In 2017, Molly Bremer, MS, RD, an anti-diet dietitian with Mind Body Health in Washington, DC and Northern Virginia embarked on a cross-country bike trip with the non-profit Bike & Build. “While on the road, we ate the most-bang-for-your-buck foods to save money and space in our support van,” she says.
What are those most-bang-for-your-buck foods? And why should you be choosing them even when you’re not pedaling or running across the country? Nutrient-dense foods basically pack in macronutrients, micronutrients, and other health-boosting properties into one bite. And whether you have little space at home or the largest pantry in the land, it’s always a smart move to try to fill your meal plan with nutrient-dense foods.
To get the full dish on what nutrient density means, and which foods top the list, we asked dietitians to weigh in so you can stack your plate.
What are nutrient-dense foods?
“The American Heart Association says a food is nutrient-dense if it delivers maximum nutrients per calorie, and I think that’s a pretty accurate definition,” confirms Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN.Dobbs Ferry, New York-based registered dietitian and the author of The Smoothie Plan. “If you think about a basic sugar cookie, it has about 180 calories, but it doesn’t provide any significant nutrients—other than deliciousness! But 1 ounce of almonds, at 170 calories, brings a lot of nutrients to the party, including plant protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamin E, making it a nutrient-dense food.”
While there’s no consensus on what makes something qualify as a “nutrient-dense food,” most dietitians agree that it refers to something you consume that delivers a high amount of wellness-boosting qualities per calorie. This might be by way of vitamins, minerals, fiber (a form of carbohydrate that offers a ton of health benefits), antioxidants, or some other health-promoting element.
“Nutrients essentially support our growth and function in life,” Bremer says.
Higher-calorie foods can certainly be nutrient-dense, too, but most of the best nutrient-dense foods are fairly low in calories per longevity-boosting nutrient—making them a wise choice for those who want to lose weight, gain weight, or stay right where they’re at on the scale. The nutritional information of your diet as a whole, not only influences your energy levels, but also your immune system, strength, chronic disease risk, mood and so much more—all crucial details for everyone, but athletes in particular.
How do you know if something is nutrient dense?
Unlike those splashy claims about something being “100% plant-based” or a “cholesterol-free food,” chances are slim that you’ll see “nutrient-dense food” touted on a label. So how can you tell if a food falls under this umbrella?
An item is technically a “good source” of a nutrient if it offers 10 percent of the daily value (DV), and it’s an “excellent source” at 20 percent of the DV, according to the FDA’s food labeling laws. This only refers to micronutrients and macronutrients, however, and not details like healthy fats and antioxidants.
The FDA also has a standard definition of “healthy” (important to note, though, that many nutrition professionals believe this is a bit dated since we now know that dietary cholesterol’s link to negative health outcomes is different than we understood in the 1990s):
- Contains 10% or more of the daily value (DV) for vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, iron, protein, or fiber
- Low in fat and saturated fat
- Less than 480 milligrams of sodium per serving
- Less than 60 milligrams of cholesterol per serving
It’s really just a matter of weighing many factors and determining which aspects matter the most to you, including the calories, ingredients, level of processing, and a food’s related health-promoting properties.
All that said, you don’t need to only consume nutrient-dense foods. “As an anti-diet and intuitive eating-aligned dietitian, I believe that there is a lot of nuance to nutrient-density. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, so if you want the donut, eat the donut!” Bremer says.
Just aim to lean into foods most of the time that make you feel your best, and sprinkle in the treats. Chances are, most of the nutrient-dense noshes below will help you run stronger and live longer.
5 Nutrient-Dense Foods to Add to Your Grocery List
“Making food decisions can be overwhelming, so something I share with clients is that the closer to the source they can get, the more nutrients it will provide,” Bremer says.
Beyond the usual superfoods you know and love like blueberries, oats and beans—which would top the list of nutrient-dense foods thanks to their blend of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—here are a handful of more surprising nutrition-packed foods Bremer and Largeman-Roth recommend that runners, in particular, add to their plates ASAP.
One more note: Don’t forget to load up on high-nutrition veggies like spinach, broccoli, kale, and bell peppers. They’re low in calories so they’re not the best energy-boosters before a long run or for muscle building after, but they do provide carbs for recovery, they’re hydrating, and they offer tones of health-boosting properties that you ‘d miss out on if you didn’t chow down on this food group.
Just three to five dried or fresh figs counts as a serving of fruit, making this one of the best nutrient-dense produce picks for busy people and runners on the go. (Bonus: Dried figs are terrific midrun fuel that leave you with zero waste!)
According to the USDA, each 5 dried-fig serving offers:
- 105 calories
- ½ g fat
- 1 ½ g protein
- 27 g carbs
- 4 g fiber
Plus, you get an adequate amount of calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus.
For postrun protein, you can’t do much better than a filet of sustainable salmon, Largeman-Roth says. Its rich in omega-3 fats that promote heart health, brain health and muscle growth, plus, per the USDA, a 3-ounce serving of raw sockeye salmon offers:
- 110 calories
- 4 g fat
- 19 g protein
Salmon also packs in potassium, phosphorus, selenium, magnesium, choline, and vitamin A.
“Eggs are great sources of protein and fat, as well as B vitamins and choline; all of these factors help keep our energy levels stable and make sure that our brains function properly, which is important when we’re out there on the open road,” Bremer says
Largeman-Roth loves to get cracked so much, she refers to eggs as pretty much the “perfect food.” Even better: It’s easy to quickly cook up eggs postrun, or keep hard-boiled eggs in the fridge for easy refueling.
In addition to some phosphorus, potassium, selenium, choline and vitamin A, the USDA says that 1 large egg offers:
- 70 calories
- 5 g fat
- 6 g protein
4. Nuts and Nut Butters
Sure, there are 16 grams of fat or so per serving, but this is “primarily heart-healthy fat,” Largeman-Roth confirms. Nut butters are also rich in plant protein and cramp-preventing potassium. This nutrient-dense food is also remarkably versatile. Try it spread on crackers or apple slices, atop toast alongside banana slices, inside a sandwich with jam, swirled into a smoothie, or mixed into a bowl of oats. Or you can just eat it by the spoonful.
The USDA says each 2-tablespoon serving of creamy peanut butter has:
- 190 calories
- 16 g fat
- 7 g protein
- 8 g carbs
- 2 g fiber
Peanut butter also delivers some calcium, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and selenium.
5. Greek Yogurt
“Layer up a yogurt parfait for a tasty breakfast before your run or as a postworkout snack to get a balance of the three macronutrients while also getting potassium and calcium, which help to replenish electrolytes and build strong bones,” Bremer says.
High in protein, bone-bolstering calcium and gut-healthy probiotics, one 5 ½-ounce container of plain nonfat Greek yogurt offers:
- 90 calories
- ½ g fat
- 16 g protein
- 6 g carbs
The Bottom Line on Nutrient-Dense Foods
Once you know which foods are nutrient dense, you can incorporate them into your daily meals and snacks by keeping them on hand, Largeman-Roth suggests. But don’t be afraid to mix things up.
“Just because eggs are amazing, it doesn’t mean you should eat them at every meal and snack. The same goes for peanut butter,” Largeman-Roth says. “Rotate different nut butters into your diet because they all have different nutrient profiles and benefits.” That same rule of switching things up applies to your greens, fruits, and anything else you put on your plate. You want to eat a variety of foods so you get a variety of nutrients.
Keep in mind, too, that nutrient density is only one component of the whole plate picture—it’s also important that you are eat enough in general, Bremer adds.
“As a dietitian I explain this to my clients by imagining a pyramid: on the bottom is adequacy [enough calories], followed by balance and variety, and lastly, are the individual foods. The main goal of eating is to fuel our bodies, so adequacy is at the bottom of the base,” Bremer says. “Just like in a video game, in order to ‘level up,’ you have to complete the first stage from the bottom in order to reach the top.”
While it may seem wise to only eat nutrient-dense foods, and it’s true that they should make up the majority of your diet, don’t forget to leave room for foods that may not be quite so nutrient-dense but provide something very important : pleasure. “Life is too short not to enjoy,” Largeman-Roth says.
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