Your mission, should you choose to accept it, involves coming up with a simple definition for healthy eating… for everyone on the planet. Now, go.
If you awoke tomorrow to discover that you were actually tasked with finding a simple definition for healthy eating, would it feel like Mission Impossible?
It seems that every time the weather changes, so does the information regarding optimal nutrition. It’s hard to know what’s right.
Understanding the definition of nutrient-dense foods can take some of the complexity and confusion out of your nutritional choices. Foods picked from this group automatically promise the lowest amount of calories in exchange for vital nutrients.
What Does Nutrient Dense Mean?
Most of us understand the concept of buying the best quality products at the best price. We search for products that have excellent value, but at a price we are happy with. Parting with fewer dollars without sacrificing desired value is a successful shopping mission.
Choosing foods that are high in nutrient density is a similar notion because you are getting the most amount of nutrients for your health, with the least amount of calories consumed.
These foods are actually fairly easy to spot because they are not processed or chemically altered in any way. They are real foods. Generally, they are rich in necessary vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, and healthy fats. In fact, they make the “top lists” for many of the nutritional qualities you are looking for.
So let’s keep it simple. Here you will find 9 nutrient-dense foods, what they offer you, and easy ideas to incorporate them into your daily dietary routines.
1) Egg Yolk
This is first on the list in an effort to “right the wrong” that has been done to the egg over the years. Once touted as the culprit for causing high cholesterol, science now shows that eggs do not increase the risks for coronary heart disease. Rather, they should be included in your diet for multiple benefits.(1)
Some of these advantages are:
- Improves brain health thanks to the choline in eggs
- Powerful prevention for macular degeneration and cataracts due to the antioxidants – lutein and zeaxanthin
- Loaded with high-quality protein
- Full of healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals
Ironically, the majority of these nutrients are in the egg yolk – the part that has so often been tossed down the drain in an effort to avoid what was mistaken as unhealthy.
A Fun and Simple Way to Include Eggs
Shakshuka is a traditional baked-egg dish that originated in North Africa. Its simplicity lies in the fact that it is prepared in one skillet with ingredients that most kitchens are stocked with:
- 1 Tbl. of Olive Oil
- 2 minced garlic cloves
- 1 onion cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 green bell pepper cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes
- Paprika to taste
- Cumin to taste
- 2 slices pickled jalapeno pepper, finely chopped
- 4 eggs
Heat in a large skillet the first 4 ingredients for about 5 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except for the eggs and simmer for 25 minutes. Crack one egg at a time into a bowl and then gently slide into the sauce. Cook for approx. 2.5 – 3 minutes so that the white is firm and the yolk is thick. Serve over pita bread if desired.
2) Alfalfa Sprouts
Great things come in small packages and this is surely the case with alfalfa sprouts. Thanks to a high concentration of vitamins and minerals, this nutrient-dense, flowering plant can provide you with several health benefits:
- Reduces inflammation – thanks to high levels of vitamins C and B as well as calcium
- Improves digestion – because of high dietary fiber content
- Lowers cholesterol – also thanks in part to effect of dietary fiber (2)
- Protects the heart – thanks to high iron and potassium
- Reduces symptoms of menopause – due to phytoestrogens (3)
- Protects against cancer – also due to phytoestrogens and anti-inflammatory properties
As with all good things, there are some precautions to keep in mind. Alfalfa may cause the immune system to become more active, so it should be limited if you are immunocompromised.
Creative Way to Get More Sprouts
We have all seen salads topped with fresh sprouts, but adding to a morning smoothie is another creative option. The taste of alfalfa is mild and so can easily add a nutritional boost, plus a thicker texture, to your favorite healthy blend.
Mango Smoothie Supreme
1 ½ cup frozen mango
1 cup almond milk (or water)
½ cup of alfalfa sprouts
½ avocado (optional)
1 Tbs. honey or agave
1 Tbs. lime juice
Mix all ingredients in a blender until smooth and creamy. Drink for breakfast or as a healthy, power-packed snack. 1 scoop of protein powder added to this during blending makes it a great recovery drink after exercise.
Blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, oh my!
Most people do not have to be convinced to eat berries. However, not everyone realizes what a boost to your health they can provide. High in anthocyanins and other phytochemicals, berries boast these gains:
- Protect heart health thanks to anti-inflammatory properties of anthocyanins (4)
- Cancer protection because polyphenols subdue the inflammation response and tumor activity in your body
- Anthocyanins help to reduce the glucose concentration in blood which is helpful if you struggle with diabetes.
- Improved memory thanks to high concentrations of anthocyanins.
For a complete list of the numerous benefits of anthocyanins see this article.
Nutrient-dense berries are like the candy of fruit ‒ and can satisfy your sweet-tooth. They are easy to pack as a midday snack or to sprinkle on a salad as a yummy addition.
Here is another easy and healthy way to introduce more berries into your diet.
Mix equal parts of Greek yogurt, almond milk, and oats in a clear jar or container of your choice. Set overnight. Add fresh berries in the morning and honey to taste. Enjoy.
Have you jumped on the kale wagon yet? If not, then this is what you are missing… Kale’s nutrient density is unsurpassed in the world of veggies. It is brimming with vitamins (A,C,K), antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and several bioactive compounds.
If you are cognizant of the amount of protein you are getting daily then you will also be happy to know that kale has a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio, which is exceptionally high for a vegetable.
Some of the specific health advantages you gain from eating kale are:
- Cancer-fighting thanks to bioactive compounds (5)
- Gastrointestinal help due to fiber content
- Large amounts of calcium helps guard against osteoporosis
Easy Kale Chips
This is a perfect answer to those late night munchies. Kale chips can satisfy your craving for something salty and crunchy – all with a powerful nutritional punch.
Tear the kale leaves and lay on a cookie sheet. Spray lightly with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt or pink Himalayan salt. You can get creative with adding other seasonings as well. Bake for 10-15 minutes on 350 degrees.
Enjoy alone or sprinkled on your favorite soup.
5) Wild-Caught Salmon and Sardines
Fatty fish – such as salmon and sardines – are nutrient dense in large part due to their great amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids. The benefits of Omega-3’s have been linked to cell function at all stages of life, from the development of babies in utero to patients with mild cases of Alzheimer’s Disease.(6)
Eating fatty fish weekly helps:
- Lower the risk of dementia in the elderly population(7)
- May help with lowering risk of depression (8)
- Protect against cardiovascular disease(9)
Salmon is also high in the B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium – all necessary for healthy cell function.
Quick and Light Dinner Alternative
Sometimes you need a quick and light dinner option. This smoked salmon bagel with vegetables is simple to prepare and doesn’t skimp on taste or vital nutrients.
Toast one multigrain bagel. Spread lightly with cream cheese or alternative. Layer tomatoes, spinach leaves, smoked salmon and avocado.
6) Raw Garlic
Cousin to the onion, garlic is a nutrient-dense food that shows up on most of the top lists of healthy foods thanks to the active ingredient, Allicin. In addition, garlic is loaded with vitamins B & C,and nutrients calcium, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium.
What does this mean to you? Here are some of the health benefits connected to raw garlic:
- The high vitamin and mineral content is good for your bones and thyroid
- Allicin is linked to lowering blood pressure(10)
- Garlic has cancer-protecting properties(11)
- Compounds in garlic kill pathogens and bacteria
- Garlic lowers the bad cholesterol (LDL) and improves the good cholesterol (HDL)(12)
Allicin is released when the garlic clove is sliced or minced or chopped. To take full advantage of the health benefits you should eat garlic within 1-2 hours of cutting into it. If you are going to cook chopped garlic let it sit for 15 minutes before cooking it. This allows for the allicin to be activated.
Gentle Cold Remedy
Is there a better time to take advantage of nutrient-dense foods than when you are sick? This gentle cold remedy is good for a sore throat, cough, or just boosting your immune system.
Peel and crush 6-10 garlic cloves and simmer in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes. Strain and then add the water to the juice of one lemon. Add honey, to taste. Drink this tea when you are feeling “run down” from a cold.
“Nutrient dense” is probably not what most tomato-lovers think about when cutting into a beefsteak tomato. However, the high antioxidant content makes this vegetable a definite win in regards to good health.
Lycopene, which is a carotenoid in tomatoes, is responsible for the bright red color and for these health benefits:
Lutein is another health-promoting compound in tomatoes and provides protection for eye health. While large doses of vitamin C make tomatoes an ally for healthy skin.
If you are having trouble choosing from the more than 7,000 varieties of tomatoes you might be interested to know that the highest nutrient-density comes from the small cherry tomato – with up to 20 more times lycopene than in the beefsteak tomato.
Here’s an easy, yummy way to get a healthy dose of antioxidants – grilled tomatoes and other assorted veggies.
Cut veggies in slices and lay on aluminum foil. Add nutrient-dense garlic, basil, salt, pepper and olive oil. Grill until desired texture.
8) Beef or Chicken Liver
Did you know that beef or chicken liver is the most nutritious organ? It’s responsible for storing nutrients in the body to use at a later time. As a result, it is exceptionally high in vitamins B and A. It also contains large amounts of iron, selenium, copper, phosphorus, zinc, and niacin.
The nutrients in a single serving of liver are so high that eating it just once a week ensures you get enough of vitamins A and B and a healthy dose of iron. Try this often overlooked meat if you want these benefits:
- Eye health thanks to vitamin A
- Protection from anemia due to large, usable iron content
- Supports energy levels because of high choline content
Hearty Skillet Goodness
Take grass-fed liver and cut into small chunks. Sauté onions, peppers, and mushrooms in olive oil. When vegetables are almost fully cooked add chunks of liver to the skillet.
Do not overcook as this will make the liver very tough – think medium rare.
Cook liver for approx. 5 minutes, turning over halfway through. Season dish with garlic, salt and pepper.
9) Dark Chocolate
Well, the point could be argued that the best has been saved for last. Dark chocolate is a definite nutritional treat for most people. If you struggle with feeling guilty when you indulge in dark chocolate, you might want to rethink that.
Its biggest claim to fame (aside from taste) is the rich amount of antioxidants. Add to this a high fiber content and a large supply of iron, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
Cocoa in dark chocolate gives you these benefits:
One Square a Day
It doesn’t get much simpler than eating one square of dark chocolate a day. Perhaps the challenge comes in keeping it to just one. Be sure to buy dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa to get the nutritional punch you are looking for.
Nutrient Dense Foods Make Good Health… Mission Possible
It may be “Mission Impossible” to get your nutritional choices right 100% of the time. Even when you know “what” to eat, self-discipline doesn’t always cooperate. However, by adding these nutrient-rich foods to your regular routine you ensure that the gaps that do occur, are covered.
1. Fernandez, ML (2006) Dietary cholesterol provided by eggs and plasma lipoproteins in healthy populations. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16340654
2. Molgaard, J and von Schenck, H and Olsson, AG (1987) Alfalfa seeds lower low density lipoprotein cholesterol and apolipoprotein B concentrations in patients with type II hyperlipoproteinemia. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3606731
3. Branca, F and Lorenzetti, S (2005) Health effects of phytoestrogens. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15702593
4. Basu, Arpita and Rhone, Michael and Lyons, Timothy J (2010) Berries: emerging impact on cardiovascular health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3068482/
5. Higdon, Jane V and Delage, Barbara and Williams, David E and Dashwood, Roderick H (2007) Cruciferous Vegetables and Human Cancer Risk: Epidemiologic Evidence and Mechanistic Basis. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2737735/
6. Swanson, D and Block, R and Mousa, SA (2012) Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22332096
7. Barberger-Gateau, P (2002) Fish, meat, and risk of dementia: cohort study. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/content/325/7370/932
8. Kuan-Pin, Su and Shih-Yi, Huango and Chih-Chiang, Chiubd and Winston, W (2003) Omega-3 fatty acids in major depressive disorder: A preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0924977X03000324
9. Wang, Chenchen and Harris, William S and Chung, Mei and Litchetenstein, Alice H and Balk, Ethan M and Kupelnick, Bruce and Jordan, Harmon S and Lau, Joseph (2006) n−3 Fatty acids from fish or fish-oil supplements, but not α-linolenic acid, benefit cardiovascular disease outcomes in primary- and secondary-prevention studies: a systematic review. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/84/1/5.short
10. Ried, K and Frank, OR and Stocks, NP (2013) Aged garlic extract reduces blood pressure in hypertensives: a dose-response trial. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23169470
11. Tsubura, A and Lai, YC and Kuwata, M and Uehara, N and Yoshizawa K (2011) Anticancer effects of garlic and garlic-derived compounds for breast cancer control. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21269259
12. Sobenin, IA and Andrianova, IV and Demidiova, ON and Gorchakova, T and Orekhov, AN (2008) Lipid-lowering effects of time-released garlic powder tablets in double-blinded placebo-controlled randomized study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19060427
13. Kakutani, Yuya and Aikawa, Yuki and Ezawa, Ikuko and Omi, Naomi (2011) The effects of lycopene intake and exercise on bone health in young female rats. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3238164/
14. Wilcox, JK and Catigonani, GL and Lazarus, S (2003) Tomatoes and cardiovascular health. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12587984
15. Story, Erica N and Kopec, Rachel E and Schwartz, Steven J and Harris, G Keith (2010) An Update on the Health Effects of Tomato Lycopene. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3850026/
16. Djousse, L and Hopkins, PN and North, KE and Pankow, JS and Arnett, DK and Ellison, RC (2011) Chocolate consumption is inversely associated with prevalent coronary heart disease: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20858571
17. Desideri, Giovambattista and Kwik-Uribe, Catherine and Grassi, Davide and Necozione, Stefano and Ghiadoni, Lorenzo and Mastroiacovo, Daniela and Raffaele, Angelo and Ferri, Livia and Bocale, Raffaella and Lechiara, Maria Carmela and Marini, Carmine and Ferri, Claudio (2012) Benefits in Cognitive Function, Blood Pressure, and Insulin Resistance Through Cocoa Flavanol Consumption in Elderly Subjects With Mild Cognitive Impairment The Cocoa,Cognition, and Aging Study. Retrieved from http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/60/3/794.short
18. Taubert, Dirk and Roesen, Renate and Lehmann, Clara (2007) Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide A Randomized Controlled Trial. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/207783
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the Power of Nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should you eat? Which supplements? What does the science say?
I have dedicated my life to answering these questions... And I share this knowledge with you every day here at RealDose Nutrition.
I invite you to connect with me by joining my free private community. I've helped thousands of people and I know I can help you too!