Choosing food which is dense in nutrients can help lower your risk of obesity. Jonathan Liautrakul reports
Mr Jonathan Loo, a 50-year-old general manager of a manufacturing company, stays away from deep-fried and fatty food. In a day, he typically has a slice of white bread with a cup of coffee for breakfast and a bowl of dry fishball noodles and a glass of fruit juice for lunch at the hawker centre. He usually has white rice with steamed prawns in sweet and sour sauce and a serving of stir-fried cabbage for dinner at home.
But his diet would be even better if he boosted his intake of nutrient-dense food, or food that is packed with goodness such as vitamins and minerals but has relatively fewer calories. For instance, he could have fish slice noodle soup to increase his protein intake and add vegetables to the prawn dish to further increase the vitamin and antioxidant content, said Ms Maggie Yap, a dietitian at the Singapore General Hospital. Instead of juice, which is high in calories and low in fibre, he could have a serving of fruit, she added. Mr Loo is sticking to his diet, but may consider changing it in the near future. “Maybe when I retire and am no longer living this hectic lifestyle,” he said.
One can calculate a food’s nutrient density by dividing the quantity of a nutrient in milligrams, by the total number of calories in one serving of the food, said Ms Kalpana Bhaskaran, a nutritionist at the Singapore Nutrition and Dietetics Association. For instance, a cup of skimmed milk delivers about 300mg of calcium and 85 calories, so its nutrient density is 3.5mg per calorie, she said. A similar cup of full-cream milk – with 285mg of calcium and 163 calories – is less nutrient-dense at 1.74mg per calorie.
Having a nutrient-dense diet is important as it lowers the risk of obesity, said Mr Benjamin Lee, a Health Promotion Board nutritionist. One can be physically obese and physiologically malnourished at the same time, he said. The counterpart of nutrient dense food is energy-dense food, which is high in calories but not very nutritious. This is usually food prepared with lots of fat or sugar, such as curry puffs or nasi lemak.
People often do not choose nutrient-dense food because it tends not to be presented in a way that is appealing or tasty, said Mr Derrick Ong, a dietitian at a nutrition consultancy in Far East Shopping Centre. To maximise one’s intake of nutrients while keeping the calories to a minimum, one has to first determine where the calories are coming from and balance the energy intake by following the recommended servings from each food group, said Ms Yap. “The main sources of calories are from carbohydrates, protein and fats, which may lead to obesity, and thus one should opt for foods with lower fat and no added sugar,” she said. Mr Ong said: “Choosing more nutrient-dense foods helps people make every mouthful count.”
While choosing foods within a group, it is important to go for the more nutrient-dense options, he said. For instance, wholemeal bread offers more dietary fibre and carbohydrates than white bread, which makes it a better option. The nutrient density of a food can change with its method of preparation and processing. For instance, vegetables stir-fried in oil are less nutrient-dense than steamed vegetables, as oil adds more calories without any nutrients.
Nutrient requirements vary among groups of people. Older people and post-menopausal women need more calcium to maintain bone mass, while sporty people need more carbohydrates, proteins and sodium to build up muscle mass and have energy. A simple way to make sure that one gets the most bang for the buck: Eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrains – which are low-fat and fibre- and vitamin-rich – and calcium-rich foods. Mr Lee said: “Eating fruit, vegetables and wholegrains makes a person feel full for longer and – if these are prepared with less fat and sugar – consume fewer calories, leading to less weight gain over time.