Cheap Nutrient Dense Foods on a Budget… Optimised for YOUR Goal

With both a viral pandemic and an international financial crisis unfolding, identifying nutrient-dense foods to support healthy immune function with limited funds is a hot topic.  

While we received lots of interest and positive feedback on our recent article looking at cost-effective nutrient-dense foods, several people asked, “what about keto/low carb?”, “what about fat loss?”, “what about…”.

So I thought it might be helpful to look at how we can identify cost-effective foods that align with different goals.

If you want to skip the details, you can scroll to the end to download the free budget food lists optimised for different goals.  

Cost vs maximum nutrient density

As a starting point, the chart below shows cost vs nutrient density.  As a general rule, foods that are more nutritious tend to be more expensive.  But if funds are tight, you can get a better nutritional bang for your buck by focusing on foods towards the top by keeping to the left. 

Some quick tips for interpreting the charts:

  • Foods towards the top are more nutritious.  
  • Foods towards the left are cheaper.
  • Foods towards the right are more expensive (on a calorie for calorie basis).  For example, it would cost you more than $100 per day to live on 2000 calories of fresh blueberries or asparagus.  However, it might only cost you $1 per day to live on vegetable oil, sugar and oatmeal.  
  • Foods towards the bottom left of the chart (e.g. fats, oils, flour and sugar) are cheap but are nutritionally very poor.  While we don’t eat these foods by themselves, they often end up as ingredients for high profit margin processed foods.  
  • The foods towards the bottom right are not a good investment in terms of either nutrient density or cost.  

If you want to dive in to look at all the popular foods used by Optimisers, you can check out the Tableau chart here (you’ll need to be on a computer with a screen not a phone for this, sorry).  You can ‘mouseover’ the various foods to see all the details that we can’t show on one chart.  

If you’re super eager and want to check out ALL the data for all the foods that we have collected price and nutrient data you can check it out here.   

What is nutrient density?

Nutrient density is simply the amount of nutrients per calorie of the foods you eat.   

The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrients (as a proportion of the Optimal Nutrient Intakes) in the top 10% of the foods in the USDA food database.   Optimal Nutrient Score is based on the area to the left of the 100% line that is filled.  

For comparison, the nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient fingerprint of the least nutritious 1000 foods in the USDA foods database.  There is a massive contrast in the nutrients provided by the most and least nutritious foods! 

If all you ate was sugar, oil and flour (i.e. the basis of most of our modern processed foods), not only would you be risking nutrient deficiencies, but your body would be craving more food to get the nutrients it required.  You would end up eating a LOT more calories as your body went in search of the nutrients you need.

The good news is that, while it can be more expensive to eat well,  we can still identify the foods that provide adequate nutrients without breaking the bank.  If you’re willing to put in some effort into cooking at home rather than buying pre-made or processed food there’s a pretty good chance you’ll come out ahead both financially and healthwise.  

Where did the cost data come from?

The cost of food initially came from the CNPP Food Prices Database.  However, where available, I have updated this using prices from and for most of the popular foods to make sure they were up to date.  

But what about keto or low carb?

If you enjoy a low carb or keto diet (or are keeping an eye on your blood sugar) the good news is that higher fat foods can be reasonably cost-effective.  We can combine our nutrient-density score with insulin load as shown in the chart below.  

Foods towards the top of this chart should be your go-to foods to maximise nutrient density on a low/carb or keto diet.  These foods have a lower insulin load while also emphasising nutrient density.  If you are keeping an eye on cost, you can stay towards the left of the chart.  

The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrients of the highest-ranking 10% low carb budget nutrient-dense foods.  They are not quite as nutrient-dense as the highest-ranking foods, but they still have a very respectable nutrient profile.  

Again, if you want to dive into the foods that are most popular with Optimisers, check out this chart in Tableau or this chart for details of all the foods in the USDA food database.  

Budget fat loss foods 

While nutrient-dense foods are already pretty satiating, we can still ramp up the satiety factor a little more to focus more.  These high satiety foods have a higher protein:energy ratio and will make you feel full with fewer calories.  It will be very hard to overeat these foods.  

  • Again, the foods towards the top will be better if your goal is to lose fat without risking nutrient deficiencies.  
  • If funds are tight, you should stick with foods further towards the left of the chart.

The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows that these high satiety foods have a nutrient score in between the most nutritious foods and the low carb foods.   

Click here to dive into the Tableau chart for the foods that have been popular with Optimisers or here for all the data from the USDA database.

How Can I Calculate My Nutrient Intake?

If you’re interested in checking if you’re getting just enough of all the essential nutrients, you can check your nutrient profile using our Free 7-Day Nutrient Clarity Challenge

After a week of tracking your current diet in CronometerNutrient Optimiser will give you a prioritised list of foods and NutriBooster recipes that will help you plug your current nutritional gaps.

Level Up Your Nutrient Density

To help you level up your nutrient density, we’ve prepared a Nutritional Optimisation Starter Pack to ensure you are getting plenty of all the essential nutrients from the food you eat every day.    

The free starter pack includes:

  • Maximum Nutrient Density Food List
  • Sample Maximum Nutrient Density Recipe Book
  • Sample Maximum Nutrient Density Meal Plan.

To get started today, all you have to do is join our new Optimising Nutrition Group here

Once you join, you will find the Nutritional Optimisation starter pack in the discovery section here.