French fries and baked potatoes are both vegetables. They both have been cooked.
But the baked potato has less fat and calories and if you eat the skin of the potato, you are taking in more vitamins and minerals. So it would be safe to say the baked potato is more nutrient dense.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans1, nutrient-dense foods are foods that have generous amounts of vitamins and minerals and relatively few calories.
The opposite is energy-dense food , also called empty calorie food, like soda pop and foods high in added sugar or processed cereals.
Nutrient density means the level of vitamins and minerals present in the food compared to the calories. And when you are dieting, you want to make every bite of food count as far as nutrient density.
The more nutrients you take in, the healthier you are and the less you crave the not-so-healthy foods. Fortunately, the majority of nutrient dense foods are low in calories. Let’s take a look at some of those foods and how to incorporate them into your diet.
Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables
A 2014 study2 from a researcher at William Paterson University set out to measure just how nutritious by density fruits and vegetables are, and which ones are the super foods. The researchers coined the term Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables (PFV) for these foods.
Dr. Jennifer Di Noia, the study lead, developed the classification method based on the nutrient density per 100 calories of each food. For each food, the following 17 nutrients were analyzed: fiber, riboflavin, niacin, protein, calcium, iron, thiamin, folate, zinc, potassium, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K. Phytochemical data was not included.
The results are surprising. First of all, some foods commonly called superfoods, like raspberry, tangerine, cranberry, garlic, onion, and blueberry didn’t make the cut.
The top 30, and their Nutrient Density Score were:
1. Watercress 100.00
The big suprise at #1 is Watercress. It actually contains significant amounts of iron, calcium, iodine, and folic acid, in addition to vitamins A and C. Because it is relatively rich in Vitamin C, watercress was suggested, among other plants, by English military surgeon John Woodall as a remedy for scurvy. Watercress is also a significant source of omega-3 fatty acids.3
2. Chinese Cabbage 91.99
Also known as Bok Choy, or Pak choi, Chinese cabbage contains a high amount of vitamin A per 4 oz. of serving, about 3500 IU. Pak choi also contains approximately 50 mg of vitamin C per 4 oz. serving.
3. Chard 89.27
Chard has been bred to have highly nutritious leaves and is considered to be one of the most healthful vegetables available, making it a popular addition to healthful diets (like other green leafy vegetables).
Fresh young chard can be used raw in salads. Mature chard leaves and stalks are typically cooked (like in pizzoccheri) or sauteed; their bitterness fades with cooking, leaving a refined flavor which is more delicate than that of cooked spinach.
Chard is high in vitamins A, K, and C, with a 175-g serving containing 214%, 716%, and 53%, respectively, of the recommended daily value. It is also rich in minerals, dietary fiber, and protein.4
4. Beet greens 87.08
Beet greens are a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoid phytonutrients that play a role in eye health. One cup of raw beet greens can contain over 275 micrograms of lutein. That cup of raw beet greens also has 8 calories, 1.4 grams of fiber and 0.84 grams of protein.
5. Spinach 86.43
Spinach is known to be rich in iron. According tot he United States Department of Agriculture, a 180-g serving of boiled spinach contains 6.43 mg of iron, compared to a 170-g ground hamburger patty which contains at most 4.42 mg.5
On the other hand, spinach contains iron absorption-inhibiting substances, including high levels of oxalate, which can bind to the iron to form ferrous oxalate and render much of the iron in spinach unusable by the body. In addition to preventing absorption and use, high levels of oxalates remove iron from the body.
Spinach is also a rich source, meaning it has more that 20% of the Daily Value, of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, manganese, and folate.
6. Chicory 73.36
Chicory leaves are eaten raw as salad leaves. Cultivated chicory is generally divided into three types, of which there are many varieties: Radicchio, Sugarloaf and Belgian endive.
Chicory contains Vitamin B1, B2, B3, B5 (Pantothenic acid), B6, B9 and C as well as the minerals Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Manganese, Phosphorus, Potassium, Sodium and Zinc.
The chicory plant is one of the earliest cited in recorded literature. Horace mentions it in reference to his own diet, which he describes as very simple: “Me pascunt olivae, me cichorea, me malvae” (“As for me, olives, endives, and mallows provide sustenance”).
7. Leaf lettuce 70.73
Used mainly for salads, leaf lettuce is a good source of vitamin A, vitamin K and potassium. It also provides some fiber, carbohydrates, protein and a small amount of fat.
In addition to salads, lettuce leaves can be found in soups, sandwiches and wraps, while the stems are eaten both raw and cooked.
Lettuce also provides some vitamin C, calcium, iron and copper, with vitamins and minerals largely found in the leaf.
8. Parsley 65.59
Parsley is a source of Flavonoid, and Antioxidants, especially luteolin, apigenin, folic acid, vitamin K, vitamin C, and vitamin A. Half a of tablespoon (a gram) of dried parsley contains about 6.0 µg of lycopene and 10.7 µg of alpha carotene as well as 82.9 µg of Lutein+Zeaxanthin and 80.7 µg of beta carotene.6
Green parsley is used often as a garnish on potato dishes (boiled or mashed potatoes), on rice dishes (risotto or pilaf), on fish, fried chicken, lamb, goose, and steaks, as well in meat or vegetable stews (such as beef bourguignon, goulash, or chicken paprikash).
Excessive consumption of parsley should be avoided by pregnant women. It is safe in normal food quantities, but large amounts may have uterotonic effects.
9. Romaine lettuce 63.48
Romaine lettuce (Lactuca sativa L. var. longifolia) grows in a tall head of sturdy leaves with firm ribs down their centers. Unlike most lettuces, it is tolerant of heat.
The antioxidants contained within romaine lettuce are believed to help prevent cancer. It also contains the minerals Calcium, Iron, Phosphorus and Potassium.
Romaine is the usual lettuce used in Caesar salad. Romaine lettuce also is commonly used in Middle Eastern cuisine.
10. Collard green 62.49
11. Turnip green 62.12
12. Mustard green 61.39
13. Endive 60.44
14. Chive 54.80
15. Kale 49.07
16. Dandelion green 46.34
17. Red pepper 41.26
18. Arugula 37.65
19. Broccoli 34.89
20. Pumpkin 33.82
21. Brussels sprout 32.23
22. Scallion 27.35
23. Kohlrabi 25.92
24. Cauliflower 25.13
25. Cabbage 24.51
26. Carrot 22.60
27. Tomato 20.37
28. Lemon 18.72
29. Iceberg lettuce 18.28
30. Strawberry 17.59
According to Di Noia ,“The PFV list will help consumers know what PFV are and help them choose them as part of their overall fruit and vegetable intake. The scores may help focus consumers on their daily energy needs/how best to get the most nutrients from their foods.”
Vegetables and Fruits
No matter what kind of diet you are on , Atkins, South Beach, Paleo, Weight Watchers, they all highlight nutrient dense foods that are high in water content and low in calories. In other words, lots of vegetables and fruits.
These two food groups have the most in terms of how many vitamins and minerals they pack into their structures versus other foods. Apples, carrots, spinach, and kale are all examples of low calorie foods that pack a nutritional wallop with little calorie counts.
So why not potato chips? It’s made from potatoes, right? That’s a vegetable.
Nice try, but in this case, the potato’s water content has been replaced with fat content and along with it, a good portion of nutrients. You end up with something that began as a healthy potato, but got processed into an altered food that barely resembles what it started out as.
The potato is now higher in fat, calories, possibly sodium and definitely missing a good chunk of its minerals and vitamins. Definitely not a good food choice when you are trying to lose weight.
To calculate nutrient density (in percent), divide the food energy (in calories or joules) from one particular nutrient by the total food energy in the given food.
Meat, nuts, and seeds also pack a lot of nutrients in their structures as well, but you have to be a little more care when incorporating them into your diet. These particular foods have a tendency to be fat dense as well as nutrient dense, so it is very easy to eat too much.
A handful of nuts per day is sufficient to take advantage of the nutrient density without tipping into weight gain territory. The same goes for meat: a maximum of six to nine ounces of day of lean meats mean you are getting the vitamins your body craves without adding to your waistline.
Aggregate Nutrient Density
A standardized measure is the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (abbreviated ANDI). It is a score assigned to foods based on micronutrient density per calorie.
Developed by Joel Fuhrman, the ANDI is described in his books Eat For Health and Eat Right America Nutritarian Handbook. ANDI scores range from 1,000 to 0, with 1,000 considered by Fuhrman the most nutrient dense and 0 being the least nutrient dense.
“Micronutrient-poor foods, like pasta, sugar, and soda, don’t just give you empty calories and make you fat; they also do damage to the body and cause disease,” Fuhrman explains. “Without micronutrients to remove waste, cells become congested, DNA gets broken, and the body doesn’t have the ability to repair itself. Eventually, you get sick.”
Kale, mustard greens, collard greens, and watercress all receive a score of 1,000 using the H=N/C equation, while foods like meat, seafood, and dairy products receive scores below 50 and are not considered by Fuhrman to be health-supporting.7
The Aggregate Nutrient Density Index system has been adopted by Whole Foods Market grocery stores and ANDI numbers are posted for many foods there.
1. Dietary Guidelines for Americans http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DietaryGuidelines
2. Di Noia J.
Defining Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables: A Nutrient Density Approach.
Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:130390. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.130390
3. Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2001 Jul;71(4):223-8.
The alpha-linolenic acid content of green vegetables commonly available in Australia
4. “Nutrition Facts and Analysis for Chard“. Nutritiondata.self.com.
5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2005. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 18. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page, http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp
6. Meyer, H. , Bolarinwa, A. , Wolfram, G. , & Linseisen, J. (2006).
“Bioavailability of apigenin from apiin-rich parsley in humans“.
Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 50 (3): 167–172. doi:10.1159/000090736. PMID 16407641
7. Men’s Journal- Joel Fuhrman: The Doctor Is Out There
8. Eat to Live: The Amazing Nutrient-Rich Program for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss – Dr. Joel Fuhrman
Top Photo by Wendell Smith