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Calorie Density: Why nutrient-dense foods are better for you - plus tips to improve your intake!

By Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN

September 20th, 2020

What is Calorie Density?

Simply put, it is the number of calories in a specified volume or weight of food.

For example, imagine you have 1 ounce each of potato chips and steamed broccoli. Both foods weigh the same, however, the serving of potato chips likely has 15x more calories, more sodium and lacks other beneficial nutrients compared to the serving of broccoli!

Okay… this is a cliché, black-and-white example, but it brings the point across easily.

Nutrient density

Not only are the potato chips in the above example high in calories, but it is an empty calorie food, which means it gives a lot of calories with no other nutritional value!

Nutrient-dense foods, however, are packed with essential nutrients per serving and are prepared with little or no solid fats, added sugars, refined starches or sodium.

What are the most nutritionally dense foods?

All fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, meat/seafood, and low-fat dairy

products are nutrient-dense foods – when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium!

Ideally, these foods and beverages are also in forms that retain their natural components, such as dietary fiber.

Some nutrient dense foods are high in calories and are healthy for you (for example, nuts)

The benefits of consuming nutrient-dense foods

·Greater satiety and weight management - nutrient dense foods low in calories contain high amounts of water and fiber that are more filling, potentially reducing the consumption of empty calorie foods

· Adequate nutrient intakes - provide vitamins, minerals, and other substances that may have positive health effects

· Prevention of chronic diseases - a diet high in nutrient dense foods is associated with the prevention

How can I eat more nutrient-dense foods? 5 simple ways to increase your intake!

Tip #1: Smoothies – Not a fan of salads? Add vegetables to your favorite smoothie to increase your fiber, vitamin and mineral intake Pro-tip: Include a banana to naturally sweeten your drink and load you up with potassium (heart-healthy!)

Tip #2: Diversify your plate! - Include a source of protein, whole grain and non-starchy vegetable at each meal to increase the variety of nutrients consumed!

Tip #3: Spice up your snack life! - Snack time is a great opportunity to slip in some nutrient-boosting food combos to keep your energy levels high!

Try apple + peanut butter...don't knock it until you've tried it!

(Get the 411 on snacking here)

Tip #4: Swap, swap - Choose whole grain instead of refined flour products when possible to increase both fiber and B vitamins!

Tip #5: Limit your consumption of empty calorie foods (no restrictive dieting here) and continue to find balance in your nutritional habits

To conclude...

Choosing foods based solely on calorie density is not a sure way to manage your eating habits (remember that nuts are high in calories but are also nutrient-dense).

However, it is a simple guide that can help you to make more mindful food selections by shifting empty calorie food and beverage choices (high in solid fats, added sugars, refined starches, or sodium) to more nutrient-dense options!



Selecting Nutrient-Dense Foods for Good Health, Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2016

Mahan K. Krause’s Food and the Nutrition Care Process. In: 13th ed. ; 2012.

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