By Cliff Harvey
Going back a few years, I remember chatting to another health practitioner at an event. I was talking about the concept of nutrient density and why it’s so critically important. She said to me, “Isn’t that a bit ‘vague’ and even a bit ‘woo’?”
Fast forward around ten years, talking to a practitioner at an event, about the same topic, and he (even more orthodox than the person above) said: “Well, it makes sense…”
Why the shift? And why are people now, almost universally in agreement that we need to have greater ‘nutrient density’ in our diets?
What is ‘nutrient density’ anyway?
Nutrient density refers to the amounts of essential and secondary nutrients in a food. Basically, it means that if a food is nutrient dense, then it has high amounts of either vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fibres and resistant starches, or some or all of the above. It’s not a defined categorisation, and everything will be on a spectrum of nutrient density, from low to high. Usually, the term also refers to foods that have a high amount of these relative to total calories, as compared to many modern, processed foods, which have high total calories with fewer vitamins and minerals and secondary nutrients.
Why is it important?
Many of us don’t get all the essential micronutrients that we need to thrive, from diet alone. This is especially true of vitamin A, B1, B6, B12, and iron. Furthermore, a whopping 25% of us don’t get enough zinc and nearly half of us don’t get enough selenium!1 Without all of these vital nutrients, we are unable to perform well or have robust good health. You can think of vitamins and minerals like the spark plugs in a car—they may not seem too important, but without them, nothing much can happen!
Focusing on ‘nutrient density’ in the diet helps us to start to plug these gaps. Eating more fruits and vegetables especially is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Increasing your veggie and fruit intake from less than 3 to more than 5 servings/day is related to a 17% reduction in heart disease risk2 and there is a 4% reduction in risk per serve of vegetable or fruit added per day!3 It’s even been suggested that the recommended 5 servings per day aren't even close to being enough, and up to 10 servings per day of vegetables and fruit (with vegetables making up the majority) is now considered the best for health.4 Nowadays less than half of all Kiwis eat the recommended (and still not adequate!) amounts of vegetables and fruit that they should in order to optimise health. Only 40% of Kiwis eat at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit each day, as recommended in the Eating and Activity Guidelines for New Zealand Adults… and we’re getting worse! The percentage of adults eating enough vegetables and fruit has dropped from 43% in 2006/07.5
What to do about it?
- Eat REAL food!
Focus on foods that are more natural, whole, and unprocessed. This helps to increase relative nutrient density over (typically more nutrient devoid) processed foods.
- Eat more veggies!
The evidence is clear that we should eat more veggies! Vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, along with fibre, resistant starch, water, and secondary, antioxidant nutrients.
- Eat berries
I’ve always said that berries are like nature’s multivitamin. High in fibre and vitamins, especially free-radical scavenging antioxidants, and relatively low in calories, and sugar, berries are a great addition, even if following a low-carb diet.
- Take a whole food based multi nutrient
A quality multi can help to fill some nutrient gaps. Just make sure it is a quality one that includes the best forms of nutrients (especially the best form of folate!)
- Use veggie, berry and other powder supplements
Food comes first…but sometimes we need additional convenience. Adding berry and veggie based powders to smoothies can be a great way to increase nutrient density in the diet.
Use the tips above to bring the nutrient density of your diet back to where it should be!
- University of Otago and Ministry of Health. A Focus on Nutrition: Key findings of the 2008/09 New Zealand Adult Nutrition Survey. Wellington: 2011.
- He FJ, Nowson CA, Lucas M, MacGregor GA. Increased consumption of fruit and vegetables is related to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease: meta-analysis of cohort studies. J Hum Hypertens. 2007;21(9):717-28.
- Dauchet L, Amouyel P, Hercberg S, Dallongeville J. Fruit and Vegetable Consumption and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies. The Journal of Nutrition. 2006;136(10):2588-93.
- Aune D, Giovannucci E, Boffetta P, Fadnes LT, Keum N, Norat T, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of cardiovascular disease, total cancer and all-cause mortality-a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. International journal of epidemiology. 2017.
- Annual Update of Key Results 2014/15. Wellington: New Zealand Ministry of Health. ; 2015.