It’s challenging for many of us to eat enough nutritious foods from day to day, especially if we are working long hours, commuting, dealing with a serious health condition, taking care of loved ones, or attending social commitments. The solution? Make the most of every bite you take. Choosing foods that are packed with nutrients supplies you with the building blocks you need to function well and build resilience, without sacrificing flavour or enjoyment.
What Defines The Most Nutritious Foods?
Nutrient dense foods are commonly defined as ones that are rich in nutrients but fairly low in calories. In functional nutrition, calories are not the best measure, as a food or ingredient can be low-calorie and lack nutrition or contain added chemicals, such as low-fat yogurt. A more useful definition of nutritious foods are those that are:
- High in vitamins and minerals
- Contain antioxidants
- Have protein (for some foods)
- Are fibrous
- Contain healthy fats or oils
- Plants grown without pesticides, herbicides or other obesogenic chemicals
- Animal foods raised without antibiotics and added hormones, and fed on their natural diet of grass and foraging
Aside from what is (or isn’t) contained in a particular food, there is the issue of what is wild or local in your area. Guavas are incredibly sweet and delicious, but they don’t grow where I live. When my wife and I travel to tropical climates, we gorge on the local produce because these are not items we would normally eat at home. Consuming foods close to where they are grown means you can eat them at their nutritional peak, rather than waiting for days or weeks as produce travels from farms to your grocery store, suffering significant nutrient losses in the process.
Also, foods that are grown in the wild, with minimal or no human intervention, are hardier because they need to protect themselves from the harsh realities of their environment – wild blueberries are just one example of this.
These top 12 most nutritious foods – listed in no particular order – are ones that are commonly available in many grocery stores, and foods that I regularly recommend to clients. Still, I encourage you to seek out the freshest ingredients in your area!
12 Most Nutritious Foods To Add To Your Grocery List
Why It’s Nutritious: Broccoli is often maligned by kids and adults, but it really has a milder flavour and is easier to love than some of the other foods on this list. Broccoli contains a gamut of nutrients, including fibre, folate, Vitamins A, C, E and K, as well as minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and copper. Broccoli is also well-known as a source of a unique set of nutrients called isothiocynates. These compounds, found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, aid our body’s detoxification processes, reduce inflammation, prevent certain types of cancer, help to balance hormones, and decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Evidence indicates that steaming broccoli retains the most nutrients, so consider doing this as much as possible – but at the same time, don’t be deterred from enjoying broccoli in other ways like roasted, stir-fried, or blended into soups. If steamed broccoli seems boring, a fantastic sauce or condiment really amps it up.
Buying Tips: Purchase broccoli with the stalks, which you can peel and use in soups, stir-fries, stews, or steam it with the crown. Broccoli sprouts are another source of glucosinolates and isothiocynates that are more bio-available to us and easier to digest and absorb. Sprouts are inexpensive, especially if you make them yourself at home.
Why They’re Nutritious: Rich in anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer compounds, onions can help boost immunity, protect the cardiovascular system, balance blood sugar levels, enhance detoxification and prevent non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. They’re widely available and amp up the flavour of many recipes.
Buying Tips: Red onions tend to be milder than white or yellow onions. Leeks, shallots, and green onions are also great options and impart different flavours to cooking.
Why It’s Nutritious: One of my favourite natural remedies, garlic has anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-microbial properties. Garlic is great for boosting your immune system and fighting the common cold, plus it contains compounds that lower blood pressure and are cancer preventative. Let garlic sit after chopping for 5-10 minutes before cooking it. This ensures the beneficial compound allicin, which is released during chopping and responsible for much of garlic’s nutritional power, isn’t destroyed.
Buying Tips: There are many varieties of garlic you can try. There may be a limited number at the grocery store, but more at your local farmers market. For a short time, you may also see garlic scapes – the curly stalks that sprout up from certain types of garlic bulbs. They are very tasty and easy to use in pestos and stir-fries.
Why It’s Nutritious: Quinoa is a gluten-free pseudograin that is extremely rich in protein; in fact, it is one of the few complete plant-based proteins that has all our required amino acids for good health. Aside from protein, quinoa is high in fiber for digestive and cardiovascular health, antioxidants, and valuable minerals such as zinc, magnesium, manganese and copper.
Buying Tips: Quinoa is available in several different colours. White quinoa is the mildest and most tender, while red and black varieties are stronger in flavour and can be crunchier. Quinoa contains saponins, compounds that offer some health benefits but unfortunately they give quinoa a soapy and bitter taste. Ensure you rinse quinoa well before cooking.
Why It’s Nutritious: Salmon is a nutrient-dense seafood, containing anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, Vitamin D, Vitamin B12, selenium, amino acids and choline. It also has a special antioxidant called astaxanthin, responsible for its colour, which helps to protect the brain and nervous system. Altogether, the nutrients in salmon work to support mood and cognition, aid the cardiovascular system, protect against Type 2 diabetes and benefit the joints and eyes.
Buying Tips: Choose wild fish whenever possible, as farmed varieties are higher in inflammatory fats, are raised using antibiotics and often contain PCBs. If wild salmon isn’t available, smaller canned fish such as sardines, herring and anchovies have a similar nutrient profile.
Why They’re Nutritious: A powerhouse package of protein, choline for brain health, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, Vitamin D for bone health and immunity, Vitamin A for our skin and vision, iron to boost energy levels, and carotenoids for eye health and vision. Worried about cholesterol? Don’t be – evidence shows that the cholesterol in eggs doesn’t negatively impact health in most cases.
Buying Tips: Purchase organic, free-range eggs if possible, or buy eggs from your local farmer or farmer’s market. There is no difference in nutrition between brown or white eggs.
Why They’re Nutritious: Berries are one of my favourite nutritious foods. Jam-packed with antioxidants, fibre, Vitamin C, manganese and copper, berries help boost brain health, protect against cancer, improve cardiovascular health, balance blood sugar and benefit vision. You can read an in-depth guide to berries, and the unique properties of each one, here.
Buying Tips: Many conventional berry varieties contain high amounts of pesticides, so this is one food that I recommend buying organic. If you can get your hands on wild berries (or can grow your own), you’ll get a boost of nutrients.
Why They’re Nutritious: Rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, dandelion greens are very bitter – but that bitterness is there for a reason. Bitter foods, like dandelion, stimulate the taste receptors on our tongues and help to enhance digestive flow. That’s why dandelion is one of the key components of my digestive bitters. Dandelion is also a good source of fibre, helps to enhance detoxification and has some blood sugar balancing effects.
Buying Tips: Opt for organic dandelion greens when possible. They should be bright green and not wilted. If you are new to bitter foods, mix them with a milder green like spinach or lettuce.
Why They’re Nutritious: Black beans are packed with protein, fibre, iron, magnesium and folate, and they have some characteristics that make them extra special. Research has revealed that black beans contain resistant starch, a type of carbohydrate that passes through the digestive tract unchanged until it reaches the colon and bacteria feed on it. This helps to lower the glycemic index, produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Their dark, rich colour is due to the presence of anthocyanins, antioxidant flavonoids that offer anti-inflammatory and blood sugar-balancing properties.
Buying Tips: Dried beans are inexpensive and you can control the amount of salt when you cook them. If purchasing canned black beans, look for BPA-free cans to avoid endocrine disruptors.
Why They’re Nutritious: These small seeds are a dense source of quality protein and healthy fats. Like quinoa, hemp is a complete plant-based protein that is rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids, and the seeds have a 3:1 ratio of omega 6:omega 3 (the ideal ratio of these fats is anywhere from 4:1 to 2:1). Some evidence suggests hemp seeds are easier to digest than proteins made from grains, nuts and pulses and they may benefit the cardiovascular system and the skin.
Buying Tips: Hulled hemp seeds are also called hemp hearts on packages. As hemp seeds contain delicate fats that are sensitive to heat, light and air, it’s best to store them in the fridge. Whole hemp seeds are great for making non-dairy milk, blending into elixirs, sprinkling on soups or salads, or using in smoothies. Hemp protein powder is also available.
Why It’s Nutritious: Chocolate is good for you! Cacao, which has been dried and fermented, is extremely rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, minerals and beneficial fats. It is high in energy-boosting iron and magnesium, a mineral that is fantastic for our bone and nervous system health, as well as for modulating testosterone levels.
The reason why cocoa and love are so closely connected is not by chance. There is a phytochemical in cocoa called phenylethylamine (PEA) that is the same substance your brain makes when you are in love. PEA also helps you remain alert and focused.
Buying Tips: Not all chocolate is created equal – many brands contain very little chocolate and excessive amounts of sugar, dairy and hydrogenated oils. The darker the chocolate, the better. Look for organic, free-trade chocolate that has a minimum of 70% cacao. You can discover more ways to use chocolate in this guide.
Why It’s Nutritious: All dark leafy greens are nutritious foods that contain fibre, Vitamin C, B vitamins (for energy and the nervous system), iron, magnesium, omega-3s and calcium. Kale is packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, and because it’s also a member of the cruciferous family of vegetables it can help us excrete excess estrogen and reduce the risk of cancer.
Buying Tips: There are several varieties of kale and the most common ones you’ll find at the grocery store are curly kale, lacinato kale and red kale. All are great for eating raw in salads or cooked. Here are 10 tasty things you can do with greens like kale.
Incorporating these 12 most nutritious foods into your diet may seem overwhelming, but you don’t have to add all of them at once – start off by adding two or three to your grocery list per week and experiment with them in the kitchen. All of these daily dietary choices add up to good health!