Lots of people talk about nutrient density, but few people understand what it means, how to quantify it or how to leverage its power to optimise their diet.
This article clarifies several common misconceptions around this critical topic and shows you how to identify the most nutritious foods tailored to your needs and goals.
- What is nutrient density?
- Why is nutrient density important?
- Fat loss
- Will nutrient-dense foods help me to lose weight?
- Which nutrients do I need more of to help me eat less?
- Which nutrients do you need more of?
- Previous versions of nutrient density
- Condition-related to micronutrient deficiencies
- What do each of the nutrients do?
- Can’t I just take a pill?
- Aren’t the nutrient targets just made up?
- Can get have too much of a good thing?
- What about anti-nutrients?
What is nutrient density?
Nutrient density is simply the number of nutrients per calorie in a food.
While calories are not a perfect measure, it is the best we have and allows us to compare the nutrients contained in a food or a group of foods that
When our goal is simply to identify foods that provide more or less of the nutrients we need without having to consume excessive amounts of energy, we don’t need perfect accuracy.
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.
In times gone by, there was no need to worry about nutrient density. Our food contained plenty of the nutrients we needed in the right ratios. Our highly developed appetite (which works with our other senses such as smell, taste, sight/colour, touch/mouthfeel, hearing/crunch) ensured we get the nutrients and energy we need.
However, these days, due to changes in how we produce food more quickly and cheaply, the number of essential nutrients in our food has declined significantly.
While we all need enough nutrients, prioritising nutrient density is even more important when trying to lose weight. Even though you are eating fewer calories, you still require enough nutrients.
Simply trying to eat a lower quantity of nutrient-poor foods will leave you with cravings that typically lead to increased nutrient hunger for the nutrients you need and eventual rebound binges and fat gain.
The best-kept weight-loss secret is simple: If you want to lose fat you need to control your appetite by finding a way to get more nutrients per calorie of food you consume!
This presentation from Mark Schatzker gives an excellent overview of how our food system has changed as we have increased our use of chemical fertilisers and grown more reliant on large-scale farming and food manufacturing!
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.
The table below shows the number of calories of the typical foods you now need to consume to get your recommended intake level of these various nutrients.
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 (but they aren’t really)
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 micronutrients.
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.
Once you learn to fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods, you probably won’t have room or cravings for the ‘bad foods’ that are nutrient-poor and easy to overeat.
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 with all sorts of weird and wonderful cravings to nourish a growing baby.
The Protein Leverage Hypothesis suggests that we keep eating food until we get the protein we need to maintain our muscles.
However, it seems that 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 maximizing their nutrient density 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. In contrast, the foods toward the bottom left will drive hunger and overeating to obtain adequate nutrients. You can drill down into the detail of the satiety vs nutrient density chart on Tableau here.
The chart below shows our analysis of the Optimal Nutrient Intake Score from forty thousand days of food logging data. As people level up their nutrient density (as measured by the Optimal Nutrient Intake Score), they tend to eat less. Once we dial in food quality, food quantity tends to look after itself!
Which nutrients do I need more of to help me eat less?
Through our analysis of food logs from the Nutrient Optimiser, we have gained a fascinating understanding of how different macronutrients and micronutrients influence our appetite and intake of total calories across the day.
In line with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, it seems we tend to eat less overall when protein makes up more of our overall energy intake.
Conversely, the more energy that we get from the combination of non-fibre carbohydrates and fat, the more we tend to eat.
But in a similar sort of way, we also seem to reduce our intake when we get more of certain micronutrients per calorie as shown below.
Which nutrients do you need more of?
People often ask what the most nutrient-dense diet, meals or foods are. But the answer depends on your goals and your current diet.
While we can create nutrient-dense foods and recipes that contain more of the nutrients that most people struggle to get enough of, nutrient density should ideally be tailored to the individual’s diet and goals. For example,
- Someone following a strictly 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 characterized 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.
Previous versions of nutrient density
Joel Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density focused on several 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 considering amino acids or omega 3s Fuhrman’s ANDI system tends to bias toward 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 amounts of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids have heaps of protein, so there is no need for most people to chase extra protein if they are eating foods with adequate of vitamins and minerals.
The chart below shows the nutrients that most people are not meeting the official minimum nutrient targets of.
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 typically get less vitamin K1, folate, calcium, Vitamin A, vitamin C and magnesium while getting plenty of vitamin B12 and amino acids shown toward the bottom of this chart.
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 that are freely available at the Nutrient Optimiser 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 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; it 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); is required for fat synthesis; has antiviral and detoxifying properties.
- Calcium is needed for bone and tooth formation, muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve transmission; it reduces the risk of colon cancer; prevents hypertension.
- Chromium assists with insulin function, increases fertility, is required for carbohydrate/fat metabolism, is essential for fetal growth and development, and helps lower elevated serum cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Copper is necessary 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, is essential for detoxification, and aids in creating strong bones and teeth.
- Choline is vital for lipid and cholesterol transport and metabolism of methyl groups. Choline may improve cognitive function and memory.
- Potassium is the major 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 the depolarisation and repolarisation of nerve and muscle cells.
- Selenium is an antioxidant 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 synthesising fatty acids in myelin and, in conjunction with folate, for DNA synthesis. Adequate vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood function and neurological function.
- Sodium is the primary cation in human extracellular fluid. It is essential for maintaining critical physiological activities such as extracellular fluid volume and cellular membrane potential.
Can’t 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 and takes time to form new habits.
While there may be some benefits 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 attractive, they often don’t provide the same benefit when separated from whole food.
Nutrient-dense whole foods with plenty of 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 nutrients you need from whole foods.
When was the last time you saw someone get healthy by taking a ‘magic pill’ without 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 nutrient 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, and 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. Instead, it simply identifies the foods and meals that contain more of the cluster of ten or so nutrients you are not getting enough of.
But you also need to remember that the Recommended Daily Intake of the various essential nutrients have been established to prevent most people from developing diseases of deficiency. We have analysed more than six hundred thousand days of data from Optimisers to identify the intake of the various nutrients that align with greater satiety. We call these the Optimal Nutrient Intakes.
Once you are able to hit the minimum intakes to prevent deficiency, you can start to look at the Optimal Nutrient Intakes to really optimise your nutrition.
Can get have too much of a good thing?
It’s hard to get too much of any of the micronutrients from whole foods. Your kidneys will filter out excess nutrients.
As you can see from the charts above, we seem to get benefits from consuming nutrients from whole food well above the recommended minimum intake levels.
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.
But it is possible, however 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 and use it as a supplement to make up for the nutrients you cannot yet get from whole food.
You should also be aware that nutrients in whole foods come in the forms and ratios that your body needs and recognises. Many of the nutrients also work synergistically with several other nutrients work in your body.
As you start to dial in your nutrient density, you will quickly find that you no longer need to rely on supplements and you can save your money to invest in quality 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 plant-based foods doesn’t equate to nutrients in the body.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of reliable data to quantify how much of the nutrients are converted, but at the same time, those nutrients that are less bioavailable are generally relatively easy to get in adequate quantities. So uncertainty around bioavailability 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.
Your metabolism is highly complex, and there is still a LOT we don’t understand about how it works. But if you give your body all the nutrients it needs in the form it recognises, there is a good chance it will know what to do with them.
We recommend you prioritise foods that contain more nutrients that align with your goals. Whether you eat non-starchy vegetables or more organ meat doesn’t matter because you will be making a significant improvement compared to a diet of mainly refined seeds and oils.
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 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 significant issue for most people. Although, if you have specific symptoms or digestive problems when you eat certain foods, it may pay to reduce them.