10 of the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods That Won't Break the Bank
Skip the expensive supplements taking over your social media feed and stock up on some of these uber-nutritious (and real) foods instead.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
Few foods are as inexpensive and nutritious as a carton of eggs. According to Cassetty, a large egg has 6 grams of protein plus vitamin D, selenium, zinc, iodine, folate and other B vitamins, vitamin A, and choline. “Most of the nutrients are found in the yolk, and while there has been some concern around eating the yolk, most healthy people can safely eat up to seven whole eggs a week."
Eggs are packed with nutrients and are healthy on their own, but they also pair well with other nutrient-dense foods, like veggies and whole grains.
According to Cassetty, unsweetened dry oats are an affordable way to get a spectrum of vitamins and minerals, like iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins. They’re also rich in fiber, and they contain 5 grams of plant-based protein. “One type of fiber predominant in oats is beta-glucan, which helps promote a healthy and diverse microbiome and protects against other diseases,” she says. “Additionally, oats contain polyphenol antioxidants—compounds that counter free radical damage that can destabilize cells and promote conditions like heart disease and stroke.”
Of course, oats are a breakfast staple, but they’re also great in place of breadcrumbs in foods like meatballs. You can also grind oats to make whole grain flour for healthier baked goods, and they’re also a good choice for energy bites.
The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating two servings of seafood each week because of the valuable nutrients seafood provides. Yet Cassetty says that close to 90 percent of the population doesn’t meet this target. “Canned tuna is an easy and affordable choice to help you reach the weekly goal. A small can of light tuna, which is lower in mercury than white tuna, has 91 calories and 20 grams of protein, plus 50 IUs of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for immune functioning, and the majority of Americans don’t consume enough of this nutrient.” While higher in mercury, Cassetty says that canned white tuna is higher in omega-3 fatty acids that are important for your heart and brain health. “According to the FDA, it’s safe for most adults to eat a serving of canned white tuna every week. That’s why tuna salad is one of my go-to weekday lunches, and I also like balancing out pasta dishes with canned tuna,” she adds.
Frozen fruits and veggies are always a good choice since they’re just as nutritious as fresh produce and are usually a more budget-friendly option. Plus, according to Cassetty, people who consume frozen fruits and veggies eat more produce than people who stay away from frozen produce.
“One study found that people who eat frozen fruits and veggies had more nutritious diets with higher amounts of fiber, potassium, calcium, and vitamin D, compared to people who didn’t stock their freezer with these foods,” she says. “I especially like frozen blueberries because blueberry season is so short, but frozen blueberries are always available for a reasonable price. Blueberries stand out for being rich in polyphenol antioxidants called anthocyanins. Studies link regular blueberry consumption to a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes, and less cognitive decline over time.”
One of Cassetty’s favorite ways to enjoy frozen blueberries is to heat about half a cup in the microwave until they’re warm and the juices release. Once warmed, add about a teaspoon of chia seeds and let the mixture sit for at least 10 minutes. “This jammy blueberry mix is delicious when stirred into Greek yogurt or oatmeal or atop pancakes or whole grain toast spread with nut butter,” she says. “You can also use this mixture to make a faux crisp by adding some lower sugar granola on top.” (Yum.)
“This nutrient-dense soy food is a great way to shift toward eating less animal protein,” Cassetty says. “A portion provides 8 grams of fiber and 9 grams of protein, as well as iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and folate.” According to a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, eating more plant-based foods and fewer animal foods may reduce your risk of heart disease. Plus, plant-based protein is less expensive than meat and poultry.
Frozen edamame is an easy snack or appetizer, but you can also mix shelled edamame with many common foods. For example, adding shelled edamame to mac and cheese makes this meal healthier.