25 Healthiest, Nutrient-Dense Foods

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t go first to a pharmacist to address maladies ranging from the common cold to cancer; instead, we’d create grocery shopping lists aimed at fostering optimal health. Good nutrition may not cure disease, but a growing body of research shows it could do something even more powerful: help prevent disease. “By choosing foods wisely, we can control our health destiny,” says Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Eat for Health (Gift of Health, 2008). “But we can’t make small, moderate changes to the average diet and expect prevention; we need to make aggressive, radical changes.”

Fuhrman developed a comprehensive nutrient-per-calorie ranking system, which he calls the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI). The charts on the following pages list the top ANDI-ranked foods by category. Use them as guides to make the healthiest eating choices for you and your family.

~ Top 6 Vegetables ~

Vegetables are low in calories and loaded with fiber and micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals— so eat them in unlimited quantities (exceptions: starches such as potatoes, yams, and corn).

Smart tip: Start lunch and dinner with a serving of raw vegetables, such as a large salad or crudités, to increase nutrient intake and help control appetite.

1. Dark Leafy Greens

Nutrients: Vitamins A, C, and K, folate, manganese, magnesium, calcium, fiber
Health Boosts: May promote eye health (thanks to carotenoids, a group of pigments found mainly in green leafy vegetables, carrots, and tomatoes), fight cancer, and reduce diabetes risk (vitamin K improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control).
Garlicky Mustard Greens with Garbanzos
Dandelion and Watercress Salad with Ginger Dressing
Kale with Sesame Seed Dressing

2. Bok Choy

Nutrients: Vitamin C, folate, calcium, fiber
Health Boosts: May help promote bone health and support immunity.
Braised Baby Bok Choy with Ginger and Garlic
Bok Choy Stir-Fry with Shrimp
Baby Bok Choy

3. Brussels Sprouts

Nutrients: Vitamins A, C, and K, folate, manganese, fiber, potassium, vitamin B6
Health Boosts: Linked to reduced cancer risk, especially breast and colon cancers.
Mustard-Glazed Brussels Sprouts with Hazelnuts
Brussels Sprouts in Sage Butter
Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts with Shallots

4. Radishes

Nutrients: Vitamin C, fiber, folate
Health Boosts: Help with weight control; may boost the immune system.
Radish, Fennel & Dandelion Salad
Black-Eyed Pea, Corn, and Radish Salad

5. Bean Sprouts

Nutrients: Vitamins C and K, folate, protein, potassium
Health Boosts: May boost satiety and assist in weight management.
Seaweed Salad with Bean Sprouts and Tofu
Chilled Tofu with Bean Sprouts

6. Red Bell Peppers

Nutrients: Vitamin C (three times as much as green bell peppers), vitamins A, B6, and K, fiber, manganese, folate
Health Boosts: May promote heart health. Vitamin C supports immunity; carotenoids may decrease risk of certain types of cancer, including lung cancer.
Grilled Red Peppers and Tomato


~ Top 5 Fruits ~

Eat at least four fresh fruits daily for the maximum variety of phytochemicals. Frozen fruit is a fine substitute, but avoid canned, which often contains added sweeteners. For weight loss and diabetes or prediabetes management, eat just two fruits daily, focusing on lower-sugar options such as berries, green or Granny Smith apples, melons, grapefruit, oranges, kiwifruit, and papaya.

1. Strawberries

Nutrients: Vitamin C, potassium, fiber, folate, flavonoids
Health Boost: May have anti-inflammatory, anticancer effects and promote brain health; may lower cholesterol and improve the effectiveness of cholesterol-lowering diets.
Fresh Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar
Strawberry Sunrise Shake

2. Pomegranate Juice

Nutrients: Antioxidants, flavonoids, potassium, fiber, calcium
Health Boost: Studies indicate that pomegranate juice has antiatherogenic (protects against plaque in the arteries), antioxidant, antihypertensive, and anti-inflammatory effects that help fight heart disease, certain types of cancer, and brain degeneration.
Squash Tart with Fresh Pomegranate Juice

3. Tomatoes

Nutrients: Vitamins A, B, and C, potassium, iron, folic acid, phosphorus, carotenoids, fiber
Health Boost: Lycopene, a potent antioxidant in tomatoes, may prevent certain cancers, protect skin from UV rays, and promote overall prostate health.
Indian-Seasoned Tofu with Tomatoes
Quinoa and Salmon Stew with Tomatoes

4. Plums

Nutrients: Fiber, vitamins A and C
Health Boost: Plums help support immunity and may help slow development of artherosclerosis. Polyphenols from dried plums may promote bone strength and density by regulating growth factors linked to bone formation.
Curried Chicken with Dried Plums
One-Pan Baked Chicken with Peaches and Plums
Lettuce Wraps with Chicken in Plum Sauce

5. Raspberries

Nutrients: Manganese, vitamin C, fiber
Health Boost: Anthocyanins—red plant pigments—may protect eyes and improve heart health by preventing artery hardening and reducing blood pressure; ellagic acid, a phytochemical, helps kill certain types of cancer cells.
Raspberry Soup
Apple, Raspberry, and Frisée Salad
Melon and Berry Salad


~ Top 4 Beans and Legumes ~

Eat at least 1⁄2 cup of beans daily. Try adding them to soups, stews, and salads. Dried beans are the most economical; if you’re buying canned, look for unsalted and BPA-free varieties. To avoid gas or bloating, soak dried beans for 8 to 12 hours and slow cook with a piece of sea vegetable, such as wakame.

1. Lentils

Nutrients: Protein, fiber, folate, iron, manganese, magnesium
Health Boost: Folate may improve colon, breast, and brain health and lower blood pressure.
Green Lentils and Seasoned Walnuts
Curried Lentils
Grilled Salmon with Lentils and Curried Mint Yogurt

2. Black Beans

Nutrients: Iron, fiber, protein, folate, manganese, magnesium
Health Boost: Some of the best sources of antioxidants, as indicated by their dark color; may protect against colorectal cancer and slow tumor growth.
Cuban Black Bean & Rice Soup
Tex-Mex Bean Salad
Black Beans Cakes with Orange Basil Salsa

3. Adzuki Beans

Nutrients: Protein, fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, folate
Health Boost: Promote heart health; help manage weight.
Oriental Bean Cakes

4. Red Kidney Beans

Nutrients: Folate, fiber, manganese, protein, iron, tryptophan, phosphorus
Health Boost: Promote heart health; may help prevent diabetes.
Kidney Bean & Butternut Squash Soup
Baked Winter Squash with Heirloom Beans and Hominy


~ Top 5 Grains ~

Not all whole-grain products are good foods, says Fuhrman. Breakfast cereals and some breads, for example, lose much of their fiber and micronutrients during processing. Choose coarsely ground grains, which the bloodstream absorbs more slowly, and always look for “whole” on the package (or the Whole Grains Council’s 100 Percent Whole Grain stamp). Whole grains should appear among the first items in the ingredient list. 

1. Oats

Nutrients: Fiber, protein, calcium, iron
Health Boost: Beta-glucan, a soluble fiber, can slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream to help fight diabetes. Oats also lower cholesterol and may reduce risk of heart disease and cancer.
Quick Apple-Cranberry Oatmeal
Mixed Whole-Grain Breakfast

2. Brown Rice

Nutrients: Fiber, manganese, selenium, magnesium, phosphorus
Health Boost: May improve blood glucose control; helps control weight and manage cholesterol, and may decrease asthma risk.
Puffed Brown Rice Tabbouleh with Red Cabbage

3. Sprouted Grain Bread

Nutrients: Fiber, protein, vitamin B1
Health Boost: When grain seedlings sprout, enzymes convert some of the fats and carbohydrates into vitamins, minerals, and amino acids; sprouted-seed breads are more filling and have less of a spiking impact on blood sugar than other breads.
Sprouted Spelt and Seed Bread

4. Barley

Nutrients: Fiber, folic acid, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin E
Health Boost: Look for hulled barley, which contains more nutrients than pearl barley. The FDA recently confirmed the qualified health claim linking whole-grain barley to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease; soluble fiber lowers cholesterol and stabilizes blood glucose levels.
Barley and Spinach-Stuffed Bell Peppers
Lima Bean, Mushroom and Barley Soup

5. Quinoa

Nutrients: Protein, calcium, lysine, iron, magnesium, vitamin E, potassium, phosphorus, fiber
Health Boost: Bolsters heart health; may protect against certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.
Quinoa and Wild Rice
Quinoa & Pecan Salad with Dried Cranberries
Quinoa with Mixed Vegetables


~ Top 5 Nuts and Seeds ~

Despite being high in calories, nuts and seeds are rich in essential fatty acids, which promote brain and heart health. Most women should limit intake to 1 ounce per day and men to 2 ounces (about a handful), especially when trying to lose weight. Increase servings if you need to fuel athletic efforts.

1. Brazil Nuts

Nutrients: Selenium, calcium, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, vitamin A, iron
Health Boost: One of the richest sources of selenium, Brazil nuts may bolster immunity, reduce the risk of cancer, and promote liver health.
Fresh Vegetable Rolls with Mango and Tamarind Sauce

2. Sunflower Seeds

Nutrients: Vitamins B1, B5, and E, manganese, magnesium, selenium, phosphorus, folate
Health Boost: May help prevent cardiovascular disease and alleviate arthritis symptoms.
Soy Nut Trail Mix

3. Flaxseeds

Nutrients: Lignans (phytoestrogens), fiber, omega-3s, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)
Health Boost: May prevent colon, breast, skin, and lung cancers; can help treat rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases; may decrease cholesterol levels, arterial plaque formation, and diabetes risk.
Fresh Ricotta with Arugula and Flaxseed Pizza
Buckwheat-Flaxseed Blueberry Pancakes

4. Sesame Seeds

Nutrients: Protein, calcium, vitamin B3, iron, zinc
Health Boost: May decrease breast cancer risk.
Carrot Salad with Sesame Seeds

5. Pumpkin Seeds

Nutrients: Protein, iron, zinc, omega-3s, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus
Health Boost: Help reduce cholesterol; may promote prostate health.
Luscious Beet Salad with Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Butternut Squash Soup with Roasted Pumpkin Seeds