What are nutrient-dense foods?

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Celebrating Exceptional Foods: Nutrient-dense foods

We eat food because the body needs calories to do anything that we do, from thinking to physical labour, to even digesting our food. All foods give us energy (or calories) but are all calories the same? No! Calories can come from fats, carbohydrates and proteins. For optimum functioning, the body requires micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants for good body metabolism, tissue repair and optimum regulation of bodily functions. This is where nutrient-dense foods come into play.

Adequate diets are most easily achieved by including foods that are good sources of a number of nutrients but not packed with calories. Foods that provide multi­ple nutrients in appreciable amounts relative to calories are considered nutrient-dense. Empty-calorie foods are those that provide only calories and low amounts of nutrients (soft drinks, candy, sugar, alcohol, fats). In one of our previous articles we have already discussed about empty calories. It’s a good idea to start from there since empty calories are a good starting point for a discussion of nutrient density, as they represent the polar opposite of nutrient-dense foods.

What is the concept of nutrient density?

Another important concept in the Dietary Guidelines is nutrient density, which is defined as the amount of nutrients in a food relative to its energy content. Nutrient density is often expressed as the amount of a particular nutrient per 1.000 kcal of a given food.

In the diets of the affluent, nutrient density is often almost a mirror image of energy density; adding ingredients to foods or diets, which contain much energy but few nutrients (e.g. fats, sugar and alcohol), raises the energy density but reduces the overall nutrient density.

What are nutrient-dense foods?

Nutrient-dense foods are those that contain relatively high amounts of nutrients compared to their calorie value. Calorie dense foods are the complete opposite. Those are foods that provide an excess of calories in relation to nutrients. You may have heard calorie dense foods (low-nutrient density foods) referred to as “empty-calorie” foods or more commonly “junk foods.”

  • A healthy balanced diet is more nutrient dense than one with a lot of fat and sugar in it.

  • The energy density of this type of diet is lower than that of a diet high in fat and sugar.

Table: Amount of energy from various foods that would need to be consumed to obtain the UK adult reference nutrient intake (RNI) for vitamin C (40 mg).

nutrient density of various food sources

Clearly oily French fries from a burger bar are a poor source of vitamin C. Even fresh home-made chips (fries) are much worse than boiled new potatoes. Oranges, peppers and grilled tomatoes are clearly good sources of the vitamin. Addition of sugar (canned oranges) or fat (fried tomatoes or potatoes) reduces the nutrient density because it adds energy but no more vitamin C. Avocados have relatively modest amounts of vitamin C and the nutrient den­sity is further depressed because they are relatively high in fat and energy.

Examples of a nutrient-dense foods

An example of a nutrient-dense food is milk. When com­paring milk with a fizzy drink, you will find that milk contains proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, whereas a fizzy drink has no nutrients and only contains sugar flavourings.

examples of a nutrient dense foods

An example of a food with a high nutrient density and a food with a low nutrient density. Percentages given represent percent contributions to adult female RDAs.

Berries, blackstrap molasses, eggs, fish, gourmet mushrooms, green tea, most nuts, organic and lean meats, sea vegetables, whole grains, and many fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens (broccoli, kale, asparagus, chard, collards, etc.), all qualify as nutritionally dense foods. Other items often found in health food stores, such as flaxseed oil, fresh carrot and wheatgrass juices, legumes, many herbal teas, nutritional yeast, and wheat germ, also belong in this cat­egory. Surprisingly, dark chocolate, microbrew beers, and red wines also qualify as dense sources of important nutrients for specific reasons that we will explore in some of out future posts.

Here’s more detailed list of nutrient-dense foods

list of nutrient-dense foods

  • Alliums. Garlic, leeks, onions, shallots.
  • Beverages. Fresh juices, microbrew beers, red wines (organic), spring water, herbal teas.
  • Butters. Almond, pumpkin seed, sunflower seed, tahini (sesame-seed butter).
  • Canned foods. Sardines, tomatoes, tomato or pasta sauce (in jars).
  • Dairy. Fresh, raw (upasteurized and unhomogenized) milk (especially goat); cer­tified raw milk cheeses, nonhomogenized milk and yogurts, organic butter.
  • Eggs. Deviled, egg salad, hard-boiled, poached, soft-boiled (do not overcook or brown them, never use powdered, always organic).
  • Fish. Albacore, flounder, haddock, halibut, mackerel, salmon (wild), sardines, trout (except for trout, avoid freshwater species; beware of fish farming, avoid unsus­tainable and declining species, such as orange roughy, shark, or swordfish; be aware of mercury toxicity advisories for canned white albacore tuna and others).
  • Fresh fruits. Numerous, including all berries, apples, bananas, cherries, citrus, guava, kiwi, mango, melons, papaya, peaches, pears (organic, whenever possible).
  • Fresh vegetables. A partial list includes asparagus, avocados, beets (roots and tops), bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, collards, green beans, kale, leeks, mustard greens, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, squashes, tomatoes, yams.
  • Herbs and spices. All, including basil, cinnamon, cumin, curries, dill, ginger root, oregano, pepper, rosemary, saffron, thyme, turmeric (seek out nonirradiated forms).
  • Legumes. Beans, lentils, split peas.
  • Meats. Any certified hormone-free meats, buffalo, elk, lamb, venison; organ meats, such as liver, are particularly nutrient dense.
  • Miscellany. Brewer’s yeast, cod-liver oil, gomasio, hummus, olives, salsas. sea salt (unrefined), umeboshi plums (paste, vinegar).
  • Mushrooms. Chanterelles, morels, portobello, shiitake, wild edible, commer­cially available exotics (avoid button-type mushrooms).
  • Nuts and seeds. Almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts {aka filberts), pea­nuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts.
  • Oils. Coconut, cold-pressed blends, extra-virgin olive, flaxseed.
  • Sea vegetables. Alaria, arame, bladderwrack, dulse, hijiki, kelp, kombu, laver, nori, wakame.
  • Soy products. Miso soup, tempeh, tofu (small quantities).
  • Sushi and sashimi. Best varieties are albacore, fatty tuna, mackerel, salmon, wild yellowtail (avoid freshwater eel, other freshwater sushi; use MSG-containing soy sauce sparingly)
  • Sweets and sweeteners. Blackstrap molasses, carob powder, honey, organic dark chocolate, stevia.
  • Teas. Black, green, herbal, mate, rooibos tea (South African red bush tea).
  • Whole grains. Amaranth, brown rice, millet, quinoa, teff.
  • Wild edibles. Locally foraged wild vegetables, including burdock root, chick-weed, dandelion greens, edible flowers (such as nasturtium), fresh nettles, lamb’s-quarter, purslane (ask your local herbalist).

Why you should choose nutrient-dense foods?

sport nutrition: nutrient-density

These foods support and build super health because they are exceptional sources of all the building blocks necessary for our bodies to function optimally.

From this perspective, it would be wisest to select a diet in which most caloric contributions are accompanied by the nutrients needed for the body to rebuild, repair, and maintain tissue and over­all health. Most empty calorie allowances are very small, between 100 and 300 calories, especially for those who are not physically active.

An empty calorie is not, as was once thought, a neutral energy source. It’s actually a negative source, as the body requires nutrients in order to metabolize a calorie to generate heat. By con­tributing nothing of nutritional value while using up nutrients that are present in the body, empty calories actually end up robbing, or depleting, the body of nutrients. The long-term consequence of relying on a diet that is heavy in empty calories is nutritional depletion, resulting in low-level reserves of vitamins, minerals, and other vital nutrients.

People with low energy intakes especially need to ensure that their diet is nutrient dense, e.g. elderly housebound people and those on reducing diets (trying to lose weight and body fat).

Why do we need new scor­ing systems?

In the table below you can see how various foods differ in nutrient density for calcium and vitamin A. For example, because frozen yogurt is lower in fat than ice cream, its nutrient density in terms of calcium is much greater. However, note that, calorie for calorie, ice cream has more vitamin A than frozen yogurt. Thus, the concept of nutrient density is somewhat complex. Because of this, some researchers are currently developing new scor­ing systems that capture the holistic nature of a food’s overall nutrient density. It is likely that these new “nutrient-profiling” scores will be used in the future to help consumers choose the most nutritious foods within their budgets.

nutrient densities table

Nutrient densities of vitamin A and calcium of four commonly consumed frozen desserts

Closing thoughts

To get all the nutrients your body needs and to avoid consuming empty calories, have more nutrient-dense food. Nutrient-dense foods provide more nutrition for a relatively small amount of calories eaten. Fruit and vegetables are perfect nutrient-dense snacks as they are low in calories and are packed with dietary fibre and vitamins. Therefore you should not use calorie count as the main criterion when buying food, even if you’re trying to lose weight.

Eat food high in nutrients. Other nutrient-dense foods are nuts, dairy, beans and some kinds of fish. When you eat, think of it as supplying fuel to your body. Give it the best fuel, and it will run the best!  By consciously choosing more nutrient-dense foods (lean proteins, healthy carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fats essential to our health), you’ll get the beneficial nutrients your body needs without consuming too many calories.

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