What is nutrient density?
In this post we will address the following:
- Do nutritious foods comprise, by definition, essential (micro) nutrients?
- What factors affect nutrient density?
- What is nutrient bioavailability?
- Inactive vs active type of micronutrients
- Examples of nutrient dense foods and why they’re healthy
- What role does micronutrient dense food consume in fat loss?
- Can processed foods be nutrient dense?
- What are the consequences of nutrient poor diets?
- Buying list for nutrient dense food
- My favourite nutrient dense recipes
What is nutrient density?
You may think answering this question is simple: food that contains many nutrients is nutrient-dense, right? I mean, just look at the label.
Actually, there’s much more to it.
If I’m being honest, the huge problem is that food labels lie. You do not get the nutrients you believe you’re getting. What you have been told about what is nutritious and what isn’t is mostly nonsense. That being said, how can we make sense of nutrient density?
We begin far back with the Paleo concept. Our ancestors evolved to eat diets that were nutritionally complete, meaning that they contained all the essential micronutrients they had to function. Only dietary fat and protein turned out to be essential, not carbohydrates.
Our ancestors did not always succeed in getting enough food or the right kind. When they didn’t, this could lead to nutrient deficiencies that cause disease and eventually be lethal. Thanks to modern science we have a good idea about what is is essential and what isn’t. However, although we’re pretty confident in what is essential and what isn’t, how much of every essential micronutrient we should have to be healthy is significantly less clear.
There are 16 essential minerals, 13 essential vitamins, 2 essential fatty acids and 20 amino acids; 9 are essential amino acids, 6 are conditionally-essential amino acids (because we do not always make enough ourselves) and are 5 non-essential amino acids (since we always make enough ourselves).
Nutrient dense foods will have both (a) abundant quantities of these micronutrients and (b) a broad range of them.
There is no one-food that has the perfect amounts of everything you need. However, the foods that make you super close! They are animal sourced foods. Which ones? And they are both keto and Paleo!
When considered separately and comparative to animal sourced foods, vegetables, nuts and fruit are not particularly nutrient dense. Indeed, they lack a complete assortment of micronutrients, especially amino acids, some minerals and vitamins as well the fatty acid DHA. Nevertheless, it’s also true that they have a reasonable bit of micronutrients which can be a good addition to one’s diet.
Nutritious foods contain, by definition, essential (micro)nutrients
We all need a certain amount of energy and micronutrients for our body to function. Without listing all of the nutrients, lets cover some important facts about nutrient density. Not all sorts of nutrients and mixtures will do.
Everybody will eventually become ill without vitamin B12, one of the essential B vitamins. The several micronutrients arose out of millions of years of development, where it was better for people to get their vitamin B12 from the environment (food) rather than make it themselves (internal mobile production).
Most of us need a certain amount of dietary fat and protein to function. Those are the essential macronutrients. It seems our brain had glucose so much that it was better for it if we produced it’on-demand’ rather than through the diet. Indeed, there is no such thing as an essential dietary carbohydrate. Additional humans evolved as apex predators searching big fatty game, and even scavenging the fatty marrow by breaking open the bones of left-over kills from other animals. It’s no surprise that this is part of why we evolved to be outstanding fat and ketone burners.
You need to eat enough protein to get those essential amino acids that help maintain your basic physiology. At least 0.8 g/kg of body weight per day is suggested to avoid dying slowly from muscle wasting . You should eat quite a bit more. Try 1.5 g/kg of body weight per day from high quality animal protein as a good starting point.
The fat known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is only found in animal sourced foods and is an essential fat. It is simple to obtain enough from fish, eggs and ruminants. Most importantly, do not eat seed oils as they’ll overwhelm DHA’s activity, so to speak. You don’t have to make any attempt to get it in your diet because it’s everywhere – in plant and animal foods. To guard against having too much AA just avoid seed oils (again). Other kinds of fats aren’t essential but they’re good energy sources, for instance the monounsaturated fat from bacon and olives or the saturated fat from beef and avocados.
What factors affect nutrient density?
It goes beyond the scope of this article to cover all essential micronutrients, so we will concentrate on the ones that people usually do not get enough of.
A food thing is nutrient-dense if it can provide adequate essential nutrients when eaten in reasonable quantities. For example, vegetables contain the inactive form of vitamin A (beta-carotene). So you may need to eat ridiculously huge volumes of carrots to cover your vitamin A demand for example. Consequently, carrots aren’t considered a dense source of vitamin A. It might displace too many other more nutrient foods that are complete.
By way of instance, 100 g of beef liver comprises sufficient retinol, the active form of vitamin A, to prolong a person’s retinol needs over a few weeks [two ]!
Few people wish to navigate that. Nutrita developed a food search engine to steer you throw this maze.
There is, of course, no single food or recipe that contains ALL essential nutrients in perfect amounts (even though a rib-eye isn’t far off…). Some foods are particularly rich in certain nutrients and there’s a simple guideline to be sure you get a good deal of those in; make high-quality animal protein that the centerpiece of your meal. That having been said, there’s more to it than that.
Bioavailability is a essential concept. It’s essentially a percentage score for how much of a nutrient you can absorb and utilize . 50% Let’s explore several of the factors that determine bioavailability.
Active versus inactive form
Most vitamins and some fatty acids come in different forms. There is an active form, which is the one which the body needs. One example: β-carotene includes a conversion rate of 3.6 to 28. It follows that getting retinol from a carrot is 360% to 2,800percent less efficient than it’s from beef liver. For this reason, it makes much more sense to cover the demand for this vitamin by ingesting the active form from animal-sourced foods.
The term distribution refers to how much each amino acid, of which there are 20, is present in a food. There are nine essential amino acids, and your body requires a particular amount of each. What does that mean when deciding on your source of protein? That means that all protein resources aren’t equal and that it is imperative to choose high-quality protein; high bioavailability of amino acids and their appropriate distribution. As a guideline, animal protein has a much higher bioavailability than plant protein. Eggs are the gold-standard as we can absorb almost all of an egg, 98 percent to be exact! Steak in contrast is about 81% bioavailable.
On a true, unsupplemented vegan diet you would not fulfill your basic amino acid requirements, however much you eat. The chief concern is methionine and glycine deficiencies. In adults these deficiencies are eventually life-threatening, but in babies, a vegetarian diet can be deadly within a year . It is important for all people, but especially vegetarians and vegans, to consume considerably more (high quality) protein than the ordinary person presently does.
Anti-nutrients are very common in plant-based foods. They stick to minerals like iron and zinc and so make it harder for our digestive system to absorb it all . Because of this, mineral values on many food labels (e.g. a pasta box) are over inflated.
Which foods are nutrient-dense?
The two prime examples of extremely nutrient-dense food are liver and eggs.
Let us start with eggs. As mentioned already, their protein is of the highest quality you can find. An egg has an ideal amino acid composition, and your body can use 98% of it to create proteins. Moreover, they provide pretty much all vitamins and minerals in acceptable amounts .
The only thing that eggs are low in, is vitamin C. Vitamin C is, however, abundant in most other foods, especially plants, so most people today get more than enough of this vitamin. Interestingly, if you stick to a low-carb or carnivorous diet, your vitamin C want decreases a lot. One reason is because the less sugar you eat, the more easily you are able to take up vitamin C from the gut since there’s less sugar present to compete with it . The other explanation is that if you eat very little sugar that your body is free to upregulate some of its own antioxidants and so relies less on dietary sources such as vitamin C. However, you can still easily obtain a great deal of vitamin C from plants on a keto diet remaining under 2% of carbs, for example from a little low-sugar fruit or a few plain old lemon juice.
Now to liver. First of all, liver is your number one source for retinol, the active form of vitamin A. Eat a slice of liver every few weeks, and you can dump any pseudo-vitamin A resources. It’s also rich in pretty much all B vitamins, potassium, choline, and even vitamin C (when cooked and fresh lightly)! On a ketogenic diet, regular use of liver covers any worries you might have about maintaining the benefit from a diet rich in in vitamin C. If you desire or need to, you can count on animal sourced foods to avoid scurvy (a vitamin C deficiency)!
Apart from these two there are of course many more nutrient-dense foods:
Avocados are a great source of potassium [9,10]. They are also excellent for a ketogenic diet since they are very high in fat and low in carbs. Vegetables are in general less nutrient-dense than animal-sourced food, because of the three reasons mentioned above: amino acid distribution, anti-nutrients and inactive forms. They also contain the inactive form (e.g. ALA) of certain essential micronutrients, like DHA. ALA is found in plants like flax seeds and DHA in animals like sardines.
This does not mean”don’t eat vegetables”. They do contain plenty of micronutrients and energy which could be healthy and taste great. However, they should never form the foundation of someone’s food pyramid since, independently, they cannot fulfill the basic needs of human biology like animal sourced foods do. Then certain veggies, fruit and starches can find their place in your diet should you respond to them nicely (most people do).
As you can see, a well-formulated paleo or ketogenic diet that’s based on animal sourced foods is mechanically very nutrient-dense.
How nutrient-dense food helps with fat loss
We all have to cover our nutrient demands. We need a certain amount of energy to survive, but we also need essential micronutrients to operate.
One idea to explain why people are fat states that they consume nutrient-poor food that’s also calorie-dense, thus keeping them hungry so that they can keep eating until micronutrient needs are met . Same thing as above but with protein; you’ll never feel complete if you do not get enough protein .
In various words, junk-food seems to be the opposite of nutrient dense, so nutrient poor. Indeed, it is simultaneously high in energy (fat or carbs), low in protein and low in micronutrients. It’s got other issues too, such as trans-fats, sugars, refined starches and oxidized oils: the ideal recipe to make you fat and sick.
Junk-food generally scores very high on the insulin index of foods (how much insulin your meals causes you to release). Junk-food is nearly always low in nutrient density. This combination is the entire reverse of foods such as meat and low-starch vegetables. Together, the vegetables and meat can form a nutrient dense meal which does not stimulate insulin excessively.
So, is there any processed food that is nutrient-dense? There surely is, in a’technical loophole’ sense. In today’s world, you can fortify anything with nutrients that are essential to make up for nutrient loss from food processing. Bread, for example, is generally fortified with vitamin B12, iron and potassium to prevent nutrient deficiencies (in vegans, for example). This form, also found in supplements, is the inactive form (hydroxocobalamin) of vitamin B12. The active form is called methylcobalamin.
The problem is you can’t simply add micronutrients to foods to make them nutrient-dense; that’s unscientific, but that’s what most food makers do. Just like you can’t pop mutis to make up for a nutrient poor diet. Another reason to avoid fortified foods is that they certainly contain oxidized seed oils and mostly consist of refined carbs. Quality olive oil doesn’t make that list, fortunately. Do yourself a big favor and get your nutrients from better resources than seed oils.
The list below is by no means complete as it goes beyond the scope of this report. However, these are the ones that most people tend to get short of, so make sure to get enough of those:
It’s vital to eat enough high-quality protein, at least 1.5 g per Kg body weight. If you tried to do that with low-quality plant-based proteins you would have to eat such large quantities of food that it would not be physically possible. This is why targeted supplementation of essential amino acids is vital in vegans and vegetarians. If you’re keto but on the plant-based spectrum then get your essential amino acids from eggs, dairy and bivalve crustaceans (a category of shellfish).
Most B vitamins are crucial for nerve function. Regrettably, nerve damage is difficult to reverse, so you need to avoid a lack of B vitamins. Most vitamin B deficiencies are rare. But one that does occur surprisingly often and more and more so as the plant-based movement develops, is vitamin B12 deficiency . All animal foods contain sufficient quantities of vitamin B12, however, you still need to check your levels as inflammatory conditions and gut dysbiosis may lower your ability to absorb vitamin B12.
Most people don’t get enough magnesium . This mineral is particularly crucial when you’re starting a low-carb diet (like keto or paleo) because you get rid of plenty of water initially and along with it significant minerals. Dark chocolate, avocados, almonds, macadamia nuts, and spinach are particularly rich in magnesium.
Choline is needed to create specific phospholipids that are a part of the plasma membrane. Plasma membranes surround every single cell in the body. Liver and eggs are both rich in choline.
Vitamin D also referred to as the sunshine vitamin, is difficult to get through winter months, especially when you’re dark skinned. Oily fish is your best source for vitamin D from food. Vitamin D also helps you to absorb certain other nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium .
Retinol has various functions in the body: your nerve cells, blood cells, skin, eyes, immune system, and bones all need this vitamin to function properly. An acute deficiency is rare, but it can be hard to get optimal amounts from foods that are fermented. Liver is undoubtedly the best source for retinol and also rich in so many different nutrients!
Most vegetables and mushrooms are excellent sources for potassium, and liver, again, is also a good source, along with fish such as halibut. The only problem is that it becomes easily lost when you boil the vegetables in water. So be certain to either use the water for something else or find an alternative method to cook your vegetables. Frying them in a pan with butter is always a good idea.
The omega-3 fat DHA is essential, and you only find it in fish, eggs, and meat. The plant-derived omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) has an abysmal conversion speed, which means you won’t have the ability to get enough essential omega-3 fatty acids from chia seeds, flax seeds or even walnuts .
Nutrita makes it easy to see which foods are nutrient-dense and also respect another healthy eating principles. This listing is just supposed to give you a basic idea of nutrient dense foods you might enjoy. A couple of them may seem unappetizing, but you’d be surprised….
- Chicken eggs
- quail eggs
- liver and other organ meats:
- brain (excellent source of omega-3 fats! )
- feet, ears, tail…
- All Types of meat (grass-fed preferred):
- bone marrow (as a side with steak or to make bone broth)
- All Types of fish and fish
- codfish (also cod liver)
- all kinds of frozen or fresh vegetables (vegetables that grow above the earth are preferred)
- spinach, salad, kale, and other leafy greens
- all kinds of mushrooms
- fresh herbs
- pili nuts
- cashews (not too many)
- berries (botanically a nut)
My Favourite nutrient-dense recipes
A nutrient-dense diet doesn’t have to be complicated. Quite the the opposite. When you merely combine seafood, fish or meat with a side of veggies, it will be hard not to create a nutrient-dense meal!
Because animal foods are the densest sources of essential nutrients, I have the perfect recipes that showcase both!
How can Nutrita’s food search engine score the ingredients in this recipe?
- Ground beef (15% fat) has a Keto score of 9/10 and Nutrient density score of 6/10
- Onion (red) includes a Keto score of 5/10 and Nutrient density score of 6/10
- Coconut lotion includes a Keto score of 9/10 and Nutrient density score of 1/10
- Coconut oil has a Keto score of 10/10 and Nutrient density score of 0/10
Average Keto score = 9/10 into 10/10
How can Nutrita’s food search engine score the ingredients in this recipe?
- Lemon juice includes a Keto rating of 6/10
Typical Keto score = 8
Typical Nutrient density = 8/10 to 9/10
Any diet which primarily consists of animal sourced food is full of essential nutrients. Plants are usually much less nutrient-dense relative to animal sourced foods, but they can continue to be healthy, mutually beneficial additions to a person’s diet. If your diet looks more like a steak with a salad and eggs than it does pizzas and smoothies, you are doing it right.
Eat seafood, fish, eggs or meat every day. And if you want to, include vegetables as you like. Or fresh herbs, they add a lot of flavor to your dish. Nuts are also a good options but seeds less so, given they are more difficult to digest and aren’t so nutrient rich. Fruit, especially low-sugar fruit makes for a excellent dessert. So go for berries rather than bananas.
As long as you’re avoiding foods that contain added sugar, flour and seed oils, and you are not shying away from animal protein, your diet is probably pretty nutrient dense!
Raphael Sirtoli is your co-founder of Nutrita, a site helping individuals grasp cutting-edge nutrition science. Nutrita is also a mobile app that helps individuals follow well-formulated low-carb diets in addition to reach their health and performance goals. His day job however is neuroscience research in the Behavioraln’ Molecular Lab where he studies the metabolic effects of antipsychotics in rodent models of schizophrenia. His understanding of metabolism, nutrition and clinical medicine forms the foundation upon which Nutrita derives its evolving knowledge. He loves open scientific debate, Crossfit, football, hiking, psychedelic medication, cold water immersion and cooking for loved ones.