Nutrient density – here’s a term that is taking the food and nutrition scene by storm. However, it isn’t just a trending fad but is deeply rooted in science. Health experts recommend eating a nutrient-dense diet for a wide variety of benefits it offers. But let’s start by understanding nutrient density.
A nutrient-dense diet requires you to choose the foods you consume based on the micronutrients it contains in each calorie. Such a diet does not focus on counting calories or preferring low-fat food or raw foods. Instead, it involves eating a good variety of foods that offer high nutrient density. These include unprocessed, whole foods, and they help you feel satiated for longer while staying healthy.
What Is Nutrient Density?
Nutrient density is the term used to describe the number of beneficial nutrients any food contains, in proportion to its energy or calorie content. By that definition, the most nutrient-dense food would be one that offers a high amount of nutrients for comparatively fewer calories. When you include more nutrient-dense foods in your diet, it helps you increase the amount of nutrition your body gets per calorie consumed.
Most of us immediately think of fruits and vegetables when talking about healthy foods, but your options aren’t as limited as they seem. Several other whole foods such as peas, beans, legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains also provide you with a high number of nutrients, making them extremely beneficial for your health.
The Importance of Consuming Nutrient-Dense Foods
You may be wondering why the need to stress on nutrients. That’s because the food we eat is what our body uses to stay healthy and keep functioning optimally. A healthy diet rich in whole foods should ideally provide our body with a host of essential minerals, vitamins, proteins, and fatty acids, as well as other benefits.
A nutrient-dense diet may also be called an anti-inflammatory diet. Consuming anti-inflammatory foods is critical for avoiding chronic diseases and lowering the risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Dividing your nutrient intake by your calorie intake can take you closer to understanding your overall health.
According to the USDA, three primary factors determine the quality of a person’s diet. These include:
- The number of micronutrients and macronutrients consumed in every calorie.
- Eating an appropriate number of calories while avoiding nutrient deficiencies.
- Avoiding toxic substances such as refined sugar, trans fats, and sodium.
The difference between calories and nutrients can be understood through this simple example. Six hundred calories in the form of french fries from McDonald’s is not the same as 600 calories of kale. Even 600 calories of natural food like brown rice are not as nutrient-dense as the same amount of kale. This shows that different foods have different nutritional qualities and hence offer varying amounts of nutrient density.
Top 30 Most Nutrient-Dense Foods On Earth
If what you’ve just read has intimidated you into questioning all your food choices, don’t worry. To save you further stress, I have compiled a list of the 30 most nutrient-dense foods out there. These are unprocessed foods, free from chemical alterations or synthetic ingredients.
The stars on this list are foods rich in micronutrients like trace minerals, essential vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. They also offer a healthy balance of macronutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, and good fats.
For an ideal diet, it is crucial to focus on wholesome, primarily unprocessed foods with complex chemical structures. Plant-based foods offer phytochemicals and antioxidants that aid the body’s immune system, support detoxification, and boost cellular repair.
Here are 30 plant-based foods that you should include in your diet, based on their nutrient density:
This is an extremely healthy snack, perfect for munching on the go. It is loaded with antioxidants, vitamin E, fiber, and magnesium. Studies show how consumption of almonds can help with weight loss, improved metabolism, and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease .
It is naturally gluten-free and rich in muscle-building protein, as well as several other nutrients. Amaranth is a fantastic source of fiber, calcium, iron, manganese, and selenium. It helps regulate your thyroid and maintains elastin in the skin to keep your skin smooth and supple. You can cook and consume amaranth leaves to include vitamins A, C, and folate in your diet.
The humble artichoke is a rich source of minerals, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants. It also contains a high amount of folate, iron, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. A medium artichoke will provide just 60 calories while offering 4g of protein, which is more than most plant-based foods.
An ideal nutrient-dense food, asparagus is low in calories but features a great nutrient profile. It is rich in essential vitamins and minerals, particularly folate, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, C, E, and K. It is also a good source of fiber and protein.
Aside from being highly popular among millennials, avocado also boasts several nutritional benefits. It is packed with healthy fats and fiber, vitamin C, and potassium, while also being low in carbohydrates. Avocados contain a wide range of nutrients, which includes 20 different minerals and vitamins.
Beets possess several different valuable nutrients, such as vitamins C and B6, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, and manganese. They are also low in fat and calories while being loaded with pigments and inorganic nitrates that offer various health benefits.
- Bell Peppers
Water and carbs form the significant components of bell peppers, but they are also a good fiber source. In terms of nutrient composition, bell peppers are rich in vitamin C and a host of other minerals and vitamins such as vitamins B6, K1, A, and E, along with potassium and folate.
Different kinds of berries are some of the most nutritious fruits in nature. They contain very high amounts of polyphenols – or plant-based antioxidants – that aid in preventing several chronic health conditions. Other nutrients packed in these small fruits include minerals, vitamins C and K, manganese, anthocyanins, and several phytochemicals. Go ahead and fix yourself that blueberry smoothie now!
Aside from being crunchy and tasty, carrots are also highly nutritious. They’re rich in beta carotene, potassium, vitamin K1, fiber, and antioxidants. Carrots are a good source of several beneficial plant compounds such as alpha and beta carotene, lutein, lycopene, polyacetylenes, and anthocyanins.
One of the most popular ‘diet-foods’ out there, celery is also incredibly nutrient-dense. A single stalk will provide you with 12 types of antioxidant nutrients, aside from beta-carotene, flavonoids, and vitamin C. Other nutrients include vitamins A, C, K, and minerals such as folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
- Chia Seeds
Good things come in small packages, remember? Chia seeds are a brilliant example. One of the most nutrient-dense foods on earth, a single ounce comes loaded with 11 grams of fiber along with significant amounts of calcium, manganese, magnesium, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and a variety of micronutrients.
- Cruciferous Vegetables
Here’s a reason to include more cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts to your diet. Cruciferous veggies are low in calories and rich in nutrients like vitamins C, E, K, and folate and fiber. They also contain phytonutrients, which help reduce inflammation. They’re ideal for a weight-loss diet as they keep you satiated for longer.
A fantastic way to add taste to any bland dish, garlic also happens to be surprisingly nutritious. It is rich in vitamins B1, B6, and C and copper, calcium, manganese, potassium, and selenium. Allicin, the active ingredient, has been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol , aiding in a reduced risk of heart disease.
- Green Beans
This kitchen staple ranks high on the list of nutritious foods that you must add to your diet. They have zero cholesterol, are low in sodium, and possess a high fiber content. Besides being heart-healthy, green beans are rich in various nutrients, including vitamins like vitamin C, A, and folate, and minerals such as calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Kale is easily one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables to consume. It is packed with various minerals, vitamins, and fiber, while also being rich in antioxidants and several bioactive compounds. Aside from large amounts of vitamins A, B6, C, and K1, kale also contains potassium, magnesium, copper, calcium, and manganese.
Lentils are a convenient and inexpensive source of a wide array of nutrients. They’re made of more than 25% protein and are a rich source of iron. They are also loaded with B vitamins, zinc, potassium, and magnesium. The high fiber content of lentils helps improve your gut function.
Mushrooms are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They’re also fat and cholesterol-free, with low sodium and calories. The nutrient content of mushrooms includes antioxidants, beta-glucan, B vitamins, copper, and potassium.
Amongst grains, oats rank high in terms of their fat and protein content. They’re a good source of starch and fiber, particularly beta-glucan. This breakfast favorite is loaded with multiple vitamins and minerals like phosphorus, manganese, B vitamins, copper, selenium, iron, zinc., and magnesium. They also contain potent antioxidants called avenanthramides, along with phytic acid and ferulic acid.
A medium-sized onion has just 44 calories but is chock full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. It is incredibly rich in vitamin C, multiple B vitamins, and potassium. They also contain antioxidants and bioactive compounds that aid in lowering heart disease risk factors.
Green peas are an excellent source of antioxidants, protein, and fiber. These nutritious vegetables have a relatively low-calorie content but boast a nutrient profile that covers nearly every vitamin and mineral our body needs.
This fruit boasts a nutrient list containing fiber, protein, vitamins C and K, and minerals like folate and potassium. But it also holds a real wealth of plant compounds with powerful medicinal properties, namely Punicalagins and Punicic acid. These have unique antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Despite their reputation, potatoes are rich in plenty of nutrients. They contain generous amounts of magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, manganese, vitamin C, and multiple types of B vitamins. They are also extraordinarily fulfilling and rich in resistant starch, a fiber-like substance with potent health benefits.
This winter squash flaunts an impressive nutrient profile. It is packed with vitamins A, B2, C, and E and several minerals such as iron, potassium, copper, manganese, and small amounts of magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and folate. It is also rich in orange and yellow pigments, particularly beta-carotene and xanthophyll esters.
This South American whole grain boasts an impressive nutritional profile. It is a good energy source because it has complex carbohydrates. You also get roughly 2.8g of fiber and 4.4g of protein in every 100g serving of cooked quinoa. It is also rich in several B vitamins and minerals like phosphorus and magnesium.
Popeye’s favorite food is loaded with antioxidants and nutrients. Low in calories and having a high water content, spinach is an excellent source of insoluble fiber. It is also rich in vitamins A, C, and K1 and minerals like folic acid, iron, and calcium.
This high-protein seaweed supplement is about 60% protein and also great weight-loss food. At just 43 calories per tablespoon, this blue-green algae provides you with vitamins B1, B2, and B3, as well as copper, iron, and small amounts of potassium, magnesium, and manganese.
- Sweet Potatoes
A great source of nutrients and energy, sweet potatoes contain a high amount of complex carbohydrates. As complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, sweet potatoes keep you feeling full and energized for longer. Other nutrients to gain include vitamins A, B6, and C, and antioxidants like beta carotene.
- Swiss Chard
This dark leafy green vegetable is disarmingly abundant in minerals, vitamins, and potent plant compounds. A small serving of cooked Swiss chard can cover your daily requirements of vitamins A and K, while nearly fulfilling the RDI for vitamin C. It is also a good source of copper, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, sodium, and zinc.
Fresh tomatoes are an excellent source of potassium and vitamin C. They’re also loaded with several nutrients such as folate and vitamin K. Powerful plant compounds in tomatoes include beta carotene, lycopene, chlorogenic acid, and naringenin – all of which possess proven health benefits.
If you like snacking between meals, walnuts are the right choice. Although slightly rich in fats and calories, they are also a good source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Walnuts contain many vitamins and minerals such as copper, folic acid, phosphorus, manganese, and vitamins B6 and E.
The Bottom Line
These foods will help you avoid nutrient deficiencies and benefit you when trying to maintain a healthy weight. Consuming foods high in fiber and dense in nutrients is ideal for weight management because this approach helps you skip unnecessary calories from added sugar and refined oils.
When you make a habit of eating low-calorie foods, it provides your body with the essential minerals and vitamins without extra calories or weight gain. At the same time, it also gives you optimal nutrition and prevents health deficiencies.
Here are some simple tricks to help you add more nutrients to your diet:
- Avoid highly processed foods like instant noodles, processed meats, convenience meals, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
- Choose organic produce to avoid harmful chemicals and prioritize fresh, local foods to boost your diet’s nutrient density.
- Stress more on including as many whole foods as possible as they naturally contain the wealthiest density of complex compounds and nutrients.
- Rather than focusing exclusively on foods high in nutrients, make sure to consume various foods for a balance of healthy fats, fiber, and sufficient calories.
Healthy eating isn’t as tricky as it is sometimes touted to be. Use this article as a guideline to help you make small changes to your lifestyle that will give you long-term rewards in your health.