How to Choose High Quality, Nutrient Dense Foods

You get what you pay for.


I feel like more often than not, this saying holds true. There's a reason we pay more now for something we know is made well and avoid having to spend just as much money (or more) down the road. This is especially true when it comes to investing in our health.  If we invest our money in choosing high quality foods now, we'll not only get a greater return as evidenced in our health but we'll also help to increase the overall demand for higher quality food, at a more attainable price. Basic supply and demand going on here, and it works! The more we demand quality and vote with our dollars at the grocery store, the more affordable these products have and will continue to become.

Pay the farm now, so you can avoid paying the pharmacy later.

We've already come a long way in the last 5 years or so, with big chains like Costco and Walmart jumping on the health "trend", offering organic food and products at a more affordable price in order to compete with the original (more expensive) health oriented companies like Whole Foods.  This is great momentum for the real food movement so let's keep it going! There are so many great (and yes they're legitimate) reasons to choose high quality foods.

Before we delve into what a "high quality" food is, how to recognize it and why it makes a difference in our health, keep in mind the 80/20 guidelines of paleo when choosing quality foods. I don't like to put the stressful or unrealistic expectation on myself that I'm going to have access to high quality foods 100% of the time and you shouldn't either. If you're on a budget, traveling or a guest at someone's house, you may not always be in complete control of your foods choices. It's okay to make compromises in these situations. This is why you eat the best you can 80% of the time and leave the other 20% open for freedom.  If it comes down to not eating or choosing the commercially-raised hard boiled eggs and questionable banana at the gas station off the side of the road, I'm going to choose the lower quality food. 

I have to eat and so do you!

As always, just do the best you can with the resources and knowledge you have about making healthy choices and what will work best for you. Okay, let's get into it! 

What Qualifies as a High Quality Food


 Certified Organic

"Organic" is more than just a buzzword or seemingly "trendy" fad at the moment. Organically produced food is the most heavily regulated and closely monitored government production system, and for good reason. Production of organic food restricts the use of toxic chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones. Our health can be significantly impacted by these factors, manifesting as allergies, skin conditions or digestive disorders and the long term effects can be even more detrimental with links to antibiotic resistance and cancer. Yea...I'd like to avoid that please and thank you. Organic farmers also practice farming methods such as crop rotation, composting and other natural ways to create a healthy, nutrient rich soil in which plants and animals not only grow, they thrive. Nutrient rich soil/grass = nutrient rich foods. Makes sense right? Conventionally produced foods on the other hand, are sprayed heavily with pesticides and grown in nutrient-depleted soils, making the foods they produce nutrient-depleted as well. It's basically an empty shell version of what the food should really be.  Now, if you're on a budget, then choosing real foods that are conventionally grown, over prepackaged, processed fake foods, is still a better option and is encouraged. You'll still be doing your body a lot of favors by giving it something it can recognize as true fuel for healing and health. Referring to the Environmental Working Group's "Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen" List, can help you in making some of the harder decisions about how you want to spend your budget.

Whew! Okay next point...

I'm sure by now you've at least heard the term "genetically modified organism"(GMO) and our countries determination to have companies disclose if their products have been genetically modified or contain any ingredients that are GMO's. Other countries around the world (64 to be exact) already require that GMO's be labeled so this is not an unrealistic or unjustified request that our government require labels as well. What have you got to lose America? Pretty sure I know the answer but that's a subject for a whole other post! So for today we'll keep it short and sweet. Avoid GMO's. Buying organic foods is the easiest way to avoid GMO's as our government and the Canadian government, does not allow a product to be labeled "Certified Organic" if it contains GMO's. This is great but if you wanted to take it a step further and be 100% certain that you're avoiding GMO's, be sure to look for the Non-GMO Project Verified seal on products. They test every ingredient to ensure it is not genetically modified and are currently the most reliable and respected source for identifying GMO's.

All that being said, don't confuse (or be tricked) into thinking organic = healthy, as it doesn't. Just because a company created a pretty green logo of leaves falling from the sky for their "Organic Gummy Bears" does not mean that it's a high quality food that you should be eating lots of!  Although if you're going to buying gummy bears they might as well be organic...The point I'm trying to make with choosing organic for high quality is this:

  • Buy organic real foods first; vegetables, fruits, meats, dairy, nuts, seeds, grains, legumes, healthy fats etc. Organic ensures a cleaner, more nutrient-rich food to promote your health.
  • Buy organic packaged foods second; this would be things like crackers, chips, and treats etc. If you're going to be rounding out your whole foods diet every now and then with some processed foods, it's better to choose organic and at least have it be as clean as possible!

 Locally Grown or Produced

It's estimated that most food we purchase travels an average of 1,500 miles before it hits our plates. Not only is this bad for our environment, using massive amounts of fossil fuels and creating a large carbon footprint, but it's not doing our health any favors. In order to be transported such long distances, fruits and vegetables are often picked unripe and then gassed to ripen, along with being irradiated and treated with preservatives to protect them during storage and transport. Fruits and vegetables picked before they're ripe do not have the chance to develop into the nutrient dense foods they're meant to be. Even if produce is not harvested early, it begins to lose it's nutrient density the moment it's picked from the vine or plucked from the earth. Enters the case of locally grown foods. If you have the option of buying your produce from local farmers markets, community support agriculture shares (CSA's), co-ops and farm stands, I highly suggest doing so. Or even better, grow your own if you can! Buying from your local farmers supports your local community agriculture, reduces our carbon footprint and provides us with a much healthier, nutrient-dense food to help our bodies thrive. CSA's are also a great way to expand your taste buds and experiment with a selection of different foods you may not normally buy. And let's face it...local,fresh (and I mean like just picked fresh..) food just TASTES BETTER. It really does. The flavor of blueberries straight off the bush just doesn't even begin to compare to blueberries that were picked weeks ago and shipped all over the country before it reached your parfait. I'm sorry, it just doesn't.

Eat local whenever you can!

Your community, taste buds and body will thank you.

Organic Grass-fed and/or Grass-finished

Buying meat, such as beef, pork, or chicken that is labeled as organic grass-fed and ideally grass-finished, ensures a clean, nutrient-dense product that also has an appropriate fatty-acid profile. From a nutritional standpoint only (because books have literally been written on all of the ethical issues concerning commercially raised, confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) run practices), grass-fed, grass-finished meat contains an ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids compared to grain-fed meat. To maintain health and decrease inflammation throughout our bodies, we want to aim for about a 1:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (you'll find more prominent levels of omega-3's in cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and anchovies). The ratio of omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids in grass-fed beef is about 1.5:1, while in grain-fed beef this ratio jumps all the way to 7.6:1!

If you haven't figured it out by this post or any of my other posts, I'm a nutrivore. I eat for nutrient density and believe me, CAFO meat is not nutrient dense.

The organic certification is really important here for grass-fed, grass-finished meat. The label could read as grass-fed, but unless it's also organic, there's no telling if that animal was also given antibiotics or hormones. If it's difficult to find a local or organic grass-fed, grass-finished meat in your area or not within your budget, at least consider choosing a hormone and antibiotic-free meat to avoid these harmful substances. This may all seem overwhelming and a bit confusing but if you're aiming for nutrient density, choose local, grass-fed, grass-finished meat first (even if it's not organic), choose organic grass-fed second and as a third choice, opt for simply an organic choice. To find local farms in your area that provide grass-fed, grass-finished meats, dairy, eggs, etc. check out the Eat Wild website.


You're more likely to see the words "pastured" or pasture-raised" on eggs, butter, ghee, milk, cheese and yogurt but you may also occasionally see them used on meat/poultry as well. Just as with grass-fed meat/poultry, pastured eggs and dairy products have a better omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid profile, as well as increased amounts of vitamin k2, beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin B12, folic acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is a polyunsaturated fat that exhibits potent antioxidant activity and may be helpful in fighting cancer, diabetes and heart disease. For true high quality eggs look for the words "pastured" or "pasture-raised" on the label. Terms like "natural", "cage-free", "free-range", "vegetarian-fed" or "hormone-free" essentially mean nothing and do not give any indication into the quality of life these hens received. The fact that producers even use the term "vegetarian-fed" and "hormone-free" is hilarious (but irritating), considering chickens are natural omnivores (rounding out their diet with insects, worms, etc.) and the use of hormones is illegal in poultry production. These buzzwords are just meant to trick us consumers into thinking we're making a better choice when we're really falling right into their trap. For dairy products, always look for grass-fed, pasture-raised, pastured and even raw (yes raw) to denote a higher quality product. And real quick, while we're on the subject of dairy, opt for full-fat products! Or even just a "fuller" percent than zero fat. Check out my post on fats for a introductory look at choosing healthy fats.

Wild-Caught/Sustainable Seafood

To be completely honest, a majority of my seafood consumption consists of wild-caught salmon, shrimp, scallops and the occasional serving of oysters, lobster and mussels. Other cold-water fatty fish such as anchovies or sardines are just as great as far as their nutrients and omega-3 fatty acid profile is concerned but I personally have never been a fan of them and have yet to be able to include them in my diet. If you're one of those people who can eat sardines straight out of the can or could use anchovies in place of croutons on a Caesar salad, I applaud you and encourage you to keep it up! I'm not that person and I'm not sure if I ever will be.  I also typically stay away from tuna, swordfish, shark, mackerel, etc. because of the high mercury content that can be found in these fish. 

Tackling the subject of quality seafood can be tricky since sustainability is such an important issue when it comes to fishing practices. In general, wild-caught fish have a greater nutritional content than that of farmed fish. When done correctly though, the nutrient profile of some farmed fish can be just as comparable to wild-caught, as Diana Rogers outlines in her article here, based on personal experience at a fishery and information from Paul Greenburg's book "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food." However when done incorrectly, farmed fish can escape, leading to inbreeding and spreading of disease within the wild communities and can contain an improper balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids which can be mostly attributed to the fishes grain-based pellet diet (if you've seen fish grazing on corn fields in the middle of the ocean, I wanna know). Farm-raised fish can also contain harmful toxins such as PCB"s and dioxins. Although apparently found in small amounts, PCB's are known carcinogens and distributors of the immune, endocrine, reproductive and nervous system. I don't know about you but I've got enough problems going on so I'll pass on the PCB exposure for now! For the sake of balance and sanity, I'm going to refer you to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Super Green List. The Super Green List is based on choices that are lowest in mercury, have appropriate levels of omega-3 fatty acids and are classified as a sustainable "Best Choice". The main take-away point here is too look for as much transparency with companies as possible, as well as terms like "wild-caught" or "best choice" to denote a higher quality seafood.

 Sustainable (and all that it encompasses)

Sustainability is another rabbit hole and a hot topic of debate nowadays (as it should be with our ever growing problem of global warming). To even define "sustainable" is circumstantial and in my opinion, based on opinion (pun intended). I think Diana Rogers, voice and expert behind the website Sustainable Dish, gives a great description about what "sustainable" means to her:

To me, “sustainable” means farming in a way that requires as little input and has the least impact on the land as possible. The broader sense of “sustainable food” includes other aspects of the business including: producing safe and nutritious food, paying workers a fair wage and treating them with dignity, humane treatment of animals, protecting the wild habitats and preserving biodiversity, financially sustainability,and educates our future generation*

(*For the full (very well written) post from Diana Rogers, click here.)

Like I talked about above, a lot of this can be achieved by either growing our own food or supporting our local farmers by attending farmers markets, farm-stands, co-ops, participating in a CSA program or establishing a personal relationship with a farmer near you. Small, local farms typically encourage you to come visit their property so you can see and learn by first-hand experience how your food is grown, harvested and sold. If you're local to Vermont, the Intervale Center, Shelburne Farms and Bread and Butter Farm (just to name a few) are great places to volunteer, take classes or attend events.

Here are some other common terms and certifications to look for in helping you identify the sustainability of a company or producer:

  • Fair Trade Certified
  • Equal Exchange
  • Certified B Corporation
  • Non-GMO Project Verified
  • Carbon Neutral Product
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Rainforest Alliance
  • Global Animal Partnership
  • Monterey Bay Aquariuam Seafood Watch
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Soil Association
  • Demeter
  • International Foundation for Organic Agriculture (IFOAM)

Lastly, take baby steps.

I don't expect or demand that you overhaul your diet, kitchen, or dining habits overnight or even at all. At very best, I hope by reading this you have learned something new and you will carry this awareness with you the next time you dine out or go grocery shopping. Awareness is the first step. It's taken me years to get where I'm at with my food quality and I'm constantly learning more and making better choices. If you're ready to begin making improvements to your food quality, I recommend starting slowly and picking 1 or 2 foods that seem most realistic for you to improve first. For example, you could switch from cage-free eggs to pasture-raised eggs or choose organic fruits over those found on the Dirty Dozen list. If you need extra support and guidance, consider booking a Guided Grocery Shopping trip with me, at the store of your choosing, for a more in-depth, hands on approach to recognizing food quality.

Cheers to constantly improving your health!

Sometimes the grass is richer in nutrients on the other side 😉

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