The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 advise Americans to consume primarily “nutrient-dense” foods and beverages. But what does this term actually mean?
Simply put, nutrient-dense foods are those that provide the best bang for the buck: They’re high in protein, fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, for the calories they contain. Consciously choosing more nutrient-dense foods allows people to obtain their nutrient needs without overeating and gaining unwanted weight, according to nutrition experts.
When it comes to nutrient density, how a food item or dish is prepared, either at home or in a restaurant, is key. That’s because foods that start out as nutrient-dense can quickly become less so when they’re high in saturated fats or prepared with added sugar or sodium.
Take, for example, that morning latte from a coffeehouse. Choose a drink made with just steamed nonfat milk, espresso, and no sugar, and one 12-oz latte clocks in at a nutrient-dense 110 calories—plus, it’s loaded with vitamin D, calcium, and protein. A whole-milk mocha of the same size jumps to 290 calories, chiefly from undesirable saturated fat and added sugar.
Let’s explore 10 of the most nutrient-dense foods you can consume.
Kale is one of only five foods that rated a perfect score of 1,000 on the aggregate nutrient density index (ANDI) created by physician Joel Fuhrman, MD—and with good reason. A single cup of raw kale provides 684% of the daily value (DV) for vitamin K, 206% of the DV for vitamin A , and 134% of the DV for vitamin C. It is also a good source of vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, copper, and magnesium. For just 35 calories, it packs a lot of nutritional punch.
Unlike food labels which list only a few nutrients, ANDI scores are based on 34 nutritional parameters. The other four foods that earned a perfect ANDI score? They are also leafy greens: collard greens, mustard greens, swiss chard, and watercress.
The federal dietary guidelines recommend that adults eat 8 ounces of fish or seafood per week, but not all fish is created equal. Salmon is one of the most nutrient-dense protein choices around. One 100 g portion (about 3.5 oz) of raw Atlantic farmed salmon clocks in at just 208 kcal, yet provides 20 g of high quality protein. It is also an excellent source of potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin D.
What’s more, salmon is the best source of docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid, known as “long chain” omega-3 fatty acids, according to an NIH fact sheet. These fatty acids play key roles in the body, in the structures of cell membranes, as well as aiding the cardiovascular, pulmonary, immune, and endocrine systems. Salmon is also low in methylmercury, an organic compound that is present in most fish and seafood.
A recent Cochrane review of 70 randomized clinical trials involving nearly 20,000 women found that women who consumed long chain omega-3s, such as those in salmon, during pregnancy had lower risk for preterm birth and low birth weight compared to those who did not.
Read more about the nutritional value of fish with 8 healthiest fish to eat, and 4 to avoid on MDLinx.
Also known in the United States as bok choy, this favorite stir-fry food has surprising nutritional value: A 1/2 cup provides 71% of the DV for vitamin A and 36% of vitamin C for just 10 calories. A study by the CDC found Chinese cabbage was the second most nutrient-dense produce item out of the 47 “powerhouse fruits and vegetables” studied, scoring a 91.99 out of 100. Authors defined powerhouse fruits and vegetables as those providing, on average, 10% or more of the 17 nutrients of public importance per 100 calorie portion.
A 1-cup serving of blueberries contains 4 g of fiber and is also an excellent source of vitamins C and K as well as manganese—all for just 84 calories, according to the USDA. Although blueberries are not as high in vitamins and minerals per calorie as many vegetables, their high antioxidant content makes them a superfood. Chief among these antioxidants is anthocyanin, which protects the human body from cancer-inducing free radicals, and also offers anti-inflammatory and anti-viral benefits. Wild blueberries are smaller than their cultivated counterparts but are even higher in antioxidants.
You can read more about the cancer-fighting properties and cognitive benefits of blueberries at MDLinx.
Pulses are the edible seeds from a legume plant, and include beans, lentils, and peas. These nutritional titans are loaded with protein and fiber, and are a significant source of B vitamins, and various minerals, such as iron, zinc, folate, and magnesium. In addition to being a high-protein alternative to red meat, they are also associated with myriad other health benefits.
One meta-analysis of 21 randomized controlled trials conducted in 940 overweight or obese adults found a significant weight reduction in participants whose diets included about 3/4 cup of pulses each day over six weeks, compared to those who did not consume pulses, according to the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The evidence showed that eating pulses can help people lose weight even when not following an intentionally calorie-restricted diet, the authors concluded.
Perhaps this is partly because pulses are satiating without being high in calories. Read more about beans and other foods that keep you feeling fuller longer at MDLinx.
These tasty mollusks are one of the most nutritious of the shellfish: They are very low in calories yet are an amazing source of protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. In fact, just 100 g of wild Eastern oysters provides 7 g of protein, 3 g of fat, a whopping 605% of the reference daily intake (RDI) of zinc, 324% of RDI for vitamin B12, 91% of RDI for selenium, and 223% of copper.
This member of the Allium family—also known as onion— is high in vitamins C, B1, and B6, as well as calcium, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium. Most of the health benefits of garlic, however, are a product of the sulfur compounds it forms when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed or chewed. Garlic has shown excellent health-promoting and disease-preventing effects for many human common diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, blood pressure, and diabetes, according to a recent review of 83 human clinical trials published in Antioxidants. The authors called for more study of garlic.
The current federal dietary guidelines now recommend consumption of whole eggs as part of a healthy diet. Participants in one recent study who ate whole eggs were found to have greater intakes of protein, mono- and polyunsaturated fats, iron, zinc, calcium, selenium, choline, and several other vitamins and minerals than were non-egg eaters, according to the study published in Public Health Nutrition. In addition to their important dietary contribution, eggs had either beneficial or non-significant associations with most cardiovascular risk biomarkers examined, authors concluded.
People who don’t eat fatty fish regularly can boost their fatty acid intake with omega-3-enriched eggs; they have as much as five times more of these fatty acids than conventional eggs.
Over the years, research has vacillated on the question of whether eggs are good for our health. Read about the latest research on MDLinx.
Nonfat or lowfat dairy
For just 83 calories, 1 cup of nonfat fortified dairy milk provides more than 8 g of protein, a whopping 325 mg of calcium, and up to 65% of the daily recommended allowance of vitamin D. Yet only one in 10 Americans consume the recommended amount of 3 cups of lowfat or nonfat dairy milk or the equivalent a day. As a result, close to 30% of men and 60% of women fail to consume enough calcium and more than 90% of adults fail to consume enough vitamin D, according to the dietary guidelines.
This tasty type of wheat, popular in Italy, is a nutrient-dense whole grain. A 1/2 cup of farro delivers more protein and fiber (about 3.5 g each) than a serving of brown rice. Farro also delivers a number of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, niacin, and zinc. Unlike most types of rice, farro contains no arsenic, which is a potent carcinogen.
For more nutritional information, see These food-sourced nutrients beat supplements for longer, healthier life on MDLinx.