Nutrient Density: How to Make the Most Out of Every Meal

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Dr. Vaughn Bowman

Written by Vaughn Bowman

May 15, 2022

Nutrient density refers to the amount of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrate, fat, and protein in any one food.  This is not the same as energy or caloric dense foods.  In fact, the two groups can often be at opposite ends of the same spectrum.  Clearly, nutrient dense food has the advantage of providing more sustenance with less volume of actual food.  For those interested in weight loss and overall health, this can be a very big deal indeed.

Consider for a moment that a single slice of white bread contains 2% of the daily recommendation for magnesium while a slice of whole grain bread contains 8%.  You would need to consume 4 slices of white bread to get the same nutritional content of a single slice of whole grain bread.  In terms of additional calories, this would equate to a weight gain of over 30 pounds each year.  Suffice it to say, the more nutrient dense food you eat, the healthier you will be and the easier it is to maintain a healthy weight. 

Processed foods are a simple identifier for the reduction of the nutrient density of foods.  However, many of our fruits, vegetables, and grains have lost some of their nutrient density over the past several decades compared to their heirloom counterparts.  This makes it even more important to increase your consumption of whole foods to ensure you are getting sufficient nutrients in your diet. 

nutrient density

Compared to cultivated (“regular”) blueberries, wild blueberries have twice the antioxidant capacity per serving, contain 30% less sugar yet are more flavorful, have twice the amount of fiber, and have 8x more manganese. 


wild blueberries

Everyone seems to agree that nutrient dense foods are best.  There is a debate however over what really constitutes a nutrient dense food.  The entire concept has become a confusing mess of late with over 9 currently used systems to attempt to rank various foods.  Of course, there is also the argument that the soil in which the plant grows or the animal then consumes can play a large factor in actual nutrient content.  

Processing focuses on things like marketability, shelf-life, and cost reduction.  Very little attention is placed upon actual nutrient concentration.  The same can be said for genetic modification where attention is focused on growth rate, maximum yield, and herbicide or pesticide resistance.  Once again, little if any attention is devoted to nutrient content.  As a result, developed nations have moved toward cheaper, less nutrient dense foods causing an epidemic rise in rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

nutrition eat the rainbow

The more nutrient dense your food becomes, the more nutrients available for your tissues and organs in need.  This has a major impact not only on your waistline but the effectiveness of your immune system, your ability to manage stress, the aging process, and your overall health.  

The good news is by avoiding the center isles of your grocery store and shopping primarily on the periphery; you can avoid most processed food and enjoy a cornucopia of nutrient dense foods at the same time.  Any simple Google search will provide multiple examples of food with a high nutrient content.  In fact, many of these charts will contradict one another for the reasons previously mentioned and this is why I chose not to include an actual list of foods in this article.  Don’t despair however, and keep in mind that a little common sense goes a long way when deciding what to put in your mouth.  We truly are what we eat.

Two final words of caution for those not used to eating a good amount of whole food: go slow.  Remember that these foods are indeed very dense and therefore require good digestion to properly breakdown and assimilate the nutrients.  Some people find enzyme supplementation necessary at first to help decrease the additional burden placed upon the gut.  If you experience a large amount of gas, pain, or overall distention of your abdomen, you can bet you’ve overdone it.  A person used to eating a lot of prepared, processed, or fast food can expect some initial difficulty with whole food integration.  Therefore, a gradual but consistent approach is required to allow your digestive system to adjust to the new intake. 

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