On the continuum of empty calories versus a nutrient-dense diet, you want to steer to the right, toward the nutrient-dense side. That means eating a diet that maximizes the nutrients you get. Of course, you need vitamins and minerals for health and well-being, but your diet wouldn’t be complete without other components like fiber and phytochemicals from plants. For good health and disease prevention, maximizing nutrient density is the name of the game. Need some tips for packing more nutrients into your diet? Try these six nutrient hacks.
Enjoy Foods at Their Peak of Freshness
When fresh produce has to travel long distances, it loses some of its nutrients during the journey. In fact, fruits and vegetables begin losing their vitamins and minerals immediately after they’re harvested. If you’re getting your produce at the grocery store, the amount of vitamin loss may be significant.
Is there a better option? Buy fresh produce locally, from a Farmer’s market. If you don’t have access to fresh produce locally, frozen fruits and vegetables are a good alternative. Frozen vegetables and fruits are frozen at their peak of freshness and this locks in their nutrients. Just be sure to choose frozen vegetables without added salt or sauces. Another benefit of frozen veggies is they don’t rot after only a few days, giving you more time to use them.
Eat Both Raw and Cooked Vegetables
You often hear about the pros and cons of a raw food diet – how fruits and vegetables are tastier and more nutritious in their natural, uncooked state. Is there truth to this idea? It depends. Some vegetables, especially cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, offer more health benefits when you eat them raw or very lightly steamed. Heat destroys an important enzyme called myrosinase that your body needs to get the full benefits from the anti-cancer chemicals in cruciferous veggies.
In contrast, cooking increases the bioavailability of the nutrients in some vegetables. For example, heating or processing tomatoes boosts the amount of lycopene your body can use by as much as 24%. So, boiled tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce rather than fresh tomatoes are a more reliable way to get your lycopene.
Cooking also helps you absorb more beta-carotene from foods. Beta-carotene is abundant in orange vegetables, including carrots and sweet potatoes. Green, leafy vegetables are also a good source, although the orange beta-carotene pigment is masked by an abundance of chlorophyll. When you cook beta-carotene-rich foods, it breaks down the cell wall and releases the pigment so your body can get more of it.
As you can see, there are pros and cons to cooking vegetables and it depends on the vegetable itself. The best solution is to eat BOTH raw and cooked veggies. Eat cruciferous veggies raw or lightly steamed and cook vegetables that contain beta-carotene or lycopene. In a pinch, you can also use a microwave with a small amount of water. Research shows 2 to 4 minutes of microwaving doesn’t lead to significant nutrient loss.
Add Some Fat
Cooking foods with beta-carotene help your body gain better access to this heart-healthy, anti-inflammatory pigment and so does eating beta-carotene foods with fat. Beta-carotene is fat-soluble, meaning your body can only absorb it in the presence of fat. The solution? When you eat a salad, add a source of fat like avocado, nuts, or an olive oil dressing. When you cook veggies, prepare them in olive oil.
Know Your Good Food Combos
Certain foods offer additional health benefits when you eat consume them together. Here are examples:
. Broccoli with tomato sauce – more anti-cancer power
. Green tea with citrus – increases bioavailability of antioxidant catechins
. Spinach with lemon – increases absorption of iron from the spinach
. Turmeric with black pepper – compound in black pepper (piperine) makes the anti-inflammatory curcumin in turmeric more bioavailable
Take advantage of food synergy by combining foods that complement one another. Each of these duos complements the other and offers greater health benefits than eating either alone.
Eat the Skins and Peels of Fruits and Vegetables
In the case of fruits, many of the healthy phytochemicals that reduce inflammation and have anti-cancer properties are in the skin or peel. Not to mention, the skins of fruit and vegetables is loaded with fiber. If you peel a fruit, you’re missing out on these healthful components. Buy organic fruit so you don’t have to worry about pesticide residues and enjoy fruit in its whole state, peel and all.
Go Micro, Microgreens, That Is
Did you know microgreens have up to 40 times more nutrients than mature greens? Once relegated as garnishes in fancy restaurants, microgreens are now sold in bags and containers at some natural food grocery stores. These immature greens come in a variety of forms and are perfect for adding extra punch to salads. The secret to their added nutritional power is they’re harvested right after germination when their nutrients are most concentrated. If you’re adventurous, you can even grow your own microgreens in a windowsill. Smaller is sometimes better in other cases as well. For example, cherry tomatoes pack more lycopene than full-size tomatoes.
Eat Probiotic-Rich Foods
Probiotics are gut-friendly bacteria that help keep your digestive tract and immune system in balance. They also aid in digestion and nutrient absorption and help you get the most nutritional value out of the foods you eat. Add more fermented foods, like yogurt, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kefir, to your diet to cultivate a healthy microbiome. This will, in turn, help you better absorb nutrients.
Limit the Amount of Alcohol in Your Diet
Alcohol has no nutritional value. Plus, drinking alcohol interferes with the absorption of some nutrients, particularly B-complex vitamins. The B-vitamin family is important for cellular metabolism and for energy production. One B vitamin in particular, vitamin B12, is vital for proper nerve and brain function. Too much alcohol can make it harder to get the B vitamins your cells need. A glass of wine a day? That’s okay but don’t go beyond that.
Be aware that some medications can interfere with nutrient absorption too. For example, the birth control pill can reduce absorption of B vitamins. Medications used to treat acid reflux, reduce stomach acidity. This makes it harder to absorb some nutrients, especially vitamin B12. A diabetic drug called metformin can also lead to a vitamin B12 deficiency. There are LOTS of medications that interfere with nutrient absorption. The best way to find out whether you’re taking one is to ask your doctor.
The Bottom Line
It’s not how many nutrients you take in – but how many you absorb in a form your body can use. Try these hacks to make sure you’re maximizing the nutrients your body has access to.