The latest version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans focuses on making every bite count—and the best way to do that is by choosing the most nutrient-dense foods and drinks. “You can think of nutrient dense foods and beverages as those that pack in a lot of nutrition— vitamins , minerals , antioxidants , and bioactive substances—in every bite,” explains nutrition expert Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD . According to Cassetty, nutrient-dense foods tend to be whole or minimally processed foods with little to no added sugar , sodium, or refined grains. And before you assume that you’ll need to take on a second mortgage to afford all the superfoods you see splashed across your Instagram feed, think again. “Choosing nutrient-dense foods doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. There are numerous affordable options that are convenient, too,” she adds. That means eating nutrient-dense foods can be easy on you and on your wallet. Here’s exactly what to stock up on, according to Cassetty. Canned Chickpeas
Adding more chickpeas to your diet can boost your nutrient intake and protect your health. According to Cassetty, people who eat chickpeas or hummus have been found to have diets with higher levels of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, folate, magnesium, potassium, and iron compared to those who don’t eat these foods (talk about overachieving!). Chickpea eaters were also less likely to be obese, possibly because chickpeas supply a filling combo of protein and fiber, which may reduce the likelihood of overeating. A cup provides 15 grams of protein and 13 grams of fiber.
“Chickpeas are incredibly versatile and can be used in sweet or savory recipes,” she says. “I like adding them to baked goods and energy bites to give these foods a healthier spin. When roasted, they’re crunchy like nuts and make a filling snack or a crunchy garnish in salads and soups. Of course, they’re also an easy way to add more protein and nutrients to a meatless meal.”
Get the recipe Plain Greek Yogurt
Plain Greek yogurt is an affordable and versatile way to get one of the three servings of dairy (or their equivalents) needed each day. “More than 80 percent of Americans aren’t meeting their dairy needs, which may be why calcium and potassium, which are prevalent in dairy foods, are two of the nutrients most Americans fall short on,” Cassetty says. Plain Greek yogurt can help fill the dairy gap. One cup provides 270 milligrams of calcium, 345 milligrams of potassium, and 27 milligrams of magnesium, on top of 25 grams of protein.
“I like to start my day with a Greek yogurt breakfast bowl, but I also use Greek yogurt to top pancakes and baked potatoes. Greek yogurt is also a delicious soup garnish, and it makes excellent dips for both fruits and veggies,” she adds.
Get the recipe 100 Percent Orange Juice
“100 percent orange juice contains no added sugars, so it’s a great replacement for soda and other sweetened drinks, which are the leading sources of added sugars in our diet,” Cassetty explains. Currently, 63 percent of people exceed the limit for added sugars.
In one study that looked at the dietary intakes of almost 16,000 Americans, those who drank 100 percent orange juice had lower intakes of added sugar and more nutritious diets than those who skipped OJ. “That’s unsurprising when you consider that a glass of 100 percent orange juice is a good source of vitamin C, potassium, folate, and thiamin. It also supplies magnesium and health-protecting plant compounds, such as flavonoids and carotenoids. In addition to these natural nutrients, you can buy 100 percent OJ that’s fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which will boost your intake of these much-needed nutrients.”
Cassetty recommends pouring a big splash of 100 percent orange juice into seltzer water to make yourself a lightly sweet and refreshing fizzy drink. “It’s also fun to pour it into an ice cube tray and then use the frozen cubes in water or seltzer. In recipes, 100 percent orange juice is an excellent way to add sweetness without any sugar.”
Get the recipe Baby Spinach
This leafy green veggie is less bitter than regular spinach, which makes it more approachable and versatile, and it also happens to be one of the less expensive pre-washed leafy greens in the market. Buying pre-washed baby spinach makes it more convenient to regularly eat these greens because you can easily add a fistful to soups, smoothies, pasta dishes, and sandwiches and wraps. And just a fistful could have a significant impact on your health.
One study found that eating just a cup of raw or a half cup of cooked leafy greens like baby spinach per day may preserve memory and thinking skills as you age. The study tracked more than 900 older adults over 10 years and found that compared to those who didn’t regularly consume leafy greens, those who ate this amount had the memory and cognitive ability of someone 11 years younger. Nutrients like vitamin K, folate, lutein, and beta carotene, which are rich in baby spinach as well as other leafy greens, may offer neuroprotection.
If you’re not currently a baby spinach eater, try adding a little bit to foods you’re already fond of, like pasta or eggs.
Get the recipe Walnuts
According to Cassetty, walnuts have more ALA—the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid—than any other nut. “An ounce of walnuts is an excellent source of this anti-inflammatory fat. This serving also supplies 4 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, and a good source of magnesium, a nutrient that’s involved in maintaining healthy blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” she explains. Because they pack so much nutrition in every bite, a study found that eating them daily for six months significantly improved diet quality and led to healthier LDL cholesterol.
Walnuts are great for snacking and sprinkling on salads, oatmeal, and yogurt parfaits. You can also crush walnuts to use as a healthier alternative to breadcrumbs as a crust for chicken and fish.
Get the recipe Eggs