedy, dean of the Friedman School.

“Let’s give them the tools to make the choices we are recommending,” said Kennedy, a former acting undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She shared some ideas about marketing the concept of nutrient density to the public during the annual Experimental Biology meetings in April in San Francisco.

“We nutrition scientists describe foods as ‘nutrient-dense’ versus ‘energy-dense,’ but we need to be sure that the public knows what we mean,” Kennedy said. Energy-dense foods provide more calories, largely from refined sugars and fat, per unit of volume than less energy-dense foods. These calories are sometimes called “empty calories.” “Energy-dense might sound healthy, but it usually isn’t,” Kennedy said.

Nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, provide more nutrients and generally fewer calories per unit volume. “They’re the foods that are loaded with the nutrients we need to thrive,” Kennedy said. “Think about choosing a potato instead of potato chips, or a banana instead of a soda. Opt for a plate with lots of vegetables and skip the dinner roll. Ignore the cake and go for the fruit.”