What is nutrient density and why is it so important?

Like anything involving density, nutrient density means how much you get of one thing, given the presence of something else. In the case of nutrient density, the “things” you receive, the nutrients, are analyzed in relationship to how much they “cost” you, in terms of calories. Simply stated, nutrient density means how many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains.
Nutrient density is a simple way to connect nutrients with calories.

Let’s begin with this analogy to understand better how Nutrients work:

Imagine that we are building a house and we have workers, tools and the heavy equipment. But no construction materials have yet arrived. The workers are paid by the hour, so working or not, they ain’t too worried about the situation.

Time goes.  Equipment sits idle.  The workers are starting to take naps and be lazy.

After a while,  a truck arrives with construction materials.  The lazy workers descend upon the material and finally, we can see some progress.

But it quickly gets noticed that some one forgot to order the little things that has now put a halt to any construction: No nails, no screws, no brackets of any kind. Not a single piece of hardware to be found in the delivery.

So still nothing is getting or is ever going to get slung together, anytime soon.

The moral of the story?

That confluence of construction workers, tools, and heavy equipment is your body.

That truckload of construction materials are the macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat).

And all that hardware that has everyone at a standstill are the micronutrients; the vitamins, minerals and phytonutrient density packaged within the macronutrients.

More nutrients for less calories

Nutrient density refers to the level of nutrition per some specific volume of food. Nutrient dense foods give you the most nutrients for the fewest amount of calories. They give you the “biggest bang for the buck.” You get lots of nutrients, and it doesn’t cost you much in terms of calories.

Eating nutrient dense foods is one of the healthiest ways to eat

Eating nutrient dense foods is one of the healthiest ways that anyone can eat. No principle is more likely to support healthy eating than the principle of nutrient density. It gives you concentrated amount of valuable nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids and phytonutrients, to name a few.

How Nutrient Density Works

Let’s use an example to explain it. You’re hungry, and it’s still a few hours before lunch, so you decide you want snacking. You can choose either a cup of carrot slices to four saltine crackers.

Both snacks have about 50 calories, but the carrots have many more nutrients for the same number of calories. The carrots are nutrient dense they have more vitamins, fiber, and phytochemicals. The fiber in the carrots will fill your stomach and keep you satisfied until dinner. The crackers are energy-dense, they have lots of calories, but they don’t have many nutrients. Eating crackers can easily lead to eating a fifth one, and possibly a sixth. Sure, it tastes good, but your body might pay quite a price later for this immediate gratification.

Compare nutrient density to energy density by evaluating the number of calories in each food by weight or volume, or portion size.

How do think the body compensates for this lack of nutrient density?

It manipulates the hunger signal so as to consume more volume.  An excess of empty calories, whether they come from, gets stored as fat.

Energy Density vs. Nutrient Density

Foods that are energy dense have lots of calories per serving. The calories may come from protein, fat, or carbohydrates.

Foods that are nutrient dense have high levels of nutrients per serving. Nutrient dense refers to the amount of vitamins, minerals, and/or protein in a food.

Some foods can be energy dense and provide few nutrients, while other foods can be nutrient dense but provide little energy or calories. Foods for the older adult who has lost weight should target both energy and nutrient density.

Finding Nutrient-Dense Foods

When it comes to your grocery, you have to try to make smart choices reading the labels. You’ll find the Nutrition Facts labels on the backs or sides of the packages. Look at the serving sizes, note the number of calories per serving, and see the amount of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals, and see which one has the better combination of lower calories, more nutrients, and less saturated fat, added sugar, and sodium.

Some packaged foods could look more convenient, price wise. And Nutrient-Dense foods may be more expensive than the energy-dense packaged foods, but you have to think that you are buying more nutrition for that price.

How Does Nutrient density Affect Sports Performance? 

Nutrients are necessary for overall bodily function, from a healthy immune and digestive system to providing energy and to help us recover. There can be little contention that nutrients are important for athletes looking to repeatedly stress their bodies and recover on a frequent basis.

There are three main areas that a nutrient-dense diet will benefit athletes:


Athletes need fuel which their body can process and convert to energy. Appropriate sources depend on the goals. A sprinter’s needs, for example, are different from an IRONMAN triathlete’s needs, but all athletes will benefit from nutrient-dense foods which the body is able to recognize and metabolize.


Consuming the full range of essential amino acids is necessary for muscle repair and growth.


Nutrient-dense foods will make you feel fuller for longer. Many studies have shown that someone on a diet high in nutrients will consume fewer calories. They’ll also have a lesser impact on blood sugar levels and subsequent insulin response.

High nutrient density diet and Hunger

One of the common barriers to weight loss is the uncomfortable sensation of hunger that drives overeating and makes dieting fail, even in those who are obese from over-consumption of calories. 

The micronutrient quality of the diet even in the context of a substantially lower caloric intake dramatically mitigates the experience of hunger. A diet high in micronutrients appears to decrease food cravings and overeating behaviors. Sensations such as fatigue, weakness, stomach cramps, tremors, irritability and headaches, commonly interpreted as “hunger”, resolve gradually for the majority of people who adopt a high nutrient density diet, and a new, less distressing, sensation (which we label “true” or “throat” hunger) replaces it.

A study conducted in 2010 by Joel Fuhrman, Steve Acocell, Barbara Sarter and Dale Glaser: Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet; were analysed the changes in experience and perception of hunger before and after participants shifted from their previous usual diet to a high nutrient density diet.


This descriptive study was conducted with 768 participants primarily living in the United States who had changed their dietary habits from a low micronutrient to a high micronutrient diet. Participants completed a survey rating various dimensions of hunger (physical symptoms, emotional symptoms, and location) when on their previous usual diet versus the high micronutrient density diet.


Highly significant differences were found between the two diets in relation to all physical and emotional symptoms as well as the location of hunger. Hunger was not an unpleasant experience while on the high nutrient density diet, was well tolerated and occurred with less frequency even when meals were skipped. Nearly 80% of respondents reported that their experience of hunger had changed since starting the high nutrient density diet, with 51% reporting a dramatic or complete change in their experience of hunger.


A high micronutrient density diet mitigates the unpleasant aspects of the experience of hunger even though it is lower in calories. Hunger is one of the major impediments to successful weight loss. Their findings suggest that it is not simply the caloric content, but more importantly, the micronutrient density of a diet that influences the experience of hunger. It appears that a high nutrient density diet, after an initial phase of adjustment during which a person experiences “toxic hunger” due to withdrawal from pro-inflammatory foods, can result in a sustainable eating pattern that leads to weight loss and improved health. A high nutrient density diet provides benefits for long-term health as well as weight loss.

*This article has informational purposes only, even if this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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