What is nutrient dense food?

by | Sep 30, 2018

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Many people nowadays have a sense that eating more nutritious food will do them good because something about their health doesn’t quite feel right. Indeed, the majority of people nowadays have some sort of metabolic problem. A third of these people are overtly diabetic or obese. A growing number of these people aren’t going to wait for a magic pill after learning that reversing these serious metabolic conditions by paying attention to what they eat is possible.

You might assume ‘eating healthy’ primarily require conscious chronic caloric restriction (CR) and that this leave you without enough micronutrients – or is just bland and boring. Thankfully CR isn’t necessary nor does your diet have to be tasteless and nutrient poor.

Although your caloric intake certainly has an important impact on your health, chronic calorie restriction is a fool’s errand. You’re much better off working with rather than against your biology so feed yourself a nutrient dense diet.

This basically comes down to lots of animal foods and some vegetables, fruit and nuts. That should keep you full. Try overeating steak and broccoli, I dare you.

Tracking the nutrient density of your food can help guide you towards intuitive eating

You might be wondering why track anything if the whole point is to eat intuitively? Just like a gymnast intentionally repeat movements slowly so that they become second nature, many people will benefit from paying attention to what they eat and how they feel with objective tracking.

It comes down to the fact that most people are mistaken about which foods are nutritious and Nutrita can help correct this misinformation. Furthermore, we help you track metrics that matter, such as the nutrient density of your diet and not merely an inaccurate total calorie estimate. We address quality, not just quantity.

The other reason tracking smart food metrics with Nutrita is a good idea is to gather feedback on progress towards your self-selected goals; gaining muscle, getting into ketosis or simply eating a more nutritious, tasty diet.

Whatever goal you choose, your diet needs to be nutrient dense. It can’t just be rich in any vitamin and mineral, it needs the right range. But you can’t just focus on the micronutrients you take in you must also ensure you’re avoiding foods that contain factors causing you to ‘use up’ your micronutrients. Our dynamic nutrient density score factors all that in.

Did you know?

Food labels don’t really tell you the actual amount of micronutrients in your food. Why? They don’t take something called bioavailability into account, but Nutrita’s Nutrient density score does.

Bioavailability is simply is how much of a micronutrient (e.g. 100 mg magnesium) you can absorb from a food or supplement.

For example, we can basically absorb all of the protein in eggs, 98% of it! In stark contrast, when we make flower for pizza or bread we mill grains and lose an amazing 70 to 80% of the original vitamins and fiber (ranging from 25% to 90%), 25% loss of protein, 90% loss of manganese, 85% loss of zinc, 80% loss of magnesium, potassium, copper and vitamin B6!

What does it mean to eat nutrient dense food?

Food provides you with energy, so called calories from fats, carbs and protein we macronutrients. With that food you also get nutrition in the form of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and essential amino acids we collectively call micronutrients.

A nutrient density score refers to the amount of micronutrients you’re getting from a certain quantity of food, like 100g of steak or 100 kcals of kale, as well as the range of micronutrients it contains. A great nutrient density score is, at the very least, high across the entire range of essential nutrients.

Why is it important to eat lots of micronutrients?

The 3 macronutrients provide you with the calories needed to run your cells but also with micronutrients, the microscopic components needed to run your cellular machinery. When you eat foods like vegetables, meat, fruit, fish and nuts you tend to eat enough micronutrients for the amount of calories you’re taking in.

Thing of it like having the right kind of engine oil and enough of it (micronutrients) for the amount of fuel (calories) you’re running through the engine.

Does everyone need the same amount and types of nutrients or does this change according to their goals and health conditions?

All humans have the same basic need for what’s broadly considered to be essential micronutrients that can only be obtained from certain foods (and also certain supplements). However, genetic, environmental and other factors can significantly change one’s specific need for particular.

For instance, if you get lots of the micronutrients vitamin B12, B6, betaine and folate from from your diet, the less of the other micronutrient called choline you will need. It is important to focus on eating certain foods (e.g. meat or vegetables) and not others (e.g. pizza or bread) to ensure a good micronutrient intake.

Supplements can sometimes help if used in a targeted manner but this is rarely the case. Diets differently affect metabolism and, to some extent, micronutrient needs. For example, a well formulated low-carb diet can drastically lower your need for the antioxidant vitamin C. This is because fatty meat and low-starch vegetables provide other compounds that naturally upregulate other antioxidant pathways available to your body, thus making vitamin C intake less important for maintaining adequate antioxidant action.

Case in point, vitamin C deficiency which is known as scurvy can be resolved by eating fruit, but also lots of meat.

What food is highly nutrient dense?

Whole eggs are incredibly nutrient dense, coming in at 63% fat (including omega-3s) and 35% protein. The protein is made of highly bioavailable amino acids measured at 98% availability! And it’s only got 2% carbs. In contrast, most plant foods are missing a few essential amino acids that are 10 – 30% less bioavailable.

The whole egg is also chock full of vitamins and minerals and a conveniently large amount of choline, a substance known to protect people from accumulating liver fat and metabolic syndrome.

Liver, such as beef or lamb liver, is loved by few and reviled by many. Nevertheless, it’s another top source of choline as well as folate, 2 micronutrients people have come to lack on diets with lots of sugar and flour.

Liver is also particularly rich in vitamin B12 and retinol, the active form of vitamin A, as well as all the other essential amino acids. It’s also rich in copper and iron. If you’re looking for other sources of potassium than avocados that have about 742 mg of potassium per 100g of  food, then give beef liver a try. 100g of it supplies a respectable 380 mg of potassium.

salmon, meat, chicken, eggs, avocado they are all nutrient dense food to eat on a keto diet

What food is not nutritious?

A food that is not nutritious, or low in nutrient density, would be something like whole-grain bread – representative of flour products more broadly.

It’s total protein content is low at 13% and its protein quality (range of amino acids) is dismal, as you only get 2.5 – 3.7 g of essential amino acids from 500g of bread (or 18 ounces). It’s mineral and vitamin content is so poor in fact that bread is usually fortified (food supplementation) with iron, iodine and vitamin B12 to stop people who eat a lot of it from getting micronutrient deficiencies.

As if this weren’t enough, bread is made more shelf-stable by adding sugar to it. Between the sugar and starchy flour bread wrecks metabolic mayhem via insulin hypersecretion and significant elevations in blood sugars. No wonder we need supplements if our very own food is so nutrient poor it needs supplementing.

Pasta, bread, rice are low nutrient dense food.

What is our dynamic nutrient density score?

In a single scan or search, our app will pull up the food’s nutrient density score. It will help you choose which food is the most nutrient dense for your diet of health goal. You’ll get a breakdown of the maros and micronutrients (which includes vitamins and minerals).

Other apps simply list amounts of vitamins and minerals and take it for granted that your body will get to use all of it. But that isn’t true. Thankfully Nutrita is smarter and adjusts to what your body is likely to get.

For example, it knows that the inactive form of vitamin A you’d get from a carrot, called β-carotene, needs to be converted into the active form called retinol. This conversion isn’t free, it’s a hefty transaction costing you 3.6 to 28 times (!) the amount β-carotene for 1 equivalent of retinol. Nutrita will make sure you know how much of the active form you’re getting and how to get more if needed.

The carrots are high in vitamin A but low in the active form retinol. Whereas meet liver contain high form of retinol

Nutrita also factors the fact that many plants contain compounds called anti-nutrients that resist digestion and stick to minerals like iron or zinc, making less free minerals and vitamins available for you to absorb. How much you absorb and is available in your blood for your cells to use, is called bioavailability. Nutrita takes bioavailability into account as best it can. What this means practically is that you’re mineral and vitamin intake will be adjusted to better estimate the amount of micronutrients you actually get from the food.

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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.