Christine Patrick, County Extension EFNEP Agent
Why is an apple a better choice than a bag of pretzels? They have roughly the same number of calories, but nutrients count, too. The apple provides fiber, Vitamin C, and potassium for an equal number of calories. Therefore, the apple has a higher nutrient density. A serving of watermelon and a 12-ounce soft drink both have 150 calories. However, watermelon is more nutrient-dense because it has Vitamin C and fiber. Soft drinks contain only simple sugars or “empty calories.”
What is nutrient density? It is a measure of the nutrients provided per calorie of food or the ratio of nutrients to calories (energy). Foods that supply generous amounts of one or more nutrients compared to the number of calories they supply are called nutrient dense. Eggs, for example, have a high nutrient density, because they provide protein and many vitamins and minerals in proportion to their calories. Nutrient density is a way of evaluating the nutritional quality of food by comparing the number of nutrients supplied to the number of calories supplied.
The following foods are nutrient-dense:
- Fruits and vegetables that are bright or deeply-colored
- Foods that are fortified
- Lower fat versions of meats*, milk, dairy products, and eggs
*A 3-oz. serving of meat provides about 160-200 calories plus significant amounts of many key nutrients such as protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. By comparison, a snack food or soft drink with essentially the same number of calories per serving is very low or lacking in most nutrients (especially micronutrients) other than fat and/or carbohydrate. Therefore, meat is a “nutrient-dense” food while snack foods are not.
Less nutrient-dense foods may:
- be lighter or whiter in color
- contain a lot of refined sugars
- be refined products (white bread as compared to whole grains)
- contain high amounts of fat for the number of nutrients compared to similar products (fat-free milk vs. ice cream**)
**Milk is denser than ice cream in calcium per calorie. A cup of fat-free milk has about twice the calcium as a cup of ice cream; however, the milk only contains 85 calories and the ice cream has more than 350 calories.
Nutrient-Dense: These foods provide more nutrients and generally fewer calories per unit volume. They are loaded with the nutrients that we need to thrive (e.g. fruits, vegetables, whole grains).
Energy-Dense: These foods provide more calories (energy) per unit of volume than nutrient-dense foods. Although energy-dense sounds healthy, it is not, because these “empty calories” primarily come from refined sugars and fat.
The Better Choice: A nutrient-dense food is generally a better choice than a less nutrient-dense food or an energy-dense food with the same number of calories. If you have a certain number of calories to eat, try to choose foods with more nutrients. For example, make these healthier food choices:
- potato instead of potato chips
- a banana instead of a soda
- fruit instead of cake
- extra vegetables instead of a dinner roll
- vegetable snacks instead of candy and sodas
- whole grain bread rather than white bread
Maker nutrient density work for you. Increase the number of nutrients in the foods you eat OR decrease the energy (calorie) content or both. Nutrient density lets you eat more food so that you feel fuller for a longer time.
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