What is nutrient density and why is it important?

There are many ways people think about healthy eating, whether it’s by macronutrient (eg low carb or keto), or by processing (unprocessed whole foods vs processed), or by certain ethics (like avoiding mono-cropped grains or factory farmed animals), etc. Nutrient density is an often overlooked aspect of nutrition, and there are many misconceptions about what foods are actually nutrient dense and which aren’t.

So what is nutrient density and why is it important?

This is essentially the concentration of nutrients per calorie of food and is a way of comparing the nutritional quality of different foods. If you’re eating roughly the same amount of calories per day, the foods you choose can either give you lots of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, etc) or very few. Choosing the most nutrient dense foods ensures your body is getting everything it needs to function optimally, and prevents any deficiencies, while also ensuring you don’t need to overeat calories just to meet your basic requirements. It also reduces the need for expensive supplementation (many of which are not as well absorbed as nutrients in real food).

What are the most nutrient dense foods?

If you use apps such as Cronometer you can compare different foods and the amount and number of nutrients for example in a 100g serving. Many people are surprised to learn that animal foods tend to be more nutrient dense than plant foods, especially organ meats. In fact, I was pleased to discover that some researchers did a study to identify the top food sources of commonly lacking micronutrients. In the results section they write “We find that the top sources of priority micronutrients are organs, small fish, dark green leafy vegetables, bivalves, crustaceans, goat, beef, eggs, milk, canned fish with bones, mutton, and lamb. Cheese, goat milk, and pork are also good sources, and to a lesser extent, yogurt, fresh fish, pulses, teff, and canned fish without bones.” And because visualization can help to really understand it, they include a graph showing the calories and grams serving of foods needed to provide 1/3 of recommended intakes of vitamin A, folate, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc for women of reproductive age:

The most nutrient dense foods are mostly animal foods, apart from leafy greens. To me this is a wonderful guide to the top foods I should be seeking out. What’s notable is that many of the foods at the bottom are the commonest foods in Western diets, but also in countries where nutrient deficiencies are widespread. They offer a lot of calories with little nutrition, contributing to the standard citizen who is “overfed but undernourished”.

To give a better idea or the range of vitamins and minerals in certain foods, I entered 100g servings of various foods into Cronometer (100g is a fair serving size to compare a lot of foods. It’s easy to get 100 calories from, say, beef or rice, but to eat 100 calories worth of broccoli, you’d need to consume about 300g of (raw) broccoli which is about an entire head that you might buy at the supermarket).

Below are the graphs of the nutrients in 100g chicken liver (167 calories) and 100g beef heart (165 calories).

Many people think of liver as “nature’s multivitamin”, because as you can see from the bars above, it is replete with high levels of nutrients. Even muscle meat has a lot of important nutrients in it including highly bioavailable protein, iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins, not to mention compounds that aren’t even listed on Cronometer like choline, creatine, carnosine and taurine.

Below are the graphs for 100g broccoli (34 calories) and for 100g blueberries (57 calories)

Also, below are the graphs for 100g cooked quinoa (120 calories) and 100g raw oats (379 calories)

As you can see, these plant foods are high in nutrients that are lacking in meat, such as vitamin K1 (There are two types of vitamin K; K1 found in green leafy veg, and K2 in fermented foods/animal products), magnesium and manganese. So while the graphs look less impressive, they are still valuable components of a healthy diet. Furthermore, many plant foods contain compounds not classed as vitamins or minerals, such as glucosinolates, flavonoids, polyphenols, antioxidants etc.

The starchy foods at the bottom (quinoa and oats) have less nutrition per calorie, and come with a hefty load of carbohydrates which those in the West arguably eat too much of. What’s more, many grains and legumes contain antinutrients such as phytates that actually inhibit absorption of the minerals in them, so the nutritional graphs aren’t exactly accurate. Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are macronutrients, and I didn’t include the graphs here, as nutrient density refers to micronutrients. However they are important; it is just wise to choose the most nutritious sources of these, such as sweet potatoes, winter squash and fruit for carbohydrates, meat and other animal foods for protein, and grassfed butter, nuts, fish etc for fats.

This is how I choose nourishing foods. Of-course I occasionally eat white rice and gluten free grains (ideally soaked or fermented), but as long as I eat mostly foods like meat, organs, vegetables, fruit and tubers, at least I can be confident I’m meeting my nutrient requirements every day. I truly believe everybody’s health can be improved by focussing on whole, real, nutrient-dense food.


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