Nutrient-dense foods give you the most vitamins, minerals and other nutrients per calorie. Eating these foods helps you stay slim and healthy. There is some controversy about which foods belong on the nutrient-dense list because of differing opinions about how to calculate nutrient density. Some food groups, however, consistently come up as nutrient dense, no matter what formulation is used.
Bright-colored vegetables are nutritional all-stars. There is more than one system for judging nutrient density, including the naturally nutrient rich system, or NNR, developed in conjunction with the DIetary Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA. Others include the calories-for-nutrient score, or CFN;, the overall nutrition quality index, or ONQI; and the the NuVal Nutritional Scoring System. Many dieticians also have their own systems, such as Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s aggregate nutrient density index, or ANDI. According to all of these systems, vegetables are high in nutrients per calorie. Green veggies like kale, spinach and Brussels sprouts rank especially high on the ANDI. Asparagus, beets, carrots, peppers and squash are also great choices. Tomatoes and lettuce are among the most affordable options. Vegetables are a valuable source of phytonutrients as well as vitamins and minerals. Buy organic whenever possible, advises Douglas L. Margel, author of “The Nutrient Dense Eating Plan.”
Fresh fruits in bright colors are naturally nutrient rich, according to the Nutrient Rich Foods Coalition, which helps Americans meet recommendations set forth in the USDA guidelines. In fact, fruits are emphasized across the board in all measures of nutrient density, according to the American Dietetic Association. Fruits also have low energy density, meaning they fill you up without many calories, according to the Mayo Clinic website. Strawberries, blueberries and oranges have especially high ratings on the ANDI.The colorful pigments in brightly colored fruits like berries also supply potent antioxidants, though there is no scientific consensus on how much of this type of nutrient you need for optimal health, according to Margel. Cherries, mangoes, kiwis, pears, melons and citrus fruits are other good choices. Bananas and apples are among the most affordable nutrient-dense fruits, say Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Petra Eichelsdoerfer, a researcher for the National Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine who is affiliated with Bastyr University. Dried fruits and fruit juices, however, have higher calorie content for the nutrients you get, according to the Mayo Clinic site.
Whole, fiber-rich grains pack in lots of nutrients per calorie. Whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps you stay fuller longer for fewer calories, according to the Mayo Clinic site. Whole grains have many minerals, Vitamin E and B vitamins because the vital wheat germ is not removed. Oatmeal and brown rice are top-scoring grains on the ANDI. Unprocessed wheat bran and shredded wheat and bran cereals are top scorers on the NuVal system. Quinoa is another high scorer. While you have to watch out for extra calories, fortified foods such as grains can help increase nutrient density in your diet. Enriched and whole wheat bread and rolls and tortillas are among the most affordable options in this group.
- NuVal: How it Works
- “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition”; Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score; Adam Drewnowski; 2005
- DrFuhrman: Nutrient Density
- American Dietetic Association: Nutrient Density - Meeting Nutrient Goals within Calorie Needs
- “The Nutrient Dense Eating Plan”’; Douglas L. Margel; 2005