What Does Nutrient-Dense Mean?
Research suggests the standard American diet (SAD) is energy-rich and nutrient-poor.1 And when we say energy, we mean calories! That’s where the saying “empty calories” comes from — it refers to foods that provide a lot of calories without much nutritional value.
On the other hand, nutrient-dense foods are rich in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients important for health, without too much saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. We’re talking fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meat, skinless poultry, peas and beans, and nuts and seeds.2 You know, the good stuff!
The basic concept of nutrient density is the amount of nutrients you get for the calories consumed.1
Think of it this way: You’re looking at the labels trying to decide between two packages of bread. One has about 80 calories per slice, but few vitamins and minerals. The whole-grain version has about the same number of calories, but way more protein, three times the magnesium, and more than double the fiber, potassium, vitamin B6 and zinc.3 The whole-grain option is the more nutrient-dense choice.
How to Identify Nutrient-Dense Foods
Nutrient profiling is the science of ranking or classifying foods based on the nutrients they contain.4 There are several nutrient-density profiling tools that have been proposed by nutrition experts. Some tools are designed for health professionals to use when counseling clients and patients, and some are consumer-focused. You may have seen some of them promoted in your grocery store.
Most of these tools consider beneficial and often under-consumed nutrients (such as protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and fiber), as well as those known to negatively affect health when consumed in excess (such as added sugars, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium).1
A balanced approach is important. To narrowly focus on one nutrient (such as whole grain) or component (such as gluten) of a food discounts its overall nutritional value. And evaluating foods based only on nutrients to limit (such as sodium) doesn’t take the beneficial nutrients it may provide into consideration. Both of these approaches may miss the big picture of an overall healthy dietary pattern, which includes a variety of foods from all food groups with emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Even the trusty nutrition facts label, for example, draws our attention to the calories and fat content at the top. One study found that consumers tend to read only the first five components (servings, calories, total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat) of the nutrition facts label.5 To identify nutrient-dense foods we need to be sure to read further down the label to the other beneficial nutrients such as calcium, potassium and fiber.
Sounds complicated, right? We’re here to help. One of the tools you can use to choose more nutrient-dense foods is the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark. When you see it, you can be confident the product aligns with our recommendations for an overall healthy eating pattern. It takes both beneficial nutrients and nutrients to limit into consideration, making it quick and easy for you to make a healthy choice.
When a Heart-Check certified option isn’t available, read and compare nutrition facts labels and choose the best option available to you.
How to Add Them to Your Healthy Eating Plan
Now that you understand what nutrient-dense foods are, you can start adding more of them into your eating plan. Sometimes it only takes a small shift to make a more nutrient-dense choice. For example:
- Switch from white rice to brown rice.
- Replace sugary drinks with water, unsweetened tea, or coffee.
- Instead of a big dollop of sour cream on your chili or baked potato, try plain nonfat Greek yogurt.
- Switch from processed deli meat to sliced roasted chicken for a hearty sandwich.
- When adding toppings to pizza, tacos or sandwiches, think one more veggie instead of meat or cheese.
- Snack on crunchy vegetables or nuts instead of chips.
- Satisfy a sweet tooth with naturally sweet fruit instead of candy and cookies.
Whether you’re a student studying for tests, a professional preparing for a big presentation, or a mom raising a family — the food choices you make directly impact the energy and focus you have to reach your goals. By making some simple swaps in your favorite recipes or reimagining favorite dishes, you can boost the nutrient density of your family’s meals and snacks.
What About Snacks?
Most of us, including kids and adolescents, get a significant portion of our daily energy (calories) from snacks — foods and drinks we have between regular meals.6 When we think of traditional snack foods and drinks, they tend to be higher in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars. For example, sugary drinks (like carbonated sodas, sports drinks and sweet tea) are usually quite high in energy density and low in nutrient density.1
In one study, researchers ranked the most popular snack foods of participants according to the Nutrient-Rich Foods Index, one of the profiling tools we talked about earlier. Yogurt, milk, fruit and nuts were the most nutrient-dense snacks reported; while candy, ice cream, cake and sugar-sweetened soft drinks were the most nutrient-poor. Other popular snacks like potato chips, crackers, popcorn and tea fell somewhere in the middle.6
In other words, snacking doesn’t have to be bad for you, as long as you choose mostly nutrient-dense snack foods.
- Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and lean protein — when prepared with little or no saturated fats, added sugars and sodium — are nutrient-dense foods.
- By consciously choosing more nutrient-dense foods, you’ll get the beneficial nutrients your body needs without consuming too many calories.
- Focus on your overall eating pattern, rather than individual nutrients or specific foods or food groups.
- If you want to lose weight or stop gaining weight, choose more nutrient-dense foods and fewer foods and drinks with primarily “empty calories.”
1 Selecting Nutrient-Dense Foods for Good Health, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016 https://www.eatrightpro.org/practice/position-and-practice-papers/practice-papers/practice-paper-nutrient-density
2 Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, Appendix 6, 2015 https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/appendix-6/#n
3 USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28 https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/
4 Development and validation of the nutrient-rich foods index: a tool to measure nutritional quality of foods, Journal of Nutrition, 2009 https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/139/8/1549/4670510
5 Location, location, location: eye-tracking evidence that consumers preferentially view prominently positioned nutrition information, Journal of American Dietetic Association, 2011 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22027053?dopt=Abstract
6 The Nutrient Density of Snacks: A Comparison of Nutrient Profiles of Popular Snack Foods Using the Nutrient-Rich Foods Index, Global Pediatric Health, 2017 http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2333794X17698525