This article is part of the 14-Day Healthy Kickstart Challenge and will introduce you to the concept of nutrient density in foods and how to choose the most nutritious ones for your meals.
What Is Nutrient-Density In Foods?
Technically, nutrient density is like a per capita measurement. It’s about looking at the number of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, or whatever it is – in proportion to the calories. It’s about making every meal really count.
It also contributes to the abundance mindset that may foster some staying power when making changes to your diet. It’s about what you can add versus what you have to take out.
Let’s do a quick comparison to make nutrient-density quite obvious.
A serving of Little Debbie Swiss Rolls has 270 calories, 2 grams of protein, 4% of the daily recommended value for iron intake, and nothing else notable. On the flip side, a large free-range egg contains 75 calories and 6.3 grams of protein in addition to B vitamins, vitamin D, and plenty of other minerals. Can you tell which food is nutrient-dense?
Nutrient density in foods serves two primary purposes:
- Meeting macronutrient (fat, protein, and carbohydrate) needs without overeating calories. Eating nutrient-dense foods is important because imagine meeting your calorie needs with snack cakes alone. You’d have six or seven, meet virtually none of your nutritional needs, and still be hungry while technically having had enough energy intake for the day.
- Avoiding vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Many nutrient-dense foods boast an impressive amount of vitamins and minerals in small amounts. Berries, seeds, and greens are great examples of this. By adding in these foods and a variety of them, we can eliminate the need for supplementation and reduce the risk of deficiencies in the diet.
How To Build A Nutrient-Dense Meal
When it comes to eating healthier, focusing on using nutrient-dense foods and ingredients to make your meals is a pretty simple way to do it.
While there are standout nutritional powerhouses like sardines, oysters, red meat, liver, watercress, or kale, not every food on the plate needs to be a superfood!
First of all, you want to make sure that your meal has high-protein foods, whether they are from animal or plant-based sources. Protein is an essential macronutrient and will keep you satiated. If you can choose a protein source that is also high in vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats, then you’re choosing a nutrient-dense protein.
Add some useful carbohydrates like quinoa, sweet potato, white potato, rice, good quality pasta, or sourdough bread. When I say useful, I mean that you’re getting more than just the carbs and sugar from the food. Think about what vitamins or antioxidants it might contain, does it also provide fiber, or maybe it contains complementary amino acids.
Throw in some fiber in the form of vegetables or fruit, most of which are high in vitamins and antioxidants, so you’ll be upping the nutrient density of that meal right then and there.
Some healthy fats will complete the circle. This could be from any of the above foods or added in the form of cooking fats or oils, avocado, nuts, and seeds.
Beef patties with roast sweet potatoes, kale, carrots & garlic. Get the recipe here.
Quinoa falafels with tahini sauce and Israeli salad. Get the recipe here.
Left: Beef, Apple & Kimchi Salad from Cotter Crunch. Right: Cuban Quinoa Bowl from Heather Christo.
Top Nutrient-Dense Foods
I have put together a list of the 50 most nutritious foods, which you can use as a quick reference. Try to incorporate a few or more into your meals each day with some smart planning and conscious snacking.
Nutrient-dense foods will mainly be of two categories: animal protein and plant foods. Unsurprisingly, whole foods are the most nutritious and packed with vitamins, minerals, and protein.
Each vitamin, antioxidant, fatty acid, amino acid, enzyme, and mineral has certain effects on bodily functions and is linked to a variety of health benefits such as reducing the risk of coronary disease and degenerative disease, improving digestion, improving cognitive function, or fighting free radical damage to cells.
This list is focused on simplicity. While you could divide up each cruciferous vegetable into its own rank (or seed or organ meat), many foods of the same family provide nearly the same benefits. For example, pairing broccoli with kale is less beneficial than pairing broccoli with bell peppers and carrots. Rotating your seeds, greens, cruciferous veggies, and organ meats or other protein throughout the weeks rather than pairing them together will give you the most bang for your buck.
With this list, you’ll be armed to put together powerful plates. Remember: variety is key! You don’t have to eat any one of these foods every single day if you eat a few at most meals.
1. Beef Liver
Organ meats are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and one that folks are eating less and less of.
While red meat in and of itself provides similar benefits – for example, iron and protein – having a few servings of liver per week is going to keep you high up in the nutritional ranks.
A single serving of beef liver provides more than the daily recommended value of vitamin B12, B2, and vitamin A. Additionally, it provides 65% of your B9, 80% of the RDA for iron, and a substantial amount of copper and choline.
Finally, it’s a very bioavailable source of protein. Many people suffer from iron deficiency, and this is one of the most valuable sources of it we can include in our diets. Plus, it acts as a thorough B-complex multivitamin, which is arguably one of the most important.
Can’t do liver? Start out with chicken liver, which is smaller and has a milder flavor. It’s also more widely available in stores.
- Ways to eat: Grilled or pan-fried (make sure not to overcook) with strong flavors like onions, garlic, and spices. Liver likes sweet foods and sauces too.
- Recipe: Asian Chicken Livers With Onions (can be made with beef liver)
- Recipe: Liver Skewers With Balsamic Onions & Chard
- 10 Liver Recipes To Boost Your Nutrition
2. Beef Kidney
You can count on any organ meat topping the list for nutrient-density. Beef kidney isn’t quite as common as liver, but it’s similarly nutritious coming in right behind liver. One serving gives you 1,146% of the RDA for vitamin B12, 168% of the RDA for riboflavin, 202% of the RDA for selenium, and around half the RDA for iron, vitamin B6, and vitamin A. Again, eating nose to tail has major benefits!
- Ways to eat: Braised or stewed, chopped and added to Bolognese sauce or meatballs, pan-fried or grilled on skewers.
- Recipe: Devilled Kidneys
There are many more nutritious foods worth mentioning, such as almonds, chia seeds, fruit, and various fish and seafood, but I will stop at these 50. Some of them are groups or families that include multiple foods, so the list is actually longer.
Next time you start meal planning or go grocery shopping, put a dozen of these foods on your list and I bet you will improve the nutrient density of your meals right away.