I'm sure you've heard the term "more bang for your buck," and that's how I like to think about nutrient density.
You only eat so much in a day, so choosing foods with high nutritional value will help you hit your nutrition goals while staying in an appropriate energy or calorie balance for your body.
Nutrient-dense foods are high in vitamins and nutrients in relation to their calorie content. These will support your body and mind and leave you with more energy than choosing empty calories found in processed snacks and sugary foods.
Creating a diet that you will stick to can feel challenging if you’ve just started your journey to improving your health.
But an excellent way to start is by jotting down a list of nutrient-dense foods and then trying to add a new variety weekly. Another great way to increase the variety is to eat seasonally. Try finding a local farmers market to grab a few new local and seasonal foods weekly!
When making healthy changes to your diet, there’s a lot to consider, and a balanced, gradual approach should always be top-of-mind as it will be easier to sustain.
What is Nutrient Density?
The nutrient density of a food depends on its ratio of beneficial ingredients to the energy content or calorie amount.
The simplest way to identify nutrient-dense foods is by looking at their nutritional content.
The most nutrient-dense foods will have high levels of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. If the item has high amounts of sodium, sugar, and saturated fats, it will not serve your body in the long run.
Even though foods high in added sugar, saturated, and trans fats may taste delicious, they won’t do as much to support your body’s essential functions and may result in a crash after a short burst of energy.
In general, nutrient-dense foods that should be included in your diet regularly are vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats.
Why is eating nutrient-dense foods important for your health?
Eating a diet that is rich in nutrients supports your body for its daily functioning in addition to supporting your overall health and longevity.
Your calorie needs in a day are limited, so eating foods that are lower in calories, added sugar, saturated and trans fats, and higher in beneficial nutrients like protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals, is an essential part of staying healthy.
What you eat has an impact on how energized you feel day to day, how you recover from physical activity, your cognition, and your mood. In addition, what you eat has a major influence on your risk of developing and managing chronic diseases. If that doesn't motivate you to eat nutrient-dense foods, I'm not sure what will.
How To Make Your Diet More Nutrient Dense: Dietitian's Top 7 Tips
Making your diet more nutrient-dense is easier than it may seem. Although it requires a little bit of thought, planning, and consistency for it to be effective in improving your health. The result is worth it though, with a healthier body fueled by the quality nutrition that it craves.
1. Add more leafy greens
Leafy greens like spinach, collard greens, and kale are packed with minerals, fiber, and vitamins while being low in calories.
They can be used in salads, tossed into pasta dishes, or blended into smoothies if you aren’t a massive fan of the taste. Using greens for the base of your meal, instead of carbohydrates, is a great way to support your overall health by packing in a bunch of nutrients.
2. Eat The Rainbow
Take a look at your plate—in a perfect world, it should hold all the colors of the rainbow. Eating a meal packed with vegetables that are red, green, purple, orange, and yellow will leave you feeling sharp and satisfied.
Now getting the rainbow in at every meal may not be realistic, but it’s a good stretch goal and a reminder to try to eat a variety of colors at each meal and throughout the day.
Colors often reflect the nutrient profiles of foods, and if your meal or snack is solely beige and white, try to add a bit of color, and you’ll be adding nutrients at the same time.
A research review of 86 studies and over 37 million participants showed that health outcomes were improved by including more color pigments in the diet. Health outcomes associated included body weight, lipid profile, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, mortality, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (1).
3. Eat protein with each meal and snack
Protein keeps you feeling fuller for longer while supporting your mood, muscles, immune system, and more.
To get a well-rounded nutrient profile, aim to eat a variety of whole food protein sources, both plant-based and animal proteins, like poultry, nuts, beans, tofu, eggs, meats, lentils, and seafood.
As a rule of thumb, aim to consume 20-30 grams of protein in each meal and 10-20 grams of protein in every snack.
4. Eat more fruits and vegetables
Most fruits and veggies are incredibly dense in micronutrients. Try to include a fruit and/or vegetable at each meal and snack, with a goal of at least 5 servings daily.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is key because they all contain different nutrient profiles. If you find it difficult to fit them into your day, they can be incorporated into smoothies, protein shakes, soups, sauces, dips, or pasta dishes.
5. Opt for whole-grain foods
Whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet and a staple in many cultures. The term whole grain refers to a grain that has all three parts intact, the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
The majority of nutrients are found in the bran, which is stripped away during processing in refined grains and many processed foods, which is why you get more nutrition from eating whole grains.
Nutrient-dense whole grains include whole wheat, oats, buckwheat, bulgur, barley, brown rice, quinoa, and more.
Choosing whole grains instead of refined grains is associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases (2, 3, 4).
6. Create balanced meals
If you look at a traditional bowl of macaroni and cheese, it is not a very balanced meal. Speaking simply, it’s lacking in protein and color (nutrients).
The goal is to have your meals contain all three macronutrients, proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and a variety of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
However, creating a nutrient-dense meal doesn’t mean you need to get rid of what you love. Instead, make a few swaps to add more nutrients. Start by switching the white pasta for whole grain and/or high protein pasta in your macaroni and cheese recipe, and then add a handful of broccoli and chopped chicken. Following a nutrient-dense diet does occasionally require some creativity.
7. Eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods
Here's the thing, there is no one superfood that will cover all of your nutrition needs. However, we're creatures of habit and tend to choose the same foods over and over again.
Try to incorporate a different nutrient-dense food into your diet each week and find new recipes to include different veggies, fruits, whole grains, and proteins.
The variety will also help ensure you’re getting a wide range of vitamins and minerals, helping to prevent any nutritional gaps in your diet.
Nutrient-dense foods are an important part of a healthy diet. When you choose nutrient-dense foods over empty calories, you’ll be increasing the number of vitamins, nutrients, protein, fiber, and good fats that your mind and body need to thrive.
So next time you are at the grocery store, try to fill your cart with nutrient-dense foods, including vegetables, fruits, plant and lean animal proteins, and low-fat dairy products.
If this feels overwhelming, remember that you can still eat foods low in nutrients in moderation. Trying to follow a diet that is too restrictive won’t be enjoyable or sustainable in the long term.