Calorie-Dense vs. Nutrient-Dense Foods

We can get confused easily by what to eat. There are hundreds of diets out there, thousands of foods, and your wallet can only stretch so far. How are you supposed to know what the right foods to eat are? If you’re determined to eat healthy or lose weight but don’t necessarily want to follow a diet, consider looking at your food choices through the lens of calorie-dense versus nutrient-dense food.

What is a Calorie?

First off, what is a calorie? Quite simply, a calorie is a unit of energy. Counting calories is one method to monitor your weight. An easier and perhaps more effective approach, however, might be to pay attention to whether the foods you are eating are calorie-dense or nutrient-dense.

What Does Calorie-Dense Food Mean?

Energy is vital for your life, and calories deliver energy, so calories=good, right?
Not so fast. You might think that the more calories you can get out of a meal, the better value for your dollar, but you’d be mistaken. When we eat and drink more calories than we use, our bodies store the excess calories as fat. This can lead to weight gain and obesity, which in turn puts you at higher risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Not only are these illnesses expensive, they can be deadly.

So, what is calorie-dense food? Calorie-dense food is generally considered “empty-calorie” food: high in energy (calories) but low in nutritional value. These are foods you want to avoid—they are “empty” and “junk” food because they don’t help your health. They harm it.

Which Foods are Calorie Dense?

Examples of calorie-dense food include:

  • Highly processed foods, which have been stripped of their nutrients and have had fat, sugar, and/or salt added to them.
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • White bread
  • Processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, deli meat, and sausage
  • Cakes, pies, and doughnuts
  • Cookies
  • Candy
  • Fast food
  • Fried food, including potato chips
  • Sugary drinks, like soda, sports drinks, juice, and energy drinks

What Does Nutrient-Dense Food Mean?

All foods contain nutrients, but some foods have more nutrients and are more beneficial to our bodies. These nutrient-dense foods are great sources of long-lasting energy, health, and vitality. They don’t provide as many calories as calorie-dense or “junk” food, and are high in nutrients that are important for your health, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Which Foods are Nutrient Dense?

Examples of nutrient-dense food include:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Vegetables (fresh or frozen)
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes, like beans, peas, tofu, and lentils
  • Lean protein, such as baked, skinless chicken
  • Nuts and seeds

Calorie-Dense vs. Nutrient-Dense: What to Eat

Research shows the average American has a diet that is energy-rich but nutrient-poor. This has huge impacts on our nation’s health.

A meta-analysis of scientific studies on people between the ages of 28 and 66 shows a significant link between choosing nutrient-dense foods and healthy body weights. If you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, follow a diet high in nutrient-dense foods and avoid or limit calorie-dense foods.

How to Follow a Nutrient-Dense Diet

It can be hard to change habits. The benefits, however, are great. Here are a few small changes you can make to your meals to eat a healthier, nutrient-dense diet.

  • Replace sugary drinks with water. Try adding a slice of lemon if you like a bit more flavor.
  • Eat veggie sticks or a piece of fruit as an appetizer before your main course. This trick will help you feel fuller before you start a meal.
  • Add extra veggies to your dinner—as toppings, sides, or even the entrée.
  • Snack on fresh fruit, like an apple or orange, instead of sugary sweets.
  • When you crave something crunchy, try a small handful of nuts instead of salty pretzels or chips.
  • Switch from white pasta to brown rice.
  • Try a Meatless Monday and fix black bean tacos or vegetarian chili for a change.
  • Incorporate more of the top 9 cheapest and healthiest green veggies into your everyday meals.

Read more tips for healthier eating and consider scheduling a nutrition consultation with your primary care physician. Your health is worth it!