Food With Low Nutrient Density


The idea behind my Food With Low Nutrient Density blog is to help people make more healthful food choices by giving them a way to quickly see the nutrients in their meals at a glance. For example, if you’re trying to decide which of three different meals to eat for lunch, you can compare them based on how nutritious they are rather than just looking at calories or fat content.

Food With Low Nutrient Density

What are the most insulinogenic, low nutrient density and energy-dense processed foods that everyone should avoid for health and weight loss?

Generally, I think it can be more useful to tell people what they should focus on rather than what they shouldn’t do.  It’s like the proverbial hot plate or ‘wet paint’ sign.  You can’t unsee it and you just want to touch it!

If you are busy focusing on the good stuff then you just won’t have any space left for the low nutrient density foods, especially once you start feeling the benefits.

Many people are coming to see sugar as universally bad news.  But why sugar?  Are there other foods that we should avoid for the same reasons?

What’s so bad about sugar anyway?

For the past four decades, mainstream food recommendations have been dominated by a fear of fat, particularly saturated fat and cholesterol, which if, taken to the extreme can lead us towards more processed, insulinogenic, nutrient-poor, low-fat foods.

More recently, a growing number of people are advising that we should eat less sugar… from Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar, to Robert Lustig’s Sugar: The Bitter Truth and Damon Gameau’s That Sugar Film.  Even Gary Taubes seems to be softening his stance against carbohydrates and turning his attention to sugar as the bad guy in his new book The Case against Sugar.

The World Health Organisation is imploring people to reduce their sugar intake to less than 10% of energy, and ideally less than 5%.

Investment bank Credit Suisse is predicting a turn away from sugar and back towards fat, effectively advising people to ‘short sugar’.

But what is it about sugar that makes it uniquely bad?  Is it just the ‘evaporated cane juice’ that we should avoid?

What about whole foods that contain some sugar?  Should we avoid them too?

While added sugars are not good, they’re also an easy target that everyone can get behind.  It’s easy to swing from demonising one thing to another, from fat to carbs, to sugar.

But perhaps this paradigm is overly simplistic?

I think we need to avoid are foods that quickly boost insulin and blood glucose levels without providing any substantial nutrition in return.

Foods that should be considered universally bad are foods that are:

  • highly insulinogenic,
  • have a low nutrient density, and
  • have a high energy density.

If you want to maximise the nutritional value of your food, give your pancreas a break so it can keep up, you should AVOID THESE FOODS.  Most diet recommendations succeed largely because they eliminate these foods which are typically processed foods.

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the weightings used in the multi-criteria analysis for the various dietary approaches.  The avoid list turns the system on its head to identify foods that have a poor nutrient density as well as also being energy-dense and insulinogenic.


The charts below show that, compared to the other approaches, the foods on the avoid list are energy-dense…


…highly insulinogenic…


…as well as being nutrient poor, all at the same time!


Considering any of these factors by themselves can be problematic.  But when we combine all these parameters they can be much more useful to identify the foods we should avoid, as well as the ones we should prioritise.

As you can see from this chart, the difference between the nutrients provided by the most nutrient-dense foods and the avoid list is vast!  You can see how you would be much more satiated with the more nutrient-dense food and your cravings turned off.

Low-Nutrient-Density Foods by American Children and Adolescents

MANY AMERICAN children and adolescents consume diets that provide marginal amounts of several nutrients, including vitamins A, E, B6, and folate, and the minerals calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. These essential nutrients have well-known metabolic functions, and many have been linked to health promotion and disease prevention. Recent survey data also suggest an alarming trend in increasing prevalence of adiposity in US children and adolescents. Estimates from the Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals, 1994 to 1996, suggest a dramatic increase in consumption of relatively energy-dense foods of modest nutrient density. The low-nutrient-density (LND) foods provide highly palatable energy, possibly at the expense of foods that are sources of essential nutrients. It is tempting to speculate that dietary patterns characterized by excessive consumption of LND foods may contribute to increased risk of marginal nutrient intakes and positive energy balance.

However, there has been no systematic, comprehensive study of the extent of contribution of energy-dense foods of modest nutritional value to the diets of American children or the nutritional and health implications, if any, of their consumption. Past attempts at examining LND food intake in children have included examination of the contribution of added sugar or carbonated beverages to the diets of children.There is some evidence that food selection patterns favored in childhood may track through adult years; therefore, a better understanding of patterns of food consumption is clearly warranted. The purpose of this study was to examine nationally representative data from the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III, 1988-1994) for consumption of LND foods by 8- to 18-year-old American children and adolescents.


The NHANES III is a multistage, stratified, probability sample of the noninstitutionalized, civilian US population, aged 2 months and older. The survey was conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and included administration of a questionnaire at home and a full medical examination along with a battery of tests in a special mobile examination center. Demographic and medical history information was obtained during the household interview. The examination at the mobile examination center included physical and dental examinations, dietary interview, body measurements, and collection of blood and urine samples. Body weight, height, and circumference at various body sites were measured by standardized procedures in the mobile examination center.

Dietary assessment method

A 24-hour dietary recall was collected by a trained dietary interviewer in a mobile examination center interview with the use of an automated, microcomputer-based interview and coding system. The type and amount of foods consumed were recalled with recall aids such as abstract food models, special charts, measuring cups, and rulers to help in quantifying the amounts consumed. Special probes were used to help the recall of commonly forgotten items such as condiments, accompaniments, fast foods, and alcoholic beverages.

Nutrient Dense Or Energy Dense Foods: Do You Know the Difference and How Important It Is to Your Overall Health?

Energy density and nutrient density are important terms to understand when making food choices. Foods that are energy-dense contain a higher number of calories per serving, while foods that are nutrient-dense contain a higher level of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients with little or no added sugars or fats that raise calories. Think of the difference between potato chips and plain baked potato, or sweetened yogurt and plain yogurt, or creamed spinach and steamed spinach. Adding fat or sugar to foods increases the calorie content, making these foods more energy-dense.

Choosing nutrient-dense foods more often allow us to consume a higher number of essential vitamins and minerals that promote good health, while avoiding consuming too many calories that can lead to overweight or obesity. Daily calorie levels between 1,200 and 1,800, which is 10% of the total calories needed. By the time you eat all the fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein foods your body needs for optimum health, there are only 120-180 calories left over each day for sugars and fat for people who need 1,200 to 1,800 calories per day. If we choose energy-dense versions of these foods, for example eating sweetened canned fruit, vegetables with extra butter or cheese, processed grains like French fries instead of potatoes, and higher-fat protein foods like sausage or deli meats, then we will consume far more calories than we need –120-180 calories don’t go very far, 12 ounces of regular soda contains 150 calories all from sugar, while 1 ounce of potato chips contains 155 calories primarily from fat. Most nutrient-dense foods, on the other hand, are low in calories.

A recent meta-analysis of 13 experimental and observational studies that looks at over 3600 people age 28 to 66 by years showed a significant association between low- energy

density – foods and body weight. In other words, people who ate more nutrient-dense foods that are naturally low in calories — foods like vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free dairy products and lean sources of protein weighed less than people who consumed more foods that are higher in calories and lower in nutrients.

Another benefit of nutrient-dense foods is that they are often high in water and fiber, which increases their volume without increasing calories. For example, compare the volume of 100 calories and a raw apple to 100 calories of apple juice. About 2 cups of sliced raw apples contains 100 calories, while 1 cup of unsweetened apple juice 113 calories. You’ll feel more satisfied by eating the apples instead of drinking the juice because the total volume of food that we consume is the primary reason for satiety. We can eat a larger volume of low- energy, nutrient-dense foods and lose weight feeling satisfied.

Tips to reduce energy density and increase the nutrient of your food choices:

  1. Start lunch or dinner meals with a fresh vegetable salad to help start to feel Use the least amount of salad dressing as possible.
  2. Eat a piece of fruit before a meal and you’ll consume fewer calories overall during the meal.
  3. Choose a broth-based vegetable soup as part of your meal because the extra liquid in the broth, combined with the fiber in the vegetable increases satiety with very few calories.
  4. When you want something sweet, reach for fresh fruit like a handful of grapes or small oranges. Fruit contains both water and fiber and is low-energy-density, high- nutrient- density food that contain a variety of healthful nutrients including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that promote health with 60- 80 calories per serving.
  5. Choose less processed foods like brown rice instead of white rice, whole grain bread instead of white bread, whole-grain breakfast cereal instead of processed cereal.
  6. Instead of purchasing yogurt that contains more sugar and calories, choose plain yogurt and add your own fruit.

Calorie Dense vs. Nutrient Dense
What does this even mean?
• These are terms used to compare the calorie to nutrient ratio in the foods we eat. Even
though all foods contain nutrients, some foods are more beneficial to the body than
What does calorie dense mean?
• If a food is calorie dense, that usually means it is high in energy and low in nutrients.
This means it is an EMPTY food. Consider these foods on the WHOA list. They are
nutritionally poor food choices and contain much more calories than nutrients like
vitamins and minerals.
• If the body does not use all of the energy that was consumed, it gets stored in the body as
fat which could lead to weight gain, poor heart health, and onset of diabetes.
• These are typically highly processed foods which mean they are stripped of their
nutrients and have added fat, sugar, and salt.
What does nutrient dense mean?
• Foods that have more nutritional value than calories are considered nutrient dense. These
are great sources of good, lasting energy that will not be stored in the body as fat.
Consider these foods on the GO list.
• Typically found in raw, whole-grain foods that could prevent weight gain, promote heart
health, and reduce the chances of diabetes and cancer.
• They provide fewer calories and are high in Vitamins A, C, D, and E, calcium, iron,
potassium, zinc, fiber, and healthy fats. They also provide protein and complex
carbohydrates the body needs to stay healthy.
How do I know what foods fall into each category?
• Typically, calorie dense foods are going to be processed and/or packaged. Cakes,
cookies, pies, candy, soda, fried food, and sugary drinks are just a few examples.
• Nutrient dense foods are going to be all raw fruits and vegetables, whole-grains, lean
meats, nuts, and seeds.
• Check out the graphic below to get a better idea of where foods fall into place!

Nutrient-dense foods list

  • Nuts
  • Sweet potato
  • Salmon
  • Legumes
  • Kale
  • Quinoa
  • Berries
  • Dandelion greens
  • Conclusion

Nutrient-dense foods are those that have a high nutrient content for the number of calories that they contain. By including nutrient-dense foods in their diet, people can increase the amount of nutrition that they get per calorie.

Examples of nutrient-dense foods include legumes and nuts, which are an excellent source of protein for those following vegetarian or vegan diets. Quinoa and sweet potato also provide plenty of nutrients for their calorie count and can be healthful alternatives to white bread or rice as a source of carbohydrate.

In this article, we discuss some of the most nutrient-dense foods available.


nutrient dense foods including nuts and berries
Nuts and berries are high in nutrients but comparatively low in calories.

Nuts are very nutritious as they have a high proportion of monounsaturated fats. These healthful typesTrusted Source of fat are essential to a range of bodily functions, such as cell growth and protecting organs. They are different in structure than saturated and trans fats, which are unhealthful fats.

Nuts are also high in protein and containTrusted Source a range of other nutrients, including:

  • fiber
  • vitamins E and K
  • folate
  • thiamine
  • minerals, such as magnesium and potassium
  • carotenoids
  • antioxidants
  • phytosterols

The most healthful types of nut are unsalted almondsTrusted Source, pistachios, and walnutsTrusted Source. Nuts are easy to incorporate into a healthful diet as a topping on salads and vegetables or as a snack between meals.

Sweet potato

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of energy and nutrients.

They are high in complex carbohydrates. This type of carbohydrate takes longer to break down than simple carbohydrates, which include refined sugars. As a result, sweet potatoes are a lasting source of energy.

Sweet potatoes containTrusted Source a range of other nutrients, such as vitamins A, B-6, and C. They also contain antioxidantsTrusted Source, such as beta carotene. Antioxidants are compounds that have several health benefits and may reduce the risk of chronic conditions, such as cancer.

It is possible to boil, roast, or fry sweet potato as either a side dish or part of the main course. However, to minimize the rise in blood sugar levels, it is best to boil rather than bake a sweet potato and to eat the skin.


Salmon is an oily fish that offers a variety of health benefits.

Every 100 grams (g) of wild Atlantic salmon contains about 20 g of proteinTrusted Source, making it an excellent source of this nutrient. Protein acts as an energy source and supports a range of bodily functions, such as building and repairing cells and body tissue. It is an essential nutrient for human health, which means that the body requires it to function but cannot produce a sufficient amount itself.

Another essential nutrient that salmon provides is omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to supporting various functions of the body, omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Salmon is also a good source of minerals, including magnesium, potassium, and selenium, and it is rich in vitamins B-12 and D.

Smoked salmon can boost the nutritional content of a salad, or people can eat it as a topping on cucumber slices.


bean salad
Legumes are a good plant-based source of protein for vegetarians and vegans.

Legumes, or pulses, are a food group that includes:

  • beans
  • peas
  • lentils
  • soybeans
  • peanuts

These foods are high in dietary fiber, which is important for digestive health. They are also one of the best plant-based protein sources, making them suitable for a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Legumes are another complex carbohydrate that can provide lasting energy to the body, but they also have a low glycemic index and load. This characteristic means that the body can convert legumes into energy without causing a spike in blood glucose levels, which can help people prevent or manage diabetes.

Legumes also contain vitamin B, antioxidants, and several minerals, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium.

It is possible to cook different types of legume together as the primary source of protein in a vegetarian meal. As beans contain phytates, lectins, and other antinutrients, which affect the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, it is best to soak and pressure-cook them to reduce the antinutrient content.


Kale is a highly nutritious, leafy-green vegetable that belongs to the cruciferous family.

It contains dietary fiber, protein, and several antioxidants, including beta carotene.

This vegetable also contains a large amountTrusted Source of vitamins A, C, and K. Vitamin K is important for bone and tissue health, and it supports other bodily processes, such as blood clotting. It is less common than vitamins A and C but occurs naturally in kale and other leafy-green vegetables.

Kale can make an excellent addition to any salad or smoothie, or people can sauté it. Baby kale is more tender than the mature plants and may be a more palatable choice.

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Quinoa is a South American whole grain with an excellent nutritional profile.

It contains complex carbohydrates, so it acts as a good energy source. Unlike many other sources of carbohydrate, quinoa also contains a good proportion of other nutrients.

This grain is relatively highTrusted Source in protein and fiber. Cooked quinoa contains around 4.4 g of protein and 2.8 g of fiber per 100 g.

Quinoa is also rich in minerals, such as magnesium and phosphorus, and it contains several B vitamins.

Quinoa can replace rice or pasta as the primary source of carbohydrates in a meal. It is important to rinse quinoa well with a fine-meshed strainer to remove the outer layer, which contains bitter-tasting compounds called saponins.

This grain will cook on the stove or in a rice-cooker within 15 minutes. Anyone who has concerns about lectin intake from grains and pseudograins, such as quinoa, should use a pressure cooker instead.


Many types of berry are among the most nutritious fruits.

Berries have one of the highestTrusted Source polyphenol contents of all foods and drinks. Polyphenols are plant-based antioxidants that could help prevent a wide range of chronic health conditions. Berries are richTrusted Source in a polyphenol called anthocyanin, which may have metabolic benefits.

Studies have also foundberries to have a beneficial effect on the management of blood glucose and the prevention of heart disease.

Berries are rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese.

These fruits work well in a smoothie, or people can eat them on their own as a tasty snack.

Dandelion greens

dandelion greens on a chopping board
A person can boil dandelion greens to reduce bitterness.

Dandelion greens are another highly nutritious leafy-green vegetable.

They contain many of the same nutrients as kale. One cupTrusted Source of chopped dandelion greens contains large amounts of vitamins A, C, and E as well as 428.1 micrograms of vitamin K.

Dandelion greens also contain several minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium.

It is best to boil dandelion greens to reduce their bitterness. They go well with other vegetables as a side dish.


A more nutritious diet has enormous benefits for health and can reduce the risk of various chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

There are different types of nutrient, including protein, vitamins, and antioxidants, each of which serves a different purpose in the body. The best nutrient-dense foods for a person to incorporate into their diet may depend on the foods that make up the rest of their diet.

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