Eat Your Way Fit With Nutrient-Dense Foods

The Benefits of Nutrient Density Instead of Diet for Weight Management

Plate of salmon with salad
Eating Nutrient Dense Foods is an Effective Way to Lose Fat. Nadine Greeff/Stocksy United

Going on a diet can feel overwhelming and the results typically unsatisfying. Diets and diet trends are a billion-dollar market targeting consumers who want to lose fat and gain muscle. Many diets also lack nutrients, according to research.

Have you considered not dieting? Instead of continued caloric restriction leaving you hungry, tired, and frustrated, maybe a different approach would be better.

How about trying nutrient-dense foods as an alternative to reduce body fat? This is not a diet but simply a change in the kind of food you eat to achieve a healthy body. The idea is to eat cleaner, not less, as a lifestyle.

Eating nutrient-dense foods even allows you to eat more and still lose fat. This is often hard to grasp for long-term dieters used to severe calorie restriction for reducing fat. The difference is the quality of nutrient-dense foods vs the calories and how they function in our body.

What Are Nutrient Dense Foods?

Nutrient-dense foods contain macro and micronutrients important for our health. Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats providing calories (energy) to our body. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals also coming from nutrient-rich foods. We require all nutrients in varying quantities for optimal fitness. Research indicates nutrient-rich foods help boost our metabolism and enable us to efficiently lose body fat.

  • Protein is the powerhouse macronutrient for muscle recovery. Select healthier options like chicken breast, turkey, fish, or albacore tuna over processed cold cuts or ham. Eating nutrient-dense protein means keeping it cleaner and leaner.
  • Carbohydrates are the primary energy source macronutrient for optimal health and fitness. Nutrient-dense carbs include a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Avoid eating processed foods, white products and pastries if you want to lose fat and gain muscle. 
  • Fats are the secondary energy source macronutrient for optimal body functioning. Keep your fats nutrient-rich by avoiding saturated fast foods, creamy salad dressings, and cheesy casseroles. Opt for extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and natural peanut butter to boost your metabolism and lose body fat. 

How Do They Reduce Body Fat? 

Nutrient-dense foods are high in nutrients and low in calories allowing us to eat cleaner not less to reduce body fat. Superfoods or real foods are also common names for nutrient-dense foods. They’re easily digested and nutrients utilized for proper body functioning. Chronic studies indicate eating nutrient-dense foods as an effective and healthy way to lose weight. 

Research shows optimal body fat levels are better achieved when we focus on food quality rather than calorie counting. This is more of a statement of how nutrient-dense foods are full of essential nutrients but lower in calorie. We can eat more for lesser calories and feel satisfied throughout the day.

In order to lose body fat, our body requires adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. Eating nutrient-dense foods stimulates our metabolism and creates a fat-burning machine. Our body functions better supplied with the energy required to burn fat and gain muscle.

 

Nutrient-dense foods help reduce body fat through several functions:

  • Provides the necessary antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and other essential nutrients for optimal body functioning.
  • Increases our metabolism and stimulates the body to effectively burn body fat. 
  • Balanced nutrients maintain our energy level for improved workouts.
  • Proper nutrient amounts help regulate blood sugar favoring normal values instead of spiked glucose (sugar). Controlling our blood sugar is essential to reducing body fat.
  • Promotes satiety and curbs cravings.
  • Improves leptin hormone function in the body and better regulates fat stores.

    The Research

    Research is an important step to obtain evidence that supports or opposes scientific claims. Many diets are flooding the market with grandiose promises but without positive clinical findings to back it up. Unfortunately many of us fail to take the time to research the facts before trying the next diet trend. 

    Chronic studies on nutrient-dense foods show positive feedback for fat loss. They’re high antioxidant values are indicated to reduce the risk of disease and hypertension. Research shows nutrient rich foods as an effective way to reduce body fat and improve overall health

    An article published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition compares nutrient intake and links to obesity. A large study group was divided by body mass index (BMI) levels ranging from normal weight, overweight and obese. The research indicated those participants who were overweight or obese had low intakes of micronutrients and high nutrient deficiencies. The normal weight group consumed a regular menu of nutrient-dense foods. 

    Other research on using nutrient-dense foods to break the cycle of obesity appears in the National Institutes of Health. A workshop was conducted examining improved quality of life and health at every age eating nutrient-dense foods as preventative medicine. It was indicated using the nutrient density approach as a valuable nutritional education tool. It was explained eating nutrient dense foods could help resolve nutrient deficiencies and decrease the risk of being overfat or obese. 

    Another study published in the Journal of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine examined the effects of nutrient-dense foods on long-term weight loss. Research participants were seeking dietary counseling to lose weight. The trial included a high nutrient density meal plan with recipes for each volunteer. The patients were followed for a two-year period recording total weight, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure. Some participants dropped out but those 33 continuing after one year lost an average of 31 pounds. Nineteen patients returned for the two-year follow-up and each lost an average of 53 pounds. Significant decreases in cholesterol and improved blood pressure were also recorded.

    The common thread with all research feedback is nutrient-dense foods have the “potential to provide sustainable, significant, long-term weight loss.” Additionally, nutrient rich foods are shown to improve cholesterol, blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Eating nutrient-dense foods as a lifestyle appears to greatly reduce body fat and improve our health in general.

    Are Some Nutrient Dense Foods Better Than Others?

    National nutrition guidelines recommend eating nutrient-dense foods to help reduce chronic disease and obesity. An article published in the Journal of Nutrition recommends a science-based nutrition profiling system assigning a nutrient value per food. 

    A study published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) developed a classification scheme for powerhouse fruits and vegetables. Powerhouse foods are described as those helping reduce the risk of chronic disease. So, yes there will be foods higher in nutrient value than others.

    Nutrient-dense foods with a value greater than 10 are considered powerhouse fruits and vegetables (PFV) according to the study. The following PFV value system is provided to improve our understanding and health benefits of nutrient-dense foods:

    Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables Value System
    Food

    Nutrient Density Score

    FoodNutrient Density Score                        
    Watercress100Scallion27.35
    Chinese cabbage91.99Kohlrabi25.92
    Chard89.27Cauliflower25.13
    Beet green87.08Cabbage24.51
    Spinach86.43Carrot22.60
    Chicory73.36Tomato20.37
    Leaf lettuce70.73Lemon18.72
    Parsley65.59Iceberg lettuce18.28
    Romaine lettuce63.48Strawberry17.59
    Collard green62.49Radish16.91
    Turnip green62.12Winter squash13.89
    Mustard green61.39Orange12.91
    Endive60.44Lime12.23
    Chive54.80Grapefruit (pink/red)11.64
    Kale49.07Rutabaga11.58
    Dandelion green46.34Turnip11.43
    Red pepper41.26Blackberry11.39
    Arugula37.65Leek10.69
    Broccoli34.89Sweet potato10.51
    Pumpkin33.82Grapefruit (white)10.47
    Brussels sprout32.23  

    nutrient density calculated as average percent daily value based on a 2,000 kcal/d diet, meeting criteria for 17 nutrients as provided by 100 kcal of food. Scores above 100 were capped at 100 meaning the food provides on average 100% DV of the qualifying nutrients per 100 kcal.

    Another highly referenced nutrient density chart was developed by nutrition expert and board-certified physician Dr. Joel Fuhrman. He believes your health is directly related to the nutrient density of your diet. Fuhrman created the aggregate nutrient density index (ANDI). The ANDI ranks common foods “on the basis of how many nutrients they deliver to your body for each calorie consumed.” 

    Dr. Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI)
    Sample NutrientCalorie Density ScoreSample NutrientCalorie Density Score
    Kale1000Sunflower Seeds64
    Collard Greens1000Kidney Beans64
    Mustard Greens1000Green Peas63
    Watercress1000Cherries55
    Swiss Chard895Pineapple54
    Bok Choy865Apple53
    Spinach707Mango53
    Arugula604Peanut Butter51
    Romaine510Corn45
    Brussels Sprouts490Pistachio Nuts37
    Carrots458Oatmeal36
    Cabbage434Shrimp36
    Broccoli340Salmon34
    Cauliflower315Eggs31
    Bell Peppers265Milk, 1%31
    Asparagus245Walnuts30
    Mushrooms238Bananas30
    Tomato186Whole Wheat Bread30
    Strawberries182Almonds28
    Sweet Potato181Avocado28
    Zucchini164Brown Rice28
    Artichoke145White Potato28
    Blueberries132Plain Yogurt, Low Fat28
    Iceberg Lettuce127Cashews27
    Grapes119Chicken Breast24
    Pomegranates119Ground Beef, 85% lean21
    Cantaloupe118Feta Cheese20
    Onions109French Fries12
    Flax Seeds103White Pasta11
    Orange98Cheddar Cheese11
    Edamame98Apple Juice11
    Cucumber87Olive Oil10
    Tofu82White Bread9
    Sesame Seeds74Vanilla Ice Cream9
    Lentils72Corn Chips7
    Peaches65Cola1

    Bottom Line

    Many diets lack nutrients only certain foods can provide. Eating nutrient-dense foods will allow you to skip the diet, eat more, and still lose fat.

    Sources:
    Agarwal S et al., Comparison of prevalence of inadequate nutrient intake based on body weight status of adults in the United States: an analysis of NHANES 2001-2008, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2015

    Barbara Troesch et al., Increased Intake of Foods with High Nutrient Density Can Help to Break the Intergenerational Cycle of Malnutrition and Obesity, Journal of Nutrients, 2015

    Di Noia J., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach, Preventing Chronic Disease, 2014

    Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN, The New Math of Counting Calories, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2014

    Sarter B et al., Effect of a high nutrient density diet on long-term weight loss: a retrospective chart review, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2008

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