What does nutrient-dense mean?

Research suggests that the standard American diet is energy-rich and nutrient-poor. You've heard the term "empty calories" — it refers to foods that provide a lot of calories without much nutritional value.

The basic concept of nutrient density is the amount of nutrients you get for the calories you consume. By choosing more nutrient-dense foods, you'll get the beneficial nutrients your body needs without consuming too many calories.

Nutrient-dense foods are often high in dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron and potassium and lower in saturated fat, added sugars and sodium. These include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, non-fat and low-fat dairy, fish and seafood, unprocessed lean meat and skinless poultry, nuts and legumes. 

A balanced approach

Focus on your overall eating pattern, rather than individual nutrients or specific food groups. A heart-healthy dietary pattern includes:

  • Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Choosing whole grains
  • Selecting healthy sources of protein, mostly from plant sources (legumes and nuts), fish or seafood, low-fat or nonfat dairy, and lean cuts of meat
  • Limiting red and processed meats, sodium, added sugars, and alcohol

Identifying nutrient-dense foods

Nutrient profiling is the science of ranking or classifying foods based on the nutrients they contain. Informational tools, like the Nutrition Facts label and American Heart Association's Heart-Check mark, provide consumers with a way to compare products and choose the best options available. These tools consider beneficial and often under-consumed nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber, as well as those known to negatively affect health when consumed in excess (added sugars, saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium). Be sure to read the whole label when identifying nutrient-dense foods.

For a food to be considered a "good" source of a nutrient, it must have between 10% and 19% of the daily value per serving, according to the FDA. A food is considered an "excellent" nutrient source if it provides over 20% of the daily value per serving.

Learn how to calculate nutrient density.

Adding nutrient-dense foods to your eating plan

  • Switch from white rice to brown rice
  • Replace sugary drinks with water, unsweetened tea, or coffee
  • Instead of a big dollop of sour cream on your chili or baked potato, try plain nonfat Greek yogurt
  • When adding toppings to pizza, tacos or sandwiches, think one more veggie instead of meat or cheese
  • Snack on crunchy vegetables or a handful of nuts instead of chips
  • Satisfy a sweet tooth with naturally sweet fruit instead of candy and cookies

Learn more about the importance of eating more nutrient-dense foods.