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  • Writer's pictureAntonella Volpicelli

Food nutrient density

In this blog post, nutrition student and blogger, Antonella Volpicelli, discusses the importance of nutrient density in our diets. Nutrient density is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and achieving optimal nutrition. To learn more about nutrient density, check out bitewell.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods may sound intimidating, but determining which foods are nutrient-dense is easier than you may think. Nutrient-dense foods tend to be whole, unprocessed foods that provide more fiber, vitamins, and beneficial minerals per calorie. Adopting a nutrient-dense eating pattern is associated with reduced inflammation, better weight management, and overall improved health outcomes.

a nutrient dense eating pattern packed with a variety of fruits such as bananas, and peaches, healthy protein, whole grains, such as oatmeal and quinoa, and healthy fats

Why is nutrient density important?

First, you may be asking, what is nutrient density?

Nutrient density is the amount of beneficial nutrients packed into a food in proportion to that food’s calories or weight. A nutrient-dense food may also be called nutrient rich. Nutrient-dense foods tend to have fewer calories and more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

But, why is nutrient density important?

The reality is that it all comes down to the fact that food = fuel -- it’s as simple as that. This concept of “food nutrient density” shows that it may be more beneficial to your health to focus on the quality of foods rather than their calories. Nutrient density dismisses calorie tracking and introduces a concept of calorie quality. By focusing on how you are fueling your body rather than how much you are fueling your body, you could see robust health benefits, from overall body health to improved mental health.

Think of this: Your body is like a car that needs fuel, right? Your car runs out of gas. When you get to the pump, you can choose to top off your tank with regular gas or premium gas. Either way, you need to add 20 gallons of gasoline to your fuel tank. But regularly choosing premium gas can improve engine performance and output.*

Fueling your body with nutrient-dense foods is like choosing premium gas. While you may not sacrifice the volume of food you eat, your food choices are likely to be of higher quality and result in positive benefits for your health. This is why disease and chronic nutrient deficiencies tend to be less common when focusing on good quality foods with high nutrient density.

*Analogy for illustrative purposes only. Do not use as car advice.


Nutrient density formula

Nutrient density is calculated as a simple formula. Nutrient density equals the value of beneficial nutrients packed into each calorie. You can also determine nutrient density by dividing nutrients by a food’s weight or by the value of detrimental nutrients.

Nutrient density by Calories:

Nutrient density = (amount of nutrients per serving) / (number of calories per serving)

Nutrient density by weight:

Nutrient density = (amount of nutrients per serving) / (number of grams per serving)

Let’s walk through an example. Let's calculate the nutrient density of calcium in a glass of milk. One cup (244 g) of 2% milk has 122 calories and 293 mg of calcium. This means 2% milk has a calcium density of 2.4. In comparison, one cup of whole milk has more calories and slightly less calcium per serving. Whole milk has a calcium density of 1.9. Therefore, 2% milk is more nutrient-dense than whole milk when comparing calcium.

Nutrient-dense foods tend to be less processed and closer to their whole foods form. Some naturally nutrient-dense foods include leafy greens, berries, nuts, and seeds.

The nutrient density formula may also come in handy when deciding the healthier of two similar products, such as the most fiber-dense option between whole grain bread or multigrain bread.


What is the difference between energy density and nutrient density?

Of course, there are going to be more aspects to food than just food nutrient density. As mentioned before, the higher the nutrient density, the higher the number of calories obtained. But this does not apply to every case - what about high-energy-dense foods?

High energy-dense foods are going to be the opposite of high nutrient-density foods, for example, there are foods high in energy (aka. kcal or calories) but provide small to even, in some cases, no nutritional value. Some of the foods that would fit in the “high energy-dense” category include highly processed, fried, and high in added sugars foods, such as french fries, glazed donuts, milkshakes, pizza, and sodas.

When comparing with nutrient-dense foods, there is a trend that can be noted in terms of the quality of the food. As mentioned before, nutrient-dense foods will include more unprocessed and whole foods, while energy-dense foods tend to be highly processed.

A good way to remember this is that food nutrient density is focusing on the overall quality of the fuel you are fueling your body with, and on the other hand, high energy-dense foods are going to be the focusing more on the overall caloric quantity of the fuel you are putting in your body.

Does this mean that all high-energy-density foods must be avoided?

No, there is a lot more than saying a forever goodbye to certain foods that may not fit in a “super healthy category” - think of another concept, practicing the “all foods fit” in a balanced way will not only make this process of choosing what to eat and of having a positive relationship with food much easier, but it will also increase the amount of self-esteem people may feel towards their own bodies.


Which food has the highest fiber density?

Dietary fiber is important as it helps keep regular bowel movements, lower blood cholesterol levels, and balance blood sugars. In addition to this, research has shown that regular fiber intake can lead to lower cardiovascular disease risk and better colonic gut health.

Unfortunately, according to a USDA survey, Americans are consuming around 16 grams of fiber a day, which is not enough to meet our daily needs. The recommended daily fiber intake is 38 grams/day for men and 25 grams/day for women. Most of us need to add more fiber and fiber-dense foods to our diets.

While legumes, non-starchy vegetables, and whole grains can be good sources of fiber, the following foods have the highest fiber density (aka. grams of fiber per 100 grams).

Foods with the highest fiber density:

  • Split peas: 16.3 g of fiber per 100 g

  • Lentils: 7.9 g of fiber per 100 g

  • Black beans: 7.5 g of fiber per 100 g

  • Lima beans: 7.3 g of fiber per 100 g

  • Artichokes: 5.4 g of fiber per 100 g


What is the highest-density protein food?

Protein is one of the three main macronutrients needed for daily life activities, including the building, maintenance, and growth of body tissue and muscles. Learn more about protein here.

Protein needs depend on various factors such as age, health status, body weight, and physical activity. For example, for a healthy adult, 0.8 grams of protein is recommended per kilogram of body weight (0.8 g/kg of body weight). Protein needs increase when the body is stressed, either purposefully through intense physical training or accidentally through sickness. Sick and highly active individuals require around 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The good news is that Americans tend to meet their daily protein needs with diet.

Nonetheless, for vegan and vegetarian people, meeting protein needs may be a bit harder. Protein is most commonly found (and in higher amounts) in animal protein. Additionally, animal protein is absorbed more efficiently than plant protein. This is why vegans and vegetarians who cut out most or all animal products have to work harder to meet their daily protein needs.

Without a doubt, protein is very important and should be part of your everyday intake. These are some food sources of high protein density.

Foods with the highest protein density:

  • Spirulina: 57.5 g of protein per 100 g

  • Parmesan cheese: 41.6 g of protein per 100 g

  • Tuna: 29.9 g of protein per 100 g

  • Chicken breast: 24.7 g of protein per 100 g

  • Lentils: 9 g of protein per 100 g

Looking at this list you may be convinced it’s worth it to trade in chicken breast for the edible algae, spirulina, to meet your protein goals. However, with nutrient density, it’s important to note the realistic serving sizes of foods.

For example, when comparing 100 grams of chicken breast (equals 24.7 grams of protein) with 100 grams of spirulina (equals 57.5 grams of protein), you may assume that spirulina is a better high-protein option. However, imagine consuming 1 whole cup (or 100 grams) of algae in a single sitting.

blue-green spirulina algae
a small dish of spirulina, blue-green algae

On the other hand, you could easily consume a 100-gram serving of chicken breast, equivalent to a 3.5-ounce medium-sized breast, in a single sitting.

While spirulina can be added to smoothies or sprinkled on pasta to pack some extra plant-based protein, animal meats such as tuna and chicken breast are still your best bet for easily meeting your daily protein needs. Keeping in mind that portion sizes impact the effectiveness of nutrient density is key to understanding which foods work best for you and your diet!

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