But while nutrient density might sound self-explanatory, a national US survey found that less than one in four people could explain it and more than a third had never heard of it. Nearly half of respondents said they couldn’t confidently identify nutrient dense foods.
So let’s drill down into what nutrient density means and how to embrace it.
The good, the bad and the illusory
Essentially, nutrient dense food is packed with goodies such as vitamins, minerals, protein, polyphenols, healthy oils and fibre. Conversely, it’s low in ingredients that aren’t health enhancing such as unhealthy fats, refined carbohydrates, sugar and food additives.
The higher the ratio between these, the more nutrient dense a food is. As Dietitian Trinh Le explains, nutrient density is defined as “the ratio of beneficial ingredients to the food’s energy content for the amount that is commonly consumed”.
This reflects the fact that unhealthy foods also tend to be higher in calories. A typical Western energy-rich meal such as a take-away burger with fries and soft drink is loaded with calories, for instance, and bereft of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
But the ratio is not fool proof. Using this as a barometer means healthy foods such as nuts and avocado cop a low score because of their high fat content – ignoring their abundant nutrients and fibre, not to mention their good oils which are a vital part of a healthy diet.
Spinach and chard rank extremely high – as they should – because they are light on energy and rich in vitamins and minerals, but blackberry and sweet potato score low because they are high in natural sugar and carbohydrates relative to their nutrient content.
So, to avoid confusion, a simpler approach to a nutrient dense diet would involve eating whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, fish, dairy and extra virgin oils, and avoiding highly processed foods and meats.
Nutrient density for older adults
Nutrient density takes on an added dimension with aging, as older adults have higher requirements for essential nutrients while facing greater risk of malnutrition.
Many different factors contribute to declining food intake, including smaller appetite, poor sense of taste and smell, lower absorption, chewing or swallowing difficulties, loss of strength and mobility, polypharmacy, depression, dementia and social isolation.
Addressing these and ensuring a diverse intake of nutrient-rich food is more critical than ever, including energy to prevent unwanted weight loss and extra protein to help prevent the declining muscle mass that accelerates with age.
As appetites wane, it becomes more important to avoid non-nutritious foods and drinks and focus on frequent small meals and snacks with energy- and protein-rich foods. Improving the flavour and making mealtime a pleasurable experience can help boost appetite.
For people experiencing problems with swallowing and dentition, opt for soft, protein- and energy-rich foods such as fruit and yoghurt, nourishing soups and soft stews packed with legumes and vegetables and high protein smoothies with milk and fruit.