Nutrient-dense foods: How to include more in your client’s meal plan
Consuming various nutrient-dense foods is an essential component of overall health, yet people may not know where to start. As a nutrition professional, here's how you can help your clients incorporate more lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats into their meal plans.
As a nutrition professional, it's not uncommon to work with clients who have general concerns about their overall diet, health, and wellbeing. While you can address those concerns and offer modifications that work within their lifestyles and preferences, it's also essential to promote the inclusion of nutrient-dense foods, as this can positively impact their health and lives.
Before we explore ways for you to help your clients eat more of these foods, let's understand what constitutes this term and the health benefits.
What are nutrient-dense foods?
While there are no specific parameters that identify foods as being nutrient-dense, nutrition professionals have a consensus about what they should contain. These foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and other substances that contribute to positive health outcomes. They are also relatively low in calories, added sugar and sodium, and minimal solid fats .
This is in direct contrast to a Western diet that is filled with energy-dense foods high in calories but relatively low in nutrients. These processed foods and refined flours contribute to overall caloric intakes but lack quality macro and micronutrients .
Nutrient-dense foods include whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Let's briefly explore each one to understand better what they are.
These foods are defined as having 2-3 grams of fat per one ounce or less than 10 grams of fat in a 3.5-ounce serving. Regarding amounts, the Dietary Guidelines recommend ⅓ of your client's daily calories to come from protein or 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day .
Some examples of lean proteins include :
- White fleshed fish (cod, tilapia, and bass)
- Skinless white meat poultry
- Low-fat dairy products
Complex carbs are larger and more complex molecules that take longer to break down in the body. This allows for better glucose control and promotes satiety. According to the Dietary Guidelines, carbohydrates should make up 45% to 65% of your client's diet, but this could range depending on their needs and health concerns .
Some examples of complex carbohydrates include:
- Whole grains
- Brown rice
- Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
Healthy fats are essential for brain health, satiety, energy production, and vitamin absorption, so it's vital to make sure your clients get enough of this in their diet .
However, not all fats are created equal; saturated and trans-fats (primarily found in highly refined processed foods) have been associated with adverse health outcomes, such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. It's also recommended to keep your client's saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of their total calories, with 20-35% of calories coming from all fat intake alone .
Some examples of healthy fats include:
- Extra-virgin olive oil
Note: Each component has positive impacts on health, but it is vital to incorporate all of them into your client's diet for optimal benefits.
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The benefits of incorporating nutrient-dense foods into the diet are numerous–not only do they provide the macronutrients our bodies need, but they also contain a plethora of micronutrients and fight a variety of diseases . Here are some of the many health benefits that these foods provide.
- Weight management: Nutrient-dense foods are lower in calories but better fulfill your client's nutritional needs. Along with this, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables boost satiety, decreasing the total calories consumed and may lead to weight loss or weight maintenance .
- Cardiovascular health: Diets full of nutrient-dense foods have been shown to impact cardiovascular health positively. Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets emphasize the consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. Research shows that both diets have a positive impact on blood pressure, lipid profiles, and inflammatory markers, all of which contribute to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease .
Tip: check out these other heart-healthy foods to promote cardiovascular health.
- Inflammation and oxidative stress: Oxidative stress can negatively affect DNA, increase the risk of chronic disease, and enhance inflammation. Foods that are nutrient-dense have the ability to counteract the reactive oxidative species that lead to oxidative stress .
Four ways to encourage your clients to eat more nutrient-dense foods
As a nutrition professional, you can help your clients incorporate more nutrients into their diets with some simple recommendations. Here are four ways you can encourage your clients to eat more lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
Add to existing meals
One of the simplest ways to incorporate nutrient-dense foods into a client's meal plan is to add them to foods they already eat. For instance, nuts and seeds can easily be added to a bowl of oatmeal, salads, or smoothies, whereas spinach or other greens mix well with portions of pasta, one-dish meals, or eggs. Work with your client to identify meals that they would typically eat in a day and suggest additions to increase the overall nutritional value.
Make a substitution
Swapping refined grains for whole-grain choices (i.e., white rice to brown rice) is a great place to start. Another simple change would be opting for 99% ground turkey instead of 80% ground beef. However, any substitutions that a client is willing to make can have positive results.
Create new recipes
Sometimes, it takes a new dish or recipe to get clients to try something new. If you aren't sure where to begin, bring your favorite recipe and try new things to enhance the nutrient profile. This is an opportunity to get creative for the benefit of your clients and add to your professional portfolio.
Any change your client is willing to make should be celebrated. However, rather than asking them to make one significant shift, encourage them to make two or three minor adjustments at a time. This can make the transition easier for them, ensuring that they are getting a wider variety of nutrients.
As a nutrition professional, you can include more lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats in your clients' meal plan to improve health outcomes and decrease disease risk. Whether making a substitution, creating new recipes, or encouraging variety, you can help your clients eat their way to better health by what you put on their plate.
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- Hingle, M., Kandiah, J., & Maggi, A. (2016). Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Selecting Nutrient-Dense Foods for Good Health. Journal Of The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics, 116(9), 1473-1479.
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