When you turn over a packaged product in the grocery store to peek at the nutritional breakdown, it’s always tempting to zero in on the calorie count. After all, we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that calories count most when it comes to the battle of the bulge and staying healthy. Yet nutrition experts are increasingly tossing out the term “nutrient density” to describe the foods we should be eating more of, putting calorie totals aside.
Nutrient density is an eating concept that goes beyond judging a food by its calories alone. Indeed, research suggests that consuming more nutrient-dense foods can promote longevity, namely by lowering the risk for some of today’s biggest killers like heart disease. That’s because you get a lot more out of the calories on the end of your fork or spoon.
What makes something nutrient-dense?
Here’s a loose definition: nutrient density equals nutrients per calorie. The more nutrients packed into a food calorie, the more beneficial it is towards making every calorie count most efficiently.
A good example is broccoli; a single cup serving contains a mere 31 calories but plenty of vitamin C and vitamin K, making it notably nutrient-dense. A cup of blueberries gives you just 84 calories, but those calories include a wide range of essential vitamins and minerals. And that doesn’t include a payload of antioxidant compounds in every blueberry, which enhances the fruit’s nutrient-to-calorie ratio.
Whole grains are another great example. Calorie-for-calorie whole grains can often be considered denser in a broader spectrum of nutrients than their refined counterparts. Case in point: you’d have to consume about four times as much white rice (and a bunch more starchy calories in the process) just to get the same amount of magnesium, a mineral linked to lower heart disease risk, as you would in lesser processed brown rice.
Nutrient-dense items can be both very low and, surprisingly, high in calories. Take almonds, for instance. While a handful of this nut delivers about 164 calories, it contains a range of vitamins, mineral and healthy fats that make it nutrient-rich. On the flipside, the 130 calories in a tablespoon of refined soybean oil comes with very few nutrients, making it notably calorie-dense and not nutrient-dense.
It’s not just foods of the plant kingdom that can be considered nutrient-dense. Consider the humble egg: a large orb has just 72 calories. Yet these calories come with a handful of useful nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, selenium and brain-benefiting choline. While salmon contains more calories than tilapia, it also has loftier amounts of vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. That means it should be considered a more nutrient-dense catch of the day. And it’s a good example of why we shouldn’t be so quick to judge foods by calories alone.
However, some leaner cuts of steak do indeed provide more nutrients per calorie than fattier cuts like prime rib. In some cases, how the animal was raised can impact its nutrient density. A cup of organic milk, for example, may deliver more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E per calorie than regular milk. Research from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences found that free-range hens given the opportunity to forage in the great outdoors lay more nutrient-dense eggs with higher levels of essential nutrients including vitamin E, vitamin A and omega-3 fats than eggs sourced from birds that are cooped up in cages or barns and provided only commercial feed.
Why nutrient-dense foods matter
The opposite of nutrient-dense foods are items that deliver meager amounts of nutrients for the calories they contain. Sugar is a glaring example. Each tablespoon serving contains about 48 calories but virtually no vitamins and minerals. So, each calorie is working less hard for you.
Here’s another example: a medium serving of fast-food French fries ponies up nearly 400 calories without much nutrient payoff. In contrast, a medium baked potato has just 160 calories and higher amounts of vitamin C, potassium and magnesium. That makes it more – you guessed it – nutrient-dense.
Generally, nutrient-dense foods are items that haven’t been diluted by the addition of calories from added fats and sugars. These qualities transform foods into calorie-dense options that can be bad news for your waistline. For instance, ounce-for-ounce plain Greek yogurt contains about 30 percent fewer calories than sugary flavored versions. So, the plain variety would be considered more nutrient-dense since you get more nutrients like calcium per calorie. Similarly, an ounce of exceptionally nutrient-dense kale has just 8 calories compared to 130 calories in the same serving size of packaged crunchy kale chips.
As you can see, food manufacturers are very good at diluting the nutrient density of foods. This leaves our health to pay the ultimate price. Eating too many energy-dense foods – items with large amounts of calories for the weight of the food – may raise your risk for certain maladies like cancer. And diets heavy in empty-calorie foods are why people can be overweight yet still malnourished in nutrients. Many processed packaged foods marketed as “low-calorie” or “low-fat,” like baked potato chips or salad dressing, also provide little in the way of vital nutrients despite their more humble calorie load.
So how do you get started on a mainly nutrient-dense diet? For the most part, eating predominantly whole foods will give you more bang for your calorie buck. That means making choices like a bowl of plain yogurt with sliced strawberries instead of strawberry-flavored yogurt.
A good practice is to plug a food into the USDA’s food search engine and then do some math. For example, punch in a red sweet pepper and you’ll learn that it contains a range of essential micronutrients. Yet its calorie count is minor. This can help you compare items within a certain food group, like grains and meats, so you get more from your calories. Another method is the 80/20 approach: 80 percent of your diet hails from nutrient-dense foods, with a 20 percent allowance for items without such an impressive nutrient-to-calorie ratio. That’s enough to delight your palate while still delivering clutch nutritional value.