Nutrient Density 101
Lots of people talk about nutrient density, but few know what it means or how to quantify it.
We often define our diets in terms of vegan, keto, paleo, plant based, LCHF, pescitarian, carnivore or whatever, but rarely do we focus on ensuring that our food actually contains the nutrients we need to thrive and feel satisfied and energised.
This article clarifies some common misconceptions about this important topic and details how you can identify the most nutritious foods tailored to your needs.
- What is nutrient density?
- Why is nutrient density important?
- Will eating nutrient dense foods help me lose weight?
- What do vitamins and minerals do?
- Can I just take a pill?
- Which nutrients do you need more of?
- Aren’t the micro-nutrient recommendations just made up?
- What about anti-nutrients?
- Doesn’t the carnivore diet break all the rules?
- Which foods are the most nutrient dense?
What is nutrient density?
Nutrient density is simply the number of nutrients per calorie.
You can think of it in terms of getting the nutrients you need each day without having to consume too much food.
Why is nutrient density important?
Essential micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids) are critical to the biochemical processes that power your mitochondria and drive all the functions in your body.
Prioritising foods with a higher nutrient density will ensure you get enough vitamins, minerals and fatty acids from the food you eat.
In times gone by, there was no need to worry about nutrient density. The food we ate contained the nutrients we needed in the right ratios and adequate quantities.
We have a highly developed appetite which, along with our senses (smell, taste, sight/colour, touch/mouthfeel, hearing/crunch), ensures we get the nutrients and energy we need.
However, these days, due to changes in the way we produce food more quickly and cheaply, the number of essential nutrients in our food has declined significantly.
According to data from the USDA Economic Research Service, the amount of sodium in the US food system has decreased since the mid-sixties.
Magnesium has also decreased substantially in parallel with the increase in the use of fertilisers and large-scale agriculture.
Potassium has also dropped by around 25% as our farmlands become more depleted.
Vitamin A has dropped about 30% since the introduction of the Dietary Goals for Americans in 1977 which, rather than focusing on the nutrients in food, encouraged people to reduce their saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. It just so happens that the foods that contain more saturated fat and cholesterol also contain more vitamin A.
Vitamin B12 (which is mainly found in animal-based foods) has also decreased since the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were introduced in 1977.
The table below shows the number of calories you need to reach your recommended intake of these key nutrients if you do not pay attention to nutrient density.
|micronutrient||calories to meet target|
Today, more and more of the foods we consume are a mix of cheap vegetable oils and refined starch with added sugars, flavours and colours to make them look and taste nutritious.
In 2010, 62% of the energy consumed by Americans came from added fats and oils (23%), flours and cereals (23%) and added sugars (15%). While cheap to produce, these foods tend to be inferior sources of nutrients.
While most nutritional advice today is focused on what you should avoid (e.g. too much fat, carbs, protein, saturated fat, sugar etc), focusing on nutrient dense foods ensures you get what you need from food.
Then, once you fill your plate with nutrient-dense food, you probably won’t have room or cravings for the ‘bad foods’ that are nutrient poor and easy to overeat.
If you’re interested in determining which foods contain more of these harder to find nutrients see these lists at Nutrient Optimiser:
Will nutrient dense foods help me to lose weight?
Your appetite does a pretty good job of seeking out the nutrients we need to thrive. We like a varied diet, we get bored with the same foods, and we often crave different foods at different times to give us the nutrients we need depending on the circumstances, for example:
- more protein after a workout,
- chocolate around “that time of the month” for women, or
- a pregnant woman who has weird and wonderful cravings.
The Protein Leverage Hypothesis suggests that we keep eating food until we get the protein we need to maintain our muscles.
However, it seems a similar thing occurs with all micronutrients. The studies that have been done suggest that a nutrient dense diet causes people to eat less and reduce their sensation of hunger.
Prioritising nutrient dense foods will help you reduce your cravings and switch off your appetite once you get enough (but not too much) energy.
People who focus on maximising their nutrient density using the Nutrient Optimiser also find that they are full with fewer calories.
Nutrient dense foods tend to contain plenty of protein and fibre and have less fat+starch, so they are typically more satiating and harder to overeat.
The chart below of nutrient density vs satiety score shows that nutrient-dense foods are generally satiating.
The foods toward the top right of this chart will provide you with plenty of nutrients and help you manage your appetite, while the foods toward the bottom left will drive hunger and overeating and provide a lot of nutrients.
[You can drill down into the detail of the satiety vs nutrient density chart on Tableau here]
Which nutrients do you need more of?
Nutrient density should ideally be tailored to the individual to provide more of the nutrients that they are not currently getting enough of.
Someone following a strict plant-based diet may struggle to get enough B12, omega 3 and some amino acids but may be getting plenty of potassium and magnesium.
However, most people who eat some animal-based foods are getting plenty of B12 and protein and need to focus on minerals like potassium, magnesium, choline and phosphorus that are harder to get enough of.
We have characterised the typical nutrient profile of different dietary approaches to help you identify the nutrients you probably need more of. However, for more accuracy, the Nutrient Optimiser also allows you to upload your food log (from Cronometer) to identify foods and meals that will balance your micronutrient profile by filling in your current nutrient gaps.
Joel Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density focused on a number of esoteric nutrients (e.g. lutein, zeaxanthin, phytosterols, glucosinolates, angiogenesis inhibitors, organosulfides, resveratrol and ORAC score) that aren’t quantified for all foods and there is little agreement on how much we need of them. However, without any consideration of amino acids or omega 3s Fuhrman’s ANDI system tends to bias towards plant-based foods.
Meanwhile, Matt Lalonde’s version of nutrient density focused on all of the essential micronutrients, including amino acids. But, with all twelve essential amino acids included, Lalonde’s nutrient density system swings to the other extreme with meat-heavy foods at the top that are VERY high protein (approx 70%).
Unfortunately, prioritising all 42 essential micronutrients tends to dilute the focus on the nutrients we need more of.
Foods with adequate vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids also tend have heaps of protein, so there is no need for most people to chase extra protein if they are focusing on vitamins and minerals.
The chart below shows the nutrients that most people are not meeting the official targets for.
However, we all have different eating patterns. If you want to really optimise your diet, the nutrients you need to prioritise will depend on your current dietary pattern.
People following a low carb diet are often lower in vitamin K1, folate, calcium, Vitamin A, vitamin C and magnesium, while they will be getting plenty of vitamin B12 and amino acids.
Meanwhile, vegans typically need to boost B12, omega 3s, vitamin D and choline.
However, if we focus on the harder to find nutrients, we get a much more complete micronutrient profile.
Condition-related to micronutrient deficiencies
Rather than comparing your nutrient intake against the nutrient targets, the Nutrient Optimiser can also consider your symptoms and prioritise the nutrients that are typically deficient when these conditions are present.
The images below show the Spectracell Nutrient Wheels showing the nutrients associated with various common conditions. We have developed optimal foods to boost the nutrients that are associated with a range of conditions here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to diabetes here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to low testosterone here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to autism here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to depression here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to excess estrogen here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to fatigue here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to female fertility here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to hypothyroidism here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to inflammation here.
See the list of foods that contain more of the nutrients related to insomnia here.
What do each of the nutrients do?
While the functions and interactions of the numerous micronutrients in our body are complex and we are only just coming to understand them, a few highlights are noted below.
- Vitamin C protects from cardiovascular diseases, cancers, joint diseases,
cataracts, and the common cold; aids in collagen and elastin synthesis, both necessary elements in the bone matrix, skin, tooth dentin, blood vessels, and tendons. Protects against oxygen-based damage to cells (free radicals); required for fat synthesis; has antiviral and detoxifying properties. Helps to heal wounds.
- Calcium is required for bone and tooth formation, muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve transmission; reduces the risk of colon cancer; prevents hypertension.
- Chromium assists with insulin function, increases fertility, is required for carbohydrate/fat metabolism, essential for fetal growth/development, helps lower elevated serum cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Copper is required for bone formation, energy production, hair and skin colouring, and taste sensitivity; involved in the healing process; aids in iron transport; helps metabolise several fatty acids.
- Magnesium is involved in 300 essential metabolic reactions; necessary for muscle activity and nerve impulses; regulates temperature and blood pressure; essential for detoxification; aids in creating strong bones and teeth.
- Choline is essential for lipid and cholesterol transport and metabolism of methyl groups. Choline may improve cognitive function and memory.
- Potassium is the principal cation of intracellular fluid and an almost constant component of lean body tissues. The movement of potassium out of cells and sodium into cells changes the electrical potential during depolarisation and re-polarisation of nerve and muscle cells.
- Selenium is an antioxidant and in redox reactions and thyroid metabolism.
- Phosphorous is the second-most abundant inorganic element in the body. Phosphorus as phosphate is a significant buffer and helps to protect blood systemic acid/base balance.
- Vitamin B12 is required for the synthesis of fatty acids in myelin and, in conjunction with folate, for DNA synthesis. Adequate intake of vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood function and neurological function.
- Sodium is the primary cation in human extracellular fluid. It has an essential role in the maintenance of critical physiological activities such as extracellular fluid volume and cellular membrane potential.
Can I just take a pill?
People like to sell you expensive supplements and pills. However, progressively refining your diet to build in nutrient-dense foods and meals is harder. It takes time to form new habits.
While there may be some benefit from vitamin pills and food fortification, supplements are often not in the form the body needs or in the synergistic ratios found in whole foods.
Chances are that you’re not just missing one nutrient but rather a suite of beneficial compounds that we get from the foods we eat.
While supplements seem like an attractive option, they often don’t provide the same benefit when separated from the whole food.
Nutrient-dense whole foods that contain plenty of the essential nutrients likely also contain other beneficial compounds that we don’t fully understand yet.
The Nutrient Optimiser will review your current diet to recommend supplements that you can use while you improve your diet. However, the long-term goal is always to get the nutrient you need from whole foods.
When was the last time you saw someone actually get healthy by taking a ‘magic pill’ without actually changing their diet and exercise?
Aren’t the nutrient targets just made up?
Nutrition science is a relatively young and quickly evolving field. We are still learning about how much of each of the nutrients we need and how they interact.
While most of the nutrient targets are based on robust deficiency testing (e.g. potassium, magnesium, calcium, selenium, choline, omega 3, vitamin C, vitamin D), some are merely based on the average intake levels of healthy populations (e.g. vitamin E, manganese and vitamin B5).
While your nutrient fingerprint is unique to you, most people tend to have lower levels of the nutrients that there is actually deficiency testing for, while we tend to be getting plenty of the nutrients that we’re not so sure about.
The Nutrient Optimiser doesn’t rely on the Recommended Daily Intakes being perfect, but instead identifies the foods and meals that contain more of the cluster of ten or so nutrients you are not getting enough of.
Can I get too much of a good thing?
It’s hard to get too much of any of the micronutrients from whole foods. Your kidney will filter out the excess.
There are some cases of arctic explorers consuming too much polar bear liver and feeling ill from hypervitaminosis A. But most people aren’t eating excessive amounts of liver.
It is possible to overdo your supplements. In the first instance, excess supplements can give you diarrhoea as your body sheds them from your system. However, there are many instances where excessive levels of one nutrient can affect the absorption of other nutrients and can lead to severe issues.
While a multivitamin probably won’t hurt you, you should ideally understand why you are taking them and use it as a supplement to make up for the nutrients you cannot yet get from whole food.
While plant-based foods often contain more nutrients per calorie, the nutrients in animal foods tend to be more ‘bioavailable’, which means they are in a form that can easily be used in the body.
Animal-based forms of vitamin A, iron and omega 3 fatty acids are already in the form used by the body without needing to be converted, whereas plant-based foods contain nutrient precursors, meaning that the nutrients need to be converted before being used by the body.
There are some losses in the conversion of nutrients. Some people are better than others at the conversion, so the number of nutrients in the plant-based foods don’t equate to nutrients in the body.
There is unfortunately not a lot of reliable data to quantify how much of the nutrients are converted, but at the same time, those nutrient with poorer bio-availability are generally relatively easy to get in adequate quantities. So uncertainty around bio-availability doesn’t stop us from using the data we do have to analyse the nutrients in your diet.
While it would be great to have accurate data to quantify losses due to bioavailability from plant-based foods vs animal-based foods, it doesn’t have a significant consequence if you are focusing on a range of nutrient-dense foods.
What about anti-nutrients?
Plant-based foods like grains and legumes contain ‘anti-nutrients’ such as lectins, phytic acids, goitrogens, oxalates and tannins that affect the absorption of nutrients such as iron, magnesium and potassium.
Lectins can be an issue, particularly for people who have a history of digestive problems. So grain-based foods are not only relatively nutrient poor, but they also inhibit the absorption of other essential nutrients.
There are some ‘anti-nutrients’ in vegetables (e.g. sulforaphane) however many people see these as beneficial because they provide a beneficial hormetic stress that makes your system strong (like the way resistance training builds strength).
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods eliminates most anti-nutrients and the remaining ones in vegetables don’t appear to be a major issue for most people.
Does the carnivore diet break the rules?
The carnivore diet has benefited a lot of people and has seen a growth in popularity recently.
It seems to be particularly helpful for people with autoimmune and/or digestive problems. Many people swear by a diet of mainly beef and water which does a great job of eliminating bioavailability issues and antinutrients.
The chart below shows nutrient density vs satiety score. The most nutrient dense satiating foods are non-starchy vegetables in the top right corner while the least nutritious and least satiating foods are the grain-based products in the bottom left.
[Drill down into the detail in Tableau here.]
While I’m an advocate of some vegetables for most people, the reality is that they only make up 5% of the American diet (or just 3.5% once you remove potato chips). So I don’t think we can say that vegetables are the primary issue affecting the health for most people.
This next chart shows the nutrient density vs satiety with the plant-based foods removed. While we eliminate the most nutrient dense foods (which few people are actually eating), ‘going carnivore’ also removes the worst foods from the bottom left (which make up the vast majority of our diet).
[Drill down into the detail in Tableau here.]
So I think there’s a good chance that the primary reason that the carnivorous diet works for so many people is that it eliminates the most hyperpalatable nutrient-poor foods (rather than necessarily the removal of all plant-based foods).
Nutrient density is still relevant to a carnivorous diet. The chart below shows the nutrient fingerprint for Shawn Baker’ typical diet which has lower levels of nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, K1, folate, calcium, omega 3, and B5.
However, we can still get a substantial amount of nutrients from a carnivorous diet if we prioritise the harder to find nutrients as shown below. Organ meats, eggs and seafood can provide a lot of the harder to find nutrients in a highly bioavailable form.
While some nutrients can be harder to find in a carnivorous diet, it may not be a big big deal given:
- Vitamin K2 in animal-based foods can be converted to Vitamin K1,
- Vitamin E is required to reduce inflammation from omega 6 vegetable oils a carnivorous diet eliminates, and
- Vitamin C requirements reduce somewhat if we are consuming less glucose.
While you may be able to get the nutrient you need on a carnivorous diet, it may also be wise to prioritise nutrient dense foods.
What are the most nutrient dense foods?
If you are looking for fat loss, then it can be useful to look at the foods that provide the highest satiety and nutrient density at the same time.
You can drill down to see the various foods that rank well using the Tableau charts listed below:
For a full list of nutrient-dense foods and meals tailored to your goals, we’d also love you to check out the Nutrient Optimiser free report.