Nutrient Density. Have you heard of it? Do you know what it is?
As a (mostly) cardiac dietitian I give A LOT of cardiac diet educations. I was at work the other day and was talking with a man, providing a cardiac diet education…as I was talking about limiting red meat intake due to it’s high saturated fat content. He asked me (sincerely) “So, would it be better to eat a handful of Jelly Belly’s than a piece of red meat?”. He was confused because a serving of Jelly Belly’s (35…bellies) has 140 calories and 27 grams of sugar, but no fat. And he is on a cardiac diet after all, right? Generally a serving (3 oz.) of regular boneless steak has ~215 calories, 13 grams of fat (5 Saturated) and 0 grams of sugar. So…Jelly Bellies are the healthier choice for him. Right?
“Well…” I told him “There is this thing called ‘nutrient density’ “. What exactly is that?
Nutrient density is defined as: “How many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains.”
Basically, how many beneficial nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) are you getting from a certain food in relation to how many calories it contains. In this scenario the meat would be more nutrient dense, because although it has more calories and fat it provides more beneficial nutrients ..iron, B-vitamins, protein…than do the jelly belly’s which provide mostly just sugar with little to no vitamins and minerals. This is not to say you should never eat Jelly Belly’s again. I mean, what would an Ovard family Lake Powell trip be without a Costco container of Jelly Belly’s BUT you should probably go for the more nutrient dense foods MOST of the time.
Here’s another example…
In this case the banana and the starburst each have 100 calories. So which is better, healthier, more nutrient dense? Obviously the banana, right? Because the banana contains fiber, vitamins and minerals and the starburts provide…well sugar. So even though they have the same amount of calories the banana is the better choice. Health-wise anyway .
Now. Calorie density is another story. Don’t confuse the two. See, calorie density is: the average number calories per weight (gram or ounce) of the food. In the above example the amount of food provided by 5 starbursts is obviously less (weight) than the banana but they both provide 100 calories so the starbursts are more calorically dense. This is important especially if you are trying to lose weight because although it IS important what kinds of food you’re eating, decreasing calories is a big part of how you are going to lose weight . So if you choose foods that have a LOWER calorie density you can eat more food (a larger amount) while eating less calories overall…and lose weight .
Another example. Here we have 1 pound of two foods: watermelon and almonds. The almonds have higher caloric density because they contain WAY more calories per “amount” of the food than does the watermelon. They’re both healthy options, and both nutrient dense but you’ll eat less calories filling up on watermelon than almonds. This is NOT to say that you shouldn’t eat healthy, nutrient-dense foods while trying to lose weight , you should but you can’t eat a pound of almonds as a snack, even thought they’re healthy and expect to lose weight because…um…you just ate about 2,600 calories. You see? This is why portion sizes are important. The almonds do have protein and fiber that help keep you full longer and provide good nutrients , so have a small serving (20-25 almonds) as a snack and then if you’re still hungry, eat a lower-calorie dense food (like watermelon) so you won’t go way overboard on the calories…which will make it much harder to get that weight off.