Nutrient density is a measure of the amount of nutrients a food contains in comparison to the number of calories.
A food is more nutrient dense when the level of nutrients is high in relationship to the number of calories the food contains.
By eating nutrient dense foods, you’ll get all the essential nutrients that you need for excellent health, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, essential fatty acids, fibre and more for the least number of calories. This is really important for overall health, physical and mental performance as well as weight management.How do you decide which foods you want to eat?
Flavour?, Texture?, Convenience?, Comfort?
Many people choose the foods they eat based on immediate gratification, without much thought about the long-term effects of their selections. That often results in choosing foods that taste good, but are not good for you.What about the nutritional value of the foods you eat? When you choose your foods, be sure to consider the nutrient density of the foods. Nutrient-dense foods have lots of nutrients, generally with fewer calories.
All Energy-dense foods have more calories for the volume of food and generally fewer nutrients.
For example, if two people have a snack and one person has raw vegetables while the other person has chips, the person eating vegetables will consume a lot less calories than the person eating chips. This is because chips have a lot of calories per ounce, while most vegetables have very few calories per gram.To give you a better understanding of how caloric density works in real world situations, let’s take a look at potatoes. A medium sized baked potato is around 150g and has 110 calories. This breaks down to about 21 calories per 28.3g. Now compare that to baked potato chips, which contain about 120 calories per 28.3gThis means that if people eat equal weights in food, the person eating potato chips will consume 6 times as many calories as the person eating a baked potato (without toppings). This comparison is to baked chips which are often marketed as healthy alternatives to regular chips, but obviously they are still very bad for weight loss.While not true in every case, healthy foods generally have better caloric densities than unhealthy foods. This is because healthy foods contain more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water than unhealthy foods and all of the ingredients add weight to a food, but do not add calories.I recommend that 60% of a healthy diet should be made up of Nutrient rich plant foods with health promoting phytochemicals. The premise of any eating plan should focus on foods that are rich in micronutrients and benefit health and longevity.
Nutrient Density is a critical concept in devising dietary and nutritional guidelines Not merely vitamins and minerals, but adequate consumption of phytochemicals is essential for proper functioning of the immune system and to enable our body’s detoxification and cellular repair mechanisms that protect us from chronic diseases.
Nutritional science in the last twenty years has demonstrated that colourful plant foods contain a huge assortment of protective compounds. Only by eating an assortment of nutrient-rich natural foods can we access these protective compounds and prevent the common diseases. Our modern, low-nutrient eating style has led to an overweight unhealthy, nutrition deprived population, the majority of whom develop diseases of nutritional ignorance, like diabetes for example.
To guide people toward the most nutrient dense foods, I developed a 0-100 scale of micronutrient scores called the Nutrient Density Line, which ranks categories of foods based on their ratio of nutrients to calories.
The healthful properties of colourful natural plant foods compared to processed foods and animal products. One thing we do know is that the foods that contain the highest amount of known nutrients are the same foods that contain the least amount of calories –
Keep in mind that nutrient density scoring is not the only factor that determines good health. For example, if we only ate foods with a high nutrient density score our diet would be too low in fat. So we have to pick some foods with lower nutrient density scores (but preferably the healthier ones) to include in our high nutrient diet. Additionally, if a slim or highly physically active individual ate only the highest nutrient foods they would become so full from all of the fibre and nutrients that they would not be able to meet their caloric needs, and they would eventually become too thin. This of course gives you a hint at the secret to permanent weight control – eat the greatest quantity of the foods with the highest micronutrient scores, and lesser amounts of foods with lower scores.
Micronutrient Scores – by Dr Fuhrman the pioneer with regards to Nutrient Density
How Nutrient Density Works
Let’s say it is 3:30 on a Thursday afternoon, you are hungry and decide you want a snack. You can choose either an apple or a chocolate bar. Either food works as a quick snack so you can get back to work. Which one do you choose?
Hopefully you chose the apple. Why? The apple has around 80 calories and lots of vitamins, fibre and phytochemicals that will keep you healthy. The fiber and water in the apple will fill your stomach and keep you satisfied until dinner.
The chocolate has calories. Lots of calories. In fact, the chocolate has more than 200 calories but it doesn’t have many nutrients. There is only about one gram of fiber so it won’t keep you feeling full either’ The chocolate bar also has lots of unhealthy saturated fat and plenty of sugar. Sure it tastes good, but your body might pay quite a price for the immediate gratification.
You can also compare nutrient density using the amount of calories in the food rather than volume or portion size. Let’s compare a cup of carrot slices to four provita’s. Both snacks have about 80 calories, but the carrots have many more nutrients for the same number of calories. The carrots are nutrient dense; the Provita’s are energy dense. This is important for people on weight-loss diets. Foods that are low in calories, but high in fiber and other vitamins, will keep you satisfied and healthy while you lose weight.
You can probably already see from the examples that fruits and vegetables are big winners in nutrient density. That’s one reason why so many fruits and vegetables qualify as superfoods, or foods that are rich in nutrients and other compounds that have healthy benefits such as fiber, phytochemicals and essential fatty acids.
Other nutrient-dense superfoods include salmon, tuna, trout, low-fat dairy products, oatmeal and whole grains, soy, legumes and beans. On the other hand, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods include things that are high in sugar and fat such as refined white breads, pasta, pastries, processed lunch meats and cheeses, ice cream, candy, soda, potato chips and corn chips. In other words, junk food.
You can prepare nutrient-dense meals by choosing nutrient-dense foods and ingredients for your dishes. A nutrient-dense meal should have one serving of a healthy protein source such as legumes, fish, poultry or lean red meat. One serving is typically about the size of a pack of playing cards. The rest of the meal should be made up of healthy side dishes. Vegetables are always good, load up on them! Whole-grain pastas, brown rice and wild rice, quinoa are good choices as well. A green salad with lots of vegetables can make a great nutrient-dense meal! Clear soups with lots of vegetables are nutrient-dense compared to cream soups which have more calories and are more energy dense.
If you are active you will need a healthy dose of Energy dense foods!
People who are underweight or active need some energy-dense foods to make sure they are getting enough calories to sustain their activity levels or to gain weight. Healthy energy dense foods include peanut butter, dried fruits, starchy vegetables and nuts and seeds.
Eating nutrient-dense food will ensure you are getting all the nutrition you need. A nutrient-dense diet won’t leave you feeling hungry or weak. Choosing nutrient dense foods can become second nature. Once you understand which foods are more nutrient dense, the rest is easy. Just remember that the foods you eat can affect your health in a big way.
Reference: Dr Fuhrman.
A Sample of Eat Right America’s Nutrient Density Scores (optional)
Eat Right America’s Nutrient Density Scoring System
To determine the scores above all known vitamins and minerals were considered and added in. Nutrient Data from Nutritionist Pro software for each food item was obtained for the amount of that food that would provide a 1000 calorie serving. We included the following nutrients in the evaluation: Calcium, Carotenoids: Beta Carotene, Alpha Carotene, Lutein & Zeaxanthin, Lycopene, Fiber, Folate, Glucosinolates, Iron, Magnesium, Niacin, Selenium, Vitamin B1 (Thiamin) Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Zinc, plus ORAC score X 2 (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity is a method of measuring the antioxidant or radical scavenging capacity of foods).
Nutrient quantities, which are normally in many different measurements (mg, mcg, IU) were converted to a percentage of their RDI so that a common value could be considered for each nutrient. Since there is currently no RDI for Carotenoids, Glucosinolates, or ORAC score, goals were established based on available research and current understanding of the benefits of these factors. (limited references below). The % RDI or Goal for each nutrient which the USDA publishes a value for was added together to give a total. All nutrients were weighted equally with a factor of one except for the foods ORAC score. The ORAC score was given a factor 2 (as if it were two nutrients) due to the importance of antioxidant nutrients so that measurement of unnamed anti-oxidant phytochemicals were represented in the scoring. The sum of the food’s total nutrient value was then multiplied by a fraction to make the highest number equal 1000 so that all foods could be considered on a numerical scale of 1 to 1000.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are low in energy density and rich sources of nutrients that help your body’s ability to protect itself from infections and disease. As water and fiber-rich foods, fresh fruits and vegetables allow you to consume more food volume, stay fuller longer between meals, and still lose weight,
Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, are valuable sources of protein and nutrients, including vitamin D and calcium. Skim and low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese all contain fewer calories per gram than higher energy density products, such as whole milk, high-fat cheeses, full-fat sour cream, cheesecake, butter and ice cream.
Whole grains are grains that have retained valuable nutrient, fiber and protein content during food processing. As fiber-rich foods, whole grains supply fewer calories and more nutrients per serving than refined carbohydrate sources, such as enriched breads, pasta and snack foods. Whole grains also have a milder impact on your blood sugar levels, which promotes fullness, healthy digestion and sustained energy levels. Examples of nutritious, low energy density whole grain foods include 100 percent whole grain breads, old fashioned oats, quinoa, barley, long-grain brown rice, and wild rice.
Meat and Fish
Meat and fish provide rich amounts of protein, which enhances tissue repair, supports lean tissue growth and promotes positive blood sugar balance. Since high-fat red meat, processed meats, dark-meat poultry and fried fish contribute trans fats and saturated fats — fats associated with unhealthy cholesterol levels and heart disease. Go for leaner options. Skinless white-meat poultry, fish and extra-lean red meat contain less saturated fat and fewer calories per gram. Use low-fat cooking techniques, such as baking, grilling and steaming, for heightened benefits
Weight Loss and Fresh fruit and Vegetables:
Extensive researches have been conducted on the effect of eating fruits and veggies on human body. Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables is associated with lower risks for numerous chronic diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease. Fruit and vegetable-enriched diets have also been linked with improving blood lipids level. Such diets have been found rich in cardio protective agents. Fruits and vegetables are good sources of various anti-oxidants and they thus help to boost our immune system by protecting our cells from being invaded by free radicals. They also are rich in fibers, and hence improve gut motility and prevent constipation. Higher fruit and vegetable consumption has also been linked with lower body mass index (BMI). They have beneficial impact on glucose homeostasis and satiety.
Losing weight can be very difficult, even for the highly motivated. In addition, maintaining an appropriate weight is difficult, particularly as a person ages. Replacing foods of high energy density (high calories per weight of food) with foods of lower energy density, such as fruits and vegetables, can be an important part of a weight management strategy.
Energy density is the relationship of calories to the weight of food (calories per gram). For the same number of calories, you can eat foods with low energy density in greater volume than foods with high energy density. This will help you feel full and yet consume fewer calories.
Foods high in energy density have a large number of calories relative to their weight or volume (4 to 9 calories per gram of weight).
Foods high in energy density include low-moisture foods like crackers and cookies or high-fat foods like butter and bacon. Foods with medium energy density range from 1.5 to 4 calories per gram of weight. Examples include hard-boiled eggs, dried fruits, bagels, hummus, whole wheat bread, and part-skim cheeses. Foods low in energy density have 0.7 to 1.5 calories per gram; those very low in energy density range from 0 to 0.6 calories per gram. Examples of foods in these two groups include tomatoes, cantaloupe, broth-based soups, fat free cottage cheese, fat free yogurt, strawberries and broccoli. Most fresh fruits and vegetables fall into one of these two categories.
Fat increases the energy density of foods, while water and fiber decrease energy density. Water has the greatest impact on energy density because it adds weight to food without increasing calories, thus decreasing energy density. Most fruits and vegetables are low in energy density because of their high water and fiber content and their low fat content. These analyses highlight the importance of fiber-rich foods, such as fruit and vegetables, in weight regulation.
High energy foods contain more fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates and are less healthy. Some foods, especially fats, are very energy dense. They have a lot of calories packed into a small size. Foods filled with air such as breads and pretzels also have a high energy density. They are not high in calories but they are not filling either. So, you can eat a lot of bread without feeling full. High–energy foods that have two or more times as many calories as their weight such as beef, bacon, cheese, potato fries, ice cream, cookies, pastries and chocolates should be restricted in the diet.
How to choose what to eat
- Identifying raw and unprocessed food types
- Measuring quality of Foods versus quantity
- Choosing nutrition dense foods that are light on digestion
The first question to ask when evaluating the quality of any food is, “How far is the food or beverage from its natural state?” The more processed a food is, the more difficult it is to digest. The digestive potential for a food is the bottom line, and far more defining than a food’s calorie count. Simply, if a food takes longer to digest, it stores more readily as fat. Raw corn on the cob is in its natural state, while fried corn oil in a corn tortilla chip has been so processed that the body can’t even recognize it as food and has a hard time digesting it.
So when shopping for functional foods, choose foods that are fresh and don’t come already packaged, in a box, bag or frozen with preservatives and unwanted additives.
Now that we have a better understanding about nutrition-deprived low calorie foods, specifically processed and refined, let’s explore these more natural, nutrient dense foods that are lighter on digestion and help to heal and cleanse the body. The more nutrient dense foods are those that are unprocessed and are raw.
Unprocessed and Raw Foods
Foods can undergo processes such as fermentation and dehydration, grinding and mixing, but a truly raw food has not been baked, broiled or cooked in any fashion. These foods are functional, clean and the most nutrient dense foods because they have retained all their natural enzymes and nutrients. A food loses most nutrients and enzymes when it is heated 115-118 degrees. Raw foods are a perfect example of nutrient dense foods that could also be high in calories. All calories are not created equal. In the case of raw foods, the portion matters, but the calorie count really does not apply because a raw food has all the existing enzymes so it will digest itself. Raw foods can be high in fat, but they are good fats because they are fats that are natural to the body and the body can actually absorb and utilize these good fats. What is more is that these natural good fats such as flaxseed, hempseed and coconut oil can actually clean out the bad fats such as saturated animal fat, dairy fats, and refined vegetable and seed oils.
Below here are examples of raw foods and foods that have undergone processes that maximize the nutrition value and retain all the digestive enzymes:
- Fermented or cultured foods: Our stomach and bowels need an acidic state for easy digestion. To help restore and maintain the necessary acidity in our digestive tract, our diet should include some fermented or cultured foods. The enzymes created during the fermentation and culturing, actually break down the food, creating little to no digestive effort once consumed into our bodies. Because predigested foods require less digestive work and no extra enzyme output from your own enzyme pool, your body can assimilate the vital nutrients these foods contain.
Examples: Kombucha tea, yogurt, saurkraut, probiotics, miso,
Nuts and seeds : Nuts and seeds are an excellent source of protein and calcium and are very important to a healthy lifestyle. They are rich in Vitamin B, B-Complex vitamins, copper, phosphorous, calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They contain unsaturated fat, which means they are easy to digest–with seeds being easier to digest than nuts. Either can be eaten right out of the shell, soaked in filtered water, or sprouted. Their nutritional value is enhanced and they become less fatty if they are soaked in water.
Examples: Hemp, flaxseeds, walnuts and almonds are great energy and nutrient-rich choices
Your plate should consist of:
- Fresh Fruits and vegetables
- Green Superfoods (green grasses, chlorella, spirulina,)
- Red Superfoods (acai & gogi berry, pomegranate, blueberries, bilberries, etc)
- Whole Grains: Whole grains are best when they have been soaked in water and sprouted. They are easy to digest and provide sustained energy. They can be eaten raw or ground and baked into products such as bread, tortillas, etc.
- Raw Oils: Cold Pressed oils that are raw and organic will not make you gain weight and help to cleanse the colon and keep you feeling satiated longer. Raw foods rich in good fats are also important and gentle on digestion including avocados, young coconut, raw nuts and seeds, etc.
Measuring the quality of a food versus the quantity of calories
While calorie counting plays a part, it is not the only measurement that we should be using. Measuring calories focuses on the quantity of daily food intake, but not necessarily the quality of the food you are consuming. Here are just five common examples of misconceived foods that are promoted as “weight loss foods”. These are foods that are low in calories but provide minimal if any nutrition and can actually add in weight gain and toxicity:
Sugar: A food made with mainly sugar, flour and spices might be low in fat or even fat free, but once your body absorbs this “food”, it becomes extremely fattening and actually pulls nutrients away from the body. Compare that to a piece of raw fruit that of course naturally has sugar and calories but the fruit breaks itself down in your stomach and provides nutrients.
Rice Cakes: Low in calories but also low in nutrients. Plus it is high on the glycemic index which can raise your blood sugar levels causing a rise in glucose production and fat storage. Compare that to a slice of rye bread or ½ cup rolled oats that is a bit higher in fat and calories but is high in protein, healthy grains, and lots of fiber – it fills you up much longer and satisfies the body without creating a rise in insulin levels.
Chemical sugar-free sweeteners such as aspartame, splenda, sweet n low, equal, etc – They have no sugars or barely any calories but actually cause the stomach to store fat in the abdominal area plus damages brain cells, the central nervous system and more. Watch out for the sugar-free sodas – they are worse than the regular sodas and beverages. Compare that to Stevia that is also a low calorie and sugar-free product but is an actual food extract from a plant that is nutritious, healing and safe without causing the body to produce fat.
A label that reads Fat-free on a premade and packaged food: This is a warning flag because these foods are generally packed with sodium to replace the flavor, chemical flavor enhancers, sugar-free sweeteners or even regular sugar and processed white flour. All of these food additives can be low in calories but provide no nutrition and cause more harm to the body. Compare that to an already packaged food that are organic made with whole grains, no chemicals additives that you can’t pronounce, coconut or olive oil, sea salt, and a few other ingredients that are actual foods you recognize. This could be some quinoa or wholegrain bread or even a natural cereal that is high in calories naturally because the ingredients have not been stripped of fiber and nutrients.
Frozen already made meals that claim to be “Healthy and Lowfat”. These are generally made with inexpensive ingredients, non-organic, preservatives, MSG (flavour enhancers that can be added when the label read “natural or artificial flavours”, high amounts of regular salt, overly processed grains/flour, low fat dairy products (these are actually harder to digest), refined oils, etc.
They might read as low fat and low calories on the label but it is a completely different story once the body has absorbed them! Compare that to an organic already made meal that has few ingredients, no chemicals, preservatives or natural/artificial flavorings, higher in fiber, low in sodium and made without milk and cheese.
For a little more perspective, vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower have 10 calories or less per ounce. Even carrots, which some people say you should avoid due to their sugar content, only has about 12 calories per ounce. This means that an entire 1 pound (454g) bag of carrots has less than 200 calories, which is equivalent to less than 20 chips.
As for high protein sources with good caloric densities, some examples are grilled skinless chicken breasts and canned tuna, which both have fewer than 35 calories per 30g. Now compare that to hamburger (85% lean), which around 70 calories per 30g and most hamburger is not that lean.
Macronutrients are very important to the overall function of the body. In their smaller useable state, these nutrients provide the necessary components for the body to maintain and support important functions, such as:
- Building and repairing cells
- Strengthening immune function
- Manufacturing hormones
- Producing enzymes
- And so much more
Choose healthy fats from food sources such as:
- Canola and olive oils
- Sunflower and safflower oils
- Oily fish like sardines, salmon, and herring
- Flaxseed oil
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds and the oils extracted from them
You are what you eat
Learning to eat better is a process. It starts with reading the nutritional labels found on most foods. My rule of thumb is this: if you cannot recognize or pronounce most of the ingredients on the label, then it contains too many chemical additives and is too processed to be worth your while.
The foods we eat contain a great deal of important nutrients that the body must have to thrive. Make good dietary choices and the body will get the nutrients it needs to perform and maintain tasks important to good health.
Creating a diet low in energy density
People can follow several steps in order to create a diet low in energy density:
- Try to incorporate a large portion of fruits and vegetables into meals. Choose spinach, cruciferous vegetable, tomatoes, citrus fruits, and melons, just to name a few. Broth-based soups, which are also low in energy density, are filling, low-calorie food choices. Also choose these foods as snacks and appetizers.
- Round out meals by adding starchy fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, lean meats, and low-fat dairy food. These foods are important for creating a healthy, balanced diet.
- Pay attention to portion sizes of fried foods, including vegetables; non-whole grains; dairy foods that are not reduced in fat; and fatty cuts of meat. These foods can be part of a healthy diet when consumed occasionally in small portions.
- Consume infrequently, with particular attention to portion size, foods with little moisture, such as crackers, cookies, and chips as well as high-fat foods like croissants, margarine, and bacon. These foods provide a large number of calories relative to their weight and can easily be over-consumed. Foods such as nuts and olives, which have a relatively high amount of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, can be part of one’s diet as long as they are consumed in moderate portions.
• Lower the energy density of frequently consumed foods. The energy density of many foods can be lowered
with slight modifications that are unlikely to compromise palatability. While energy density can be lowered by reducing the amount of fat or increasing the amount of water-rich foods, the most substantial reductions in energy density are achieved when both of these strategies are used simultaneously.
Example: Main dishes
The energy density of many main dishes can be reduced by adding extra vegetables or by reducing the amount of added fat. Many different vegetables (e.g., chopped spinach, shredded carrots, diced green pepper, shredded zucchini, broccoli, or mushrooms) can be added to omelettes, lasagne, pizza, chilli, soups, and other hot dishes. Using lower fat meat and cheese or simply using less of the higher fat ingredients can reduce the fat content.
Instead of having 1 cup of ice cream for dessert, have ½ cup of reduced-fat ice cream topped with ½ cup of fruit.
• Substitute foods lower in energy density for items higher in energy density. Encourage people to identify some of the foods they consume that are high in energy density and help them come up with acceptable alternatives that are lower in energy density.
Example: Lunch at a fast food restaurant
Compared to a fried chicken sandwich, a grilled chicken salad with lettuce, tomatoes, and a low-fat dressing can provide a tasty alternative with more water-rich vegetables, less fat, and fewer calories.