Overfed yet undernourished: The importance of nutrient-dense foods

By Tom Havran

In my youth, I squeezed extracurricular school activities in between my cow-milking duties on my family’s farm in Norway, Iowa. Washing udders in the dark barn on below-zero mornings, and again after school, wasn’t much fun for me (or for the cows, I’m sure), but the experience did serve to educate me about where whole, unpasteurized, non-homogenized milk came from and what that nutrient-dense product should taste like.

Many years later, I’m learning that the farm milk of my youth was very different — and far more nutrient-dense — than what today’s dairy industry supplies to America’s supermarket shelves. In fact, I’m learning that much of what fills the standard American diet is indeed filling us up, but not with the nutrients we need.

top nutrient dense foods

Chronically undernourished yet grossly overfed

I recently read a compelling article in Mother Earth News that describes the declining nutrient values in modern agricultural products (supported by data from our very own USDA). The article, written by Lynn Keiley, left me with a sense that the American ag industry seems most focused on industrialization, ever-increasing yields and mechanized efficiencies at the expense of a holistic quality effort.

Instead of working to assure nutrient-dense foods, the quality effort in modern American food seems focused on imposing packaging, handling and safety regulations. One might think that more yields that feed more people more standardized, processed and well-preserved “safe” food is a good thing to focus on. But when the nutrient loads of those tremendous yields of hyper-secured foods are scrutinized, you realize that more food isn’t actually supporting more people. As a population we are actually being chronically undernourished while being grossly overfed.

A few startling facts

Since 1982, we have doubled our spending on (and presumably our intake of) processed foods and sweets. These foods are generally poor sources of some critical nutrients that many of us are lacking: calcium, fiber, folate, iron, potassium, vitamins B12 and D. Most of our meat supply is finished on genetically modified corn and soy-based rations. These produce meat with a lower nutrient profile and higher saturated fat content than is naturally formed in animals that are allowed to range and forage according to their innate proclivities. We are eating less meat than we did 20 years ago, but the meat has become less nutrient-dense and fattier, and since we are what we eat, well … the connection is tragically clear.

On the list of our top 20 food calorie sources (see page 5 of the article referenced above) there isn’t a single non-processed, raw, whole vegetable or foodstuff other than nuts and seed-based dishes, which appear at an abysmal #19 on the list. Soda is #4 and pizza is #5, while refined grain and sugar-based desserts are our #1 source of calories. Virtually all of the top calorie sources in the American diet utilize the refined, processed, denatured and prepackaged products of a heavily subsidized and industrialized agricultural industry. It’s an economy of profit and regulation, not nutrition and health.

So if we want to be nourished and healthy what nutrient-dense foods should we be eating? I looked around at a number of references and lists of nutrient-dense foods and combined the most heavily-referenced items with some of my own favorites to compile this unranked list of 10 nutrient-dense foods:

My top 10 nutrient-dense foods

  1. Dark green calcium and iron-rich leafy greens like kale, spinach and chard.
  2. Heritage seeds and grains with robust amino acid profiles like quinoa, teff, amaranth, chia, and wild and brown rice.
  3. Protein and fiber-rich heirloom pulses (beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.).
  4. Wild and heirloom varieties of antioxidant-rich, dark-colored berries including blue-, black-, rasp- and strawberries, also currents and gooseberries.
  5. Fairly-traded, organic and sustainable cacao nibs and dark chocolate.
  6. Organic, loose leaf green teas, especially Japanese matcha, sencha and gyokuro, all of which are packed with powerfully antioxidant catechin molecules.
  7. Foods that harbor living probiotic organisms, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchee, miso, tamari and tempeh.
  8. Sprouted grains and fresh, green sprouts of all kinds, such as alfalfa, pea, mustard, broccoli, mung beans, etc.
  9. Seeds and nuts, including flaxseed, hempseed, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and almonds, which are excellent vegetarian sources of unsaturated essential fatty acids.
  10. Fruits and vegetables of any and all kinds.

What nutrient-dense foods are staples in your diet?

Tom-HavranAbout the author: Tom is communicator of natural living for Frontier, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands. In other words, he’s a very imaginative copywriter. A local boy, raised on a farm just down the road from the company’s headquarters in Norway, Tom enjoys drawing, plant hoarding, cooking and living the simple life in the beautiful state of Iowa.

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