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  • Taylor Leahy - Dietitian

Nutrient Density

Updated: Mar 23, 2019

Getting more bang for your bite!

If we eat a large variety of foods with different colors and from all of the food groups aren’t we basically eating a healthy diet? In some instances, yes. We do need a wide variety, with lots of color, from all of the food groups, but when we compare ‘apples to apples’ there are some things to think about when we are trying to provide the best nutrition for our bodies. Eating a large salad that is made with dark leafy greens rather than a head of ice berg lettuce provide two different amounts of nutrients. We have to think about nutrient density.

What is Nutrient Density?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans definition of nutrient-dense foods are those that “provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes or may have positive health effects, with little or no solid fats and added sugars, refined starches, and sodium. Ideally, these foods and beverages also are in forms that retain naturally occurring components, such as dietary fiber. All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium—are nutrient dense foods.3”

Even though a salad with spinach and a salad with ice berg lettuce are both vegetables and both ‘healthy’ they each provide a different vitamin, mineral, fiber, and water profile. From the USDA National Nutrient Database, we can see that the cup of spinach offers more nutrients per cup than the iceberg lettuce.

Depending on what your personal health needs are may impact what food you need to consume. Understanding the nutrient profile for your foods is important to know if you are needing to track your sodium, phosphorous, fiber, or vitamin K. If you do not need to track certain nutrients for a health condition, it is still important to know that you are getting the most ‘bang for your bite’.

To get a good understanding of the amounts there are several nutrient profile data bases that have been created both in the United States and across the world. When looking for nutrients we need to make sure that we are using reliable sources such as the ‘NuVal Nutrition Scoring System’, the ‘Nutrient Rich Foods Index’, or the ‘Affordable Nutrition Index’.2 Others that may be good to look into include the ‘Guiding Stars’, ‘Healthy Eating Systems’, ‘International Choices Programme’, ‘Nutrient Density Climate Index’, and the ‘Powerhouse Fruits & Vegetables’.

Every Food Fits…In Moderation!

“Broccoli, spinach, and blueberries are universally recognized as highly nutritious foods—and thus should be scored as such by any competent nutrient profiling system—a diet composed exclusively of broccoli, or spinach, or blueberries would be a very poor diet indeed.1”

I like to tell my patients that we should live by the 80/20 rule.

80% of the time we should be choosing nutrient dense foods, choosing water, meeting our goal amounts of non-starchy vegetables, fruits, lean meats, and heart healthy fats, and aiming to get more than thirty minutes of activity and movement each day.

20% of the time we have allowed time to enjoy the party food, the ice cream treat, or the adult drink, because ALL food fits…in moderation!

Always Individualized

Depending on your age, whether you are male or female, and your health status will determine your average daily intake requirements. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have a nice table that breaks it down easily for us. Check out page 97 for the table.

The next time you are at the grocery store choose the more nutrient dense option. Your body and health will thank you!


Katz D, Njike V, Rhee L, Reingold A, Ayoob K. Performance characteristics of NuVal and the overall nutritional quality index (ONQI). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010;91(4):1102S–1108S.

Hingle, Melanie D. et al. Practice paper of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: Selecting nutrient-dense foods for good health. J Am Diet Assoc. 2016;116(9):1437-1479.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for americans 2015-2020, 8th edition. Updated December 2015. Accessed March 23, 2019.

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