Before I became a nutritionist, I always found this to be a confusing term. What are nutrient dense foods? Why are these important in a healthy diet?
Nutrient density refers to the amount of beneficial nutrients in a food in proportion to how many calories it has (or its energy content). A nutrient dense food has lots of nutrients for the little calories. Fruits and veggies are probably what you think when you think of healthy foods, but other whole foods have high nutrient density as well. A few examples include wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs, beans and peas, raw nuts and seeds, grass-fed meats and poultry, and ancient whole grains.
An example: are eggs nutrient-dense? Free-range eggs are considered by most to be healthy foods — in just 75 calories per large egg, you’ll get plenty of B vitamins, choline, vitamin D, plus healthy fats like omega-3s, and some protein.
Are Nutrient-Dense Foods Important?
Healthy, whole foods provide us with essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids (that form protein), fatty acids and more. A nutrient-dense diet could be described as an anti-inflammatory diet, which we know is important for preventing chronic diseases and risk factors like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
An example: In terms of the amount of nutrients you would get per calorie consumed, 600 calories worth of fast food french fries is obviously NOT the same as 600 calories of kale. Also, 600 calories of brown rice is NOT the same as 600 calories of kale either. Brown rice is a natural food, but it is far less nutrient-dense than kale.
Nutrient-dense foods are real and unprocessed NOT chemically altered, man made or filled with synthetic ingredients. Nutrients found in healthy, whole food include micronutrients like essential vitamins, trace minerals and electrolytes such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, plus macronutrients such as carbohydrates (simple and complex), proteins (amino acids) and different types of healthy fats.
A well-rounded, mostly unprocessed diet is far better than taking supplements and eating a processed diet because real foods have complex chemical structures that are near impossible to replicate. For example, antioxidants and phytochemicals (Phytochemicals are a broad category of compounds in plants that can have positive health benefits like preventing the formation of cancer cells.) found in many plant foods support the immune system, the body’s detoxification processes and cellular repair.
What foods are most nutrient-dense?
Based on the amount of nutrients in proportion to the amount of calories that these foods have, here are the most nutrient-dense foods available to us:
Liver (beef and chicken)
Leafy greens, like kale, collards, spinach, watercress, dandelion greens and arugula
Broccoli rabe, broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous veggies like cabbage or Brussels sprouts
Exotic berries like acai, goji and camu camu
Red, yellow, green and orange bell peppers
Carrots and parsnips
Parsley, cilantro, basil and other herbs
Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
Wild salmon and sardines
Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, chia and flax
Raw cheese and kefir
How to Add More Nutrients to Diet
Here are some tips for adding the most nutrient dense foods to your diet:
1. Avoid Highly-Processed Foods
Author and lecturer Michael Pollan points out that there are 80,000 known edible plant foods, about 3,000 of which have been, or still are, in common use in the human diet. However, 60 percent of calorie intake worldwide consists of just four highly subsidized, industrialized crops: corn, rice, soy and wheat.
This is a problem because it means that people obtain so many of their daily calories from foods that don’t offer many nutrients.
2. Buy Organic (and Ideally Local) Produce
While I do recommend buying organic foods, it’s even more important to buy local, fresh foods. Shop at farmers’ markets, join a community-sponsored agriculture group or, in the warmer months of the year, consider growing some foods organically yourself.
3. Focus on Eating Whole Foods
For example, some processed foods may contain synthetic vitamins, but this doesn’t make them healthy. You want to focus on getting nutrients into your body the natural way as much as possible.
4. Aim for Variety and Balance
While nutrient density scores are very helpful for choosing healthy foods, they aren’t the only things you should consider. For example, if you ate only foods high on the nutrient density scale, your diet would be too low in healthy fats.
Eat a variety of real foods that you enjoy from all different food groups (including protein and fats, in addition to plants). Think positively about what types of foods you should be eating, not just focusing on those that you should not have eaten.