Get More Bang for Your Calories

Outside of my dietetic internship, I teach English online to students in China. When thinking of a topic for this article, I reached out to my fellow teachers and asked them what nutrition topics they are most interested in. Needless to say, they provided some excellent thought-provoking questions from macros, foods for better sleep, portion control, and cutting sugar cravings. However, there was one topic that stood out to me the most, nutrient-dense foods. 

What does nutrient dense even mean? 

In short, if it provides more nutrients than it does calories, it qualifies as nutrient dense.

You can think of this like getting more bang for your calorie. There are many sophisticated models out there that calculate nutrient density according to 100 grams, 100 calories or serving size of food. The models have been tested and validated in a variety of ways and provide some great complicated scientific reading that will help you fall asleep at bedtime. 😉 These algorithmic models for determining nutrient density led to a series of nutrient-rich profiling models (NRF) that identified nutrient density according to subgroups such as food groups and cost per calorie. When analyzing these models, here are two types of definitions for nutrient density that arise:

  1. nutrient concentrations per calorie
  2. nutrient concentration per amount of food. 

Nutrients Per Calorie 

Let’s look at an example of nutrients per calorie. Take a plain baked potato compared to a large French fry. The charts below were adapted from the USDA Food Composition Database. As you can see, the plain baked potato has a relatively higher percentage of nutrients per calorie, making it more nutrient dense. 

Dietary Guidelines of 2015-2020 and Nutrient Dense Forms

Here’s the definition according to the USDHHS/USDA 2015 Dietary Guidelines:

Nutrient Dense Foods: Those that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes by providing vitamins, minerals, and other substances or promote positive health outcomes.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes consuming nutrient-dense foods throughout the recommendations. The guidelines suggest consuming foods in their nutrient-dense form. Nutrient-dense form refers to eating food with less added nutrients that can be harmful to our health like excessive sodium, sugar, or saturated fats. I personally like this approach to nutrient dense foods. It sounds complicated at first, but once you break it down it makes applying nutrient-dense foods to your lifestyle and dietary patterns simple.

Nutrient-Dense Options

Per the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, here are some easy and simple recommendations to incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into your lifestyle. The picture is taken from the Dietary Guidelines and illustrates some simple swaps to include more nutrient dense foods into your lifestyle. The following are additional examples of how to swap nutrient-dense forms of food for their lesser nutrient rich counterparts. We will break them down by food groups:

*Remember that nutrient dense form means prepared with little or no solid fats or sodium. Croissants, for example, contain a high amount of butter whereas entire wheat bread contains reasonable amounts of fiber and other nutrients.

Are Fortified Foods Nutrient Dense?

As indicated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fortified foods are those that have had nutrients added during processing that were not naturally part of that food. For example, adding Vitamin D to milk or orange juice. Fortification started as a way to help reduce nutrient deficiencies in a large population. However, some experts are concerned that we may not absorb the nutrients that are added to food in the same way we do those that occur naturally in food. Heavily fortified snack bars, cereals, and the like may assist in providing nutrients to some at-risk populations. However, in my opinion, if you have a choice between the two, I would grab the nutrient dense whole food over the fortified version. 

Additional Resources:

 If you want to learn more about the nutrients in your food, there two great resources I would recommend.

  1. The USDA Food Composition Database:  You can look up many different types of food and view a comprehensive list of their nutrient composition by different portion sizes.
  2. Cronometer: You can use this application on your phone or computer. A Registered Dietitian I worked with during my second Bachelor’s degree recommended this app to me when I was helping her develop recipes for Chronic Kidney Disease patients. This is a free food tracking app that provides one of the most detailed lists of nutrients per food compared to most other food trackers I have seen.  I love that you can scan barcodes with the app to add food to your tracker, which makes it simple and easy.

The Take Away

  1. Let’s focus on adding more nutrient-dense forms of food rather than eliminating whole foods or food groups! 
  2. Enjoy food prepared with fewer fats, sodium, and sugars. 
  3. Taste a variety of these foods at each meal and snack, and savor every flavor! 
Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.