What’s Nutrient Density & why it’s important to eat a Nutrient Dense Diet!
What is nutrient density?
In this article, we’ll talk about nutrient density, the term used to describe how nourishing a particular food or meal is. It’ll explain how you can build a nutrient dense diet and identify the biggest misconceptions about nutrient density. At the simplest level, the more nutrients your body can get from food, the more nutrient dense it is. Conversely, the fewer nutrients your body can get from it, the more it is nutrient poor.
Nutrient density is formally defined as the amount of nutrients per weight or calories of food. Serving size may also be taken into account . So, 4 g of potassium in 100 g of fish. Or 4 g of potassium in 100 kcals of fish, that sort of thing. But there’s more to nutrient density than just what that simplistic definition suggests. The fact that there are a lot of different essential nutrients makes things more complicated. Also, not only quantity but also bioavailability (the amount that we can use and absorb) has to be considered. Moreover, nutrient density focuses on key nutrients that are not found in many foods and that many people are short of.
Macro- and micronutrients
Nutrients are commonly divided into macro- and micronutrients. Macronutrients are the fuel; they provide energy. Micronutrients make sure that everything works smoothly. They have a countless number of functions in the body. They are necessary for biochemical reactions to take place and also have structural roles.
– amino acids
– fatty acids
Amino acids and fatty acids
Some nutrients function as micro- and macronutrient.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. While amino acids (and protein) have calories and hence provide energy, they are primarily used as building blocks to make the body’s proteins rather than for energy production.
It is also important to mention that not all proteins are the same. Proteins consist of 20 different amino acids, and nine of them are essential. Because we cannot make essential amino acids ourselves, we must get all of them in sufficient amounts from our diet. Foods that provide all nine essential amino acids are sources of complete protein. The prime example is eggs that provide all essential amino acids in pretty much ideal proportions. We can absorb and digest 97% of egg protein .
While plant foods may also contain decent amounts of protein, their protein is of much lower quality, because they do not provide all essential amino acids in appropriate amounts. For instance, we only absorb 64% of wheat gluten .
Fat, on the other hand, is primarily a fuel but has additional roles. Among other functions, fatty acids are needed to build cell membranes and hormones . The long-chain omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid (AA) are essential fats that we need to get from foods .
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are like tools that support all physiological processes. They are crucial for metabolic processes, tissue function, immune function, blood clotting, and much more .
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Fat- and water-soluble vitamins
Vitamins are usually divided into fat- and water-soluble vitamins. Fat vitamins include vitamins A, D, E, and K. Water-soluble vitamins include B-vitamins and vitamin C.
We also have to get choline from the diet, which is not a vitamin, but closely resembles one.
Macro- and trace minerals
Macrominerals include minerals that we need in relatively large amounts, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium. We need only tiny amounts of trace minerals, usually in the micro-gram (µg) range or a few milligrams (mg) at most. Among others, iron, zinc, copper, and iodine are trace minerals.Trying to up your potassium? Don't throw away the juice from your meat! Click To Tweet
Nutrient density vs. caloric density
Nutrient density usually refers to the density of micronutrients. Foods that contain a lot of calories (macronutrients) but are not rich in micronutrients are seen as dense in calories, but nutrient poor. Because fat provides roughly twice as many calories per gram compared to protein and carbs, foods that are high in fat are often seen as nutrient poor (in relation to the calorie content).
Because most veggies (especially leafy greens) provide very few calories, they are often seen as very nutrient dense. This is, however, a naïve fallacy because it does not take portion size into account or whether the nutrient profile is complete or not.
Iceberg lettuce, for instance, provides 17 kcal per 100g. This translates to nearly 600g per 100 kcal. It’s lacking many essential nutrients.
A rib-eye beef steak provides 195 kcal per 100g. This translates to roughly 50 g per 100 kcal. It’s a complete source of high-quality protein and is rich in many other nutrients.
Most people can eat 200g beef steak per meal (390 kcal). When it comes to iceberg lettuce, you can realistically eat no more than 100-200 g, which represents very few calories (17-34 kcal).
When calculating nutrient density per calories, high caloric foods, such as beefsteak, are often unfairly penalized. Beefsteak provides much more nutrients per portion than iceberg lettuce.
Takeaway: even though many high-fat foods such as meat, fish provide many calories, they are nevertheless nutrient dense and a source of complete nutrition.
In contrast, fast foods, such as frozen pizza, are dense in calories without providing adequate amounts of micronutrients. They’re prime examples of calorically dense and nutrient poor foods.
The fact that the bioavailability of nutrients in foods can vary a lot is the primary reason why food labels are misleading. Bioavailability refers to how much of a given nutrient can be absorbed and used by the body. Food labels don’t take this into account.
The factors that come under the umbrella term bioavailability can be categorized as
- Ease of digestion
- Loss of chemical integrity
- Factors interfering with proper metabolism
So what do these mean? Let’s start with digestion. The protein in ground beef is 92% digestible, meaning only 8% of the protein count on the label is lost. Contrast that with wheat protein that’s only 42% digestible and thus 58% of its protein is lost! Animal foods are highly bioavailable sources of protein compared to plants which are usually poor sources .
What about chemical integrity? For nutrients to be made available to be absorbed by your digestive system, the cells which contain these nutrients must be ‘damaged’ to release them (i.e. by chewing, bathing in stomach acid, heated…). For instance, roasting nuts heats the fats inside them which makes them more easily absorbed than if they weren’t roasted . Besides heat, the effect of mixed diets has also to be considered. For instance, plant fiber binds certain nutrients which reduces their absorption by 2 – 3% and up to 5% at a vegetarian level of plant intake. Acidity also matters. The human gastrointestinal tract has varying pH but overall, it’s one of the most acidic amongst all animals. Depending on the particular nutrient, the acidity can interfere with the activity of that compound once absorbed. Betanin, a non-essential nutrient in beetroots, retains only part of its antioxidant activity once absorbed due to the extreme acidity of the human digestive system.
Even once a nutrient is absorbed, is it all available for immediate use? Not always, as metabolising nutrients carries a cost. For example, approximately only 1 – 5% off the inactive form of omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) can be turned into the active forms called DHA and EPA. ALA is found in plants and DHA and EPA are found in animals. All in all, this means that 10 g of ALA may at best provide half a gram of active omega-3s .
Active versus inactive form
As we just covered, some nutrients come in their inactive form. To be used by the body, they need to be converted into the active form. This comes at a tremendous cost, meaning that we usually need multiple times more of the inactive form than of the active form.
Let’s take another example. Provitamin A, also known as β-carotene, is turned into the active form of vitamin A called retinol. Unfortunately, it’s an extremely inefficient process, with a conversion factor between 3.6 to 28 ! This means that you need anywhere from 4 to 30 g of β-carotene to obtain the equivalent of one gram of retinol. β-carotene is found in plant foods, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, while the active form of Vitamin A, retinol, is found in animal foods. While some veggies are quite rich in provitamin A, due to the poor conversion rate, you would still have to eat huge amounts to meet your daily requirements.
Anti-nutrients are substances that interfere with the absorption of nutrients. One example is phytate, which is mainly found in seeds and grains. Phytate binds dietary minerals such as zinc, iron, and calcium, reducing their availability for absorption .
Anti-nutrients are commonly found in plant foods, but not in animal foods. Anti-nutrients are one more reason why animal foods, in general, have a higher bioavailability.
Presence of other nutrients that increase absorption
Some nutrients require other nutrients to be absorbed, which is known as nutrient synergy. The fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K can only be absorbed when the meal contains sufficient amounts of fat.Did you know you can absorb more vitamin A when your meal contains enough fat? Click To Tweet
There is a vast number of essential nutrients, and they are all vital for human health. A non-adequate supply of any nutrient causes medical problems. Some nutrients are, however, more abundant than others. Some nutrients are found in almost all kinds of foods, while others are hard to find. Instead of merely adding up all nutrients, their abundance is taken into account when determining nutrient density.
One example of this is choline. Choline is a vitamin-like nutrient that has various roles in the body, and that is crucial for cardiovascular health. There are only a few food sources that contain decent amounts of choline . This includes liver and eggs. 100 g beef liver contains more than 400 mg choline, which accounts for around 80% of the recommended daily intake . 100g of eggs (appr. 2 large eggs) contain almost 300 mg choline. Because eggs and liver contain nutrients that are hard to find in other foods, they are considered as especially nutrient dense.
What are the most nutrient dense foods?
The most nutrient foods not only provide a wide range of nutrients but also contain hard-to-find nutrients in decent quantities. Foods that you can live on without eating anything else are at the top of the list and only applies to animal foods. However, some plant foods deliver generous amounts of nutrients.
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Nutrient-dense animal foods
100g pork liver provides 26g high-quality protein. It’s bursting with retinol, which is Vitamin A in its highest bioavailable form. 100g contains around 6mg of this vitamin, meeting almost a whole week’s requirement!
It also contains all of the B vitamins, and most of them in vast amounts: 778% (daily value) DV Vitamin B12, 169% DV Vitamin B2, 95% DV Vitamin B5 and 53% DV Vitamin B3. Last but not least, it contains around 90% of the hard-to-find choline. This accounts for a 9/10 nutrient density score, which is highly deserved.
Most seafood is very nutritious, but oysters stand out with a nutrient density score of 10/10, one of the nutrient dense foods you’ll find. It reaches the highest score in terms of fatty acids, minerals, and vitamins.
100 g oysters contain 667% DV Vitamin B12, around 300% DV copper, and about 500% DV Zinc. It is also a great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
It there was a superfood, it would be eggs. 100 g of eggs contain 13 g of the highest quality protein and vast amounts of choline. They don’t only contain almost all vitamins; they even provide most of them in generous amounts. Nutrient density score: 8/10.
4.Lamb testes (!)
Lamb testes are among the most adventurous foods, and not everyone is willing to give them a try – maybe the cultural myths like increased male fertility will convince some of you. But they are without a doubt one of the most nutrient dense foods. They provide a broad range of minerals, including iron, copper, zinc, phosphorus, selenium, and potassium. They also have an excellent fatty acid score (10/10) and contain 412% DV Vitamin B12. Nutrient density score: 10/10.
5.Atlantic wild salmon
Atlantic wild salmon is one of the rare sources of the active form of Vitamin D3 called cholecalciferol. 100g contains a whopping 58% DV Vitamin D! While most people rely on sunlight for sufficient Vitamin D supply, the daily requirements can also be met by eating fatty fish such as salmon. After all, that’s how the Innuits survive!
Wild salmon is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and reaches the highest fatty acid score (10/10). Overall nutrient density score: 9/10.
Nutrient dense plant foods
Sunflower seeds are among the most nutrient dense plant foods. They provide an impressive 123% DV B1, 235% DV Vitamin E, and more than 100% DV Phosphorus and copper. They also offer generous amounts of Vitamin B6 (79% DV), Vitamin B9 (57% DV), and Vitamin B3 (52% DV). On top of this, they contain various minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, zinc, and manganese. They are however slightly penalized due to the presence of compounds like phytic acid that bind minerals. This means you end up absorbing less of them. Nutrient density score: 7/10.
Nori seaweed is a real vitamin and mineral bomb. 100 g seaweed provide 800% DV iodine. That’s of particular importance because many people don’t get enough of this essential mineral. It also contains 180% DV Vitamin A, 214% DV Vitamin B2, 228% Vitamin B9, and 270% DV Vitamin C. Not to forget generous amounts of Vitamin B1, B3, B5, B6, and Vitamin E. It is also rich in the minerals manganese, iron, potassium, and copper.
One reason why the nori seaweed is so nutrient dense is that it is dried. The elimination of water concentrates all remaining ingredients, including vitamins and minerals. You also need to consider that the portion size is much smaller than 100 g. So realistically, you won’t take up the stated amounts in one day. It is still an immensely nutrient dense food and reaches a nutrient density score of 10/10!
They contain huge amounts of Vitamin K1: parsley provides 1367% DV. Even though Vitamin K1 is less bioavailable than Vitamin K2 (primarily found in animal foods) that’s still an impressive amount. Fresh herbs are also rich in Vitamin C and contain a range of B vitamins.
The only drawback is that they are usually consumed in tiny amounts, so the absolute nutrient quantity per meal is relatively small. Still, they add flavor to the dish and increase its nutrient density. All three get a 7/10 nutrient density score.
As a leafy green, spinach is very nutritious. 100g provides 31% DV Vitamin C, 49% DV Vitamin B9, 402% DV Vitamin K1 and decent amounts of manganese. Nutrient density score: 7/10.
What are the least nutrient dense foods?
Whole foods differ in nutrient density, but most of them provide a decent amount of nutrients. The sort of processed foods like bread that require essential nutrients to be added back, process called fortification are mostly very nutrient poor. This is because they mainly consist of the three least nutrient dense ingredients.
1) Wheat flour
Refined (white) wheat flour contains hardly any nutrients. With 82% carbs, it’s basically starch and not much else. In many countries, wheat flour is artificially supplemented with nutrients to avoid deficiencies in people who eat it daily. Nutrient density score: 2/10.
Sugar consumption has reached tremendous levels. Sugar is added in significant amounts to virtually all processed foods. Many varieties of fruit or other plants are bred in such a way that they contain several times as much sugar as the original, wild version,,. And things like fruit juice, which concentrate sugar intensely, are still considered healthy, unfortunately.
Granulated white sugar contains nothing but glucose and fructose. With no micronutrients at all, it has a nutrient density score of 0/10. Empty calories at their best. If only that was the only problem with sugar…
3) Seed oils
Seed oils, such as sunflower oil or canola oil, are not only deprived of nutrients, they’re also bursting with inflammatory precursors like omega-6 fatty acids which are easily oxidized and all the more inflammatory. Just avoid them by all means. Nutrient density score: 0/10.
Can supplements improve your nutritional status?
Nutrient supplements are very popular, but they provide no scientifically established health benefits for the most part. One problem is that they often come in forms that have a low bioavailability . Moreover, many nutrients are better absorbed in combination with other nutrients (nutrient synergy) . Multivitamin supplements, on the other hand, are cheap but mostly only contain nutrients that people are usually not short of. However, excess supplementation can be toxic, so caution is warranted .
A meta-analysis revealed that nutrient supplementation is not associated with any health benefits. Some supplements may even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease . It is, however, difficult to disentangle cause and effect because most of these data come from epidemiological studies that do not prove causation. For instance, people with health issues are more likely to take supplements. Furthermore, taking supplements may induce a false sense of risk taking, whereby some people will conclude that eating a little junk food is fine as long as they supplement.
Therefore, health benefits from supplements seem to be minimal at best. Unless someone has a known deficiency, it is not recommended. Getting nutrients from nutrient dense natural foods is by far the best and also most tasty option.
Why eat nutrient dense foods?
Food has two purposes: it provides us with nutrients and energy. Only when eating nutrient dense foods, you can ensure that you get both. On the other hand, by choosing caloric dense foods that hardly provide any nutrients, you fall into the trap of being overfed and malnourished . Because we are not only hungry for calories but also nutrients, this is one of the factors people have proposed to explain why nutrient poor processed foods make people fat. By eating nutrient poor foods, you technically have to overeat to meet your micronutrient needs. And in the end, you may still not have enough nutrients. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as eating “empty calories”. This is, however, only one part of the problem. Nutrient poor foods also cause metabolic derangements because they are traditionally high in seed oils, flour and sugar.
The ultimate goal is, of course, to avoid nutrient deficiencies and maintain a healthy body composition. The recommendation is not to avoid energy dense foods, but rather to focus on nutrient dense foods that are complete protein sources without the fattening factors, namely seed oils, flour and sugar. This way, we can fulfill the need for every single essential nutrient in appropriate amounts and avoid deficiencies which cause serious health problems.
How tasty is nutrient-dense food?
Most people see the elimination of nutrient poor processed fast foods as giving up their favorite, most tasty foods. Nutrients dense, healthy foods, on the other hand, are perceived as bland and boring.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In nature, intense flavors are always linked to nutrients . Bland foods are usually very nutrient poor, which is the reason why we don’t like them. This used to be a crucial survival mechanism. Our taste sensation allowed us to identify nutrient-dense foods . And it also enabled us to find the nutrients that our body may be short of . A sudden craving for a particular food can be a sign that it is rich in particular nutrients that the body currently needs . That’s one reason why we crave flavors so much.
When you give up sugary drinks and snacks you’re palate is no longer bombarded with sugar and can resensitize to tasting sugar in lower amounts present in low-sugar and low-starch fruit and vegetables.
The trouble started when the food industry invented artificial flavors and flavor enhancers. These flavors are added to foods, but they don’t bring along any nutrients. The flavor of fast foods containing flavor enhancers can be much more intense than the one of natural foods. Because our ancestral survival mechanisms are still at work, this makes us choose processed foods over natural foods. Intense flavor in combination with low nutrient content – a deadly combination .
So can you reconcile your tastes and preferences with healthy eating? You definitely can. If you’re unsure where to start witht that, check out Nutrita Pro. It gives you access to flavorful and nutrient dense recipes tailored to your carb limits and protein targets. You’ll enjoy exploring our nutrient dense recipe suggestions.
Nutrita will give you the overall nutrient-profile, of let’s say tomatoes. This is, however, only an estimate based on lab measurements of what’s in them, not of how well they satisfy nutrient requirements you personally need more or less of. Furthermore, the nutrient profile varies largely among crops. It won’t hurt to let your taste guide you towards the most nutrient dense tomatoes as they’re the ones with the most intense flavor . The ones that taste like bags of water hardly contain any more than actual water.
Benefits of eating a nutrient dense diet
A nutrient dense diet is crucial for overall health. It does not only help to avoid nutrient deficiencies but also prevents overeating, and it’s associated metabolic derangements. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about the definition of a nutrient dense diet.
Nutrita’s nutrient density score is superior because it takes bioavailability and scarcity of nutrients into account. Nutrita helps you to choose foods that are the most nutrient dense and fit your health goals. For maximum benefit and individualized guidance, sign up for Nutrita Pro.
Nutrients to watch out for
Populations are studied to find out what nutrients are most lacking. In order from most to least, Americans show signs of nutrient deficiency for vitamin B6, iron, vitamin D, vitamin C, Vitamin A, vitamin E and folate . It’s also the case that plants are becoming less nutrient dense due to a combination of poor agricultural practices that deplete soils and increased atmospheric levels of CO2 levels overdriving carbohydrate content . This all being the case, it’s useful to bring particular attention to certain nutrients.
Eating a diet high in animal foods is the most straightforward way to cover your bases with regards to the nutrients most people are deficient in. However, Vitamin C and Vitamin E are the two nutrients that you’ll have an easier time finding in fruit and vegetables than in animal foods. For instance, red peppers contain 1.9 g of vitamin C per 100 g and sunflower seeds contain a whopping 35.2 mg of vitamin E per 100 g! A standard omnivorous keto diet will contain lots of both.
Consider that, lowering your carbohydrate intake may well decrease your vitamin C needs. This drives home the point that there are two ways to improve your status for a particular nutrient: eat more of it or lower your need for it. Case in point, those following a highly carnivorous diet will likely need less vitamin C due to their increased intake of collagen and carnitine, as well as a compensatory upregulation of other antioxidants such as glutathione . Nevertheless, some carnivores will want to hedge their bets and they can do this easily with the occasional serving of chicken liver that contains 17.9 mg of vitamin C per 100 g.
An often forgotten vitamin called riboflavin or vitamin B2 is found in foods like turkey at 2.2 mg/100 g and lamb’s liver at 5.2 mg/100 g. It’s rare in plants, but seaweed contains about 2.8 mg/100 g. Riboflavin is important for our cells to keep the ability to produce ATP (energy) using oxygen by acting as a precursor to the enzyme called succinate dehydrogenase.
Choline is gaining attention but isn’t yet considered an essential nutrient. It might, one day. It’s crucial in producing the phospholipids that give cell membranes their correct structure and thus function. Choline plays in role in modulating lipids and the synthesis of vital neurotransmitters. This molecule is also a powerful factor combating fatty liver disease . They’re abundant in animal foods, in particular eggs so eat them up – especially the yolk!
To achieve the highest nutrient density, you should focus on animal sourced foods such as meat, fish and eggs. A certain amount of vegetables and dairy, along with some seeds and nuts and fruit can be part of a nutrient dense diet.
Animal foods are a complete source of nutrients, and importantly, their nutrients come in the active form with excellent bioavailability. While veggies and other plant foods can be decent sources of nutrients, always make sure to complement them with a hefty amount of animal-based foods. The latter contain crucial nutrients, such as Vitamin B12, choline, and essential fatty acids that are hard to find in plant based foods. With this strategy, you can be sure to be well-nourished and to keep your hunger at bay!
Written by Raphael Sirtoli, MSc Biology
Raphael Sirtoli has an MSc in Molecular Biology and is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at the Behavioral n’ Molecular Lab in Portugal. His understanding of metabolism, nutrition and clinical medicine is the base upon which Nutrita’s knowledge derives from. He loves open scientific debate, Crossfit, football, hiking and cold water immersion.
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