Nutrient-dense foods are packed with vitamins and minerals without a lot of added sugar, sodium, or saturated fat. This enables them to provide a high ratio of healthful compounds to calories. Think of them as the opposite of “empty calorie” foods that provide fast energy but little else in the way of nutrition (and tend to leave you hungry again soon after).
In other words, while you might be seeking out low calorie density in your diet if you’re trying to lose weight (meaning foods that pack the least calories per volume), you always want high nutrient density. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; some foods are both nutrient-dense and calorie-dense (think peanut butter and nuts), and these are good to include in your diet, provided you don’t go overboard. So which nutrition superstars should you be stocking your cart with? Read on for the best nutrient-dense foods to include in your balanced diet.
Why Should You Include Nutrient-Dense Foods in Your Diet?
Basically, nutrient-dense foods bring you the most bang for your caloric buck, providing high-quality fuel your body can use to power you through your day.
Focusing your diet around nutrient-dense foods may help you cut your risk of various health conditions that are associated with a low-quality diet, including heart disease, obesity, and some cancers. Think of it as packing the most health benefits into every calorie.
If you’re living with a chronic condition, you know that what you eat can have a powerful effect on your symptoms, energy level, or simply how you feel day-to-day. An eating plan based around nutrient-packed foods can help you keep living well.
How Is Nutrient Density Calculated?
Various methods have been proposed for calculating the nutrient density of foods, also known as nutrient profiling, according to a large analysis published in the journal Nutrition Reviews. But they all involve some combination of these elements:
A food gets points for its content of “nutrients to encourage.” That includes the essential vitamins and minerals that human bodies need to develop and function properly (that’s vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins and the minerals chloride, cobalt, copper, fluoride, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and sulfur). Foods also typically get points for protein, fiber, and possibly other healthy components like omega-3 fatty acids. The more a food has of the recommended dietary allowance of the nutrient, the more points it gets.
Points are taken away for “nutrients to limit”—that is, added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats (usually saturated and trans)—OR points are awarded for the absence of these.
The points are then divided by a unit (usually 100 grams or 100 calories) to produce a score, according to the Nutrient Reviews article.
What Are the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods?
Generally speaking, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and heart-healthy fats meet the criteria for nutrient-dense foods. But there are standouts within each category.
In alphabetical order, here are some especially nutrient-packed options:
Asparagus. This veggie is high in insoluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and aid in digestion; vitamin K, which is involved in blood clotting; and folate (folic acid), a B vitamin that can reduce the risk of birth defects (pregnant women are advised to consume it abundantly).
Avocados. They contain at least 20 vitamins and minerals and are low in sugar but high in unsaturated fat, making them an anomaly among fruits. They are also a good source of fiber.
Bell peppers. Each one packs more vitamin C than an orange. Peppers are also a good source of fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants.
Berries. High in fiber and vitamins, berries are also packed with antioxidants, which come from their abundant phytochemicals (the plant chemicals that give berries their deep, bright colors). Frozen berries maintain their nutrients and can be eaten year-round.
Broccoli. This cruciferous all-star is a good source of calcium, fiber, iron, potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin K.
Dark chocolate. It’s higher in calories than most nutrient-dense foods, but dark chocolate has high levels of antioxidants and minerals that make it a healthful choice. It’s rich in flavanols, a type of antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Choose chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa for maximum benefit.
Eggs. They contain vitamins, minerals, protein, and an important nutrient called choline. Two-thirds of the fat in egg yolks is considered the “good” kind, or unsaturated. The yolk contains most of the nutrients and fat while the egg white is all protein. A large egg contains only about 78 calories, most of which come from the yolk.
Kale and other dark leafy greens. They provide vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, and protein, among other nutrients. Leafy greens are also high in fiber. They can be eaten raw in salads or cooked with vegetable oils (or in the case of kale, baked into chips for a crunchy treat). Aside from kale, leafy greens include bok choy, collard greens, dandelion greens, mustard greens, spinach, and Swiss chard.
Legumes. Think of them as nutrient powerhouses in a tiny package. Legumes (also called pulses) include beans, chickpeas, edamame, lentils, peanuts, peas, and soybeans. They are low in fat and high in fiber, folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
Liver. It’s not for everyone, but liver is possibly the most nutrient-dense food in the omnivore diet. This organ meat (commonly from a cow, chicken, duck, lamb, or pig) is rich in protein and provides more than 100% of the recommended dietary allowance for dozens of vitamins and minerals including iron, riboflavin (a B vitamin), vitamin A, and zinc.
Mango. This yellow-orange fruit is a good source of fiber, folate, and vitamins A, B6, and C. The bright color comes from beta-carotene, an antioxidant that may delay cell damage. (Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A, meaning your body converts it into the vitamin.)
Nuts. Like legumes, nuts pack abundant nutrients into a small package. And while they’re high in fat, it’s the good (unsaturated) kind that’s healthy for your heart. Nuts are also a good source of plant protein. Among the laundry list of healthful substances you’ll find in various nuts are antioxidants, calcium, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, and vitamin E.
Pomegranates. They are a good source of fiber, folate, potassium, and vitamins B6, E, and K. The red seeds can be eaten as a snack or sprinkled on oatmeal, salads, or yogurt. The white flesh is edible but has a bitter taste.
Potatoes. Potatoes are high in vitamin C and were even credited with preventing scurvy in medieval times. They also contain fiber and potassium. In fact, a baked potato with skin is the single best food source of potassium, providing more than 900 mg of this essential mineral that helps regulate blood pressure.
Pumpkin. Like carrots and mango, this member of the squash family gets its orange color from beta-carotene. Pumpkins are also a good source of fiber and pack more potassium per cup than bananas!
Quinoa. This is a seed that is usually classified as a grain. It contains high amounts of fiber, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, and thiamin (another B vitamin). And it’s a rich source of protein, especially when compared to other grains.
Salmon. This fatty fish has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which can help lower the risk of heart disease. Other fish high in omega-3 include anchovies, herring, mackerel, sardines, and trout.
Seaweed. This sea plant is the best food source of iodine, which supports thyroid health. Seaweed also includes a good amount of calcium, copper, and iron.
Sweet potatoes. They are packed with protein, vitamin A, and beta-carotene. As with regular potatoes, eat them baked, boiled, or mashed—just not fried.
Yams. Yams are a root veggie like sweet potatoes, but starchier and closer in taste and texture to a potato. Yams have more fiber, vitamin C, and potassium than sweet potatoes.
How to Add More Nutrient-Dense Foods to Your Diet
There are lots of easy substitutions that can help you add more nutrient-dense foods to your diet while replacing less healthful fare. These ideas come from the American Heart Association:
Add veggie toppings instead of meat on pizza and sandwiches.
Replace white rice with brown rice.
Swap out sugary beverages with coffee, unsweetened tea or water.
Try substituting plain nonfat Greek yogurt for sour cream on baked potatoes, chili, tacos, and in recipes.
Snack on nuts or vegetables over chips. If you need something crunchy to dip (in salsa or guac, say), opt for carrot or celery sticks, cucumber slices, or radishes.
Serve fruit for dessert instead of sugar-laden sweets.
If you need help getting started or are looking for more individualized eating advice tailored to you.
~Stacie Aspen Fitness & Nutrition