Nutrient Density Plays A Huge Role in Our Diet and Here’s Why
Ever heard of the term “empty calories” and not known what it meant? Turns out, it’s a lot more important to understand than you may have thought. Nowadays, research suggests that the standard diet in America is energy-rich (meaning rich in calories) while simultaneously being nutrient-poor. That’s where nutrient density comes into play
- Nutrient density refers to the foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.
- The terms caloric content and nutrient density are used interchangeably, even though they actually have very different meanings.
- To create a diet with nutrient density, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, healthy protein and lean meats, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, and legumes.
Nutrient density refers to the foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. This differs from foods that provide a lot of calories without the nutritional value, as they can be packed with too much saturated fat, starches, added sugars, and/or sodium. Put into basic terms, nutrient density of food is the amount of nutrients you’ll get for the number of calories in the food you’re eating. In other words, food that has nutrient density has a lot of vital nutrients for a smaller number of calories.
To figure out the best ways to include nutrient dense foods in your everyday diet, let’s get more specific on the importance of nutrient density and where to find nutrient dense foods.
What does nutrient density mean?
There are six essential nutrients our bodies need to perform efficiently while building up our immune system: carbohydrates, healthy fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and water (1). As mentioned above, food that is high in micronutrients but relatively low in calories is considered to be nutrient-dense. These foods are high in delicious and vital vitamins, minerals, lean protein, healthy fats, and more to keep your body healthy and happy.
Why is this important? Well, choosing more foods with nutrient density can overall help you pack in the most nutrition into your diet while helping you stay within your calorie limits, which is important for those looking to lose or maintain weight.
Not to mention, nutrient density becomes more important as we age as our bodies don’t absorb nutrients as well, yet we tend to need fewer calories (2). In basic terms, it’s crucial to make the most out of the food you’re eating.
Caloric content versus nutrient density
Typically, the terms caloric content and nutrient density are used interchangeably, even though they actually have very different meanings. This is because calorie-dense foods can also provide nutrients whereas foods with nutrient density will provide high levels of nutrients and low calories (3). Calorie-dense foods, also known as energy-dense foods, contain high levels of calories per serving; examples of calorie-dense foods include cakes, cookies, processed foods, candy, and more foods that provide a ton of calories per volume. If you’re looking to lose or maintain your weight, these terms are crucial to differentiate, as you will want to choose a diet high in nutrient density while avoiding calorie-dense foods.
To best explain caloric content in comparison to nutrient density: picture yourself grocery shopping. You’re strolling down the aisles looking for the best loaf of bread for your morning breakfast that is high in nutrients but won’t take you over your calorie limits for the day. You come upon two different brands of bread that seem promising. Which one would you choose?
- Option A for your bread has about 80 calories per slice, but no vitamins or minerals listed on the label of the packaging.
- In comparison to Option A, Option B also has 80 calories per slice but has more protein, double the fiber, and a ton of essential nutrients like magnesium, potassium, zinc, and vitamins because it is whole-grain bread.
With this exercise, we can see that Option B is clearly the more nutrient dense choice.
What are nutrient dense foods?
When you think of nutrient dense foods, you might already be thinking of the delicious and healthy foods you already know and love. Foods that are low in calories but packed with vitamins, potassium, calcium, healthy fats, minerals, fiber, iron, zinc, phytochemicals, antioxidants, protein, and so much more that are typically featured in healthy diets all around. Examples of nutrient-dense foods include:
- Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, squash, green beans, bell peppers, asparagus, and more)
- Fruits (peaches, citrus fruits, apples, plums, mangoes, pineapple, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, grapes, and more)
- Whole grains
- Leafy greens like kale, chard, cabbage, bok choy, and spinach
- Low-fat or fat-free milk products
- Lean meats
- Skinless poultry
- Nuts and seeds (4)
How to create a nutrient dense diet
The key to creating a diet rich in nutrient density is making better choices and simple swaps in some of your favorite dishes. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), nutrient profiling is the science of classifying foods based on the nutrients they contain and several nutrient-density profiling tools have been proposed by nutrition experts while keeping the five basic food groups in mind (5). Some of the AHA’s tips for creating a diet rich in nutrient density entail:
- Eating a variety of fruit and vegetables
- Choosing whole grains
- Selecting sources of protein mostly from plant sources like legumes and nuts or healthy sources like fish or seafood, low-fat or nonfat dairy and lean cuts of meat
- Limiting red and processed meats, sodium, added sugars and alcohol.
- On the Nutrition Fact label you see on food while shopping, pay attention to the beneficial nutrients listed on the label, such as calcium, potassium, and fiber to help identify foods with nutrient density.
- Switch from white rice to brown rice and from pasta to whole-wheat pasta
- Replace sugary drinks with water, unsweetened tea, or coffee.
- Opt for low-fat or fat-free dairy options like plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream or cream cheese
- Getting sugary satisfaction from naturally sweet fruits while getting salty satisfaction from nuts
- Choose oatmeal or whole wheat cereal in the morning instead of sugary cereal
Written by Selena Ponton