All too often, nutrition advice centers around making you feel guilty about your go-to groceries. But sometimes, all you need to do to increase the nutrient density of your food is to make a few simple tweaks to what you're already eating. Let's explore four such ways to upgrade some staples in your fridge and pantry, so they provide greater health benefits.
- Prioritize Pasture-Raised Meat and Dairy
If you’ve ever driven past a commercially-farmed feedlot, you’ve probably been horrified to see hundreds of cattle crammed into a tiny pen. Whereas if you drove a bit further down the road and saw cows grazing in a grassy field, you’d observe that they have room to roam. Outside the ethical advantages that pasture-raised meat and dairy products offer, they also provide health benefits compared to factory-farmed options.
A University of Minnesota study led by Professor Brad Heins compared the nutritional profile of grass-fed, organic, and regular whole milk. In an article summarizing the findings, he stated that the grass-fed (aka pasture-raised) milk had 147 percent more omega-3 fatty acids than the conventional kind, and also had 36 and 52 percent less omega-6 than organic and regular milk, respectively. He mentioned another national study that showed how the omega-6 to omega-3 profile of conventional milk is typically around 5.7:1, whereas for the grass-fed kind it’s closer to 1:1. This is significant because getting too many omega-6s and too few omega-3s can cause chronic inflammation and other health issues.
This difference in fatty acid profile also extends to grass-fed beef, which contains up to double the omega 3s of the grain-fed kind. According to functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, “Grass-fed meat is so nutritionally superior to factory-farmed meat that it is practically a different food.” A review published in the Nutrition Journal stated that the benefits of grass-fed beef include higher levels of disease-fighting antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which promotes healthy immune function. You get bonus points if you can get meat that’s organic as well as grass-fed, as you’ll avoid the steroids, antibiotics, and growth hormones that conventionally raised cattle are injected with.
- Select Sprouted Grains
Unless you’re following a fully Paleo or ketogenic diet, it’s likely that you’re stocking up on bread most times that you go to the store. While choosing whole wheat over white is a good start, and options like Dave’s Killer Bread taste great thanks to all the seeds they include, there’s another jump you could make to up your bread game: switching to sprouted grains.
Most kinds of grains break down as a starch. Cheap white bread is a simple carbohydrate, so it digests like sugar, giving you a high and crash. Typical whole grains don’t create such a drastic insulin spike, but their complex carbs can sit heavy (think about how overly full you can feel after eating your favorite pasta dish) and can cause gas or bloating. In contrast to both, sprouted grains digest more like a vegetable because the starches are partially broken down, meaning no ups and downs in energy or stomach issues you might experience with regular wheat. Instead, sprouted grains provide steady energy.
As they’re highly processed, most milled breads are stripped of their minerals and vitamins. The manufacturers might add some back in through so-called “fortification” (the same goes for mass-produced cereals). According to a review of previous studies published in Nutrients, the sprouting process retains more of the original micronutrients like zinc, iron, magnesium, B vitamins, manganese, selenium, and phosphorous. Even if these were present in regular grains, chemicals like phytic acid antinutrients partially block their absorption. The sprouting process breaks down such antinutrients, making vitamins and minerals more bioavailable, per a paper published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology.
- Fill Up on Fermented Foods
If you’ve read enough here to make the switch to pasture-raised beef and slapping a slice or two of grass-fed cheese on top, you’re well on your way to making the ultimate burger. But there’s another way to make it even more nutritious that might surprise you: picking a better pickle. Sure, the regular version tastes good, but if you start buying a fermented kind, it’s going to be better for your gut.
Brands like Bubbies preserve the bacteria cultures that are naturally present in their pickles so that every jar contains plenty of probiotics. One highly potent strain is Lactobacillus, which a study by a group of Indian scientistsdiscovered helps digest grains and vegetables, protect healthy gut microbes, and help the immune system combat pathogens that can cause disease. The authors found five other beneficial strains of lactic acid bacteria in pickles too.
Pickles aren’t the only type of food that can improve your gut health. Researchers from Stanford School of Medicineexamined one group that consumed a wide range of fermented products – including kimchi, sauerkraut, and kombucha – and another that just followed a high-fiber diet. They found that the fermented foods group had a much more significant improvement in the diversity of their microbiome after completing the 10-week protocol.
The Stanford study also noted that the participants who saw the biggest boost to their gut health consumed kefir, Greek yogurt, and fermented cottage cheese. So if you’re torn between these and regular options when you’re in the dairy aisle, spend a little extra on the fermented options to give your immunity and digestive health a boost. Another plus is that Greek yogurt can contain up to three times more muscle-building protein than a standard kind.
- Pick Organic Produce
There’s a strong case to be made for selecting organic fruits and vegetables because you’ll avoid the pesticides, fungicides, and other chemicals that regular varieties are treated with. But did you know that picking organic produce is often more nutrient dense too? A meta-analysis of 343 prior studies published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that "Across the important antioxidant compounds in fruits and vegetables, organic fruits and vegetables deliver between 20 and 40 percent higher antioxidant activity,” according to co-author Charles Benbrook, a professor at Washington State University.
Such antioxidants – which include flavonoids and carotenoids – bolster immunity, slow the effects of aging, and may reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer. This isn’t the first paper to note the benefits of organic produce. A study conducted at the University of California, Davis discovered that organic strawberries contained 52 percent more vitamin C than a non-organic sample. A team of French and Brazilian researchers compared regular and organic tomatoes and found that the latter had 140 percent higher enzyme activity, 139 percent more phenols that protect against cellular damage, and 90 percent more antioxidant activity. The takeaway? If you can afford to pay slightly more for organic fruits and vegetables, the investment will be well worth it from a health perspective.