According to the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, “nutrient-dense foods” are foods that provide a high amount nutrients but have relatively few calories. (1)
While you may have never heard the term nutrient density before, you’re likely already familiar with the concept. 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, nutritarians focus on eating a variety of unprocessed, whole foods in order to feel satisfied and remain healthy.
According to Dr. Fuhrman, your health is predicted by your nutrient intake divided by your calorie intake. (2) He and many other health authorities, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, believe that the overall quality of people’s diets depends upon factors, including: (3)
- 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.
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, and the nutrient-dense foods I lay out in this article are some of the healthiest, most beneficial foods on the planet.
What Is Nutrient Density?
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, plus macronutrients, including carbohydrates (both “simple” and “complex”), proteins (amino acids) and different types of healthy fats. While whole foods provide lots of essential nutrients, all with a low calorie “price tag,” processed foods tend to offer the opposite — lots of “empty calories” but little real nutritional benefit in return.
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. And yet over 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. While certain staple crops might provide some vitamins, minerals or fiber — for example, common foods like potatoes or wild rice — they don’t provide nearly the amount that more nutrient-dense foods do.
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!
The Problem of Nutrient Degradation
It’s a well-known fact that many Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, but even among those who do, they may not get all the nutrients they might expect. Nutrient degradation describes the loss of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food due to factors like depleted soils, food manufacturing, processing and shipping, and to a lesser extent cooking and heating foods.
In 2002, an analysis of Canadian supermarkets produce by The Globe and Mail and CTV News found that nutrient levels had fallen dramatically in fruits and vegetables during the course of just a generation. (4)
Comparing nutrient level changes in a 50-year span, the analysts found that the average supermarket potato had lost:
- 100 percent of its vitamin A
- 57 percent of its vitamin C and iron
- 50 percent of its riboflavin
- 28 percent of its calcium
- 18 percent of its thiamine
Twenty-five fruits and vegetables were analyzed with similar findings. Broccoli is thought of as one of the most popular superfoods, and yet according to some research, modern-day broccoli may be about 63 percent lower in calcium and 34 percent lower in iron than in previous centuries.
Agronomist Phil Warman says that modern farming practices and market emphasis are mostly at fault for nutrient degradation. According to his research, “The emphasis is on appearance, storability and transportability, and there has been much less emphasis on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.” High-yield production and disease-resistance are much more important to food producers today, says Warman, than nutritional content of foods.
U.K. professor Tim Lang agrees: “It’s an issue of consumer rights. We think of an orange as a constant, but the reality is — it isn’t.”
You’d have to eat five oranges today to get the iron your grandmother got from just one and about eight oranges to get the same amount of vitamin A!
How Soil Depletion Causes Low Nutrient Density:
A major problem regarding nutrient density is the fact that industrial farms are growing crops in soil that has falling levels of nutrients. (5) Reporter Tom Paulson calls it “the thin brown line,” the three feet of topsoil that covers the Earth and sustains life. This living biological matrix contains the essential compounds that plants turn into usable nutrients, and yet the National Academy of Sciences reports that American crop soil is being eroded at 10 times the rate that it can replenish itself.
Topsoil grows back at the rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years, but industrial agriculture is interfering with the process, says geologist David Montgomery. “The estimate is that we are now losing about 1% of our topsoil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture. Globally, it’s pretty clear we’re running out of dirt.” (6)
This soil degradation across the planet is contributing to rapidly rising cases of malnutrition, warns the United Nations. The farming methods used by industrial agriculture leave soil little time to restore itself. Montgomery calls this “soil mining.”
This is one reason I often recommend certain supplements for people. Food should always be your first line of defense, and then supplements can do just that — help to supplement your diet. While the nutrient content of certain foods may be lower than in previous times, it doesn’t mean you should stop consuming them. It means that more than ever it’s important to make the most of the calories you consume. One way you can boost your nutrient intake is to buy seasonal, local and organic produce (more on this below).
The Top Nutrient-Dense Foods
Dr. Fuhrman created his own nutrient density formula and scale that are presently patent-pending. He uses 20 different nutrients — including essential vitamins, minerals, carotenoids, fiber and ORAC (antioxidant) scores — to create a nutrient density standard by which to measure different foods.
What are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you should eat often, according to this scale? Leafy green vegetables, other non-starchy veggies and fruit certainly top the chart. Very nutrient-dense foods, including a variety of vegetables and fruits, have scores at or close to 1,000.
Some of the most nutrient-dense foods available to us include:
- Leafy green vegetables (like kale, collard greens, spinach, bok choy, cabbage and romaine lettuce)
- Red, yellow, green and orange bell peppers
- Broccoli, cauliflower and other cruciferous veggies like cabbage or Brussels sprouts
- Carrots and parsnips
- Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and other berries
- Sea vegetables
- Just about any other unprocessed plant food
Besides fruits and veggies, 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.
Can a Focus on Nutrient Density Help You Lose Weight?
In addition to preventing nutrient deficiencies, eating more whole foods is beneficial for maintaining a healthy weight. When you repeatedly choose foods that pack fewer calories into each bite, you naturally lower the overall calorie density of your diet. This helps you get all the essential vitamins and minerals you need without feeling hungry or deprived, and it also prevents overconsuming calories and gaining weight.
A big advantage to following a nutrient-dense diet is that you can maintain a healthy weight without cutting out any particular foods or food groups, following any fad diets, or counting calories. It’s much easier to eat an appropriate amount of calories, even without restricting yourself, when you simply reduce or remove processed foods from your diet that are high in sugar, chemicals, sodium and additives. In fact, because nutrient-dense foods are low in calories to begin with (because they tend to have lots of fiber, water and no additives), you may be able to actually eat MORE food but still lose weight in the process. Healthy foods like veggies, fruits, and in moderation legumes/beans or whole grains are very voluminous and filling — therefore not very easy to overeat.
Putting Nutrient Density Into Practice
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. If a very active person ate only the foods highest in nutrients, he or she would ingest too much fiber and not get enough calories every day. This would actually be damaging to the person’s health, contributing to malnutrition, low energy levels, lowered metabolic rate, weakness and mood-related problems.
As in all things, there is no magic bullet when it comes to eating a healthy diet. Food fads aren’t bandwagons anyone should jump on without enough information. Many protective antioxidant phytonutrients are still “unnamed and unmeasured” so they can only be obtained through eating a variety of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods. We can also assume that foods that contain the highest amounts of known nutrients (like leafy green veggies and berries, for example) likely contain the largest number of beneficial, but unknown, compounds as well.
Eat a variety of real foods that you enjoy from all different food groups (including healthy proteins and fats, in addition to plants), and you should already be on your way to eating a nutrient-dense, balanced diet. Try to think positively about what types of foods you should be eating, rather than focusing on those that you shouldn’t have eaten. And above all, practice self-awareness by paying attention to how your dietary choices make you feel. Everyone is a bit different, so it’s up to you to decide which exact type of diet ultimately serves you best.
Buying Organic and Local Produce:
Buying organic produce is definitely a step in the right direction to avoid dangerous chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms. But buying organic isn’t always necessary, nor is it always your best bet in terms of boosting your diet’s nutrient density.
Organic farmers can’t completely avoid widespread pollutants in the air, soil and water. There’s also concern that buying organic may have certain drawbacks, especially when organic foods are shipped very far distances. Organic foods can often travel great distances to reach the supermarket, meaning the food has lost some of its nutritional value during transit time and contributed to a larger carbon footprint.
While I do recommend buying organic foods when you can, I think it’s equally (or even more) important to buy local, fresh foods. Ideally we would all have access to local, organic, nutrient-dense foods throughout the year, but that’s not always possible. Rather than trying to be perfect, do the best you can. Shop at farmer’s markets, join a community-sponsored agriculture group or, in the warmer months of the year, consider growing some foods organically yourself. In my opinion, that’s best way to go!
Precautions Regarding Nutrient-Dense Foods
One thing to be aware of regarding nutrient density is the tendency for people to oversimplify foods in the human diet. Foods cannot necessarily be quantified and classified based on their individual nutrients alone. Pollan says that “nutritionism” is not the same thing as nutrition.
Nutritionism is an ideology. It’s based on the assumption that the key to understanding food is identifying individual nutrients and their effects on health. This ideology is behind the marketing success of processed foods, says Pollan, because processed foods may contain synthetic vitamins (such as synthetically added riboflavin or thiamine that are found in enriched flour), but this doesn’t make them healthy. When you quantify foods according to basic nutrients they contain, rather than considering the complex combination of compounds found in whole foods, you lose sight of the big picture.
In other words: It’s easy to slap a label on a cereal box claiming that the product is “high in omega-3’s!” or label a quart of homogenized and pasteurized milk as “low fat!” But of course this does not necessarily make that product good for you! You want to focus on getting nutrients into your body the natural way as much as possible.
Final Thoughts on Nutrient-Dense Foods
- Nutrient-dense foods are real and unprocessed, as opposed to chemically altered, manmade or filled with synthetic ingredients. They provide lots of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants, but are low in calories.
- Today, it can be hard to obtain all the nutrients you need due to factors like mass production of processed foods, soil depletion and difficulty getting fresh, organic, local foods.
- Some of the best ways to increase the nutrient density of your diet include purchasing seasonal/local produce, growing your own garden, and eating more healthy foods like leafy greens, berries and all sorts of non-starchy veggies.