A nutrient-dense food has a high ratio of nutrients to calories. The amount of calories eaten in a day is largely driven by energy needs, satiety and appetite and can be satisfied well before a person reaches their nutrition goals if eating nutrient-poor foods.
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Choosing foods high in fiber, protein and essential vitamins and minerals will help you eat a high-quality diet. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, legumes and low-fat dairy tend to have the most nutrients per calorie, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Assigning numbers to different foods can help you to quickly see and compare their nutrient density to make the best choice for your diet. There have been several different methods of determining nutrient density over the years, but no universal method is currently in use.
One quick way to find the nutrient density for a specific nutrient in food is by using the Index of Nutritional Quality (INQ), which is a simple and practical way to determine the ratio of nutrient-to-calorie content of food, per a July 2018 article in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences.
The INQ can be calculated for any nutrient that a recommended daily allowance (RDA) is set for to help you determine the nutrient density of that food.
RDA for Common Nutrients
1. Divide the Nutrient Amount by the RDA
Take the amount of the nutrient in grams per 100 grams of food and divide it by the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for that nutrient.
In one large egg, for example, there are 6.3 grams of protein. The RDA for adults is 50 grams of protein. So 6.3 divided by 50 gives you about 0.126.
2. Divide the Calorie Amount by the Total Daily Calories
Take the calories per 100 grams of the food and divide it by the reference calorie intake of 2,000 calories per day.
Eggs have 144 calories per 100 grams. Dividing 144 by 2,000 gives you roughly 0.072.
3. Divide the Number from Step 1 by the Number From Step 2
Divide the number you got using the RDA calculation in step 1 by the number you got in the calorie calculation in step 2.
For the egg example, 0.126 divided by 0.072 is 1.75.
Using the Nutrition Facts Label
To easily determine whether or not a food is nutrient-dense while shopping, just take a look at the nutrition facts label and the percent daily value for each particular nutrient.
For a food to be considered a "good" source of a nutrient, it must have between 10 and 19 percent of the percent daily value per serving, according to the FDA. A food is considered an "excellent" nutrient source if it provides over 20 percent of the daily value per serving.
Nutrient-dense foods are often high in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium and lower in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 emphasize eating whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat dairy.
- National Cancer Institute: "Nutrient-Dense Foods"
- Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: "The association between index of nutritional quality and ulcerative colitis: A case–control study"
- American Journal of Preventative Medicine: "Adherence to the Overall Nutritional Quality Index and Risk of Total Chronic Disease"
- FDA: "Daily Value on the New Nutrition and Supplement Facts Labels"
- USDA: "Egg"
- FDA: "CFR - Code of Federal Regulations Title 21"
- USDA: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025"
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association
- Nuval.com: Nutrition by the Numbers