Nutrient-dense foods are important for optimal health and nutrition.  But to fully understand what they are and why they are important, it is necessary to understand some other concepts first.  After learning some basic concepts of nutrition, you will learn the top 15 nutrient-dense foods to add to your diet and be able to improve your overall health.

What does nutrient-dense mean?

Before we define nutrient-dense, let us first go back a few steps.  First, nutrition is defined as the process of obtaining the food necessary for health and growth.  It is also the study of nutrients.  And a nutrient is defined as a substance that provides nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life.  There are 6 groups of nutrients:  water, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, protein, and fats.

Nutrient density is defined as the ratio of the nutrient composition of a particular food to the nutrient requirements of the human body.  Basically, nutrient-dense foods provide the highest number of nutrients comparing to what the human body needs for adequate health.

Generally speaking, fruits, vegetables, milk, and whole grains are nutrient-dense food groups. The Nutrient-Rich Foods (NRF) index helps to identify nutrient-dense foods.  Adam Drewnowksi is a researcher that has done extensive studies on nutrient-dense foods.  His studies use the NRF, which is a metric used to measure the nutrient density of foods to determine a healthy diet.   The NRF index is based on 9 nutrients to encourage.  These 9 nutrients are protein, fiber, vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron,  potassium, and magnesium.  There are also 3 nutrients to limit, which are saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium.

 

What are the benefits of eating nutrient-dense foods?

Eating nutrient-dense foods helps to protect you from diseases and illnesses.  Since these foods are high in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients such as protein and fiber, these nutrients help to strengthen your immune system, maintain a proper level of nutrients in your body, promote regular digestion and metabolism, and maintain lean body mass.  In addition to these amazing benefits, many of these foods tend to be lower in calories, especially in proportion to their nutrients, making them great food choices if you are trying to maintain weight or lose weight.  The list of benefits goes on and on.

What are the most nutrient-dense foods?

Salmon

Not only is salmon delicious, but it is loaded with nutrients.  Salmon is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which helps with heart health and brain function.  It is also an excellent source of high-value protein.  A 3-ounce cooked portion of salmon provides 21 grams of protein.   And it is a good source of potassium providing 391 grams. Salmon is also a good source of selenium and vitamin B 12.  And salmon is an excellent source of vitamin B-6, providing 25% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA).

Woman pointing to salmon filet in case in a fish market

Kale

Green leafy vegetables are generally a great choice for a healthy diet no matter which one you choose.  However, kale is packed with a variety of nutrients.  It is high in vitamin A, providing 133% of the RDA, and vitamin C, providing 134% of the RDA! That is amazing!  In addition to these vitamins, kale is high in vitamin K and B6, and high in minerals such as potassium, copper, and manganese.  And another component of all leafy greens, including kale, is that they are low in calories.  One cup of raw kale is only 33 calories.

Kale leaves, a nutrient-dense food, on a napkin

Seaweed

Seaweed is a form of algae and is commonly eaten in Japan, China, and Korea.  But it has become more popular around the world, including the United States. I love a great seaweed salad when I go out to eat sushi!  It is an excellent source of iodine which helps your thyroid gland to produce hormones.  It is also a good source of B vitamins, riboflavin and thiamine, and minerals, iron, manganese, and copper.

Seaweed salad
Seaweed salad

Garlic

Garlic is an excellent way to flavor food in a variety of dishes and cuisines.  It is an excellent source of vitamin B6.  Additionally, garlic provides a good source of manganese, selenium, and vitamin C.  And, it has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and lower cholesterol levels.

basket of garlic bulbs

Shellfish

Shellfish is a great source of protein and are mostly lower in fat compared to some other protein sources.  However, most of the fat that is in shellfish is in the form of omega-3 fatty acids, which helps with heart and brain health as mentioned previously.  Shellfish is also rich in zinc, providing almost 100% of the RDA.  In addition to zinc, it is a good source of iron, magnesium, and vitamin B12.

Mussels in a bowl with lemon wedge and parsley on top

Potatoes

Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, B6, and a good source of niacin, and folate.  And, there is a variety of minerals such as potassium, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus.  Specifically sweet potatoes contain 368% of RDA for vitamin A! And there are about 4 grams of fiber in 1 medium-sized potato.  Keep in mind that a large portion of the nutrients are found in the skin of potatoes, so peeling them will reduce the nutrients.

potatoes, a nutrient-dense food, russet and red potatoes in a bunch together

Liver

While liver probably is not as popular to eat as it was in the past, it is still a nutrient-dense food.  In a 3.5 ounce serving of beef liver, there is over 3000% of Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) for vitamin B12, over 800% RDI for Vitamin A, over 200% of riboflavin, 65% RDI for folate, 80% RDI for iron, and 1620% for copper.  It also provides an Adequate Intake (AI) for women for choline, which is good for your brain and liver.

Sardines

Sardines are packed with nutrients as well.  Like salmon, they are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids.  They are also an excellent source of vitamin B12.  Sardines also have an excellent source of calcium and are recommended during pregnancy due to higher calcium needs.  In addition to calcium, they have iron, potassium, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and protein.

Sardines, a nutrient-dense food, on a grill

Blueberries

Blueberries are known for being rich in antioxidants such as anthocyanins, quercetin, and myricetin.  Anthocyanins are what give blueberries their blue color and can help prevent heart disease. Quercetin has been shown to lower blood pressure.  And myricetin can help prevent cancer and diabetes.

One cup of blueberries contains 3.6 grams of fiber and 24% of the RDA for vitamin C.  Blueberries are also a good source of vitamin K and manganese.

Blueberries, in a bowl and several on the table

Eggs

Eggs are nutrient-dense too!  One egg has only 75 calories, 7 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fat.  They also contain carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin which help fight diseases such as macular degeneration. Egg yolks also contain choline which helps with brain development and memory.

There has been misinformation over the years about eggs because of their high cholesterol content.  However, after years of research, it has been found that saturated fat has more effect on increasing cholesterol levels and not cholesterol found in food.

baked eggs in muffin tins

Dark Chocolate

Yay! Chocolate!  Well, not just any chocolate.  Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids; however, it is recommended to choose dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids to get the most nutrients.  Dark chocolate contains flavanols that help protect the heart and lower blood pressure. Flavanols have also been shown to reduce the risk of diabetes.  Dark chocolate is also rich in iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus.

dark chocolate, a nutrient-dense food, chopped up in a bowl and a knife on the table

Avocados

Avocados have become increasingly popular over recent years partly due to their deliciousness, but also because of their nutrient density!  One serving of avocado, which is one-fifth of an avocado has 3 grams of fiber and 6 grams of healthy fats.  They are also a great source of vitamins C, E, K, B6, and folate.  And, they are also an excellent source of magnesium and potassium.

The healthy fats in avocados are monounsaturated fats which help to reduce inflammation.  Avocado’s high fiber content also helps with digestion.  The combination of healthy fats and fiber promote satiety (feeling of fullness) and may promote weight loss.

An avocado, a nutrient-dense food, cut in half

Spinach

Spinach is a great source of insoluble fiber and there are 2.2 grams of fiber in 100 grams of raw spinach.  Insoluble fiber helps with digestion and prevents constipation.  Spinach is also an excellent source of vitamin A, C, K, and folic acid.  It is also a great vegetarian source of iron and calcium.

baby spinach in a colander

Pomegranate

Pomegranates are known for having amazing nutritional benefits.  They are loaded with antioxidants which help to prevent cancer and reduce inflammation.  Studies have also shown that pomegranates can protect our hearts by lowering blood pressure and improving blood sugar levels.

a pomegranate cut in half showing seeds inside

Pomegranates are classified in the berry family and the seeds or arils are the part that is eaten.  One cup of arils has 7 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein. Also, pomegranates contain 30% of the RDI for vitamin C, 36% for vitamin K, 16% for folate, and 12% for potassium.


Quinoa

Quinoa is a seed but is classified as a whole grain in terms of nutrition.  It is high in plant protein and fiber.  Just one cup of cooked quinoa has 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.  And quinoa is also a complete protein, which also makes it unique.  This means it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids.  Another great thing about quinoa is that it is gluten-free which makes it safe for people that have celiac disease.  It is also rich in manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, folate, and thiamine.

quinoa dish made with tomatoes, oranges, and sprig of herb on top
A delicious dish made with quinoa

What are the least nutrient-dense foods?

Sweets, sugary beverages, candy, pastries, and chips are some examples of foods that generally have the least amount of nutrients.  These foods are typically called empty calorie foods as they have little to no nutritional value but are high in calories.  The calories are from refined carbohydrates, sugar, and/or saturated or trans fats.  These less nutritional foods should be limited in your diet to reduce your risk of diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.


How do you add more nutrient-dense foods to your diet?

Well, now that you know which foods are the most nutrient-dense, it will be easier to add these to your diet.  But here are some ideas to get you started.

Meal Ideas with Nutrient-Dense Foods

Eggs can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  Avocados can be sliced and eaten in a sandwich or made into guacamole.  Blueberries can be added to yogurt, oatmeal, smoothies, or pancakes for a delicious breakfast.

Spinach and kale can also be added to omelets, soups, or salads or mixed into a smoothie.  Sweet potatoes make a great side dish for lunch or dinner.  I love them in one of my favorite recipes, Herb-Roasted Vegetables.  Seaweed can be eaten as chips or with a meal at your favorite sushi restaurant.  And sprinkle pomegranate seeds onto a spinach salad.

I also recommend looking for recipes with these foods if you are unsure about how to make these foods.  Garlic is very versatile and can be added for flavor in many different recipes.  Salmon and shellfish can be a great main dish for dinner.  I love roasted salmon with vegetables such as spinach or kale.  For a super nutrient-dense meal, make roasted salmon, mashed sweet potatoes, and sauteed spinach!

And spinach makes a delicious, nutrient-dense ingredient in this Amazing Italian Sausage and Vegetable Soup!

Use the Plate Method as a Guide to Add More Nutrient-Dense Foods

plate with half vegetables, one quarter chicken, and one quarter of the plate from rice
Example of the Plate Method

Using the plate method can be a helpful way to add more nutrient-dense foods to your diet.  Half of your plate will be from non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach or kale.  Then, one-quarter of your plate is from protein such as salmon or lean protein sources such as chicken, turkey, or another type of fish.  And lastly, the remaining quarter of your plate is for a whole grain source such as quinoa or another nutrient-dense choice like sweet potatoes.  It is that easy!  Add a nutrient-dense fruit for a snack or dessert and voila!  You are well on your way to having a nutrient-dense, healthy diet.

Conclusion

Now you know some of the most nutrient-dense foods available and how to add these into your diet.  Using this information on nutrient-dense foods will help to improve your overall health.  What are some of your favorite nutrient-dense foods?  Leave your answer in the comments below.

Reference

Drewnowski A. Defining nutrient density: development and validation of the nutrient-rich foods index. J Am Coll Nutr. 2009 Aug;28(4):421S-426S. DOI: 10.1080/07315724.2009.10718106. PMID: 20368382.


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Dietitian, food lover, and world traveler! Veronica has been a registered dietitian for over 18 years, specializing in clinical and community nutrition. She enjoys wellness, trying new foods, and exploring the globe to learn about different cultures.