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If you imagine that your daily calorie amount is a little like a budget that you have to ‘spend’ each day, then it becomes quite clear how important it is to seek out and eat the right kinds of foods to give your body the vitamins and minerals that it needs, without ‘overspending’ and risking weight gain. By eating the right kinds of nutrient dense foods, we can optimize our nutritional intake and make the most of every meal and snack. This way, we can absorb the nutrition that we need to be healthy much more easily than if we were trying to get everything we need from less nutritionally dense foodstuffs.

Why Are Nutrients Important?

We all need vitamins and minerals in order to function properly. These are the nutrients that enable our bodies to work as they should. These nutrients do a wide range of jobs. They ensure that our organs are working, and nervous systems are functioning. They aid in growth and healing. They are instrumental in metabolizing the food we eat so that we gain energy to fuel our bodies. In fact, shortages of any one of the important nutrients can cause us problems. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can result in loss of function, and even serious disease. While supplements are helpful in treating deficiencies, the best way to obtain nutrition is from foods that are high in important nutrients.

What are Nutrient Dense Foods?

Nutrient dense foods are those foods that contain a higher than average concentration of nutrients. We work this out by looking at how much nutrition a person will gain per gram or ounce of the food. A higher number of nutrients per gram or ounce means it is more likely to help maintain our health and wellness.

Examples of nutrient dense choices tend to be vegetables, fruits, whole grains (especially wheat, corn, quinoa, and barley), dairy produce (especially yoghurt), seafood, lean meats, eggs, pulses, and nuts. However, there are a number of foods that are especially dense in nutrients.

Major Nutrients infographic
Dark Green Vegetables
  1.     Dark Green Veg

Dark green leafy vegetables, especially kale, spinach, chard, and broccoli are packed full of vitamin C, vitamin K, many of the B vitamins and vitamin A, among other beneficial compounds. These foods are also low in calories, so a large portion will deliver lots of nutrients without adding on lots of calories. Add a healthy helping of leafy green vegetables to any meal to increase the nutritional impact. Remember not to overcook vegetables as this can impair both the flavor and the nutritional content of them.

  1.     Fish/Shellfish

Oily fish and shellfish are some of the most nutrient dense food available. Salmon and sardines are two of the fish that are richest in nutritional value. Scallops, mussels, oysters, and clams are among the most nutritionally dense shellfish. These foods contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They are also rich in minerals such as selenium, potassium and magnesium and contain a wide range of vitamins. Base a meal around these foods to add a healthy portion of protein too.

Fish and Shellfish
Chia Seeds
  1.     Chia seeds

Chia seeds are a whole grain that contain a number of health-boosting fiber, protein, and antioxidants. They also deliver an impressive number of vitamins and minerals, including selenium, copper, phosphorus, and calcium. They are also a good plant-based source of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which is very useful for vegetarians and vegans who sometimes find it difficult to incorporate enough of these substances in their daily diets. Chia seeds can easily be added to any meal by simply sprinkling them on top of salads, soups, cereals and even desserts.

  1.     Seaweed

A staple part of the ancient diet and still popular in many cultures today, vegetation from the seaweed family of plants are incredibly nutrient dense foods. While there are many different types of seaweed and the nutritional value of each will vary, seaweed tends to contain a wide range of healthy nutrients including manganese, magnesium, vitamin K and iodine. It is also generally quite high in fiber, which many people struggle to get enough of. Seaweed can be eaten as a dried snack such as dulse, or used to season foods, for example using kombu seaweed in place of salt. Nori, a popular type of seaweed, is also used in Japanese dishes such as sushi as a wrap. Read more about seaweed nutrition here.

Seaweed Salad
Fruit
  1.     Fruit

All fruit is generally nutritious, but some fruits are among the most nutrient dense food available. Some of the best are blueberries, strawberries, and pomegranate. These contain a wide variety of vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. Not only are they packed with health-giving substances, they are also delicious as a sweet snack, making it easier to boost your nutritional intake. A fruit salad incorporating many different types of fruit is an ideal light meal that packs a real nutritional punch. Blueberries, strawberries, and pomegranate seeds can all be added to cereals and yoghurt to increase the nutritional content of snacks or as a healthy breakfast.

Who Needs Nutrient Dense Foods?

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We could all do with improving our diets and incorporating more nutrient dense foods into our daily lives. This is especially important if you want to heal or recover from injury, you have a health condition, or you are putting additional demands in your body through sport or a busy lifestyle. Getting your nutrition from a healthy balanced diet is always best. The vitamins and minerals in food are biologically available and don’t come with any of the risks or side effects of taking supplements. Our bodies are designed to absorb nutrition from foodstuffs, so this is the ideal way to ensure we are getting all of the vital nutrients that our bodies rely on. Give it a try; include more nutrient dense foods in your daily meals and see what beneficial impacts they have on your health and wellness over time. For more information on your nutritional requirements, check out nutrition.gov.