Nutrient Density – The Misunderstood Term

Nutrient density is a long standing, foundational, but often misunderstood nutritional philosophy and one of the emerging health fitness terms used by professionals and now the consumer these days, now that people are fed up with low cal, low fat and low carb dieting and know they simply need to eat better.

The principles of nutrient density inspired Nutrient Rich, a term we promote at because it’s more accurate and a more practical way of describing the core idea.

Nutrient Rich refers to the amount of nutrients in a food as compared to the calories (energy value). Foods low in calories and high in nutrients are nutrient rich. Foods high in calories and low in nutrients are nutrient poor.

Nutrient Rich foods are considered to be ‘always foods.‘ Nutrient poor foods are ‘sometimes foods’, ‘quasi foods’, and ‘junk foods’ that can give rise to the need for dieting rituals as they wreak havoc in your body, beyond small quantities.

Herein lies the misunderstanding

The term nutrient density is used in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines 22 times, but it’s wrapped around every food group, from a blueberry to slab of beef. This is understandable because this is the government talking and while I have never seen the guidelines be more valuable than they are in 2005, they have to promote all of the respective food groups in whatever recommendations they put out.

This reality has given rise to a definition of nutrient density that goes something like this – if a food is very high in one or more nutrients, but low in calories, it can be described as nutrient dense.

This is not accurate and misleading. Can you imagine eating a food because it’s rich in one or a few nutrients but low in calories (which is usually not the case)? You’d have to eat too many foods to get the full compliment of nutrients you require. This is a formula for overeating!

Plus why would you want to eat foods that only offer a few of the valuable nutrients you need? Whole foods do way more than offer a few nutrients; they offer a full compliment of nutrients, in other words, a banana provides a great deal more than potassium. Vegetables provide more than vitamins and minerals.

When you consider macro nutrients, micronutrients, phytochemicals, water, fiber, vitamins and minerals, a food high in a few minerals and protein is not doing you much justice, and is therefore a nutrient poor food.

For example, beef; A 3-ounce serving of lean beef is an excellent source of five essential nutrients (protein, zinc, vitamin B-12, selenium and phosphorus), and a good source of four nutrients (niacin, vitamin B-6, iron and riboflavin) as stated by

Does that mean it’s a nutrient rich food? You can get these very same nutrients from other sources that are far more complete with far more nutrients, without all the excess energy, (measured in calories) and other stuff in beef that is disease promoting.

Beef is an example of a food that is rich in some nutrients, but the cost for those nutrients is very high as you’ll soon learn, given all that you’re not getting, the excess you’ll be taking in, and all that you don’t want to be consuming that’s in this food.

Also consider the effect eating just 3 ounces of this super stimulating food, is going to have on your hunger drive. Nutrient poor foods leave you full but unfulfilled and over consuming.

Does this mean you can’t consume a nutrient poor food like beef as part of a nutrient rich diet? No, sure you can, assuming you’re eating it in small quantities complimenting a predominantly nutrient rich diet; 80-90% or more. On a total dietary intake basis, you will still have a nutrient rich diet.

There are foods rich in nutrients and there are nutrient rich foods. If you are going to end low cal, low fat, low carb dieting, actually any form of dieting, you need to understand what a true nutrient rich food is and why.

It’s simple, when you know.

And remember, Nutrient Rich is not a diet, it’s a standard!

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