The Reasons That Nutrient Density Is the Key to Healthy Eating

Apples are nutrient dense because they have lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Apples are nutrient dense because they have lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Sam Edwards/OJO Images/Getty Images

Nutrient density refers to the level of nutrition per some specific volume of food. Nutrient-dense foods have lots of nutrients, generally with fewer calories. All those superfoods you've heard about are nutrient-dense. Energy-dense foods have more calories for the volume of food and fewer nutrients.

How Nutrient Density Works

You're hungry, and it's still a few hours before dinner, so you decide you want a snack. You can choose either an apple or a glazed donut. They are roughly the same size, and either food works as a quick snack before you get back to work. Which one do you choose?

Hopefully, you choose the apple instead of the donut. The apple has around 80 calories and lots of vitamins, fiber, and phytochemicals. The fiber in the apple will fill your stomach and keep you satisfied until dinner.

The donut has calories—lots of calories. In fact, the donut has more than 200 calories, but it doesn't have many nutrients. There's only about one gram of fiber—it won't keep you feeling full. Eating a sugary donut can easily lead to eating a second one, and possibly a third. Sure, it tastes good, but your body might pay quite a price later for this immediate gratification.

Compare nutrient density to energy density by evaluating the number of calories in each food by weight or volume, or portion size.

For example, compare a cup of carrot slices to four saltine crackers. Both snacks have about 50 calories, but the carrots have many more nutrients for the same number of calories. The carrots are nutrient dense; the crackers are energy-dense.

Understanding nutrient density is important for people on weight-loss diets. Foods that are low in calories, but high in fiber and other vitamins, can help you lose weight.

Nutrient-Dense Superfoods

You can probably already see from the examples that brightly colored fruits and vegetables are big winners in nutrient density. That's one reason so many fruits and vegetables qualify as superfoods. Carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, kale, spinach, berries, apples, cherries, pomegranates, and oranges are all superfoods.

Other nutrient-dense superfoods include salmon, tuna, trout, low-fat dairy products, oatmeal, whole grains, soy, dry beans, and even some fortified foods. On the other hand, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods include things that are high in sugar and fat such as pastries, processed lunch meats, processed cheeses, ice cream, candy, soda, potato chips, and corn chips. In other words: Junk food.

Finding Nutrient-Dense Foods

At the grocery store, look for whole foods such as produce, fresh lean meats, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. These foods may be more expensive than the energy-dense packaged foods, but you buy more nutrition for that price.

Most shoppers choose some packaged foods for convenience, but you can still make smart choices with those products—just read the labels. You'll find the Nutrition Facts labels on the backs or sides of the packages. Look at the serving sizes, note the number of calories per serving, and see the amount of fiber, protein, vitamins, calcium, and iron.

The packaged food that has the better combination of lower calories, more nutrients, and less saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium is the winner.

You can expand your food shopping to include farmers markets where you can buy fresh vegetables and fruit. These won't have nutrition fact labels, but they are naturally nutrient-dense.

When Would You Want Energy-Dense Foods?

People who are underweight need some energy-dense foods to make sure they are getting enough calories to gain weight. Nutrient-dense and energy-dense foods include foods like peanut butter, dried fruits, starchy vegetables, and cheese.

A Word From Verywell

Eating nutrient-dense food will ensure you are getting what your body needs for good health and they won't leave you feeling hungry later. Choosing nutrient-dense foods can become a habit. Once you understand which foods are more nutrient dense, the rest is easy. You'll be on your way to enjoying lean protein and vibrant fruits and vegetables.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.