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What Are Nutrient-Dense Foods [And Why Are They Important]?

Whether you're on the hunt for an afternoon snack or planning tonight's dinner menu, choosing foods high in nutrients can provide your body with the essential vitamins and minerals it may need.

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients required by the body to carry out a range of normal functions. However, these micronutrients are not produced in our bodies and must be derived from the food we eat, (Harvard T.H. Chan).

But which foods contain these important nutrients, and how can you tell if one food is more nutrient dense than the other? Before we delve into these questions, let's first make sure we have a clear understanding of what nutrient density is.

Definition of Nutrient Density

Nutrient density is the contribution of nutrients and food components per calorie. To put it more simply, nutrient dense refers to foods that have a higher nutrient ratio to its calorie count.

Think about the last time you were at the grocery store, comparing two products. For this example, let's say you had a box of white rice in one hand and brown rice in the other. 

You check each food label and notice that the calorie count is in the same ballpark, but unlike the white rice, the brown rice contains a higher percentage of vitamins and minerals, including dietary fiber, magnesium, vitamin B-6, and niacin, compared to calories per serving.  

[B]rown rice has the germ and bran intact. These parts contribute nutrients to brown rice that white rice is lacking, specifically fiber, fat, and protein. Other nutrients found in the germ and bran include numerous B-vitamins, iron, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc, (Food Network). 

With this in mind, you may decide to drop the brown rice in your cart and leave the white rice behind—as you'll be getting more nutrients per calorie with the former item. 

The big takeaway: both products contain nutrients but one is considered more nutrient dense than the other: "By consciously choosing more nutrient-dense foods, you’ll get the beneficial nutrients your body needs without consuming too many calories," (American Heart Association).

5 Nutrient-Dense Foods

If you're looking to include more nutrient-dense foods into your diet, here are a few items you'll want to consider adding to your shopping list. 


Nuts are packed with rich nutrients, including fats, fiber, and protein. Just remember to just take note of the sodium levels on the salted or roasted varieties, as these may contain more calories and sodium vs. raw nuts. 

Learn more about the benefits of making nuts a part of your diet in our recent post!

Dark Chocolate

All you chocolate enthusiasts will be pleased with this news! A bar of dark chocolate (101 g.) is high in fiber (11 grams); iron (12 mg); magnesium (230 mg); and other important minerals like zinc (3.34 gm). It's also lower in sugar (24 g) when compared to other chocolate bars and contains "flavonoids," a rich antioxidant. 

Just remember that the higher the cocoa content, the more nutrient dense it is. Experts recommend you choose dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. Also, remember that any sugary fillings, like caramel or raspberry, will compromise its nutrient density.


Salmon helps provide the high protein content (18 grams per 3 ounces) and Omega 3 fatty acids that your body needs with less saturated fat. It also contains potassium and vitamins B-12 and D. 

You can pretty much find salmon in any local grocer, and there are plenty of ways to prepare this tasty dish. But take note of whether you're choosing farm vs. wild salmon.

Believe it or not, there is a difference between the two: "A small fillet of wild salmon has 131 fewer calories and half the fat content of the same amount of farmed salmon," (Cleveland Clinic). Less calories and less saturated fat could mean higher nutrient density, so make sure you're paying attention to food labels. 

Leafy Veggies

Romaine, kale, spinach, arugula—everyone has their favorite type of lettuce. Whether you're making a salad or sandwich, lettuce is one of the easiest ways to get your daily recommended servings of vegetables. It also tastes delicious!

Most salad greens contain essential dietary nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and even water…[and] provide fiber… (Harvard Health Publishing).


Speaking of fiber, seeds offer a great source of fiber, antioxidants, and more of those essential vitamins and nutrients your body needs. Pumpkin seeds, for instance, offer a good source of the mineral zinc. Sunflower seeds, on the other hand, contain vitamin E and selenium. Both are recommended without the shell, as shell-less seeds contain more fiber. 

Nutrient Dense vs. Calorie Dense

When going through your shopping list, make sure to check nutrition labels for the types of nutrients each item contains. Next, check out the calorie count per serving. Compare this with the daily percentage of nutrients. If the daily percentage of calories is higher than the percentage of nutrients per serving, this product has low nutrient density.

For more tips on nutrient density and mindful eating, stay connected to our blog! You can also check out these fun recipes to help you plan your dinner menu for the week.