While you may have never heard the term nutrient density before, you’re likely already familiar with the concept of eating mostly nutrient-dense foods.
There are many ways that health experts describe the idea of eating a nutrient-dense diet. For example, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the book “Eat to Live,” coined the now-trendy term “nutritarian.” I love this term!
A nutritarian describes someone who chooses foods based on their micronutrient per calorie content. In other words, a nutritarian doesn’t bother counting calories, eating only low-fat foods or sticking to a raw food diet. Nor does a nutritarian follow a “one-size-fits-all” diet plan or theory.
Rather, he or she focuses on eating a variety of the most nutrient dense foods available — in other words, unprocessed, whole foods — in order to feel satisfied and remain healthy.
What Is Nutrient Density?
Nutrient density refers to the amount of beneficial nutrients in a food in proportion to how many calories it has (or its energy content).
According to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “nutrient-dense foods” are those that provide a high amount nutrients but have relatively few calories.
Fruits and veggies are probably what come to mind when you think of healthy foods, but other whole foods have high nutrient density values, too. Examples include wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs, beans and peas, raw nuts and seeds, grass-fed lean meats and poultry, and ancient/whole grains.
Let’s look at eggs as an example: are eggs nutrient-dense? Yes, free-range eggs are considered by most to be healthy foods — because 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, too.
Why Are Nutrient-Dense Foods Important?
Healthy, whole foods provide us with essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids (that form protein), fatty acids and more. Another way a nutrient-dense diet could be described is 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.
Many experts believe that your overall health may be determined in part by your nutrient intake divided by your calorie intake. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that the overall quality of people’s diets depends upon factors, including:
- The level of micronutrients and macronutrients they obtain per calorie that they eat.
- Whether they continuously eat an appropriate amount of calories (in the form of macronutrients) in order to meet their individual needs. This means the ability to avoid excessive caloric intake but also avoiding under-eating or nutrient deficiencies.
- Avoidance of toxic substances, such as trans fats, sodium and refined sugars.
Here’s another way to look at it: In terms of the amount of nutrients you’d get per calorie consumed, 600 calories worth of fast food french fries is obviously NOT the same as 600 calories of kale.
In the same vein, 600 calories of brown rice is NOT the same as 600 calories of kale either. Sure, brown rice is a natural food, but it is also far less nutrient-dense than kale (and a host of other foods, too).
On Dr. Fuhrman’s “Nutrient Density Scale,” oatmeal has a score of 53. To give a little perspective, you would have to eat four bowls of oatmeal to equal the nutrient density of just one bowl of strawberries. And you’d have to eat about 20 bowls of oatmeal to get the equivalent nutrients of one bowl of kale!
Top 30 Nutrient-Dense Foods
Nutrient-dense foods are real and unprocessed as opposed to chemically altered, manmade or filled with synthetic ingredients.
Nutrients found in healthy, whole food include micronutrients like essential vitamins, trace minerals and electrolytes like magnesium/calcium/potassium, plus macronutrients, including carbohydrates (both “simple” and “complex”), proteins (amino acids) and different types of healthy fats.
A well-rounded, largely unprocessed diet is superior to taking supplements and eating a processed diet because real foods have complex chemical structures that are very difficult to replicate. For example, antioxidants and phytochemicals 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
- Bone broth
- Grass-fed beef
- Green beans
- Egg yolks
- Wild mushrooms
- Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, chia and flax
- Raw cheese and kefir
- Sweet potatoes
- Black beans
- Wild rice