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Nutritional density is a health term that’s circulating a lot recently. Dietitians and health professionals are telling us to eat nutritionally dense foods or a nutritionally dense diet. However, this concept is often poorly understood.  Without understanding what nutritional density truly means, it is difficult for people to implement this change into their eating habits.  

What does nutritionally dense mean and how do we achieve it? 

Nutrient density is the amount of beneficial nutrients in food in proportion to its energy content, weight, or its unfavourable nutrient content. 

In other words, it’s a way to compare the number of favourable nutrients (what our bodies need) in food, to one of the following:

  • the number of calories in it
  • how much of it do we need to eat to get the volume of nutrients we want
  • the number of unfavorable nutrients (what our bodies don’t want or don’t need)

Which nutrients contribute to high nutrition density in food?

Desirable nutrients include vitamins, minerals, complex carbs (ex: beans/ lentils, whole grains), lean protein and healthy fats (omega 3, 6, 9, unsaturated fatty acids). It is ideal to make most of your meals and snacks out of these foods.

Some examples of nutrient-dense foods include:

  • Fruits and vegetables 
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Seafood and lean meats 
  • Eggs
  • Beans and lentils 
  • Nuts and seeds  

Which nutrients are considered “unfavourable”? 

These include added or refined sugar and starch, and high fat (especially trans and saturated fat). This is often highly processed food like cookies, chips, deep fried foods. These types of foods can also be referred to as “calorie dense”.  This implies the opposite of nutrient-dense; they are foods that are high in calories but low in nutrients. Ideally, eat these foods only occasionally.

With a stronger understanding of what it takes for food to be nutritionally dense, you can now start to incorporate more of these foods into your diet.  Remember, it’s not “all or nothing”, you may sometimes choose foods that aren’t nutritionally dense because they are delicious and make you happy… this is also part of a healthy diet!

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