Eggs on wheat toast for breakfast, a turkey sandwich for lunch, and chicken with pasta primavera for dinner. Sounds like a healthy diet, right? While many nutritionists say yes, some experts, like author Joel Fuhrman, tapped by Whole Foods Market in 2009 to help develop a new nutritional program, argue that many diets – even those considered healthy – are dangerously lacking in micronutrients: the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (good-for-you plant chemicals) that doctors believe reduce the risk of weight gain, obesity, and chronic diseases like cancer.
“Micronutrient-poor foods, like pasta, sugar, and soda, don’t just give you empty calories and make you fat; they also do damage to the body and cause disease,” Fuhrman says. “Without micronutrients to remove waste, cells become congested, DNA gets broken, and the body doesn’t have the ability to repair itself. Eventually, you get sick.”
To prevent weight gain and disease, Fuhrman recommends what he calls a nutritarian diet – eating foods with the most micronutrients per calorie. Since most micronutrients aren’t listed on labels, he created the 1,000-point Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI), which ranks foods based on micronutrient concentration.
Leafy green vegetables dominate the upper end of ANDI, scoring between 500 and a perfect 1,000, while vegetables like radishes, cabbage, and broccoli score in the 300 to 500 range. Fruit averages around 100; nuts and seeds (17–124) and beans and legumes (46–104) follow close behind, while whole grains (17–53) average lower. Meat and dairy fall at the bottom (2–39).
Last year, Whole Foods Market began posting ANDI scores in stores to help shoppers and employees eat more micronutrients. So far, the scale has worked, as sales of high-scoring foods have skyrocketed and employees who follow the diet have lost weight and reported feeling much healthier. “Eating these foods is great for cardiovascular health and fighting high blood pressure and cancer,” says Manuel Villacorta, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. “In every bite, you get hundreds of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.”
While Fuhrman discourages regularly eating animal products, his food plan is not vegan: Humans have evolved to eat some meat and dairy, he says, and most people who exclude animal products end up living off micronutrient-poor carbohydrates like white-flour pasta and bread.
Short of always consulting an ANDI scale, how do you eat more micronutrient-dense foods? Start by reducing your meat and dairy intake, and make plants, beans, and nuts the focal point of meals. As for meat, look for nutrient-packed bison – naturally lean and usually pastured rather than raised in feedlots – and opt for skim milk. Avoid high-calorie, micronutrient-lacking foods like regular potatoes, pastas, and white flours. Opt instead for whole oats, the highest-scoring grain. Although the difference in ANDI rankings diminishes as you go down the scale – bison outscores bacon by only 27 points, for example – prioritizing higher-ranking foods significantly boosts your micronutrient load.
The easiest way to consume more micronutrients – and drop a belt size? Eat a big salad every day with greens, other vegetables, and nuts, Fuhrman says.