Understanding Nutrient Density for Weight Loss: Key Food Substitutions and Tips

Understanding nutrient density can help you lose weight while eating the foods you love. Use key food substitutions to increase nutritional value and reduce calories.

You want to eat well, and you want tasty food that fills you up. Who doesn’t?

When I used to think about eating more healthfully, I’d find my mind wandering to thoughts like, “I’ll never be able to eat Doritos again!”

Your mind constantly tries to trick you into thinking dumb stuff (yours does that, right?). It wants everything to stay the same because it’s easier. It takes a lot of mental energy to think or do something new.

(But you’re learning how to outsmart your brain.)

One of the tools in your arsenal to become more healthy and be a bad ass over-50 hottie, is understanding and using nutrient density to help you lose weight and keep it off.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, nutrient-density is one of the most accurate predictors of healthy diets.

It’s a calculation-based way of categorizing foods based on their nutrient levels — think vitamins, minerals, fiber, etc. — in relation to the amount of calories in that food. The higher the score, the more nutrient dense the food.

The key is increasing the nutrient density while decreasing the energy density of your food. And to do this with wise, gradual changes.

Taking some key recipes that you love and tweaking them here and there to add nutrition and more whole foods, while keeping the taste and texture similar so you still love it!

I’m not a trained chef, so I don’t always know how certain substitutions will affect a recipe, but I do have Google, and I’m willing to experiment. I’ve found many successes along the way.

See this post for more ideas: Eat What You Love And Still Lose Weight.

This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.

What Is Nutrient Density?

First off, what is nutrient density? Nutrient density is the proportion of nutrients in food in relation to their calories.

Eating more nutrient-rich food without excessive calories is the key not only to optimal health, but permanent weight loss (or maintenance).

Nutrient density is the proportion of nutrients in food in relation to their calories.

The more nutrient dense a food is, the more vitamins, minerals, and other healthy substances you’ll consume per calorie.

If a food has a lot of calories, but few nutrients, it’s unlikely to add to your health. You get way more health benefits by focusing on nutrient density. Maximizing the nutrient density is a key to helping you lose weight.

Examples Of Nutrient Density

I’m pretty sure you won’t be surprised if I tell you that foods highest in nutrient density tend to be vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. These are the powerhouses that can really help you lose weight.

Also, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), raw nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are higher on the energy density (relatively high-calorie) but are still nutrient dense.

Foods with lower nutritional density include red meat, cheese, sweets like cookies, cakes, candy, alcohol and soft drinks.

Here’s a handy chart to help you get the idea.

Some individual foods actually belong farther up or down the list. For example, salmon is one of the most nutrient dense foods, as are beef and chicken liver (not that I’d eat either one of those).

Blueberries are a powerhouse of nutrients that would generally move them above fruits in general.

And let’s not forget chocolate! Healthline considers it one of the 11 most nutrient dense foods on the planet. True, it comes in at no. 11, but still!

chocolate bar chocolate has high nutrient density

The chart is just a small representation. It doesn’t include alcohol and some other categories, but you get the idea.

Eat more of the stuff from the middle up and less from the middle down.

“On the nutrient density scale, eat more foods from the middle up, and fewer from the middle down.”

It doesn’t mean you have to eliminate anything! You can certainly choose to if you like. For example, if you like vegan or Nutritarian diets, by all means eat only plant-based foods.

Choosing foods by their nutrient density is simply a way to make sure you get the most nutritional value per calorie in the food you eat.

And why wouldn’t you want that?

Nutrient Density In Action

The real key, though, is putting it into practice. The requisite food labels can come in somewhat handy here. They do list a few of the most common stats about foods, such as calories, fat grams (saturated and unsaturated), some vitamins and minerals, along with fiber.

food nutrition label showing nutrient density

Let’s say you want to eat a sandwich for lunch. Do you pick the enriched white flour bread? Or the 100% whole wheat?

A quick look at the labels makes comparison easy. The white bread has little to no fiber, few vitamins or minerals. The whole wheat bread, on the other hand, has several grams of fiber, way more minerals, etc.

Total no-brainer. And if you don’t like whole wheat bread? Ease into it. Get some white whole wheat bread, and make some yourself.

Making bread is not only relatively easy, but quite satisfying as well. And you and I both know there’s just about nothing better than warm bread out of the oven with some butter! (Just not too much butter!)

Transform Your Favorite Recipes

Perhaps like me, you have certain foods you never want to have to give up. Of course, you never do have to give up anything–barring some medical reason.

You can choose to eat what you want when you want it. Or, limit the less-healthy food to certain days or quantities. You want to develop an arsenal of choices.

But for the sake of discussion pick one of your favorite meals that is less nutrient dense. Maybe something like Chicken Parmesan or Pasta Alfredo. These are both traditionally very high in fat.

low nutrient density chicken parmesan
Yummy, but low nutrient density

As mentioned above, of course you can choose to indulge in these meals whenever you want.

But if your goal is to lose or maintain a healthy weight, you may want to limit how often you have these meals.

Or, make them more nutrient dense! Sometimes you have to experiment to make them both more healthful and still taste close to the original.

This may not always be completely possible, but you can choose to get used to the new taste or sensation, or keep trying.

And note that “keep trying” can be fun! I know people who will try a dozen times to perfect a lower calorie or healthier version of one of their favorites. Whole cookbooks are written on the subject.

If you keep coming up with the thought, “this is too much trouble,” or “I don’t have enough time for this,” maybe you need to thank your brain for trying to be helpful but just go on and keep trying anyway.

Do some work on your thoughts!

Make Creamy Recipes Without The Cream

Let’s face it…cream is high in fat and calories. I don’t happen to drink cream in coffee, or use it for anything. I think maybe a jillion years ago I bought some for my mom to make whipped cream.

But creamy sauces like those in fettuccine Alfredo or homemade macaroni and cheese are often loaded with butter and heavy cream and maybe even cheese. Replace the heavy cream and make silky sauces with low-fat milk thickened with flour.

To make a cream substitute, whisk 1 cup low-fat milk (I use 1%) with 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour. Whisk over medium heat until bubbling and thick.

Check out this Cooking Light makeover of fettuccine Alfredo! It’s amazing.

Per cup, this saves more than 680 calories and 53 grams saturated fat vs. heavy cream. And it’s fabulous-tasting in the above-mentioned recipes.

In creamy potato salad, I use low-fat mayonnaise and/or light sour cream. I mix the two together in my super-delicious feta dip and dressing.

creamy low fat feta cheese dip and dressing with greater nutrient density helps you lose weight
Feta Cheese Dressing

One tablespoon regular mayo has 90 calories and 10 grams fat vs. 35 calories and 1 gram fat in low-fat mayo.

I’ve even begun replacing some of the light mayo/sour cream combo with a bit of non-fat Greek yogurt. That adds more protein for an additional win.

Cook With Less Oil

Extra-virgin olive oil and canola oil are both heart-healthy oils that I use in many recipes.

But they are still 100% fat, clocking in at 120 calories per tablespoon. So use them judiciously. Try adding less oil to your favorite sauté, salad or or soup recipe.

When cooking on the stove, use cast-iron, nonstick or enamel-coated pans so you can use the least amount of oil with very little sticking.

Another tip I learned long ago, maybe in a Cooking Light magazine, is to replace liquid oil in cake and muffin-type recipes with applesauce. You can also try prune puree. It may sound weird, but it’s super tasty in cookies!

I used to buy Sunsweet Lighter Bake, which is just prune puree, but I can no longer find it anywhere. Fortunately, they have a recipe for it now! Super simple and great tasting in cookies and muffins.

“Fry” Food Without Grease

Try oven frying instead of deep frying…or better yet, air frying! Dip chicken, fish or vegetables in milk, buttermilk or egg, dredge in seasoned flour or breadcrumbs, then coat with cooking spray.

Place on a wire rack set on a baking sheet and bake at 425° to 450°F until crispy. Two pieces of oven-fried chicken have about 40 percent fewer calories and 4 grams less saturated fat than two pieces of traditional fried chicken.

For a super-yummy oven fried chicken recipe, you can’t beat the one from The Recipe Rebel. It has a bit of butter in it and tastes remarkably like KFC (which my husband loves).

It’s pretty high in salt (see next section) so keep that in mind, or replace the Lawry’s seasoning with a salt free option like Costco’s.

And they taste yummy!

Cut Down On Salt

The recommended sodium consumption is less than 2,300 mg, or 1 teaspoon salt per day. That’s really not much, and it includes prepared foods!

You can replace some of the added salt in a recipe with sodium-free flavor-boosters like a squeeze of lemon or lime and/or chopped fresh herbs.

Be on the lookout for salt-free, or at least reduced sodium versions of some of your favorite canned goods, like diced tomatoes and other tomato products, chicken broth, and beans.

no salt seasoning can increase nutrient density and help you lose weight
Costco No-Salt Seasoning

Costco’s salt-free seasoning is quite good.

There are more no, or lower-sodium options available these days, so check nutrition labels to compare among brands.

Use Whole Grains In Baking

Replacing half the all-purpose flour in baked goods with whole-wheat flour adds fiber (12 more grams per cup) and boosts essential B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.

I do this with my pancake recipe (which I adapted from Joanna Gaines’ first cookbook!). I use half all-purpose flour and half whole wheat pastry flour.

whole wheat pastry flour can increase nutrient density and help you lose weight

Try using regular or white whole-wheat flour in breads and hearty cookies.

Use finer-textured whole-wheat pastry flour in cakes, muffins, and more delicate cookies.

Add Grains Or Vegetables To Meat Dishes

To keep ground meat dishes like meatloaf or burgers satisfying without going calorie crazy, add whole grains (like bulgur or brown rice) or shredded and diced vegetables (like zucchini, mushrooms, or peppers) to the meat to bulk up portion size and really increase the nutrient density.

It’s also a great way to get more grains and vegetables into your diet-foods we typically don’t get enough of. Try adding 3/4 to 1 cup cooked grains or diced vegetables for each pound of meat.

Reduce Cheese But Keep The Flavor

Using less cheese gives any dish an easy health upgrade. Try some bold-flavored cheeses, such as extra-sharp Cheddar, goat cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

cojita cheese is a strong flavored cheese

You can use less of the more flavorful varieties, thereby reducing the fat and calories. One of my new favorites (well, new to me) is Cojita cheese.

To be honest, I had never heard of this one until a few months ago. I love it! It’s fairly salty, so keep that in mind when seasoning dishes.

Use Nutrient Density To Help You Lose Weight

And do so while still maintaining the foods and flavors you love. If eating lighter and healthier scares you, or makes you want to throw in the towel every single time, I guarantee these methods can change your life.

And these are just the beginning! There are many more ways chefs and chef wanna-be’s have found and keep finding to make our food tasty AND healthy.

What’s not to be excited about?

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