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20 Nutrient Dense Foods to Get the Most of Your Calories

Nutrient Dense Foods List to Get the Most of Your Calories

Socially, we tend to use the terms “healthy” or “nutritious” loosely as it relates to our food recommendations. But just because some food marketers or internet guru says something is good for you, is it?

Instead of leaving this up to subjective debate, we’ve got a better idea - rank your foods based on how much nutrition potential they contain.

Nutrient density is one of the most trusted ways to analyze a food’s potential and it is used by many dietitians and credentialed experts.

Here’s how to rank your foods, along with our top picks for the most nutrient-dense foods to include in your diet.

What Are Nutrient Dense Foods?

Nutrient dense foods are options that provide high amounts of beneficial nutrition per calorie content.

This can be in the form of vitamins and minerals (micronutrients), phytochemicals (antioxidants), functional nutrition effects, or other health-promoting components.

While it is entirely possible for higher-calorie foods to be nutrient dense, most nutrient dense foods tend to be low in calories and rich in vitamins and minerals.

Unlike macros, micronutrients do not provide calories to the diet, so a particular item can contain very high amounts without impacting its overall energy density. Compared to nutritious foods that are rich in protein or healthy fats, that add to the total energy count.

The opposite of nutrient dense foods would be empty calories - foods that provide little to no nutritional value but plenty of calories. Empty calories often come from high sugar, high fat, and heavily processed foods.

Why Should You Eat More Nutrient Dense Foods?

The nutritional content of your diet is important for your daily function and long-term health - we quite literally need these nutrients to survive and thrive.

But nutrition also plays a role in how we feel each day and how successful we are in our daily lives by having an impact on hunger, energy levels, cravings, mood, and overall wellbeing.

Additionally, nutrient dense foods are a dieter's dream - providing valuable nutrition for few calories, helping you tackle multiple diet goals in one shot. It’s why these foods are commonly praised as some of the best weight loss foods you can eat.

Since you are what you eat, you might as well try and eat the best!

How to Measure Nutrient Density 

In some ways, nutrient density helps us determine how nutritious a food is. But it can be a bit confusing since there is no official scale or rating to go on, and determining the nutritional density of foods can be left up to discretion. In other words, it is highly subjective.

First, take a look at the nutrition facts label for any of your food choices and start paying attention to calories per serving size and how much of the daily value (DV) each serving provides for key vitamins and minerals.

This will tell you how dense its nutrient content is right of the bat. Also, consider its macro balance.

If your food item doesn't have a nutrition facts label, try tracking your intake in a nutrition tracking app that hosts a searchable food database. This is also a great way to track your overall micronutrient and macronutrient intake of your diet. 

Besides the nutrition facts label, the FDA also has some limited guidance for us, but we still have a long way to go.

According to FDA labeling law, a food must contain at least 10% of the daily value (DV) of a specific nutrient (such as vitamin D) per serving to be considered a “good source” and 20% or more to be classified as an “excellent source”.

This criterion is limited to only FDA-defined nutrients (micronutrients and macronutrients) and does not consider healthy fats, functional food properties, or bioactive chemicals like phytochemicals.

The FDA definition for "healthy" is probably one of the closest things we have to a standardized definition of nutritious, but it is still quite deficient in seeing the bigger picture and currently under review for a revamp!

The legacy definition uses the following criteria:

  • Contains 10% or more of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber
  • Low in fat and saturated fat
  • Less than 480mg of sodium per serving
  • Less than 60mg of cholesterol per serving

Another approach to calculating nutritional density is to consider the overall nutritional value of food as it relates to its overall calorie count and then use this as a tool to compare one food to another.

Ultimately when determining how “healthy” or nutritious an option is, you’ll need to consider multiple factors including its calorie content, nutrition content, ingredients, level of processing, and potential health benefits.

Generally speaking, we can say that most whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins are nutrient dense. But there are also some packaged foods that could fit the bill.

The 20 Most Nutrient Dense Foods You Can Eat

We took a look at popular healthy foods and ranked them in terms of their nutritional density - considering their vitamin and mineral count along with other favorable factors.

Based on our analysis, here are the top nutrient dense foods to reach for (in no particular order):

1. Spinach

All dark leafy greens are nutrient powerhouses and incredibly low in calories - roughly 10 to 20 calories per cup! Besides the high amounts of vitamins and minerals, it's also rich in beneficial plant compounds, called phytochemicals and bioactive substances that are associated with a wide range of health benefits (1).

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Vitamin C
  • Iron

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Manganese
  • Magnesium
  • Folate
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin K

Other notable leafy greens include arugula, kale, swiss chard, mustard greens, seaweed, and collard greens!

2. Blueberries

Blueberries and many other dark berries are a notable source of beneficial plant-based phytochemicals that are thought to provide protective benefits (2,3,4).

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Manganese

3. Broccoli

This cruciferous, non-starchy veggie contains small amounts of protein (3g per cup) and is a plant-based superfood (5). Additionally, some research suggests that diets rich in cruciferous veggies, like bok choy, broccoli, and brussels sprouts are associated with reduced cancer risks (6,7).

It’s also a good source of (10% or more):

  • Folate
  • Fiber
  • Vitamin A

And contains high amounts of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K

4. Bok Choy

As low calorie as lettuce, bok choy is an excellent non-starchy, cruciferous veggie to eat more of. A single cup is less than 10 calories. 

It is a good source of (10% or more):

  • Folate 
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin K

5. Brussels Sprouts

Brussels sprouts are one of the heartiest low-calorie veggies. They taste a bit starchy than they actually are and only pack about 40 calories per cup. 

It is a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Folate
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin B6
  • Potassium

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin C

6. Pumpkin

This seasonal gourd is meant for so much more than pumpkin spaced everything. As a naturally orange veggie, it contains significant amounts of carotenoids that support good health by protecting against the development of many chronic diseases (8).

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • Vitamin E

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin A

Other notable orange veggies include carrots, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. 

7. Oysters

While these mollusks are often looked at as a delicacy or special treat, they are actually one of the healthiest foods you can eat.

Two oysters provide only 40 calories and a whole host of nutritional benefits - including  270% of your daily copper, 300% of vitamin B12 needs, and 300% of the daily value (DV) for zinc. They also contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Choline
  • Iron
  • Selenium

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Copper
  • Vitamin B12
  • Zinc

8. Salmon

This popular fatty fish is also a source of hard to get omega-3 fatty acids that support brain and heart health, and weight management (9).

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Potassium
  • Vitamin A

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Vitamin D
  • Selenium
  • Vitamin B12
  • Iodine

9. Sardines

Because you consume the whole fish (skin and bones included), sardines can also be one of the few natural sources of vitamin D in the diet. In fact, a serving of sardines can provide about 70% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin D.  Like other fish and seafood, they are also a source of omega-3 fats.

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Calcium

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Selenium
  • Iodine

10. Mango

Mangos are thought of as a functional food in some Asian and African cultures and the deep, rich color of this popular tropical fruit is due to its robust phytochemical profile (10,11). They are also a nutritional powerhouse. 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Vitamin B6

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C

Other notable fruits with high amounts of nutrition and unique functional food properties include pineapple, papaya, and kiwi. 

11. Asparagus

Asparagus is a non starchy veggie that contains very few calories - only 17 calories per 4 spears. Plus, it is a source of inulin, a natural prebiotic that feeds healthy bacteria in your gut (12). Spinach, blueberries, chia seeds, and oatmeal are also prebiotic foods. 

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Folate
  • Vitamin A

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin K

12. Bell Peppers

Bell peppers are also very low calorie. The more ripe, colorful red and orange peppers also contain beneficial plant based compounds (phytonutrients) like carotenoids (13).

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Vitamin A

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Vitamin C

13. Greek Yogurt

This high protein, low fat dairy option is a natural source of probiotics making it a functional food as well. Some research suggests it has potential benefits for weight loss, digestion, and bone health due to its nutrient content breakdown (14,15,16,17).

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin B12

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Riboflavin
  • Phosphorus

14. Black Beans

Beans and other legumes are some of the most nutritiously packed plant based proteins you can choose. Plus, they are a source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and many beneficial phytonutrients. 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Potassium
  • Manganese
  • Magnesium
  • Thiamine

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Fiber
  • Phosphorus

Other legumes to load up on include chickpeas, green peas, lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, and navy beans. 

15. Edamame

Edamame or soybeans are a type of legume that provides a complete plant based protein. And even though soy can feel controversial at times, science continues to suggest that there are likely heart and gut health benefits from including soy in your diet (18,19,20,21).

It is a good source of (10% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Iron
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Zinc

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Copper

16. Eggs

Eggs are one of the most popular and versatile foods, used in everything from breakfasts to desserts. They also top the list for quality protein sources - a single egg clocks in around 70 calories and 7g of protein. 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iodine
  • Riboflavin
  • Vitamin D

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Protein
  • Selenium
  • Choline
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin A

17. Avocado

This nutritious plant based fat is fairly high o the nutrient density scale, even though it also packs quite a few calories per serving.  A 1/2 cup of avocado has about 120 calories total, which is slightly higher than other fruits that clock in around 60 calories per 1/2 cup. However, avocado contains a lot of fiber and monounsaturated fats which provide meaningful health benefits. 

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin B6

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Fiber

18. Oats

Oats are one of the most popular whole grains and for good reason. They are rich in nutrients and associated with positive heart health, digestive health, and weight loss benefits (22,23,24).

Start your day with fiber, iron, protein, vitamin B6, folate, and thiamine for only 150 calories (in a ½ standard cup serving). 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Vitamin B6
  • Folate
  • Thiamine

Other notable whole grains to eat more of include quinoa, buckwheat, bulgur, barley, and brown rice.

19. Chia Seeds

Like other nuts and seeds, chia seeds are a source of healthy plant based fat and can pack quite a few calories in a small portion - containing 140 calories per ounce.

Chia seeds are also incredibly high in fiber and have a unique property that allows them to expand up to 12 times their size when in liquid, creating a natural gel texture that can help fill you up and support weight loss. This effect may also help lower cholesterol and promote better blood sugar control (25). 

They are a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Protein

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Magnesium
  • Manganese

20. Whole Wheat Pasta

The nutrient profile of whole-grain pasta might surprise you. This commonly demonized carb is actually a very simply made food with only one ingredient - whole wheat flour. Plus, it is incredibly high in protein, fiber, and essential minerals. In fact, a serving of whole wheat pasta contains as much protein as many protein pastas on the market. 

It’s a good source of (10% or more):

  • Iron
  • Magnesium

And an excellent source of (20% or more):

  • Fiber
  • Protein
  • Thiamin
  • Niacin
  • Riboflavin
  • Folate
  • Phosphorus
  • Zinc
  • Manganese

How to Boost Your Nutrition Intake

The truth is, no single food will make or break your diet; your focus should be on your total diet not a single meal or food choice.

Including more nutritious, whole foods as a part of a healthy balanced lifestyle can make a big difference if you stay consistent with it. 

To get the most out of your eating, include plenty of fruits and veggies, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains.

Always check the nutrition facts label for any packaged foods. And of course, find the foods that you enjoy eating most - because the best meal plan for you is the one you will stick with. 


Want more help dialing in your nutrition and supporting your goals? Get macro balanced, healthy meals cooked and delivered fresh right to your door. Our team of experts will take care of all the hard stuff, so you can make eating better easier than ever. 

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