Nutrient Density: A Big Chunk of Healthy Weight Loss


Choosing nutrient dense and non-energy dense foods is usually a key in any attempt to lose weight. You need to know what foods fit into these categories if you want to lose weight and eat healthy! Also, nutrient dense foods are the basis of what constitutes a healthy diet for most of the population. This article will give you some background on why certain foods are better foods for weight loss and general health and why sometimes these foods aren’t the same. I will discuss nutrient density first and energy density in a blog post tomorrow.

What is Nutrient Density?

Nutrient density is a phase used to describe the amount of beneficial nutrients in food compared to the energy (Calorie) content of the food. A food is said to be Very Nutrient Dense when it has a large amount of beneficial nutrients and very few calories. When we diet, it is more important to make sure that you are choosing more nutrient dense foods than normal because you won’t be eating as many Calories. This means that you need to get the same amount of vitamins and minerals with fewer Calories. Not only will eating nutrient dense foods provide you with the vitamins and minerals that you need, but picking nutrient dense foods with fiber and protein will keep you fuller while you lose weight.

The nutrients I’ve referring to in the past paragraph are fiber, micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), protein, and monounsaturated fats (I would argue Omega-3s should be included as well). There are multiple rating systems and scales that try to rate the nutrient content of foods. One is called the called the Naturally Nutrient Rich scale that tries to rate foods based on the nutrients I just mentioned. It’s not perfect by any means, but it gives us some good clues about the foods that we should focus our diet around. On the opposite end of the spectrum from nutrient dense foods I mentioned would be foods that are very low in nutrients and higher in energy. I will refer to these foods as Less Nutrient Dense Foods. Many foods fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum like nuts because they are high in Calories AND high in nutrients. Is it starting to make sense why we should choose Nutrient Dense foods?

For You Visual People!

Nutrient Density spectrum

What Foods are Nutrient Dense?

Basically, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy (skim-1%), whole grains, lean meats, fish, and beans are all considered nutrient dense foods. Vegetables are usually the most nutrient dense foods and fruits are second. This is why vegetables and fruits are always called super healthy – they provide a lot of nutrients with few Calories and some of these nutrients may protect us from cancers. Fresh and frozen are the best, but canned is also a good option for fruits and vegetables. Lower fat protein and dairy foods are more nutrient dense than their higher fat counterparts because they have the same amount of vitamins and minerals, but fewer Calories. Examples of lean proteins include chicken without the skin, turkey, very low fat beef (90% lean, 10% fat or less), fish, most seafood, pork tenderloin, and any kind of beans (does not include fried foods). Whole grains are more nutrient dense than their refined counterparts because they contain more fiber and more of some minerals. The majority of your diet should consist of these nutrient dense foods (athletes may be an exception to this rule).

The most typical way that foods are made Less Nutrient Dense is by adding sugar, fat, or refined flour. For example, a nutrient dense serving of broccoli (25 Calories) has a tablespoon of vegetable oil added to it. The broccoli and oil together now have 145 Calories and very few more nutrients than the broccoli alone has. The oil and broccoli mixture is less nutrient dense than the broccoli alone. Another example of this is low-fat yogurt with sugar added to it. Low-fat yogurt is a nutrient dense food, but adding sugar provides more Calories and no more nutrients, which makes the yogurt a less nutrient dense food. Adding a high fat salad dressing to a salad has the same effect and so does packing canned fruits in a heavy syrup. Frying your foods can also add a lot of Calories without additional nutrients. I think you get the idea!  Be careful when buying pre-packaged foods, many of these have added sugars and fats that provide additional Calories, but no additional nutrients so it is best to read your food label to look at the ingredients for added fats and sugar and nutrition facts to see how much of these ingredients are included.

Hopefully now you see the importance of picking Nutrient Dense foods! Don’t forget that the energy density of foods is also something to consider when losing weight! I will be posting my article on energy density tomorrow, so stay tuned!

Quick Tips to Keep Your Food Nutrient Dense

  • Vegetables
    • Try steaming your vegetables or stir-frying them in a pan with a little non-stick oil spray instead of adding oil.
    • Sneak vegetables into your meals to replace some grains.
    • Choose the steamer bags with no added sauces – season them yourself.
  • Protein Foods
    • Bake, broil, or grill your meats instead of frying. Try the George Foreman Grill.
    • Choose low-fat meats like lean chicken breast, pork tenderloin, fish, and lean ground beef of turkey (90% lean 10% fat or better)
    • Try one whole egg mixed with egg whites.
    • When making taco meat, rinse the meat to get the fat off.
    • Look for dry beans or canned beans without added sugar and season them yourself (baked beans often have a lot of added sugar)
  • Dairy
    • Look at the food label on yogurt and look for yogurt with less than 15 g of sugar per serving.
    • Use a lower fat cheese. 2% fat, fat free, white cheeses are better options.
    • Choose lower-fat cottage cheese (cottage cheese is good with fruit or in savory recipes including lasagna and scrambled eggs)
    • Use low-fat milk in your coffee instead of cream.
    • Choose low-fat frozen yogurt over ice cream
  • Grains
    • Try to replace half the flour in all your recipes with whole wheat flour.
    • Choose cereals with less than 9 g of sugar per serving.
    • Cook and bake with less butter, oil, and sugar. Applesauce can replace butter and oil in some recipes. Splenda can replace most of the sugar.
    • Read the food labels of your crackers, granola bars, ect. and choose versions of these with less fat and sugars
  • Fruits
    • Choose canned fruits in their own juice instead of heavy syrups
    • Choose frozen and dried fruits without added sugar.

What Matters in this Blog Post:

1. Choosing Nutrient Dense Foods is important while losing weight because we need the same amount of nutrients and fewer Calories.

2. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, beans, and low-fat dairy are all nutrient dense foods.

3. These Nutrient Dense foods can become less nutrient dense by adding fats like butter or oil or by adding sugar. Look for the nutrient dense foods above while avoiding added fats and sugars.

4. Cook using less fats/oils and less sugar. Read food labels to see added fat and sugar. Foods that have less added fat and sugar are more Nutrient Dense.

5. Energy-density is a similar important topic that you need to think of when making food choice. I will discuss that in an article tomorrow.

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One thought on “Nutrient Density: A Big Chunk of Healthy Weight Loss

  1. Pingback: Are Superfoods the Secret to Unlocking a Super You? | What Matters Nutrition

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