What Is Nutrient Density and Why Is It Important?

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Something I talk about lot here on the blog and with a lot of my patients and clients is nutrient-density. But what does that really mean? 

Nutrient density is the concentration of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, essential fatty acids, and essential amino acids) per calorie of food. A food that is nutrient-dense has a range of micronutrients (or a lot of one specific micronutrient) relative to the number of calories it contains. Nutrient density is the reason why many foods get classified as superfoods. 

Another important factor in determining what constitutes a nutrient dense food is how easily the nutrients contained in a food are actually absorbed by our body. For example, carrots are often cited as a good source of vitamin A, but the the source of the vitamin A in them is beta-carotene, which we cannot use directly. We have to convert beta-carotene into the usable source, retinol, first. To complicated things further, this conversion isn't very efficient in most people, and it takes a ton of beta-carotene to make just one unit of retinol. So eating one cup of carrots delivers closer to 30% of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A and not the 400+% suggested on the bag. But if you eat one ounce of chicken liver, you can get over 60% of your recommended daily amount of vitamin A.  

The point simply being that it's not always obvious which foods are the most nutrient dense option. But the best way to get the most overall nutrient density is to eat a variety of these nutrient-dense foods. 

Micronutrient Deficiencies

Why is this even important? 

Because micronutrient deficiency is becoming a huge issue for developed countries and is gaining traction as an underlying cause of disease. Your body needs about 40 different micronutrients to function properly. Most of us think of third world countries when we think of nutrient deficiencies. But the statistics for the micronutrient status of Americans is pretty grim:

  • 70% aren't getting enough vitamin D
  • 60% don't get enough vitamin E
  • 61% don't get enough magnesium
  • 73% aren't getting enough zinc

And those are just a few of the nutrients that are important to us. The even scarier part of those numbers is that they include foods that are fortified (listen to episode #12 of The Paleo NP Podcast to learn more of my thoughts on fortified foods). 

Why Do Micronutrients Matter?

What do micronutrient deficiencies mean for your health? In general, poor micronutrient status has been linked to the development of many chronic and autoimmune illnesses. There is also a huge body of research linking specific nutrient deficiencies to specific health problems:

  • B vitamin deficiency (specifically B9) is linked to heart disease. 
  • Zinc deficiency is linked to poor immune function
  • Vitamin A deficiency is linked to poor vision and other vision problems
  • Vitamin D and selenium deficiencies are linked to certain types of cancers

Put more simply, nutrient deficiency impairs your body's ability to function normally, contributes to disease, and can shorten your lifespan. 

What Are the Most nutrient-dense foods?

There is no agreed upon scale to measure nutrient density and many scales are based on science that is outdated (such as penalizing foods that contain saturated fat or cholesterol or giving lower scores to foods that contain more calories). Harvard University chemist Dr. Mat Lalonde created a new scale that addressed some of these inconsistencies. 

According to this scale organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods (by a lot), then nuts and seeds, seafood, red meat, and wild game. Then comes raw vegetables, eggs and dairy, poultry, cooked vegetables, and fruit. 

Taking a "nutrients-first" approach to your diet is critical, even if you are already eating a nutrient-dense Paleo diet, because you can still eat a strict Paleo diet and be deficient in many critical nutrients if you don't focus on the right things. 

The most obvious (though least desirable according to my anecdotal research and personal experience) way to increase the nutrient density of your diet is to eat more organ meats. Whether you need to hide it in something else or find a way to just choke it down (I'm working on doing both of these things...) eating organ meat once or twice a week will go a long way towards improving your overall nutrient status.

Eating plenty of seafood and tons of vegetables would be the next best way to make sure that you don't end up with nutrient deficiencies. 

While I don't suggest that you get stressed out about the nutrient density of your diet, I do suggest that you make a conscious effort to eat a variety of different nutrient-dense foods. Because when we make this effort, our diets generally become nutrient-dense and nutrient sufficient as a result. 

References:

Ames, B. N. (1999). Micronutrient deficiencies. A major cause of DNA damage. Ann N Y Acad Sci., 889:87–106. Retrieved from http://pmid.us/10668486

Ballantyne, S. (2017). Paleo principles. Las Vegas, NV: Victory Belt Publishing.

Drewnowski A. (2005) Concept of a nutritious food: toward a nutrient density score. Am J Clin Nutr., 82(4):721-32. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/4/721

Kresser, C. (2014). The paleo cure. Little, Brown and Company.