back to basics | nutrient density
What is nutrient density? It’s a measurement of how nourishing a food is (or isn’t).
March is National Nutrition Month, and so our Back to Basics theme continues with a deeper dive into secondary foods nutrition—the value of the (whole) foods you put in your mouth. If you want to catch up on the series, you can read the previous posts here:
- Nutrition 101: what are the basic categories of nutrients?
- Macronutrients cocktail: what do the macronutrients do in and for our bodies?
As a quick review, we know that the macronutrients (proteins, fats, and carbohydrates) are required in relatively large amounts because they provide us with energy in the form of calories. Proteins and carbs have 4 calories per gram while fat clocks in at more than twice that, 9 calories per gram.
The micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and “other” nutrients (fiber and water) have the important task of facilitating the macronutrients’ functions. We need micronutrients in amounts that are disproportionately small and yet outsized in their impact. Think of micronutrients as catalysts for the complex processes that extract energy from the macronutrients and use it for growth, maintenance, and reproduction of our bodies.
While macro- and micronutrients are found in most whole foods, the highest concentrations of proteins and fats are found in animal products while the highest concentrations of carbohydrates and micronutrients are found in plant foods.
How to figure out which foods are highest in nutrition?
Look for nutrient density, which is a measure of how many nutrients (and more specifically micronutrients) there are per calorie in a food. The higher the ratio of micronutrients to calories, the more nutrient dense the food is.
If you’ve never heard of this concept, prepare to be astonished.
Consider two food items:
- A 20-oz loaf of that squishy white sandwich bread that makes the. best. pb+j and grilled cheese sandwiches. (Come on, if I can admit that, so can you.) We’re not going to name it here for fear of causing an Oprah-and-the-hamburger-that-shall-remain-unnamed lawsuit. Yes, I may be deluded enough to think that my audience is as vast as hers.
- An 20-oz head of broccoli (about 2.5 c chopped)
A 20-oz loaf of that bread has approximately 1,400 calories. The same 20 oz of broccoli has approximately 78 calories.
Now, if you’re just after calories, clearly the loaf of bread is the better choice—slightly more than one slice of a 20-slice loaf has as many as the full 2.5 c of broccoli!
But if we toss nutrient density into the mix, the scales tip precipitously in the opposite direction:
The 20 oz of broccoli has a whole lot of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. (See the nutrition facts label and don’t forget to multiply each entry by 2.5.)
The entire loaf of bread has zero fiber, and a whole lot of zeroes where fiber, vitamins, and minerals are concerned. (See the nutrition facts label and don’t forget to multiply each entry by 20.)
If you can math, you’ll remember that zero divided by another number (like 1,400) is zero. So that nutrient density ratio is as low as it can get for the bread and much, much higher for the broccoli.
the squish test
My favorite way to demonstrate nutrient density comes from my time teaching nutrition to elementary school students, and it’s been dubbed “the squish test.” (Full disclosure: If you’re averse to wasting food, skip this section.)
- Take that loaf of bread and squish it between your hands until you can’t compact it any more. You’ll have a ball about the size of a softball. (Which is why those pieces of bread wadded up were so great in pea-shooters.)
- Now take that head of broccoli and squish it between your hands until you can’t make it any smaller. You’ll have … pretty much the same size head of broccoli.
Now what’s larger (i.e., more nutritious)? Yup, the broccoli.
Obviously, this won’t work for all foods in competition—and to a child’s mind, where bigger = better, it’s a great visual!
Keep nutrient density in mind as I give you some quick guidelines on where to find better choices for nutrients.
Ounce for ounce, the highest concentration of protein is found in:
- Meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, eggs
- Legumes (including soy and other beans, peas, lentils, etc.)
- Nuts + seeds
If you eat animal products and your budget allows, splurge on pastured meat/poultry/dairy/eggs and wild-caught, cold-water fish; if it doesn’t allow, consider eating more legumes, nuts, and seeds and buying the more expensive pastured/wild-caught animal proteins fewer times per week.
The best plant proteins—legumes and nuts/seeds—are organic. And if the expense is too much, remember that eating conventionally-grown plant proteins is better than avoiding them!
And don’t forget: you’re getting a lot more nutrient density from the plant proteins. If you’re not ill, pregnant, breastfeeding, recovering from injury/surgery, or a serious athlete or older adult, you can get enough protein from plants and, if you like, an occasional animal product.
Land animal products, including dairy, and nuts/seeds are also very high in fats, so you’re losing some nutrient density there. Again, more loss in animal products than plants. (More on this in fats section.)
The most fat-rich foods include:
- Certain kinds of meat, poultry, seafood, dairy
- Nuts + seeds
- Avocados + coconuts
The more beneficial fats are found in plants; the less beneficial in animal products with the exception of wild-caught, cold-water fish such as salmon.
Again, plants for the win: the nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconuts are much higher in nutrient density.
The most carb-rich foods are grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. These also happen to be among the most nutrient-dense foods: they are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and water.
Again, opt for organic if it’s within reach, but don’t back away from conventional just because it’s not organic!
The best grain choices are whole ones, so skip the instant oatmeal and opt for steel-cut. Choose brown rice over white. Ignore the white bread and reach for the 100% whole grain option. Whole grain pasta is a better choice than white, and if you can’t handle it, then learn to eat something else and/or limit pasta to a moderate portion once a week.
Legumes are just amazing because they are almost always in whole form, even when processed into things like hummus, refried beans, and black bean dip.
As for fruits and veggies, eat them as whole as possible, too. That means not peeling your potatoes and other root veggies and eating the skins on winter squashes as well as fruits. (And you can be regular for the rest of your life—without prune juice and psyllium husks!)
summing it up more practically
Want to make better food choices?
For a few meals, take a picture of your plate from above and consider:
- Does the animal content take up 1/4 to 1/2 of it? If yes, good work; if it’s more than 1/2 animal, try reducing the animal products by a little bit and filling the hole you’ve made with more whole grains, legumes, or veggies.
- Are the grain, legume, and vegetable products on your plate whole? If no, aim to make one better choice next time.
- Is there a rainbow of plants on your plate? Aim for at least two if not three colors of veggies, making sure that at least one is dark green.
- Is anything on your plate covered in melted cheese or drowning in a fatty sauce or butter? Next time, opt for a little less, then a little less, then a little less. Learn how to use a squeeze of lemon and/or some fresh herbs for flavor. See whether a sprinkle of parmesan can replace the inch-thick layer of melted cheese.
- Is anything on your plate deep fried? Try to limit that to an occasional treat—say one to two times per month.
make the connection
Read back over these recommendations, and you’ll see one fact pop up over and over: plant foods are infinitely more nutrient dense than animal foods. That doesn’t mean you have to be vegetarian, vegan, or 100% plant-based; it simply means you want to have more plants on your plate than animal products! No sense getting all those calories without also getting all the nutrients that will help your body unlock the power of those calories.
Please: for the love of all things holy, if you’re far off the mark in your food choices now, don’t try to make a whole lot of changes at once! Every small better choice is a step in the right direction, and every subsequent one will add to the benefits of the previous one.
If you’re interested in learning more about nutrition, check out these workshop replays in my shop:
- Let’s go grocery shopping! (A virtual tour of the grocery store)
- Label reading 101 (How to understand food labels without being a total nutrition nerd)
Thank you Liza, for this much needed refresher! And thank you for the work you are doing in the world!
Thank you, Jeri! You are one of my inspirations. I’d love to hear how you manage your nutrition “on the road!”