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Nutrient Density: Making smarter choices for good health and easy weight management

Updated: Jan 20



What a difference smart changes can make to our health, our lives, and our psychology!

It's easy to lose track of how interdependent the functions of our body are, working in rhythm as a beautifully complex, and for-the-most-part thoughtfully designed 'machine'.


With so much information around, about important foods, vitamins, and the next trendy diet, it takes effort to not be sidetracked by pseudo-science, fandom, or important-sounding but false claims.


Let's gather here what's useful to keep in mind, according to sound medical research.


TL;DR: The Overview

Caloric Density (CD) = Calories / Food Weight

Decreasing energy density of food choices has a strong and largely linear effect on daily energy intake. This is because low CD foods have more volume and higher water content which makes them more filling.


Nutrient Density (ND) = Nutrients / Calories

Foods that have a high nutrient density have great nutritional value on top of being satiating and low CD - that's a great combo


By finding those higher ND options that you enjoy, you will get variety, healthfulness, and a smart way to manage your weight!


Nutrient Density

An easy way to make sense of the 'healthfulness' of foods and food groups is the amount of nutrients they include per calorie.


In this sense, it is easy to understand why vegetables, herbs & spices, fruits, and legumes are considered high quality, nutritious foods.

They are staples of the healthiest diets backed by research, including the Mediterranean, DASH and flexitarian diets.


What is common among these diets is their emphasis on plant-first, whole food nutrition.


Nutritional Value per kcal

Nutrition Density - Nutritional Value per calorie

Graph 1: Sorted heatmap by food group nutrient density, benefits and areas of caution


Following this logic we understand which foods are beneficial, to include more of in our daily nutrition, and which we will be better off by limiting - without thinking that they don't have a place in our diet.


Foods to prioritize

Graph 2: Sorted heatmap of food groups by nutrient density to prioritize, and main benefits


These food groups have been time and again found by researchers to be associated with higher life expectancy, lower inflammation, better and more stable mood and reported quality of life.


They are also among the most inexpensive choices one can make, as compared to animal-derived and processed foods. Partly why these foods have been cast aside in favor of saltier, sweeter options has been the lack of profitability of selling fruits, mushrooms or legumes.

Table 1: Nutrient density and price per serving


There are great ways to make your meals more tasty and interesting -

Add marjoram, turmeric and pepper to your soups, have some blueberries or cranberries with your breakfast or in your salad, or add some kidney beans to your salad instead.


Be creative with your recipes and find what you like!


Foods to deprioritize

Graph 3: Sorted heatmap of food groups by nutrient density to deprioritize, and areas of caution

Not all food is equal - let's explore and savor our recipes!

Research shows that all food impacts our health, though not all food does so in the same way. A systematic review going over 17,000 scientific papers, combined findings of >100 included publications in the table and graphs below.


Seeing the effect of each food group's daily consumption in grams to all-cause mortality risk, we understand which foods and at what daily intakes have a positive (<1.0 risk) or a negative (>1.0 risk) effect to our health.

Table 2: Food group daily servings and all-cause mortality risk


A major study following more than 400,000 people, found that by replacing just 3% of calories of animal protein with plant protein was associated with a 10% reduction in overall mortality risk. This would be about an extra year of life, for such a small change.

A 20% reduction was actually found if the 3% of animal protein that was replaced with plant protein, came initially from red meat or eggs.


Following a diet high in berries and greens, such as the MIND diet is associate with a 53% reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease, improving cognitive functioning by 7,5 years.


The highest life expectancy in the world may be with the Adventist population in Loma Linda, California. These vegetarian, exercising, nut-eating, lower weight, never smokers are living about 9 to 11 years longer than the US average.


No food should be thought of as out-of-bounds, we should be looking forward to our next meals and go for options that we enjoy! For many of us, food is a means of expression through creative recipes, a means of socializing as well as a way to capture and remember moments, as taste and smell are stronger memory hooks than even our vision is.


The goal here is to be more aware of how to make a dish or a recipe healthier, this will help us on many levels - from enjoying it more, to not putting on weight, all the way to improving your mood and lowering your risk of the many lifestyle-dependent diseases.


Also, add in a brisk walk every day, try to get those Zzz's, make it a habit to care for yourself - in ways that you enjoy :)


Graph 4: Relation between daily intakes of whole grains, refined grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, eggs, dairy, fish, red meat, processed meat, and sugar-sweetened beverages and risk of all-cause mortality.

 

References


Carlson, Andrea, and Elizabeth Frazão. Are Healthy Foods Really More Expensive? It depends on How You Measure the Price, EIB-96, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, May 2012. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/44678/19980_eib96.pdf


Clarys, P., Deliens, T., Huybrechts, I., Deriemaeker, P., Vanaelst, B., De Keyzer, W., Hebbelinck, M., & Mullie, P. 2014. “Comparison of Nutritional Quality of the Vegan, Vegetarian, Semi-Vegetarian, Pesco-Vegetarian and Omnivorous Diet.” Nutrients 6(3): 1318-1332. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24667136


Fraser GE, Shavlik DJ. Ten years of life: Is it a matter of choice? Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(13):1645-52. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11434797/


Huang J, Liao LM, Weinstein SJ, Sinha R, Graubard BI, Albanes D. Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(9):1173-84. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32658243/


Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, Sacks FM, Bennett DA, Aggarwal NT. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015;11(9):1007-14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25681666/


NA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020. U.S. Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Resources. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf


NA. Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020. Committee of Agricultural Service. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-07/ScientificReport_of_the_2020DietaryGuidelinesAdvisoryCommittee_first-print.pdf


Ortolá R, Struijk EA, García-Esquinas E, Rodríguez-Artalejo F, Lopez-Garcia E. Changes in Dietary Intake of Animal and Vegetable Protein and Unhealthy Aging. Am J Med. 2020;133(2):231-9.e7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31369726/


Schwingshackl, Lukas & Schwedhelm, Carolina & Hoffmann, Georg & Lampousi, Anna-Maria & Knüppel, Sven & Iqbal, Khalid & Bechthold, Angela & Schlesinger, Sabrina & Boeing, Heiner. (2017). Food groups and risk of all-cause mortality: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 105. ajcn153148. 10.3945/ajcn.117.153148. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316523321_Food_groups_and_risk_of_all-cause_mortality_A_systematic_review_and_meta-analysis_of_prospective_studies


Sherzai D, Sherzai A. Preventing Alzheimer's: Our Most Urgent Health Care Priority. Am J Lifestyle Med. 2019;13(5):451-61. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31523210/

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