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Choosing Nutrient-Dense Foods

In choosing what we eat, it’s important to focus on nutrients. Foods known as “nutrient-dense” have vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats, according to NIH SeniorHealth, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

Here, the SeniorHealth experts tell you what foods you should focus on:

Fruits and vegetables – These foods have important vitamins and minerals; most of them are also low-fat and have no cholesterol. Additionally, they are a good source of fiber and provide your body with  phytochemicals. These are natural compounds such as lutein and lycopene, the SeniorHealth experts say. They may promote good health and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.

Grains, especially whole grains – Any food made from wheat, rye, rice, oats, cornmeal, barley, or another cereal grain is a grain product. The SeniorHealth experts say that grains fall into two main categories: whole and refined. Foods made from whole grains are a major source of energy and fiber. Grains also contain phytochemicals. Try to make at least half your grains whole, and include them in your daily diet. Look for labels that say “whole wheat” or “whole oats,” for example, rather than just “wheat” or “oats.” Substitute brown rice for white rice, and try whole-wheat pasta.

Low-fat or fat-free dairy products – Dairy should be a part of your everyday diet. If you don’t drink milk, be sure to have other products that contain the nutrients (calcium and Vitamin D) that milk provides, the SeniorHealth experts say. Some cereals and juices are fortified with extra calcium and vitamin D. Salmon, sardines and mackerel are good sources of vitamin D.

The SeniorHealth experts say people who are lactose-intolerant and have had to avoid milk products because of their lactose content can get their calcium benefits in other ways. You can try low-lactose dairy products, or lactase, a tablet sold over the counter. You might also want to consider canned fish like salmon or sardines, and calcium-fortified tofu or soy beverages.

Protein helps build and maintain muscle and skin, the SeniorHealth experts say. You can include it in your daily diet via lean cuts of meat and poultry, seafood, beans such as lentils and chickpeas and unsalted nuts. The consumption of nuts should be limited, because they are high-calorie.

Limit saturated fats. The SeniorHealth experts say that less than 10 percent of your calories should come from saturated fats, and they recommend keeping the consumption of trans fats as low as possible. Other things to avoid: cholesterol, salt and added sugars.

Some fats are better for you than others. The SeniorHealth experts recommend choosing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats when possible. Sources of better fats include vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, canola, olive, safflower, and sunflower oils. Polyunsaturated fat is also in nuts, seeds, and fish. Walnuts, flaxseed and salmon are examples of foods with polyunsaturated fat.

Consume plenty of liquids, with an emphasis on water. This could help prevent constipation and dehydration, since you lose fluids every day. Other good choices: unsweetened tea, low-fat or fat-free milk and 100 percent fruit juice without added sugar.

To learn more about choosing and cooking healthy meals as you get older, see 10 Healthy Eating Tips for People 65 +. Additional resources can be found at


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