Nutrient-dense foods are those that contain high concentrations of nutrients but are also relatively low in calories. These foods give you more nutrients per calorie compared to others, which may have more calories or fewer essential vitamins and minerals.
What Is Nutrient Density and Why Is It Important?
The most basic understanding you will need regarding nutrient-dense foods is they are all natural and whole foods. Humans have yet to replicate the nutrient density that mother nature provides, so the most nutrient-dense foods in the world are all whole, natural foods.
All foods contain different levels of macronutrients and micronutrients.
[thrive_icon_box color=’green’ style=’2′ image=’https://practicallongevity.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/logo-healthy-life.jpg’]Eating nutrient-dense foods can help you achieve better health, lose weight, and lower some risk factors for chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.[/thrive_icon_box]
Macronutrients for humans means all the necessary components of food we need for survival, like carbohydrates, fat, and proteins. (Source)
Micronutrients include all the required vitamins and minerals our bodies need to perform regular functions. We get all our micro- and macronutrients from the foods we eat, and when we eat foods that contain little micro-nutrients and only large amounts of macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates, we are not able to support all our body’s needs. (Source)
What Are the Benefits of Eating Nutrient Dense Foods?
Consider not only your caloric intake but also your consumption of the essential nutrients your body needs for optimal health. Not all calories are created alike.
Eating whole foods is the best way to get all the nutrients you need, as opposed to supplements, synthetic vitamins, and processed foods. (Source)
The nutrient-density of unprocessed, whole foods is far superior to anything processed or altered. By consuming a variety of whole, plant-based foods, you will get all the electrolytes, trace minerals, and vitamins you need to support your body’s systems naturally.
These foods also tend to be lower in calories than prepared and highly processed versions that contain chemicals, human-made ingredients, and synthetic nutrients.
[thrive_icon_box color=’green’ style=’2′ image=’https://practicallongevity.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/logo-healthy-life.jpg’]While oatmeal is rich in fiber, it has less nutrient density than leafy greens, which are also high in vitamins and minerals. However, we need all types of foods, including foods like oatmeal and spinach, to have a balanced, healthy diet.[/thrive_icon_box]
While there are approximately 3,000 edible plant foods that have comprised the human diet over the course of history, just four of these comprise over half of the calories consumed in the world. Six out of every ten calories come from rice, soy, corn, and wheat around the world. It is even more unfortunate that these foods offer little in the way of micronutrients.
When considering nutrient density, it is important to remember that not all healthy, whole foods are created alike either. While it is evident that 200 calories of high-fat pizza are very different than 200 calories of spinach. It is also true that 200 calories of spinach are not the same as 200 calories of oatmeal.
16 Most Nutrient-Dense Foods
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Because you can only eat so much food in a single day, it is crucial that you select foods that are going to give you the most nutrition for the fewest calories. You get to choose which calories you consume each day, and when you select those that are low in nutrients, you are cheating your body of essential components it needs.
Eating foods with a high density of nutrients and a wide variety of these essential vitamins and minerals will ensure your long-term health and wellness.
The most nutrient-dense foods in the world include the following:
- Fatty fish [wild salmon and sardines]
- Dark, leafy greens [collards, kale, and dandelion]
- Exotic berries [Acai, Goji, Camu Camu]
- Greens [spinach, watercress, and arugula]
- Cruciferous vegetables [ broccoli & cauliflower]
- Blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries
- Beef and chicken livers
- Cabbage & Beets
- Broccoli rabe
- Red peppers
- Garlic & Carrots
Other foods high in nutrients include bone broth, grass-fed beef, green beans, egg yolks, pumpkin, lentils, artichokes, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, seeds like pumpkin, sunflower, chia and flax, and raw cheeses.
When you have all these foods to choose from, it seems silly to opt for the same few, less nutritious choices that make up the staple of many diets.
So, which nutrient-dense foods are best, and why? Below, we outline the benefits of 16 of our favorite nutrient-dense foods, including all the health benefits these foods can offer to your diet.
Why is Kale a Superfood?
There is a reason this dark, leafy green regularly tops the list of superfoods. Kale is packed with antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins, making it one of the most nutrient-dense foods out there.
When you eat kale, you’ll get plenty of vitamins C, A, and K. You’ll also get Vitamin B6, manganese, copper, magnesium, calcium, and potassium.
Each 50-calorie serving also contains three grams of protein and two grams of fiber. The nutrients in kale are easier for your body to absorb than those found in other greens, like spinach, too. Foods rich in antioxidants, like kale, boost your immune system and help you fight infection and disease. (Source)
Oily Fish: The Ultimate Superfood
All fatty fish contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for your heart health and brain function. Salmon and other fatty fish like mackerel and sardines are high in this critical, natural fat. Omega-3s are essential for lowering cholesterol, reducing blood pressure, preventing mood disorders, and supporting neural function.
In addition to beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, you’ll also enjoy other benefits from salmon. This fish contains protein, magnesium, selenium, B-vitamins, and potassium. Because salmon is relatively low in calories and also is easy to prepare simply, it is an excellent choice for your eating plan. Consuming wild-caught salmon and other fatty fishes at least once a week will provide you with the needed omega-3s you need to be healthy.
Sardines are another excellent choice in this category. Sardines are tiny fish, and you can eat them whole. This means you are enjoying the nutritional benefits of the entire fish, including the organs. Sardines contain nearly every nutrient your body needs, which makes them close to perfect food, nutritionally speaking. Like salmon, they also provide essential omega-3s. (Source)
A new study in the journal Circulation reveals:“We conclude that one to two seafood meals per week be included to reduce the risk of congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, and sudden cardiac death, especially when seafood replaces the intake of less healthy foods.” (Source)
The vegetation that lives in the sea, including seaweed, is extremely nutritious. These plant species contain high concentrations of iron, magnesium, calcium, and manganese. They also contain antioxidant compounds which can lower inflammation and promote immune system function.
Seaweed and other sea vegetables also contain iodine, which your body needs to maintain proper thyroid health. Without iodine, you can develop thyroid disorders, such as goiters. Kelp, nori, and other sea vegetation are excellent sources of iodine and other minerals. (Source)
At the beginning of human history, man consumed mainly the organs of animals, as opposed to the muscle tissue we think of as “meat” today. Organs are much more nutritionally dense than muscles, and early man got many of his essential nutrients from this animal source. Liver is the most nutrient-dense of all the organs because its function is to store nutrients for use by the rest of the body.
Liver contains high concentrations of Vitamins B12, B6, B5, B2, and A. It’s also very high in folate, niacin, copper, iron, selenium, zinc, and phosphorous. You’ll also get lots of protein when you eat liver. Cow and chicken livers are the best choices among the animal livers. (Source)
Just like sea vegetables, shellfish are another excellent, nutrient-dense food source. Depending on the type of shellfish you consume, you can enjoy high amounts of Vitamin B12, Vitamin C, Vitamin C, selenium, zinc, potassium, and iron.
Clams are a particularly good source of B12. Oysters are an excellent source of zinc and copper. Zinc is crucial to optimal health, needed to support a healthy immune system. Without zinc, your body cannot produce proteins, including DNA. Eating shellfish is a great way to get plenty of it. Shellfish are more nutritionally dense than other fish found in the ocean. They are a great source of B12 and zinc. You should consume them at least once per week. (Source)
Not only does garlic add massive amounts of flavor to just about any dish, but it is also very dense in nutrients. Garlic is loaded with Vitamins B1, B6, and C, as well as minerals such as manganese, selenium, copper, potassium, and calcium. Perhaps the most essential compound found in garlic, though, is allicin.
This anti-inflammatory has been shown to lower blood pressure and help control high cholesterol, including LDL, or bad cholesterol. These, combined with other benefits, means garlic should be included in your diet if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease.
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Garlic has cancer-fighting properties, as well. Those who regularly consumer this plant has lower rates of common types of cancers, including stomach cancer and colon cancer. Garlic helps fight bacterial and fungal infections, too, making it excellent for your immunity. This tasty ingredient comes with so many health benefits and very few calories, so be sure you use plenty of your dishes. (Source)
Blueberries are among the most nutritionally-dense fruits widely available today. While vegetables have more minerals and vitamins per calorie, blueberries contain significant amounts of antioxidants, which makes them important for your health.
The antioxidant compounds in blueberries, including various phytonutrients, can protect your immune system but also your brain because they can cross the blood-brain barrier. Blueberries have been shown to improve memory in older adults and lower blood pressure in obese adults. (Source)
Egg York: Health Risk and Nutrition Benefits
While eggs have a bad reputation because they contain a high amount of cholesterol, eating eggs in moderation is actually healthy and can provide you with much-needed nutrients. Whole eggs, and especially egg yolks, are rich in lutein and other antioxidants that help protect your eyes and vision from diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts.
Eggs contain choline, which supports nerve function, brain development, muscle movement, and liver function. Choline also helps your metabolism and energy level.Eggs contain protein and some healthy fats, making them an excellent choice for lots of different diets. They are inexpensive and easy to prepare, as well. Eggs can be used in a variety of dishes, making them perfect for lots of different cuisines.
Choose pasture-raised eggs from organically raised hens, which will naturally contain healthier fats and none of the unwanted chemicals, and antibiotics and growth hormones fed to traditionally farmed animals. (Source)
Chocolate that contains high amounts of cocoa is included among the list of nutrient-dense foods for their antioxidant content. Dark chocolate with higher than 70% cocoa content is rich in iron, magnesium, manganese, copper, and even fiber. Dark chocolate’s antioxidant power rivals that of Acai and blueberries, which are among the most potent sources of antioxidants available. (Source)
The antioxidants found in dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure, reduce LDL cholesterol, improve brain function, and enhance blood flow. Eating moderate amounts of this treat can lower your risk of heart disease significantly. While 70% cocoa is the minimum to enjoy dark chocolate’s benefits, 85% or more cocoa is even better.
Cauliflower and other cruciferous vegetables are excellent sources of many essential nutrients. Cauliflower contains high concentrations of Vitamin C and Vitamin K. It is also an excellent source of folate, Vitamin B12, choline, and dietary fiber.
Cauliflower also contains smaller but important amounts of magnesium, niacin, protein, thiamine, and riboflavin.
What Are the Health Benefits of Tomatoes?
Rich in lycopene and other essential nutrients, tomatoes are a very nutrient-dense food. Tomatoes are a good source of folic acid, copper, lutein, potassium, beta-carotene, and biotin. Biotin is an essential nutrient because your body requires it for healthy metabolism and cell function.
Low in calories but high in flavor, tomatoes are an excellent source of Vitamins A, K, and C, as well. If you cannot get tomatoes in season, opt for canned varieties with no additional ingredients, including sodium.
What Benefits Does Brussel Sprouts Have?
Like their cousins, broccoli and cauliflower, Brussels sprouts are a great source of many essential nutrients. They are an excellent source of Vitamin C, which helps in the formation of collagen, But, Brussels sprouts’ best benefit is their concentration of Vitamin K. Our bodies need Vitamin K to absorb calcium. Brussels sprouts are also rich in potassium, folate, manganese, and Vitamins A and B6.
Sweet potatoes give you an abundance of Vitamins A, C, and B6, potassium and manganese. Sweet potatoes also contain small amounts of folate, thiamine, Vitamin E, and zinc. Sweet potatoes’ best benefit though is their high concentration of beta-carotene.
This essential nutrient helps prevent cancer, fights heart disease, slows the aging process, and protects against respiratory illnesses such as asthma. This superfood is not only delicious, but it’s also highly nutritious.(Source)
Are Soy Beans Good for You?
While soybeans are known for their high protein content, they are also excellent sources of many other nutrients, including copper, phosphorous, iron, and manganese.
Soybeans contain healthy amounts of potassium, magnesium, riboflavin, and Vitamin K, as well. Enjoy soybeans as edamame, or in soy products such as tofu or tempeh. (Source)
Is Avocado a Superfood?
Avocados are some of the most nutritionally-dense fruits available, besides the berries formally mentioned. Rich in Vitamins K, C, B5, B6, and E as well as folate, potassium, copper, and niacin, avocados make an excellent addition to many dishes.
Perhaps their most important health benefit, though, is their supply of healthy fats. While they are higher in calories than other nutrient-dense foods, these healthy fats are necessary and important for your health.
Are Mushrooms Considered a Superfood?
Mushrooms, especially varieties like shiitake, are nutrient-dense options, too. Mushrooms provide minerals like copper, selenium, manganese, zinc, and riboflavin, as well as Vitamin B5.
Shiitake also offer phosphorous potassium, magnesium, and other trace minerals. Mushrooms are also known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
Other Considerations Besides Nutrient-Density
Nutrient density is always an important consideration with selecting the foods you choose to fuel your body, but other factors are also critical. There is no perfect food source and limiting yourself to a narrow range of foods can lead to many problems, including lack of energy, altered moods, and other issues.
Most nutrient-dense foods are low in fat, which means you will be missing out regularly on the healthy fats you need for many essential body functions. For anyone with an active lifestyle, nutrient-dense foods are high in fiber but low in calories, so you may not have sufficient energy to fuel your activities.
We are still learning much about nutritional science and the impact of specific micro-nutrients and phytonutrients on our health. It is only through eating a wide variety of foods that we can hope to get not only all the essential nutrients we currently understand but also those which we know little about yet. Eating a wide array of real foods made from whole plants and animals, versus processed versions, will provide you with a balanced approach to your nutrition and health. (Source)
Any narrow focus on one nutrient or food source will not give you the well-rounded diet you need for optimal health. By emphasizing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, but including smaller amounts of other types of foods in your diet, you can be assured you are getting all you need.
What Nutrients Do I Need?
We in the US currently use the Recommended Daily Intake, or RDI, to help us understand how many of each macro- and micro-nutrient we need to eat in a given day.
The RDIs tell us what our daily intake of each nutrient should be to meet nearly all of our requirements as healthy people. These can vary by individual because of medical conditions, activity level, medication interactions, and other factors, so talk with your doctor if you are unclear about your nutritional intake.
RDIs were updated in 2016 to reflect the latest in understanding about nutrition and health.
- 78 grams of total fat, with 20 grams coming from saturated fatty acids
- 300 milligrams of cholesterol
- 50 grams of protein
- 275 grams of total carbohydrates
- 28 grams of dietary fiber
- No more than 50 grams of added sugar
- No more than 2300 milligrams of sodium
- 4700 milligrams of potassium
Nutritional Needs: Women vs. Men
For other micronutrients, the RDIs differ for men and women. The following are the recommended daily intakes for each nutrient. [Note: this information is not applicable to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.] (Source)
⦁ Vitamin A– 900 micrograms for men, 700 micrograms for women
⦁ Vitamin C– 90 milligram for men, 75 milligrams for women
⦁ Vitamin D– 15 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Vitamin E– 15 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Vitamin K– 120 micrograms for men, 90 micrograms for women
⦁ Thiamine (Vitamin B1)- 1.2 milligrams for men, 1.1 milligrams for women
⦁ Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)- 1.3 milligrams for men, 1.1 milligrams for women
⦁ Niacin (Vitamin B3)- 16 milligrams for men, 14 milligrams for women
⦁ Vitamin B6– 1.3 milligrams for men, 1.3 milligrams for women
⦁ Folate – 400 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Vitamin B12– 2.4 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Vitamin B5– 5 milligrams for men and women
⦁ Biotin– 30 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Choline– 550 milligrams for men, 425 milligrams for women
⦁ Calcium– 1300 milligrams for men and women
⦁ Chromium– 35 micrograms for men, 25 micrograms for women
⦁ Copper– 900 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Fluoride- 4 milligrams for men, 3 milligrams for women
⦁ Iodine– 150 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Iron– 8 milligrams for men, 18 milligrams for women
⦁ Magnesium– 400 milligrams for men, 310 milligrams for women
⦁ Manganese– 2.3 milligrams for men, 1.8 milligrams for women
⦁ Molybdenum– 45 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Phosphorus– 700 milligrams for men and women
⦁ Selenium– 55 micrograms for men and women
⦁ Zinc– 11 milligrams for men, 8 milligrams for women.
Is My Food As Nutrient-Dense As I Think?
Even when you are doing your best to eat a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables every day, you still may not be getting all the nutrients you need. Several factors are affecting the nutrient density of even our top-rated foods. Soil depletion, nutrient degradation, and industrial farming are all causing our food to have fewer nutrients than they did just a few decades ago. (Source)
Recent research indicates that the nutritional value of nearly all commercially sold produce has decreased significantly in the last generation. As an example, looking at a 50-year period of American history, the average potato purchased in a supermarket now has considerably smaller amounts of Vitamins A and C as well as iron, plus lower levels of riboflavin, calcium, and thiamine. This phenomenon is affecting nearly all produce sold in the US and other industrialized nations.
Much of this change is caused by the switch in farming practices over the past four to five decades. While current produce is valued for its appearance, longevity, its ability to be transported, and its resistance to pests and diseases, this leaves nutritional value low on the list of priorities. This shift affects everything from the types of seeds planted to the chemicals used to the methods of soil enrichment.
Topsoil is a resource that is slow to renew, and since all plants need topsoil to grow, protecting and caring for this resource is vital. Topsoil contains all the nutrients that any plant can have, and when it is depleted of minerals and vitamins, our plants now have less of these, too. Current agricultural practices encourage erosion, which means we are losing valuable topsoil faster than it can be replaced, as well.
Enjoying Nutrient-Dense Foods
There are steps you can take to ensure you are getting the most nutrients from your produce. The first is to purchase from local farmers as much as possible. Most small farmers use different practices than industrial farms, which means they protect their soil and rotate crops to encourage mineral development.
Buying local means you are eating what is seasonal and fresh as well as what grows well in your climate. These plants will be heartier and will have traveled less distance, which means they are likely to be closer to the date they were picked.
Whenever you can, buy organically grown produce, as this will have fewer chemicals involved in its production, which means the soil is being protected for future food growth. Buying heirloom varieties of various plants is also an excellent strategy.
While this produce may not be as attractive as the identical rows in your local supermarket or big-box store, they will have more nutrients than their conventional cousins.
Eating fresh fruits, vegetables, and other whole and natural foods packed with nutrients will help you maintain your health and wellbeing.
Focusing your diet on these nutrient-dense foods, while also including other sources of healthy fats, lean proteins, high-fiber carbohydrates, and other healthy choices can provide your body with the energy and compounds it needs to stay well regulated.
Remember to focus on variety and not to become too focused on any one type of nutrient, instead opting for many different types of foods.
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