Nutrient Dense Foods and Why They Matter

Nutrient Dense Foods and Why They Matter

Maximizing nutrients starts with soil health

Starting at the beginning, with nutrient-rich soil, is fundamental to growing healthy plants, which in turn provide vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to the consumer. Cover crops, crop rotation, and minimal chemical inputs are just a few of the many ways to build healthy soil.

Preserving nutrients from the beginning

Once you have brought home your nutrient dense vegetables it’s important to know how to prepare them to receive the most benefits and to not forget about them in the back of your refrigerator. The possibilities are endless when it comes to salad types, components, and dressings, and they’re a great way to incorporate a variety of fresh vegetables and nutrients into your day.

When you have a salad, here are Dr. Amy Sapola's top six tips to receive the most nutrients:

  1. Iceberg lettuce has 1/14 as many nutrients as dandelion greens. Go wild!
  2. The more bitter greens have more calcium (calcium is bitter). Bitter helps to aid digestion.
  3. The more intensely colored salad greens have the most phytonutrients (the best are red, purple, and reddish-brown).
  4. Tightly wrapped heads of lettuce have fewer phytonutrients than loose-leaf lettuce. The phytonutrients act like “sunscreen,” protecting the leaves from UV damage. The plant's protection becomes our protection, too, in the form of antioxidants.
  5. Use a high polyphenol unfiltered olive oil on your salad to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K). Eat your vegetables with unfiltered olive oil. It takes 7x as much soybean oil to get the same absorption of fat-soluble vitamins.
  6. Having a citrus component to your salad dressing doesn’t just make it taste better, but it also provides Vitamin C, which helps to change the iron found in greens and other vegetables into a form that is more easily absorbed. There are beautifully unique and flavorful varieties of citrus that are fun to experiment with like blood oranges, pomelo, and so forth.
  7. If you’re looking to get the benefits of bitter greens but are a supertaster and can’t stand the bitter flavor, I recommend masking it by preparing a delicious dressing that includes a good quality olive or avocado oil and a sweetener like honey.
  8. Another favorite tip to up the antioxidants is to tear up lettuce before eating it because this will double the antioxidant value. The plant responds as if being eaten in nature and increases its production of phytonutrients in an attempt to fend off the insect or animal eating it.
  9. Garlic is an absolute favorite and is so versatile that it can be added to sauces, dressings, or rubs, or even baked then spread on toast. However, when preparing garlic, take the time to chop, crush, or  cut it first, then let it rest for ten minutes to get the maximum amount of heart-healthy blood pressure-lowering benefits before cooking it. Garlic contains allin and alliinase (heat-sensitive enzymes) in different compartments. When you slice, dice, and chop, it starts the reaction that forms allicin. If you heat garlic right away after cutting it, you lose 90% of the allicin contained in the garlic with just two minutes of frying or 30 seconds of microwaving.
  10. I enjoy sweet onions, especially on a salad or a sandwich, but pungent onions have 8x more phytonutrients than sweet onions. Consider putting pungent onions in your favorite vinegar for 30 minutes before adding them to your salad to help make the onion more mild-tasting while retaining the phytonutrients.

Vegetable cooking tips

When it comes to cooking techniques, cooking vegetables for a short amount of time with a minimal amount of water is generally considered to be most beneficial to retaining nutrients.

 A few helpful tips for preparing and cooking vegetables:

  1. Only peel vegetables when necessary. Many vegetables contain the highest amounts of nutrients in their peels and just under the skin (i.e, with carrots, potatoes, and so forth):
    1. Potato skins contain 50% of the antioxidants found in a potato.
    2. The snack-size carrots you find in bags are carrot cores that contain fewer nutrients than if you cut up a whole carrot into sticks.
  2. Cut vegetables into evenly sized pieces to keep cooking time short and consistent.
  3. If boiling vegetables, keep them as whole as possible to avoid losing water-soluble vitamins while cooking. Cut after cooking.
  4. Dust off your pressure cooker (or Instapot). This is a great way to use minimal water with a shorter cooking time. If you do not have a pressure cooker, try adding a small amount of water to a pan and then cooking with the lid to keep the steam inside or consider purchasing a steamer basket to fit inside of your pot.

Long cook times

Cooking does not always mean a loss of nutrients. In some cases, it means that nutrients will be more available.

Here are two of my favorite examples:

  1. Simmering tomato sauce for hours triples lycopene content. Italian grandmas have it right: it tastes better and is better for you!
  2. Cooking carrots until tender increases their beta-carotene content by about 14% vs. raw carrots. Cooking helps to soften the cell walls of the carrot, making them more easily digestible.

Whole plant = less waste and more nutrients

This is not true for all plants; however, some plants can be consumed in their entirety, just like the nose-to-tail movement in the world of meat. This reduces waste and increases the nutritional benefit you are receiving from the plant. Different nutrients are distributed to different parts of the plant, depending on the stage of growth the plant is in.

At our onsite nutrient testing laboratory, we have found that root vegetable greens are higher in nutrients than the roots themselves (for example, with beets, turnips, and  radishes). One of my favorite techniques to incorporate greens from root vegetables is to make a warm greens roasted vegetable salad. Start by roasting or sautéing the root vegetables and then, at the end, fold in the greens while the vegetables are hot, causing them to wilt, then add your favorite dressing or sauce.

You can find more Prepping and Cooking Tips to Maximize Nutrients in this month's eBook available to download here.

You can build a box of fresh vegetables for your own food as medicine, choosing from vegetables within the curations we’ve created for specific conditions.

Stay tuned

Next month will build on this concept of maximizing nutrients by diving into mindful eating and improving digestion.


Reference: “Eating on the Wild Side”. Jo Robinson.

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