Nutrients are the building blocks of food and include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals, all of which are required for growth and survival. Nutrients are used by our bodies to keep them functioning optimally.
The foods we eat – and especially, the quality of those foods – play a role in how we feel and how we carry out our daily lives. Proper nutrition ensures we feel full, have optimal energy levels, aren’t constantly experiencing cravings, and have steady moods and that our overall well-being is in tip-top shape.
The nutrient density of a food refers to the ratio between the food’s beneficial ingredients and the food’s energy content per the amount consumed (or serving size). A straightforward way to spot nutrient-dense foods is to compare the number of nutrients they have to their calorie count. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers some guidance on whether a food is considered a “good source” or an “excellent source” of a specific nutrient when it contains 10% or 20%, respectively, of that nutrient per serving.
Obesity and chronic disease impact populations around the globe, and these complex issues are tied to food choices. By making a habit of choosing more nutrient-dense foods more often, we’re able to “crowd out” less-healthy foods from our diet.
Nutrient-Dense Foods to Add to Your Diet
It’s one thing to know which foods are nutrient-dense; it’s another to know how to incorporate them into your diet. Here are 11 nutrient-dense foods you can incorporate into your diet – and you’re probably already eating many of them!
1. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are high in complex carbohydrates, which take longer to break down than simple carbohydrates, such as refined sugars. This means that the energy from sweet potatoes lasts longer. They also contain vitamins A, B6, and C as well as beta-carotene, which can reduce the buildup of free radicals in the body.
Try these Sweet Potato Pancakes for a nutritious start to the day.
Sweet potato nutrition
One serving of sweet potato is one five-inch-long potato (around 130 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 112
- Total carbohydrates: 26 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Total fats: < 0.1 grams
- Fiber: 3.9 grams (15.6% recommended daily intake [RDI])
- Total sugars: 5.4 grams (16% RDI)
- Calcium: 39 milligrams (5.5% RDI)
Salmon has nutrients like potassium, zinc, and iron as well as bioactive compounds like astaxanthin, a carotenoid compound that may improve your skin’s UV resistance. Salmon is rich in essential omega-3 fatty acid, which helps develop brain tissue and can prevent depression and anxiety. Just one serving of wild salmon contains more than the recommended daily value of vitamin B12, or cobalamin, a vitamin that prevents the loss of neurons in the brain and keeps memory and cognition intact.
This Honey Garlic Salmon recipe from Healthy Fitness Meals makes for an easy, delicious, and nutritious dinner option.
One serving of sockeye salmon is one half-pound fillet (around 198 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 259
- Total carbohydrates: 0 grams
- Protein: 44 grams
- Total fats: 9.3 grams
- Calcium: 17.8 milligrams (2.5% RDI)
- Magnesium: 59.4 milligrams (16% RDI)
- Potassium: 727 milligrams (20.7% RDI)
Eggs are a great source of protein and are used in everything from breakfasts to desserts. They’re low-calorie but high in selenium, which plays a key role in regulating metabolism. Eggs are also an excellent source of vitamins A, D, B12, and riboflavin (B2).
This Kale and Egg Wrap is a brain-boosting and delicious way to start your mornings or a good midday pick-me-up snack.
One serving of eggs is just one large egg (around 50 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 77.5
- Total carbohydrates: 0.56 grams
- Protein: 6.3 grams
- Total fats: 5.3 grams
- Calcium: 25 milligrams (3.5% RDI)
- Phosphorus: 86 milligrams (12.7% RDI)
- Selenium: 15 micrograms (27% RDI)
A superfood in every sense of the word, avocados are also very nutrient-dense. Avocados are an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fats along with a wide range of phytochemicals like beta-sitosterol. Regularly consuming these plant sterols (the cholesterol of plants) may help maintain healthy cholesterol levels, which are important for heart health.
This Creamy Avocado Gazpacho from IIN grad Beth Romanski is a delicious, nutrient-dense summer soup.
One serving of avocado is about one-third of a typical avocado (around 50 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 83.5
- Total carbohydrates: 4.3 grams
- Protein: 0.98 grams
- Total fats: 7.7 grams
- Fiber: 3.4 grams (12.6% RDI)
- Potassium: 254 milligrams (7.2% RDI)
- Folate: 44.5 micrograms (11.1% RDI)
Spinach is packed with vitamins and minerals, and one cup of spinach provides more than half the recommended daily intake of vitamin A, which supports the immune system. That same cup of spinach also provides your entire daily vitamin K requirement.
These Spinach Crackers make for a salty, crunchy snack that’s high in vitamins and minerals.
One serving of spinach is one cup (about 30 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 6.9
- Total carbohydrates: 1.09 grams
- Protein: 0.9 grams
- Total fats: 0.12 grams
- Calcium: 29.7 milligrams (4.2% RDI)
- Vitamin K: 145 micrograms (111.5% RDI)
- Vitamin A: 2,810 IU (106% RDI)
Of all legumes (think quinoa and chickpeas), lentils pack the most nutritious punch, and they’re one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. Lentils are also high in protein, containing more protein per ounce than steak. They’re also rich in magnesium, fiber, potassium, and several B vitamins. Lentils have also been shown to regulate insulin levels, contribute to better heart health, and feed good gut bacteria.
This Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie from IIN grad Marla Hertzman is a classic dish with a healthy twist.
One serving of lentils is one cup (about 198 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 230
- Total carbohydrates: 39.8 grams
- Protein: 17.9 grams
- Total fats: 0.7 grams
- Fiber: 15.6 grams (89.1% RDI)
- Calcium: 37.6 grams (5.4% RDI)
- Magnesium: 71.3 milligrams (19.3% RDI)
- Iron: 6.59 milligrams (56% RDI)
Pumpkins are high in carotenoids, phytonutrients that act like antioxidants to protect the body against free radicals. Pumpkin – besides being a quintessential fall food – is a good source of fiber, iron, vitamin E, and vitamin A. Fiber is key to keeping your digestive system regular, controlling blood sugar levels, and maintaining your weight.
This Vegan Pumpkin Alfredo from IIN grad Blair Powers is a delicious, comforting meal to welcome the fall season.
One serving of pumpkin is one cup of one-inch cubes (about 116 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 30
- Total carbohydrates: 7.5 grams
- Protein: 1.2 grams
- Total fats: 0.12 grams
- Fiber: 0.5 grams (2% RDI)
- Calcium: 21 milligrams (3% RDI)
- Vitamin A: 426 micrograms (53% RDI)
Raw garlic works as an antibacterial and antifungal agent and is high in allicin, which can help reduce inflammation and lower blood sugar and may help your muscles recover faster after working out. It’s also a good source of B vitamins as well as calcium, potassium, copper, and selenium. Plus it makes just about every savory dish taste better (if you don’t mind having garlic breath as a result).
Soups are great in any season, and this Vegan Sage and Garlic White Bean Soup from Amanda Wilens puts garlic front and center.
One serving of garlic is one clove (about 3 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 4.5
- Total carbohydrates: 0.9 grams
- Protein: 0.2 grams
- Total fats: < 0.1 gram
- Calcium: 5.4 milligrams (1% RDI)
- Phosphorus: 4.6 milligrams (0.6% RDI)
- Potassium: 12 milligrams (0.3% RDI)
9. Pinto beans
Pinto beans and other legumes are among the most nutrient-dense plant-based proteins you can choose. Plus they’re a good source of fiber, protein, iron, potassium, thiamine, phosphorus, and many beneficial phytonutrients. Black beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans are other nutrient-dense bean options.
This easy Rice and Beans recipe walks you through the best way to prepare beans for cooking and explores more bean benefits.
Pinto bean nutrition
One serving of pinto beans is one cup (about 171 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 245
- Total carbohydrates: 44.8 grams
- Protein: 15.4 grams
- Total fats: 1.1 grams
- Fiber: 15.4 grams (56% RDI)
- Iron: 3.6 milligrams (31% RDI)
- Selenium: 10.6 micrograms (19% RDI)
10. Greek yogurt
High in protein and low in fat, Greek yogurt is a natural source of good-for-your-gut probiotics. Studies have shown that a higher consumption of yogurt is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that Greek yogurt can benefit bone health, as it’s an excellent source of calcium and magnesium.
Greek yogurt is super versatile – it’s not just for parfaits. Try it in this Linguine with Citrusy Yogurt and Tuna Sauce from Greatist.
Greek yogurt nutrition
One serving of plain, nonfat Greek yogurt is three-quarters of a cup (about 170 grams) and contains:
- Calories: 100
- Total carbohydrates: 6.1 grams
- Protein: 17.3 grams
- Total fats: 0.6 grams
- Calcium: 187 milligrams (27% RDI)
- Magnesium: 18.7 milligrams (5% RDI)
Blueberries contain folate, vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and manganese. They’re also known for being rich in antioxidants: Blueberries contain a flavonoid called anthocyanin, which gives blueberries many of their health benefits as well as their signature color.
These Blueberry Coconut Balls from IIN grad Sandra Shield are perfect for when you get a craving for something sweet.
One serving of blueberries is one cup (about 148 grams, or 65 to 75 berries) and contains:
- Calories: 84.4
- Total carbohydrates: 21.4 grams
- Protein: 1.1 grams
- Total fats: 0.5 grams
- Fiber: 3.6 grams (14% RDI)
- Vitamin C: 14.4 milligrams (24% RDI)
- Vitamin B6: 0.77 milligrams (5% RDI)
Making Nutrient-Dense Choices is Easy, with the Right Guidance
We all have a recommended daily intake of calories. Focusing on nutrient-dense foods gets us the most metaphorical bang for our buck – the largest amount of food that’s good for you. In the Health Coach Training Program (HTCP), you’ll hear from experts on nutrition topics such as food as functional medicine, healthy cooking and budgeting, and how nutrition plays a pivotal role in overall wellness.
If you’re interested in learning more about HTCP and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, sign up for a free Sample Class!