What are Nutrient Dense Foods?

Katriena Knights

For those wishing to follow a more nutritious diet, nutrient dense foods are an important addition to their daily calorie intake, allowing them to eat well and obtain necessary vitamins and minerals but also to eat less and possibly to lose weight and increase overall health. Foods that are dense in nutrients carry a high level of nutrition in a smaller — and usually lower calorie — serving of food as compared to foods with lower nutrient density. Choosing nutrient-dense foods for snacks and meals can help reduce calories and increase nutrition in the everyday diet.

Blueberries are high in fiber and vitamins, and they are rich in antioxidants.
Blueberries are high in fiber and vitamins, and they are rich in antioxidants.

Common examples of nutrient dense foods are fruits and vegetables, especially those with dark, rich colors, such as leafy green vegetables, berries and carrots. Others include whole grains, nuts and seeds. These foods have a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including the all-important antioxidants that help prevent illness, reduce signs of aging, keep the brain functioning, and possibly even prevent cancer in the long term. Many foods considered to be nutrient dense are also referred to as "super foods" because of their extremely high levels of nutrients as compared to their size. Low calorie foods such as these should form the base of any healthy diet.

Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all nutrient dense foods.
Strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries are all nutrient dense foods.

In contrast to highly desirable nutrient dense foods, many people turn instead to empty-calorie foods, which have a high calorie content and little to no nutritional value. Comparing the calorie content and the available nutrients in a piece of candy to a handful of blueberries, for example, gives a vivid example of the difference between the two types of calories. In most cases, a food that is dense in nutrients will provide many times the amount of nutrition for half the calories.

Empty calorie foods contain high amounts of calories but few nutrients.
Empty calorie foods contain high amounts of calories but few nutrients.

Other empty-calorie foods to avoid or, even better, to replace include processed foods such as white bread and white rice, sugary sodas, candies, and high fat proteins. Lean proteins such as chicken or beans provide more nutrition in proportion to fat and calories than red meat, and they also are considered nutrient dense foods. Many popular foods that have become staples of the American diet, such as french fries and sodas, carry very little nutritional value. By replacing these empty-calorie foods with those that contain more nutrients, as well as adding more fresh water, it is possible to greatly increase overall health, lose weight, reduce risk of heart disease, lower cholesterol, and provide the body with a much higher quality of fuel on which to function.

Brightly colored foods like carrots are nutrient dense.
Brightly colored foods like carrots are nutrient dense.

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Discussion Comments


@KoiwiGal - The thing is, as long as you reduce carbohydrates, which are what make up most of the empty-calorie foods, you'll be less likely to indulge in other kinds of foods. Anything with a fair amount of fat and protein tends to reduce appetite, which is why the Atkins diet works.

They've shown in scientific studies that the reason people on the Atkins diet lose weight is because they can't consume as many calories when eating only protein or fat, and that's why they lose weight.

It's still a good idea to make sure you keep tabs on your calories, but I think generally if you stick to nutrient dense foods you will naturally start to lose weight.

At any rate, you will definitely feel healthier and more able to be active so that can only help.


It's important to realize that just because something is healthy and nutrient dense, doesn't necessarily mean that it can help you lose weight. Everything has certain amount of nutrients, but everything also has certain amounts of fats and calories.

Seeds, for example, are very nutritious and they do form part of a balanced diet.

But, seeds have a lot of fat in them, gram for gram, much more than say, a carrot or some leafy greens.

Milk is also quite nutrient dense, as are milk products like cheese or yogurt, but they can also have varying amounts of fat.

Of course, you should still eat these foods as part of a healthy diet, but just bear in mind that they need to be eaten in moderation. Eating a kilo of sunflower seeds in addition to the rest of your meals will be just as fattening as eating a kilo of potato chips, even if it does add more nutrients to your diet.

When it comes to food, calorie count can be one of the most important factors for weight loss.

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