Nutrient density

Explaining Nutrient Density and Why It’s Important

Most of us are aware that reducing our consumption of unhealthy and overly processed food products is important when it comes to overall health.

But our dietary choices have a bigger impact than many people realize, both in the short and long term. 

This is especially important to realise when it comes to the nutritional value of what we put in our bodies. Here we look at nutrient density, how it works and why it matters so much to long-term wellbeing.

Understanding Nutrient Density and How it Works

We require a range of different nutrients to lead a healthy life. Any food will contain a combination of different nutrients and how much there is of each, and how much we have daily, can be significant for our overall health.

We generally split nutrients into two different types. 

  • Macronutrients are the big ticket food elements that most of us understand – things like protein, carbohydrate and fat. 
  • Micronutrients are a range of different compounds, including vitamins, amino acids and minerals that are required in small amounts to help with the normal functioning of the body. 

It’s the latter subsection that is important when it comes to nutrient density. These compounds cannot be created by the body and need to be obtained mostly from food.

Macronutrients can be found in the body. We can, for example, draw on energy from the fat stored in cells to produce energy to keep us going.

To live healthily, we require regular intake of important minerals such as sodium and potassium or the amino acids that are commonly found in proteins. There are some 40 different micronutrients that are essential for normal metabolic functioning. These range from Vitamins A, B12, C and D. 

Nutrient deficiency can cause potential health problems. For example: 

  • Not getting enough vitamin C can cause chronic issues such as increased fat around the waist and higher blood pressure. 
  • Too little magnesium in the diet has been shown to impact mental health and is linked to developing cardiovascular disease. 

An apple is nutrient-dense – it’s full of the important compounds we need and also provides a good deal of fiber which is essential for gut health. A cookie is full of sugar, not much in the way of micronutrients and may satisfy our hunger but does little to boost our health.

Nutrient Density vs Energy Density

The aforementioned example of an apple compared with a cookie shows the difference between nutrient density and energy density. An apple is probably no more than 80 calories. A cookie will be around 200 calories depending on how it was made. That cookie is likely to produce a short-term energy boost but it will not provide the individual with the vital nutrients that they need, for example, to promote healthy cell growth. 

Some foods, of course, are both nutrient-dense and energy-dense – cheese is one of these as it contains high amounts of fat but also a variety of vital vitamins and minerals.

Why Nutrient Density Matters

These days people are living longer than ever before but we are also more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes or cancer. Many believe this has a lot to do with the dietary choices that we make in the modern world. 

Head into any supermarket store and the shelves will be full of processed foods and unhealthy options high in sugar and low in micronutrients. 36% of the average American diet today contains just sugar and oil, both of which have little nutritional value and an excess of which can cause huge health problems in the long term. 

A third of Americans today are deficient in at least one micronutrient that is essential for healthy bodily function – this statistic includes children as well as adults. 

Eating too many overly processed and sugar-rich foods and too few nutrient-dense food items has undoubtedly led to a huge increase in obesity over the last 50 years, together with an increase in the number of people suffering from the many health issues associated with being overweight and, in particular, being obese.

Examples of Nutrient-dense Foods and How to Identify Them

The good news is there are plenty of nutrient-dense foods available and it’s relatively easy to incorporate these into any daily diet. It’s not just a case of choosing these particular foods, however. 

We need to reduce our consumption of low-value foods that may well fill a psychological void but do little for the overall health of the human body. Fresh vegetables and fruits like apples, pears, tomatoes, broccoli and carrots are all nutrient-dense. Oily fish such as salmon and mackerel contain important omega oils which are good for a healthy heart. 

Many food manufacturers are beginning to see the benefits of diet and are changing the way they make food, which is good news. If individuals are regularly buying pre-packaged food, it’s important that they learn to check labels and look at calories per serving, how much sugar is included and what other nutrients are present in the product.

Nutrient dense foods