Making sure your body has all the nutrition it needs can feel daunting, especially if you have a busy schedule with minimal time to prepare meals.
A practical and uncomplicated way to ensure you're eating foods with all the essential vitamins and minerals is by prioritizing nutrient-dense foods.
Eating nutrient-dense foods can often optimize how your body and mind function. You may not have nutrient deficiencies, but getting suboptimal nutrient levels can still result in unfavorable symptoms that you may or not be paying attention to, such as fatigue, dry skin, hair loss, weak nails, unexplained bruising, and forgetfulness or impaired memory.
Inadequate nutrition can also put you at risk for developing diabetes, some cancers, osteoporosis, depression, heart disease, and more.
Nutrient-dense foods are vital for everyone, regardless of gender, age, weight, or health and fitness goals. The term nutrient-dense is still relatively ambiguous as there is no standardized way to measure nutrient density.
What is Nutrient Density?
In the simplest terms, nutrient density is the amount of nutrients you get for the amount of calories consumed.
With all of the fast food, heavily processed, and convenience options, it is easy to get stuck in the routine of grabbing something quick and ordering takeout for lunch and dinner. But often, these foods contain a lot of empty calories—food high in calories but lacking any nutritional value.
Instead of empty calories, it's best to opt for nutrient-dense foods, which are rich in minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients important for your overall health. These will support your health much better than processed food items with added sugars, sodium, saturated and trans fats.
When you follow a diet filled with nutrient-dense foods, you may notice increased energy and improved brain function and even get sick less. It may also be easier to maintain a healthy body weight and reduce your risk of chronic diseases.
Nutrient Density Score
There is no standardized method of measuring nutrient density, although there are a few methods used to calculate a nutrient density score.
One method is the ANDI, or Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman. This method gives foods a score from 0-1000 based on the number of nutrients divided by the calories it contains.
While this is one method to identify nutrient-dense foods, it will automatically rank foods that contain more calories significantly lower, even if they provide a lot of nutrients, including protein-rich and healthy-fat foods.
This brings about the question, are nutrient density and calorie density mutually exclusive? The short answer is no, they shouldn't be. A food can contain more calories and still be high in nutrients, like nuts, seeds, and salmon. Even foods like lentils and beans will be higher in calories than greens, but they contain more protein which is a vital nutrient. We shouldn't be afraid of calories, after all, we need them to survive, have energy, and so much more.
Another method used to evaluate nutrient density is the Nutrient Rich Foods Index (NRF). This index evaluates 9 nutrients to encourage (protein; fiber; vitamins A, C, and E; calcium; iron; potassium; and magnesium) against 3 to limit (saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium) against the RACC (reference amounts customarily consumed) per 100 calories (2).
Further research, development, validation, and standardization need to be done before you start utilizing a nutrient-density score to plan your diet. However, they can point out nutrient-rich foods that you should include in your diet to support your health.
Nutrient Dense Foods
Thankfully, foods that are dense in nutrients generally aren't overly expensive and taste good. There is no one “superfood” that will change your life or nutrition status. There’s no need to buy expensive supplements when you can get the same, if not better, nutrition from whole foods and digest and absorb it better as well.
Try to include at least one nutrient-dense food in every meal, but that can feel challenging at first.
Until you get into the swing of healthier eating, pick up a few nutrient-dense foods at the grocery store each week and rotate them, so you don't get bored.
Here are 11 Nutrient-Dense Foods to Add to Your Diet:
Few other foods are as delicious, affordable, and nutritious as eggs. Not to mention easy to prepare and versatile.
Eggs also contain protein, iron, vitamin vitamins A, B, D, and choline.
There has been some back and forth by government agencies on whether or not you should include eggs in your diet regularly due to the dietary cholesterol in them. The consensus today is unless you’ve been told otherwise by your medical doctor, eating 1-3 eggs per day can support your health(3).
Research actually supports eating whole eggs (yolk and white) to help balance and improve cholesterol profile (increase HDL and lower HDL) and reduce inflammation (4,5).
Eggs can be eaten hard-boiled for a quick snack, made into an egg salad sandwich, or scrambled for breakfast.
2. Leafy Greens
Most people are aware of the nutritional importance of leafy greens but may avoid them because they don’t like the taste or they're unsure of how to prepare them.
The trick is learning how to include them in your meals if you don't love the taste of them on their own. For example, add a handful of spinach or kale into your smoothie or mix some into your soup or pasta dish, they’ll take on the flavor of the dish.
Massaging your tougher greens with olive oil and a little lemon juice can also soften the texture and flavor.
Leafy greens include spinach, kale, micro greens, collard greens, Swiss chard, arugula, watercress, romaine lettuce, and more.
Leafy greens are a nutrient powerhouse, full of a variety of nutrients like folate, iron, lutein, vitamin K, and beta-carotene.
Berries are loaded with antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients like manganese, vitamin C, copper, folate, and vitamin K.
Not only are they delicious and incredibly easy to incorporate into your meals and snacks, but they can also help lower cholesterol, improve skin health, and reduce inflammation (6,7, 8,9).
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries are among the most popular berries consumed.
Pro tip: To keep your berries fresh for longer, wait to wash them until just before eating them. Or rinse berries with a mixture of one part vinegar with three parts water, dry, and store in a container with a paper towel to absorb moisture.
Whether you prefer it smoked as "lox" on your breakfast bagel or grilled on the barbecue, you'll be reaping the nutritional benefits of this tasty fish.
For example, a 100-gram serving of salmon contains protein, omega-3s for heart health, B vitamins, and minerals like selenium, phosphorus, and magnesium.
One serving of Salmon actually contains 70-80% of your daily needs for selenium (5).
When choosing seafood, look for sustainably caught. Nutritional profile varies slightly between wild and farm-raised salmon, with wild typically having slightly higher amounts of nutrients and slightly lower calories and fat.
Unlike salmon, sardines are a little tougher to incorporate into your meals and more intimidating to a lot of people. However, the tiny canned fish make great salad toppings and is actually a key ingredient in caesar dressing.
Sardines are cost-effective, high in protein, filled with vitamin D, B12, and calcium, and rich in omega-3 fatty acids (14).
Lentils are popular among those who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet as they are packed with plant-based protein, fiber, folate, and potassium (13).
The small legumes also contain polyphenols, plant chemicals with unique health-promoting properties.
Lentils can serve as a meat substitute or in addition to animal protein in shepherd's pie, tacos, burritos, sloppy joes, pasta dishes, soups, and more.
Beans like chickpeas, peas, kidney beans, black beans, soybeans (edamame), pinto beans, and navy beans are also popular protein sources for those who follow a plant-based diet.
Beans are very affordable and filled with dietary fiber, iron, folate, potassium, and magnesium (10, 11,12).
Potatoes get a bad rep because there are a lot of processed foods like chips and fries that are made with potatoes. Frying adds excess calories and saturated and/or trans fats, which is not the best for our health or to include often in your regular eating pattern.
However, in their natural form, when baked, boiled, or prepared in the air fryer, potatoes contain a healthy amount of carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin B6, potassium, manganese, and even vitamin C. Different types of potatoes will have slightly different nutrition compositions.
9. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is truly one of the most ideal snacks. Greek yogurt is macro balanced snack all on its own, with protein, carbohydrates, and fat (if you don’t get nonfat).
One cup of plain greek yogurt contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, and an impressive amount of protein (15). Choose a greek yogurt that is limited in added sugar.
One of my favorite ways to enjoy greek yogurt is plain, nonfat greek yogurt topped with fruit (usually berries and/or banana) and a drizzle of nut butter sprinkled with cinnamon!
10. Cruciferous veggies
The most popular cruciferous veggies include cabbage, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts.
Most cruciferous vegetables are rich in nutrients like folate and vitamin K. They are also packed with fiber, carotenoids like lutein, and vitamins C and E (16, 17, 18).
Cruciferous vegetables that are dark green (like kale, bok choy, and broccoli), contain phytonutrients that may help reduce inflammation and reduce cancer risk.
Unlike a lot of the foods mentioned, nuts are both nutrient-dense and calorie-dense. They are filled with nutrients like healthy fats, protein, vitamin E, selenium, and magnesium.
Because nuts are predominately fats, they have a smaller portion size and make a great snack for you at home, the office, and on the go.
Looking for more nutrient-dense foods? Check out this list of 20 nutrient-dense foods.
Little changes over time make a big difference. Instead of trying to continuously remove foods from your diet, start looking for what you can add.
Make a conscious effort to create a high-nutrient-density diet by adding more nutrient-dense foods to your diet and see how it impacts your energy, mood, and overall health.