What makes nutrient dense food?

How do you know if a food is good for your child or not? Does it tell you on the label? The ingredients list? The number of calories? Or do you look for the nutrient tables or traffic lights system? As parents and guardians, it can be so confusing to know if you’re making the right choices or not.

Here at Little Inca, our ethos is to create nutrient dense foods, that are packed with goodness for healthy body, gut and brain development. Our aim is to help you make sure your child’s diet is as nutrient dense as possible. But what does that actually mean? And how do you know if the foods you are choosing are nutrient dense? Our nutrition advisor, Registered Nutritionist Catherine Jeans DipION mBANT CNHC has the answers.

What is a nutrient?
A nutrient is a substance that provides essential nourishment for humans, so that we can grow and develop in the healthiest way possible. Nutrition isn’t just about the prevention of disease or making enough fuel. Optimal nutrition is about so much more. It’s about supporting every human’s ability to truly thrive and flourish, to feel and achieve their best, and this starts from the very first days of weaning.

Calories don’t tell you about nutrients
For years, foods have been classified by the amount of calories they contain. But this focus on calorie content tells us nothing about all the good stuff present in the food. A children’s food may be described as healthy because it is low in calories, sugar or fat. Yet this reveals nothing about the density of nutrients – the goodness that actually feeds a lifetime of optimal wellness.

Two different foods can have the exact same number of calories. Yet one can be so much more nutrient dense than the other, due to the higher levels of nourishment from things like essential vitamins, minerals, protein, healthy fats, fibre or plant chemicals. These compounds help to make a food more nutrient dense, rather than empty calories that meet very little nutritional need.

Nutrient dense foods feed a healthy gut microbiome
One of the key advantages of a nutrient dense diet is the positive impact it can have on the gut microbiome – the trillions of beneficial bacteria and other organisms that reside inside our digestive systems. Scientific research has shown that the first 3 years of a child’s life is so vital for establishing a healthy gut microbiome.

The weaning journey is an incredible opportunity to help our little ones with healthy gut microbiome development, full of diverse organisms that encourage good health and growth. We’re even seeing in research that a healthy microbiome from an early age can help our brain power as we grow and learn.

Nutrient dense wholefoods like quinoa, vegetables, beans, nuts, fruit and seeds provide fibre and other prebiotic compounds that help to directly feed your baby’s gut microbiome. Imagine you’re providing the best soil and fertiliser for the amazing “garden” of organisms that resides in their digestive system. These gut-loving foods have been researched for their benefits to human health, via the interactions they have with all the organisms that live in our digestive system. For example, when it comes to our favourite grain, quinoa, researchers have found this can increase levels of the Bifidobacterium species, which is one of the most important organisms in a child’s digestive system. This species helps to support good digestion, balance immunity and establish healthy cross talk between your little one’s gut and brain.

(ref: doi: 10.3390/nu12061581)

It’s not only the fibre in nutrient dense foods that feeds your baby’s gut microbiome. There are many other compounds that add to the gut healthy benefits – from the pigments that provide blueberries their rich colour to the orange in foods such as papaya, carrots or pumpkins. These colourful plant extracts are being studied by scientists all around the world, and results emphasise the need to introduce babies and young children to a rainbow of different coloured plant foods, to support diversity in the gut microbiome.

That’s why at Little Inca all our products include a wide range of colourful plant foods, to ensure each and every mouthful has a rainbow of goodness for your little one. You can use our pouches as a complete food, or add to their favourite dishes as a nutrient dense top up.

Key nutrients to look out for in a nutrient dense diet

There are so many different nutrients that our children need to be healthy. This includes the 3 main macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrate. To ensure a nutrient dense diet, it’s important we have the right balance of macronutrients, with enough protein for optimal growth and development. We include quinoa in all of our products, which is one of the few plant-based complete proteins, because it contains all the essential amino acids needed for optimal growth and development. There are also many other quality sources of protein, including beans, pulses, seeds, nuts, meat, fish, eggs and dairy.

A nutrient dense diet also depends on getting in the right kind of fats, but unfortunately the typical Western diet is often high in omega 6 fats and low in omega 3. Babies, toddlers and children of all ages need a good intake of omega 3 fats to support good health, particularly when it comes to the brain. Encourage your little one to eat nutrient dense foods such as sardines, mackerel or salmon, which are rich in omega 3. Or plant based sources from ground up nuts and seeds – which go really well into yoghurt, pureed foods, sprinkled onto porridge or used in baking.

Choosing complex, fibre rich carbohydrates also helps to support a more nutrient dense diet. Children need sufficient fibre from a young age, to ensure they have all the fuel to feed a healthy digestive system. They don’t need high levels of refined white carbohydrates – such as white bread or other refined grains. These are far from nutrient dense, and provide empty calories, very low in vitamins and minerals.

So a nutrient dense food is one that contains higher levels of beneficial nutrients, but is also naturally low in nutrients we do not need for our health – such as sugar, salt, unhealthy fat, preservatives and other chemicals.

The key to ensuring your little one eats a nutrient dense diet is making sure they get plenty of variety. That way you can ensure they get all the essential vitamins, minerals, plant pigments, protein, fibre and healthy fats they need for a lifetime of great health!