In 2017, Molly Bremer, MS, RD, a counter diet nutritionist with Mind Body Health in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia embarked on a cross-country bike ride with the nonprofit Bike & Build. “While on the road, we ate the most profitable foods to save money and space in our support van,” she says.
What are the most popular foods? And why should you choose them even when you’re not pedaling or running across the country? Nutrient-rich foods essentially pack macronutrients, micronutrients, and other health-promoting properties into one bite. And whether you have a small space at home or the largest pantry in the land, it’s always a smart move to try and fill your meal plan with nutrient-dense foods.
To get the full plate on what nutrient density means, and which foods top the list, we asked nutritionists to weigh in so you can stack your plate.
What foods are rich in nutrients?
“The American Heart Association says a food is nutrient rich if it provides the maximum amount of nutrients per calorie, and I think that’s a very accurate definition,” confirms Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN..Dobbs Ferry, a New York-based registered dietitian and author juice plan. “If you think of a basic sugar cookie, it’s about 180 calories, but doesn’t provide any important nutrients—other than the delicious taste! But one ounce of almonds, which has 170 calories, brings plenty of nutrients to the party, including It contains plant-based protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamin E, making it a nutrient-dense food.”
While there is no consensus on what makes something qualify as a “nutrient-dense food,” most nutritionists agree that it refers to something you consume that provides a significant amount of health-promoting qualities per calorie. This could be via vitamins, minerals, fiber (a type of carbohydrate that provides many health benefits), antioxidants, or some other health-promoting ingredient.
“Nutrients fundamentally support our growth and function in life,” Bremer says.
High-calorie foods can be nutrient-dense too, but most of the best nutrient-dense foods are relatively low in calories per longevity-promoting nutrient—making them a wise choice for those who want to lose weight, gain weight or stay on the scale. The nutritional information of your diet as a whole affects not only your energy levels, but also your immune system, strength, risk of chronic disease, mood and more — all important details for everyone, but athletes in particular.
How do you know if something is nutrient dense?
Contrary to those cliched claims about something being “100% vegan” or “cholesterol-free food,” the chances of a “nutrient-dense food” appearing on the label are very slim. So how do you know if food falls under this umbrella?
An ingredient is technically a “good source” of a nutrient if it provides 10 percent of the daily value (DV), and is an “excellent source” of 20 percent of the daily value, according to the Food and Drug Administration’s nutritional labeling laws. This refers only to micronutrients and macronutrients, however, it does not refer to details such as healthy fats and antioxidants.
The FDA also has a standard definition of “healthy” (it’s important to note that many nutrition professionals think this is a bit outdated because we now know that the association of dietary cholesterol with negative health outcomes is different from what we understood in the 1990s):
- Contains 10% or more of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein or fiber
- Low in fat and saturated fat
- Less than 480 mg of sodium per serving
- Less than 60 mg of cholesterol per serving
It’s really just a matter of weighing the many factors and determining which aspects are most important to you, including calories, ingredients, level of processing, and health-promoting properties of the food.
All that said, you don’t need to Just Consume foods rich in nutrients. “As a counter-diet and eating-compatible dietitian, I believe there are a lot of nuances in nutrient density. There are no “good” or “bad” foods, so if you want cake, eat it! Bremer says.
Just aim to eat the foods that make you feel your best most of the time, and sprinkle them in the delicious ones. Most of the nutrients below will likely help you run stronger and live longer.
5 nutrient-dense foods to add to your grocery list
“It can be overwhelming to make decisions about food, so one thing I share with clients is that the closer to the source they can get it, the more nutrients it provides,” Bremer says.
In addition to the usual superfoods you know and love like blueberries, oats, and beans—which will top the list of nutrient-dense foods thanks to their blend of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—here are a handful of surprisingly nutrient-packed foods that Bremer and Largeman Roth recommend that contestants, in particular, add to their plates. as soon as possible.
Another note: Don’t forget to eat highly nutritious vegetables like spinach, broccoli, kale and peppers. It’s low in calories so it’s not the best energy booster before the long run or for building muscle afterward, but it does provide carbohydrates for recovery, is hydrating, and provides plenty of health-promoting properties that you need. You will miss out if you don’t eat this food group.
Only three to five dried or fresh figs count as a serving of fruit, making this one of the best nutrient-rich products of choice for busy, on-the-go runners. (Bonus: dried figs are great fuel halfway up and leave you no waste!)
According to the USDA, every 5 servings of dried figs provide the following:
- 105 calories
- ½ gram of fat
- 1 microgram protein
- 27 grams of carbohydrates
- 4 g fiber
In addition, you get enough calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.
For post-run protein, you can’t do much better than sliced sustainable salmon, says Largeman-Roth. It’s rich in omega-3 fats that promote heart health, brain health, and muscle growth, plus, according to the USDA, a 3-ounce serving of raw salmon:
- 110 calories
- 4 grams of fat
- 19 g protein
Salmon also contains potassium, phosphorous, selenium, magnesium, choline, and vitamin A.
“Eggs are a great source of protein and fat, as well as B vitamins and choline. All of these factors help keep our energy levels stable and make sure our brains are working properly, which is important when we’re out there on the open road,” says Bremer.
Largeman-Roth loves crackers so much, she refers to eggs as the “perfect food.” Even better: Eggs are easy to cook quickly, or hard-boiled eggs can be kept in the refrigerator for easy refueling.
In addition to some phosphorous, potassium, selenium, choline, and vitamin A, the USDA says that one large egg provides:
- 70 calories
- 5 grams of fat
- 6 g protein
4. Nuts and Nut Butter
Sure, there are 16 grams of fat or so per serving, but these are “essentially heart-healthy fats,” as Largeman-Roth emphasizes. Nut butters are also rich in vegetable proteins and potassium that prevents cramps. This nutrient-rich food is remarkably versatile. Try it on crackers or apple slices, on toast alongside banana slices, inside a sandwich with jam, rolled into a smoothie, or blended into a bowl of oats. Or you can eat it with a spoon.
The USDA says that every 2 tablespoons of creamy peanut butter contains:
- 190 calories
- 16 grams of fat
- 7 g protein
- 8 grams of carbohydrates
- 2 g fiber
Peanut butter also provides some calcium, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium and selenium.
5. Greek Yogurt
“Put a layer of yogurt parfait on a delicious breakfast before your run or as a post-workout snack to get a balance of the three macronutrients while also getting potassium and calcium, which help replenish electrolytes and build strong bones,” says Bremer.
High in protein, bone-boosting calcium, and gut-healthy probiotics, one 5-ounce container of plain Greek yogurt provides:
- 90 calories
- ½ gram of fat
- 16 g protein
- 6 grams of carbohydrates
Minimum nutrient-dense food
Once you know which foods are rich in nutrients, you can incorporate them into your daily meals and snacks by keeping them on hand, suggests Largeman-Roth. But don’t be afraid to mix things up.
“Just because eggs are amazing, it doesn’t mean you should have them in every meal and snack. Same goes for peanut butter,” says Largeman-Roth. And different benefits of nutrients.” The same rule of switching things applies to vegetables, fruits, and whatever else you put on your plate. You want to eat a variety of foods so you get a variety of nutrients.
Also keep in mind that nutrient density is only one component of the whole plate picture—it’s also important to eat enough overall, Bremer adds.
“As a dietitian, I explain this to my clients by imagining a pyramid: at the bottom there is enough [enough calories]Followed by balance, variety, and finally individual foods. “The main goal of eating is to fuel our bodies, so enough is at the bottom of the base,” Bremer says. “Just like in a video game, in order to ‘level up’, you have to complete the first stage from the bottom to get to the top.”
While it may seem wise to eat only nutrient-dense foods, and it’s true that they should make up the majority of your diet, don’t forget to leave room for foods that may not be nutrient-dense but provide something very important: the pleasure. “Life is too short to enjoy it,” says Largeman-Roth.
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