“You are what you eat.”
It’s been a saying in the health and nutrition industry for years, and for good reason: the foods we consume are the building blocks of our lifestyle. The foods we eat shape the way we act and feel.
However, not all food is created equal, and eating for health means knowing which ones provide the most nutritional value.
Today, unhealthy ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have come to dominate grocery store shelves, making it critical to search for nutrient-dense, whole-food options on our own.
The big food and beverage companies don’t make it any easier. 68% of the US food supply is categorized as “hyper-palatable,” made with levels of sugar, sodium, or carbohydrates that make them addictive to humans
Yet, an average of 1,600 Americans die from chronic diet-related illnesses, primarily obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, daily.
To help you understand how a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet leads to a healthier lifestyle and helps you feel better, we look into nutrient-dense options and how they affect your body.
What are Nutrient-Dense Foods?
Nutrient-dense foods are rich in health-promoting vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, healthy fats, and other essential nutrients while remaining relatively low in caloric content.
They’re generally unprocessed and whole, providing your body with all the nutrients it needs to maintain good health.
Benefits of Nutrient-Dense Foods
Nutrient-dense foods provide more bang for your calorie buck. Here are some of the most significant benefits.
These foods are typically lower in calories and higher in nutrients, aiding in weight management by promoting satiety and reducing the risk of overeating. Reaching your macro and nutrition goals while limiting caloric intake will help you maintain a healthy weight.
Meeting macro goals
Nutrient-dense foods help you meet your macronutrient goals more efficiently as they are packed with proteins, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates in appropriate proportions. For hybrid athletes who need to balance strength and endurance, nutrient-dense foods are essential for the energy production that a demanding training regimen requires.
Well-balanced nutrition for overall health
Nutrient-dense foods provide a wide range of essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants vital for optimal health and bodily functions. The vitamins, minerals, and fiber contribute to overall well-being, including healthy skin, hair, and nails, while providing nutrients for optimal brain function and mood regulation.
Improved energy levels
Nutrient-dense foods supply the body with a steady stream of energy, keeping you energized throughout the day and enhancing both physical and mental performance.
Muscle growth and repair
Consuming adequate protein and vitamins from nutrient-dense sources supports muscle growth, repair, and recovery after workouts, helping you achieve your fitness goals.
Reduced risk of chronic diseases
Nutrient-dense foods contain antioxidants and phytochemicals that combat inflammation, oxidative stress, and cellular damage, reducing the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
Enhanced immune function
A well-nourished body with nutrient-dense foods supports the immune system, providing a better defense against illnesses and infections.
Longevity and aging gracefully
Nutrient-dense foods are associated with a lower risk of age-related diseases and can contribute to a longer, healthier life by nourishing the body from within.
Making nutrient-dense foods a part of your daily diet can help you enjoy the benefits listed above, helping you achieve optimal health and well-being. Look for natural sources of food that are high in nutrition and low in calories to get the most out of your diet.
10 Nutrient-Dense foods to add to your diet
The following are some of the most nutrient-dense foods to incorporate into your diet:
Salmon is a nutrient-dense food rich in protein, healthy fats, and nutrients to reduce the risk for several diseases.
It contains plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins, potassium, and selenium. Salmon also provides astaxanthin, which reduces inflammation.
Its omega-3 fatty acids content, particularly, is worth mentioning as they have been linked to various health benefits such as reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of heart disease.
Protein: 22 grams
Fat: 9 grams (including omega-3 fatty acids)
Carbohydrates: 0 grams
Fiber: 0 grams
Sugar: 0 grams
Something to note when food shopping: farmed salmon has higher fat content, Omega-3s, and 46% more calories (mostly from fat). Wild salmon delivers more minerals, including potassium, zinc, and iron, making it a better option in terms of nutrient density.
Beef Liver is one of the most nutrient-dense foods available. It’s high in protein and an excellent source of iron, vitamins C, D, A, E, and K, zinc, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, manganese, iron, chromium, & all of the B vitamins.
Beef Liver is considered to be the most nutrient-dense food on the planet.
According to the USDA, a 4-ounce (113g) serving of beef liver provides:
It is worth noting that beef liver is also a rich source of other B vitamins, such as riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacin (vitamin B3), and pantothenic acid (vitamin B5). These vitamins play crucial roles in energy production, metabolism, and other physiological processes.
Leafy Greens (Kale, Spinach, Collard Greens, etc.)
Leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, watercress, and arugula, are among the most nutrient-dense foods that provide loads of vitamins and minerals.
They’re an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins C, A, and K, while also containing calcium, magnesium & manganese.
Take kale, for example – according to the USDA, a 1-cup (20.6) serving is only 35 calories, making them a great addition to your meals at great volumes. This will help you feel more full and satisfied while it delivers the nutrients you need for optimal health.
Eggs are a powerhouse of nutrients and have been one of the healthiest parts of the human diet for centuries.
They’re an excellent source of vitamin D, choline, lutein, zeaxanthin, omega-3, vitamin B-12, iron, vitamin B2 and B5, vitamin A, vitamin E, phosphorus, folate, selenium, iodine, & HDL cholesterol, and of course, protein.
According to the USDA, one large egg contains the following nutrients:
Steak is a terrific source of protein, but you’ll also find vitamin B, zinc, selenium, iron, niacin, phosphorus, creatine, taurine, glutathione, and conjugated linoleic acid. It’s a great muscle builder and an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals.
Take top sirloin steak, for example – the USDA shows that a 3-ounce portion of cooked steak contains the following:
Blueberries are a nutrient-rich superfood that delivers an impressive array of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese, and potassium. Blueberries are also known for being loaded with antioxidants, including anthocyanins, flavonoids, and other polyphenols that can help protect against oxidative damage.
According to the USDA, a one-cup serving of blueberries provides the following nutrients:
Seaweed, the vegetable of the sea, is an easy way to add essential vitamins and minerals to your diet. They have many antioxidants like iodine, iron, folate, riboflavin, calcium, vitamins B2 and B12, magnesium, and thiamin.
According to the USDA, 2 tbsp of dried seaweed provides the following nutrients:
What’s typically an underrated ingredient, garlic is one of the best ingredients for a health and immune boost. The superfood provides vitamins C, B1, and B6, calcium, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium.
Garlic is rich in allicin, a sulfur compound and powerful antioxidant that has been found to fight inflammation, reduce cholesterol, and prevent cancer.
Similar to salmon, sardines are a type of fish that provides essential omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are linked to healthy heart and brain function and can help reduce inflammation in the body.
Sardines are the only fish you can eat and contain almost every nutrient your body needs.
According to the USDA, 4 sardines provide the following:
Shellfish like clams, mussels, and oysters are packed with nutrition. They are a terrific source of B vitamins, mainly B12, vitamin C, potassium, selenium, and iron.
An example of shellfish, 3 oz of cooked scallops, according to the USDA contain the following nutrients:
One last VTLZR tip: Be careful with your oils and sauces when cooking. Using options like canola or corn oil can spoil the nutritional value of a dish, so be sure to use healthier oil alternatives.
Instead, use healthier options like avocado oil, olive oil, pesto, or lemon juice to add flavor and nutrients to your meals.
Time to take action for your health!
Replacing processed foods with nutrient-dense meals is one of the most powerful steps to achieve optimal health.
To get started, visit your local grocery store and consider adding some of these nutrient-rich options to your shopping list. These 10 foods are just a few of the many tasty, nutrient-dense options available, and like any habit or lifestyle change, these tiny changes can have lasting benefits over time.
This will help you keep your nutrient intake high without having to worry about hidden sugars, unhealthy fats, and other chemicals.
To get started, choose 2-3 foods above and incorporate them into your meals every week, replacing less nutritional foods, and you will see the benefits in no time.
Not sure where to start? Speak to a nutritionist or registered dietitian for personalized tips to help you reach your health goals.