How to Choose the Most Nutrient Dense Foods
GWGW Newsletter October 31, 2019
While on vacation this summer, I read a book that blew my mind. I’m always reading something health-related, and honestly it’s not often that a book gets me so excited and compels me to share it with the world. This book did exactly that, and now I’m going to share it with you. This one’s a bit longer than my usual posts, but I hope you find it a helpful resource!
Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health. By Jo Robinson.
What I love about this book is how non-dogmatic it is. The author takes no interest in convincing you to try a certain diet, or give up certain foods. Rather, she’s created a guide for the average eater on how to select the most nutrient-dense varieties of food – and surprisingly, some of these varieties are the more convenient ones! If you love gardening, this book also includes dozens of heirloom varietals, which contain way more nutrients than our standard options. She also provides charts for the home vegetable gardener including where to buy seeds, and what regions are best for growing the heirlooms. Below I’ve summarized some of my favorite tips from the book. It’s been a game changer for how I select my produce at the grocery store, and it’s even released some unwarranted guilt I’ve had for loving canned beets!
Greens: Choose the darkest greens – red, purple, dark green. Favor whole heads of lettuce which are fresher than bagged lettuce. Buy organic whenever possible as greens are heavily sprayed with pesticides. When deciding how to top your salad, avoid store bought salad dressings, especially “fat free” varieties which contain almost nothing real. Use extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and experiment with adding honey and whole grain mustard. The honey and mustard will mask the bitterness of dark greens like arugula.
Alliums: Alliums include garlic, onion, scallion, shallots, leeks and chives. After chopping garlic, let it rest for 10 minutes before heating it to increase its content of allicin, a cancer fighting compound. Heating garlic immediately destroys the enzyme that allows the allicin to release. For onions, the most pungent are the best for you. Small, purple onions are far more nutritious that lighter large onions. Shallots have a milder onion flavor, but are loaded with nutrients and easy to grow in the garden. The bright green portions of leeks, scallions, and chives are loaded with nutrients but are best consumed within a few days. These can be grown in the garden pretty easily.
Corn: I loved reading about the history of corn, and how one man accidentally created what we know as sweet corn, one of the least nutritious corns. If you can find them, use colorful varieties of corn which have more phytonutrients than yellow corn. Favor corn from the farmers market or U-pick farm, which is much fresher. Always choose organic corn to avoid pesticides. Boiling corn is actually the worst way to preserve nutrients, unless you plan to drink the water! Surprisingly, the best way to cook corn to maximize nutrient content is to steam or microwave inside the husk. Canned and frozen corn can also be nutritious options, as long as you avoid the super-sweet corn, and choose cans with BPA-free lining.
Potatoes: Common theme here – choose the most colorful potatoes with dark skins and flesh. If selecting a white potato, Russet contain more phytonutrients than white potatoes, but are also rapidly digested and may not be a good option for diabetics. Always buy potatoes organic, as conventional potatoes are sprayed heavily with pesticides and other chemicals which leech into the flesh. Eat the skins, which contain 50% of the antioxidants in the potato, as well as important fiber which helps slow the digestion of starch and sugar. Search for unusual varieties at your local farmer’s market, as often these will be the most nutritious. Store potatoes in a dark, cool location within a partially closed bag or box to provide ventilation. If you’re concerned about potatoes and their effect blood sugar, eat them with fat and/or vinegar, and try the potato hack which involves heating and then cooling potatoes for 24 hours before eating them. This hack causes the starch to covert to resistant starch, a type of fiber which is not digestible and therefore has less of an impact on blood sugars, and helps feed your gut bacteria.
Root Veggies: Look for carrots with the greens still attached – these will be the freshest and most delicious. Steam or bake the carrots whole to enhance flavor and nutrient content. Purple carrots are high in anthocyanins and the most nutritious variety. Beets are high in phytonutrients and cancer-fighting compounds. The greens are even more nutritious than the roots. Cooking the beets by roasting, steaming, or microwaving will increase their antioxidant properties. Do not boil beets, unless you plan to drink all that beet water! When purchasing bunch beets, separate and wash the beet greens. You can store them in a bag pricked with holes in the crisper drawer. Canned beets are some of the most nutritious beets. Look for cans with BPA-free lining. No big surprise here, but sweet potatoes are more nutritious than regular potatoes. Look for the deepest colored flesh, buy organic, and keep the skins on to get the most nutrients.
Tomatoes: The smaller the tomato, the higher its lycopene content. Heating tomatoes enhances their lycopene content, and processed tomatoes can be some of the most nutritious in the store. This makes canned tomatoes and tomato paste surprisingly good choices. Store fresh tomatoes at room temperature to preserve flavor. The skin and seeds are the most nutritious parts of the fruit.
Cruciferous veggies: The main takeaway here is get your broccoli fresh and eat it right away. Broccoli loses its nutrients rapidly after it’s picked, so avoid buying it in the store where there’s a good chance your broccoli is spent, and favor local farmers markets. Raw broccoli is most nutritious, followed by a light steaming. Boiling broccoli or microwaving will destroy most of its phytonutrients. Cabbage can be stored for weeks without losing their nutrients. Cut cabbage and steam lightly to reduce its odor and enhance nutrients. White cauliflower has the most cancer fighting compounds, but green and purple cauliflower have the most antioxidants. Look for cauliflower without dark spots or traces of mold. Steam cauliflower to preserve its nutrients. Fresh is more nutritious than frozen. Last but not least, the king of cruciferous veggies is KALE! Most nutritious when eaten raw, kale contains cancer-fighting properties that have been shown to prevent cancer and even slow cancer growth in animal studies. Store kale in the crisper drawer of your fridge and use within a few days.
Legumes: Dried legumes contain the most antioxidants, even more than many fruits and vegetables. Steam or pressure cook legumes to retain antioxidant value. Canned legumes are even higher in antioxidants than home cooked legumes. To make home cooked beans more tolerable to the digestive system and to deactivate lectins, soak for 8-24 hours, discard the liquid and pressure cook.
A-A-A: Artichokes, asparagus, and avocados, some of my favorite foods! Artichokes are very nutritious, but lose their nutrients rapidly. Buy them fresh and eat right away. Steaming artichokes retains the most nutrients. Canned/jarred artichoke hearts are also quite nutritious. Asparagus is also best fresh – try to eat it within a day or two, and avoid overcooking. Shaved raw asparagus makes a great addition to salads. Avocados are chock full of fiber and healthy fats. You can ripen firm avocados in a paper bag, and speed up the process by adding a banana. Once the avocados ripen, you can store them in the fridge for a few days to halt the ripening process. Cut avocados will store for 1-2 days if you drizzle some lemon juice on the flesh.
Apples: You might be surprised to learn that the granny smith apple is the most nutritious in the grocery store. Always buy apples organic and eat the skins which contain most of the nutrients. Honeycrisp are also high in nutrients granted you eat the peel. There are dozens of highly nutritious apple varieties not available at most grocery stores, but that you may find in farmers markets. Look for Cortland, Discovery, Fuji, Liberty, Bramley’s Seedling, Haralson, Northern Spy, Ozark Gold, and Redfield. Store apples in the crisper drawer of your fridge, with high humidity. If looking for apple cider, choose the cloudiest cider as this contains up to 4x the nutrients as clear cider.
Berries: Bottom line here – eat more berries! Choose wild or organic varieties. The smaller the blueberry, the more concentrated its phytonutrients. Frozen berries are a great option and are almost as nutritious as fresh berries. Eat berries right away or freeze them to avoid nutrient loss. Cooking and canning berries will actually increase their nutrient content! If you can find them, eat cranberries throughout the year. Make nutrient dense sauces, relishes, or juice. Dried cranberries contain fewer phytonutrients but are still a healthful choice in moderation and without added sugar.
Grapes and Raisins: Look for the deepest colored grapes for more phytonutrients. Grapes in the grocery store have often been stored for weeks before they are displayed. Look for the plumpest grapes that are firmly attached to the vine; avoid grapes that look sticky or contain lots of loose fruit. Always buy organic as grapes are some of the most pesticide-laden fruits. Golden raisins contain more phytonutrients than black raisins, but currants contain even more. Try using them in place of raisins in your recipes.
Tropical fruits: Bananas are high in sugar and fairly low in phytonutrients, though they do contain fiber and potassium. Store bananas on the counter to ripen. If you need quicker ripening, store in a bag with an apple, which produces ethylene gas and speeds the ripening process. Ripe bananas can be extended by a few days if you store in the fridge (the skin will brown but flesh will stay ripe). If you have too many ripe bananas, peel and cut them for storage in the freezer, then add to smoothies. Pineapple, papaya, mango, and guava are excellent sources of vitamin C and fiber. Guavas are most nutritious of these; look for red-fleshed guava. If you don’t find them in your local store, most Hispanic supermarkets will have fresh guava, mango, and papaya regularly.
Melons: Most melons are a sweet and refreshing summer treat, but have little nutritional value due to their high water content. Choose melons with the brightest colored flesh. When selecting watermelons, favor small seedless varieties which contain the highest nutrient content. The skin of a ripe watermelon is no longer glossy, and the ground spot will appear yellow. Store watermelon at room temperature for a few days to enhance nutrient value even more. Always scrub melons well before cutting them, as their skin spends lots of time on top of soil where there could be pathogenic bacteria.
There you have it. And these are just A FEW of the tips I learned from Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side. I highly recommend checking out this book and keeping it as a shopping, food storage, and vegetable gardening resource.
**Note: The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider.