When you eat, you want to maximize the nutrition you get out of each bite. That’s the idea behind choosing more nutrient-dense foods. According to health expert Dr. Fuhrman, who designed the nutritarian diet, your health is predicted by your nutrient intake divided by calorie intake. So, you want to pack the most nutrition into each calorie. Veggies and fruits help you do that.
All fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories and rich in nutrients, but what if you want to get super picky and eat more of the MOST nutrient dense foods? Researchers at William Paterson University in New Jersey is making it easier for you to do that. They ranked 41 vegetables and fruits based on the nutrients each offers. In total, they analyzed 17 nutrients that are important for good health. Curious to know what made the list? Hint: The top five are dominated by green veggies.
Watercress (Nutrient Density Score 100%)
A perfect score! How’s that for nutritious? It’s not surprising that watercress tops the list. What IS surprising is that so few people eat this superfood veggie. Watercress is a powerhouse source of three vitamins:
. Vitamin K – involved in blood clotting and for preserving bone density
. Vitamin C – an antioxidant vitamin that keeps your immune system balanced.
. Vitamin A – vital for immune health, healthy vision, and reproduction
Plus, watercress contains a unique antioxidant called phenylethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC) that suppresses the growth of breast cancer cells. We think of broccoli as being the ultimate anti-cancer vegetable but watercress is in the same family and offers many of the same benefits. Why not add it to your next salad, sandwich, wrap, or pizza?
Chinese Cabbage (Nutrient Density Score 92%)
Chinese cabbage is another leafy green that doesn’t get the respect or attention it deserves. However, it’s nutrient density places it in a class by itself. One cup of shredded Chinese cabbage supplies more than half your day’s requirement of vitamin A and vitamin C and at only 9 calories a cup, it’s a “must eat” if you’re trying to lose weight. Like watercress and broccoli, Chinese cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable loaded with phytochemicals that protect against cancer.
Swiss Chard (Nutrient Density Score 89%)
Another green, leafy vegetable on the list? Are you starting to see a trend? Swiss chard packs a nutritional punch, especially when it comes to vitamins. In fact, it contains 3 times the daily value of vitamin K and respectable quantities of vitamin A and vitamin C, although less vitamin C than watercress and cabbage.
It’s healthiest to cook Swiss chard. Swiss chard has one of the highest levels of oxalates, compounds that reduce the absorption of calcium and increase the risk of kidney stones. Cooking destroys some, but not all, of the oxalates in this green, leafy vegetable.
Beet Greens (Nutrient Density Score 87%)
Beet greens get lost in the green, leafy shuffle but they’re still packed with nutrition, as evidenced by their high nutrient density score. A serving of beet greens supplies more than twice your body’s daily value of vitamin A and 60% of the daily value for vitamin C. Plus, beet greens add a significant amount of zinc and iron to the mix. The next time you buy beets don’t throw away the greens. They’re nutrient dense! Try mixing beet greens in with other greens, like spinach and kale, for a healthy mixed-green combo.
Spinach (Nutrient Density Score 86%)
Popeye’s love of spinach was right on target. Although kale has captured the spotlight recently, spinach outshone kale in this nutrient density study. No wonder! It has twice the daily value of vitamin K and half of your daily requirement of vitamin A. It’s a bit lower in vitamin C, especially compared to Chinese cabbage.
As a bonus, spinach contains thylakoids, compounds that reduce appetite. So, a bowl of steamed spinach with a meal could be just what you need to satiate your appetite and not overeat. Like Swiss chard, spinach is high in oxalates – so, cook it, especially if you have a history of calcium oxalate kidney stones.
What do all of these nutrient-dense vegetables have in common? They’re all a good source of potassium – an electrolyte that helps keep your blood pressure normalized. You can enhance the absorption of vitamin A precursors called carotenoids in leafy greens by sauteing them in olive oil or eating them with another source of fat.
Where Are the Fruits?
Surprisingly, fruits didn’t rank high on the nutrient density list. The top fruit, which most people think of as a vegetable, was red peppers (nutrient density score 42), an excellent source of vitamin C. Pumpkin ranked next highest. (nutrient density score 33).
What’s notably missing are fruits we think of as uber-healthy like berries and apples. Why might that be? Researchers emphasized that the nutrient density score they used only took into account nutrients, like vitamins and minerals, not phytochemicals. Although phytochemicals aren’t a necessary nutrient, many have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. So, they are important too – it just isn’t reflected in the nutrient density score. So, you can rest assured that berries and apples are still powerful foods due to the phytochemicals they contain.
The Bottom Line
This gives you a flavor of which fruits and vegetables are more nutrient dense, but you’ll get the most benefits by eating a variety of colorful produce. Color corresponds with pigments, many of which have health benefits that go beyond simple nutrition. For example, as mentioned, some phytochemicals protect cells against oxidative damage, reduce inflammation, and offer anti-cancer benefits.
Don’t forget – any non-starchy vegetable you choose is heart-healthy since it’s a good source of potassium and fiber. Choose some of these super nutrient dense options but don’t neglect the others. The take-home message? Get busy and visit the Farmer’s market for a variety of fruits and veggies.
Washington Post. “Watercress Tops List of Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables, Who Knew?”
Medical Daily. “Reasons Why You Should Eat Spinach: Thylakoids Make You Feel More Full, Regulate Blood Glucose”
World’s Healthiest Foods website.
Dr. Fuhrman.com “Nutrient Density”