Nutrient vs. Calorie Dense: How does it affect me?

Let’s dive into nutrition for this week’s post. I’ve talked about before how I believe there aren’t many (if any!) inherently “bad” or “good” foods. In moderation, all foods, barring allergy or insensitivity, can be included in a “healthy” diet. However, that being said, there are food which are more nutrient dense in comparison.

If we’re looking to eat a little bit healthier and make progress towards a fitness goal, choosing these more nutrient dense foods is likely the way to go!

Nutrient Dense vs. Calorie Dense

So, what is nutrient dense? Nutrient dense foods are those that have a higher nutrient content compared to calories. For example, vegetables are a great option for nutrient dense foods. They contain a variety of vitamins and minerals for very minimal calories. In addition, for this small number of calories, they usually are a very high volume of that food. In this way, we’re able to consume a lot in both volume and micronutrients without taking up a large portion of our allotted calories for that day.


In contrast, calorie dense foods are those that have a high number of calories compared to the volume of food.

Fast Food Meal.jpg

In addition, this may extend to micronutrients as well; some calorie dense food has a lower micronutrient content compared to that of a less calorie dense option. The best example of both calorically dense and micronutrient deficient food is a traditional fast food meal. An average, plain hamburger with condiments and small fries from a fast food restaurant is an average of 629 calories and contains minimal micronutrients. Even only looking at the calorie number, for a female who is trying to lose some body fat that packs a punch to their daily intake!

We can’t ignore the overall health aspects…

So, I should only eat lower calorie, nutrient dense foods, right? Nope! Both nutrient dense and calorie dense foods have a place in our diets.

Wait a minute, burgers and fries? Really?

I’m not one to turn down a QUALITY cheeseburger and (sweet potato) fries, but there is another big distinction comes into play: processed vs non-processed (or less processed). Most nutrient dense, low calorie foods are already likely going to be minimally processed. Fruits and vegetables are the two major players in this game. However, calorically dense foods can be either processed or non-processed as well.

For the example above, I focused on a highly processed food item that is low on the micronutrient content scale. But not all calorically dense food is highly processed. Let’s look at peanut butter, or even raw peanuts.

If we choose a natural peanut butter, the calories and macronutrients are nearly identical to that of a more processed version. Peanut butter is not the only food in which calories should be the deciding factor; in fact, very rarely should calories be the deciding factor. We should always reflect on our overall health and how best to fuel our bodies.

In natural peanut butter, the ingredient list is short. “Peanuts” for unsalted. “Peanuts, Salt” for salted. That’s it. Peanuts have a host of benefits, beginning with providing a healthy source of fats. However, in a more processed version there are added oils and ingredients. Heck, there’s even sugar added for taste!

Peanut Butter Labels.png

These sugars and added ingredients have debatable effects on the body. Personally, I try to eat as naturally as possible. While I do enjoy treats, for foods such as peanut butter, I do choose ones that are minimally processed. It’s just important to keep in mind that when looking at only calories, natural equals Jif!

…But it’s all goal dependent!

If I don’t have a lot of calories to eat for the day, it may be wise to focus on lower calorie, nutrient dense foods that are higher in volume. By eating a greater amount of food, while still keeping calories lower, you’ll have the feeling of being fuller without consuming a high number of calories. One of my favorite examples of this is fresh berries vs. jam. I love peanut butter and jelly on crackers. It’s a quick, easy, delicious snack. However, if I’m trying to lower by carbohydrate intake, I might choose a cracker with peanut butter and a sliced strawberry or couple blueberries. Same idea and similar taste, but a small change.

Furthermore, if I do have a goal of weight loss and want to eat peanut butter, I almost always put it on crackers, not in a sandwich. Why? Because I’ll get more of them. If I had to guess, the average sandwich, is at least two servings of peanut butter and whopping 360 calories in only that ingredient. However, by portioning out a single serving and splitting it on a handful of open-faced crackers, I’ll feel more satisfied than having a lackluster peanut butter and berry sandwich.

Ultimately, nutrition is a balancing act, just like life. We move through phases. Sometimes eating lower density, higher calorie. Other times, focusing on higher volume eating during times with restricted calories. The entire time, focusing on those foods that fuel our bodies for workouts and for everyday life.

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