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Healthy Eating

Nutrient Dense or Rich?

Word choice has impact on how we feel, think, and act.

“Nutrient rich” or “Nutrient dense”?

Rich. Dense. We use these words to mean too much or too little. We use them to describe whether something is good, bad, or perhaps even neutral. We use them to describe the texture and experience of food (rich and creamy, or dense/heavy). We use them to describe things in food that we can’t see but we need, like vitamins and minerals.

I’m pretty sure most of us would rather be rich than dense if we had to pick based on just how these words “feel” if we use them as adjectives for ourselves.

Nutrient rich and nutrient dense are often used interchangeably. These words are especially top of mind after the new version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans are released, which happened most recently (1) at the end of December, 2020.

So what, you say? Here’s what. The words we use to talk about things that matter to our health and well-being must be chosen carefully. They need to mean something. They need to convey something. They need to tell us what current science says – and most importantly – why it matters and what to do about it.

We eat every day. It’s a perpetual choice and conversation that can help support our health. It can impact how we feel, our quality of life, and how we perform mentally and physically.

We must choose, safely prepare and store, feel good about, understand, and enjoy what ends up on our plate. This starts with making informed decisions, and informed decisions start with understanding. That is why word choice is critical.

Nutrient density/richness, on paper, is kind of an awesome concept. Currently, there is no universally agreed upon definition (2), but you could say there is consensus on the meaning. In a nutshell, consider it an adjective to describe getting as much nutrition* as possible. It’s also important to note that ideally, we want the most nutrition for the calories eaten and the dollars we spend on food.

budget friendly + calorie aware + full of nutrition = a winning combination

*nutrition: macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat), micronutrients (vitamins and minerals; fiber), phytochemicals, and water – basically, things in food that help our bodies do what they need to do.

Calories are important, too, but on their own without considering the nutrition that may or may not come along with them is no good. Why? Because too few or too many, without considering nutrients too, can lead to malnutrition (3). Malnutrition is basically a state of inadequate nutrients to support health and ultimately can result in diet-related diseases/conditions.

Here is a snapshot of how the conversation about “rich” and “dense” has evolved from a dietary guidelines point of view in the last ten years:

“Nutrient-dense foods have the right balance—they pack in plenty of important nutrients and are naturally lean or low in solid fats and have little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, or sodium. Nutrient-dense foods are the foundation of a healthy eating pattern.”

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Edition: “For Professionals: Recommendations AT-A-Glance“. Accessed 2/7/2021. (4)

“Nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits.”

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. “Executive Summary“. Page 3. Accessed 2/7/2021.(5)

After digging these two things up for you (in this blog), I went to www.MyPlate.gov (6), which might be described as the place to get ideas to put the Guidelines into practice. Using the search feature, I looked up nutrient dense (0 results) and nutrient-dense (1 result in the “Infants” section (7). I also searched “dense” (1 result for a chocolate pumpkin muffin (8)).

So then of course, I wondered. What about “rich”? So that same exercise in searching on that site (nutrient rich, nutrient-rich, rich) resulted in various results, including links to individual food groups, several resources and recipes, including some described as “rich sauces”.

I kept digging beyond the MyPlate site and found this:

“Nutrient-rich (or nutrient-dense) foods are low in sugar, sodium, starches, and bad fats. They contain a lot of vitamins and minerals and few calories. Your body needs vitamins and minerals, known as micronutrients. They nourish your body and help keep you healthy. They can reduce your risk for chronic diseases. Getting them through food ensures your body can absorb them properly. Try to eat a variety of foods to get different vitamins and minerals. Foods that naturally are nutrient-rich include fruits and vegetables. Lean meats, fish, whole grains, dairy, legumes, nuts, and seeds also are high in nutrients.”

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). familydoctor.org. “Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods“. Accessed 2/7/2021.(9)

Words matter. If you are seeking ways to be better at self care, food and nutrition are probably on your radar. Ask for clarity if someone uses words that don’t resonate with you. Rephrase and repeat to ensure you are hearing what you think you are hearing. Food conversations should not make you feel bad. They should give you clarity on what you need to know for positive health outcomes.

Having multiple ways to say things isn’t bad. In fact, it may just help describe things in a way that helps us hear it and understand it more than if we only hear it one way, one time.

Remember, too, that if someone uses different words than you do, it might be for exactly the same reason you like the words you do – they just like a different way of saying it.

Next time you encounter a health or nutrition related word, push pause and consider what it means in the context of how you came across it. Then think about what it means to YOU.

This may be one of the most impactful ways we can start to change the narrative and resulting outcomes when it comes to food and nutrition choices.

Let’s be kind and thoughtful in our choice of words to convey what we mean and what we are looking for.

Let’s consider that it may not be about right or wrong but instead, it’s about perception and how it “feels” to say something a certain way.

Words can wound. Words can compliment. Words can describe, and words can confuse. Let’s assume positive intent when it comes to words used in self care and health care. This way, when we have a question, we can ask for clarification out of curiosity, not animosity.

Create a word list that speaks to you about health, wellness, food, and nutrition. You may be waiting for me to tell you which of these words is better, or what other words you should consider. I am not going to be prescriptive in that manner, because it’s personal preference. My goal with this post is to bring attention to the fact that we DO have choices in how we speak to ourselves and others about this essential-for-good-health topic.

How will you choose, share, and grow your personal nutrition knowledge and narrative? Remember, you’re not just choosing it for you – you’re choosing words that others will hear and use to shape their story, too.

Choose wisely.

References:

  1. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Accessed 2/7/2021. Available at https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf.
  2. Nicklas TA, Drewnowski A, O’Neil CE. The nutrient density approach to healthy eating: challenges and opportunities. Public Health Nutr. 2014 Dec;17(12):2626-36. doi: 10.1017/S136898001400158X. Epub 2014 Aug 28. PMID: 25166614.
  3. World Health Organization (WHO). Malnutrition Fact Sheet. Accessed 2/8/2021. Available at https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition.
  4. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, 8th Edition: For Professionals: Recommendations AT-A-Glance. Accessed 2/7/2021.
  5. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025. Executive Summary. Page 3. Accessed 2/7/2021.
  6. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). What’s on Your Plate? Available at www.MyPlate.gov. Accessed 2/7/2021.
  7. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Infants. Accessed 2/7/2021. Available at https://www.myplate.gov/life-stages/infants.
  8. United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Pumpkin Chocolate Muffins. Accessed 2/7/2021. Available at https://www.myplate.gov/recipes/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap/pumpkin-chocolate-muffins.
  9. American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). familydoctor.org. Changing Your Diet: Choosing Nutrient-rich Foods. Accessed 2/7/2021.

By Kim Kirchherr

Dietitian and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with farm to table expertise.

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