What the heck is Nutrient Density? It is certainly a term that I’ve used a LOT and you’ve probably seen popping up more and more frequently in the nutrition/health/wellness sphere. I’m actually a little embarrassed that I haven’t covered this yet – one of my biggest pet-peeves in life, but especially in nutrition, is undefined terms and I’ve fallen victim to it! Well, it’s time to rectify that, right here, right now.
Nutrient Density is a pretty straight-forward term – it refers to the density of nutrients in a food. Or so it seems. But it often gets confused with nutrient quantity. When that happens people will start to say that x food is more nutrient dense per calorie than y food. Well that’s only possible if you are talking about the quantity of an individual nutrient, because if a food has a certain number of nutrients in any kind of quantity, say 10 nutrients, than every calorie provides some amount of all 10 of those nutrients. Each calorie is just as dense as the next. Now if you have two foods and each has the same nutrient density, but one has more of some of those nutrients, than while the two foods would be equally as dense, the one would have a greater quantity of some nutrients per calorie.
When I use the phrase Nutrient Density, I am referring to just that, the density of nutrients in the food – how many nutrients the food has. People often talk about the macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fat; this is especially true in the world of athletics. But those are only three of the nutrients found in food; there are many, many more micronutrients – the vitamins and minerals. When I look at a food from a Nutrient Density perspective, I want that food to have as many nutrients as possible, the more the better. But what may seem odd is that I often don’t pay too much attention to the quantity of the nutrients.
Part of the reason for this is that an intense focus on single nutrients as stand alones has lead us to a nutritional environment where we think that we can fix anything by manipulating individual nutrients. This is only possible because we can isolate and manufacture single nutrients in a lab. But here’s the trick, nutrients in nature do not come singly; they are always in a nutritional package. And how that nutrient package is packed is way beyond us humans.
We focus on the macronutrients and occasionally mention the micronutrients, but what about all of the other compounds found in plants and animals? The phytochemicals? The so-called meat-protein factor? We have very little understanding of these things, we can’t reproduce them in a lab, and we certainly do not understand enough to be able to create a nutritional package with all of the components that Mother Nature would include nor do we really know what the quantity of those nutrients should be.
Humans have decided how much we need of specific nutrients, but those are generally based on our knowledge of nutrient related disorders. We know that having too little Vitamin C will lead to scurvy, and we have a general idea of how much Vitamin C you need to prevent scurvy, and we have a good sense of how much Vitamin C will cause negative effects, but we have no idea what the optimal, chronic dose of Vitamin C actually is. And here’s the thing, we managed to not just survive, but thrive for millennia without that “knowledge.” Because we ate Mother Nature made food, and Mother Nature pretty much always packs in as much Nutrient Density as possible, and that includes the nutrients we understand, the nutrients we don’t, and probably even some that we haven’t even discovered yet.
This is why I’d rather focus on just eating as much Mother Nature made, Nutrient Dense food as possible and let the rest sort itself out. Plus, this makes eating super simple because from a nutrient density perspective, you really can’t beat a diet based in veggies, meat and fruit.