Nutrient Density: and good food choices 
Compiled by Dr. Walter Sorochan, HSD, MPH, MSc, BPE, Emeritus Professor: San Diego State University

Posted December 11, 2019; Updated December 27, 2019.

Eating the best nutritious foods is a major problem in the world, and especially United States. As the reader is aware by now, selecting the wrong foods can result in many chronic diseases, especially obesity. This article provides information how you can do a better job of selecting foods that promote optimal wellbeing and prevent chronic diseases.

Chris Kresser and Jackie Wicks point out the sad state of nutrition in the United States: Kresser: Why nutrient density? 2018

If the United States were to receive a report card rating the quality of the Standard American Diet, it would get a solid “F” in lacking nutrient density. Despite being high in calories, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is nutrient poor. Vegetable oils and sugar, which together comprise 36 percent of the SAD diet, are virtually devoid of nutrients.

Kesser points out that "It should come as no surprise that nutrient deficiency is widespread in the United States; recent statistics indicate that nearly one-third of Americans are at risk for at least one vitamin deficiency or anemia, with hundreds of thousands of people at risk for multiple deficiencies;" while Wicks points out that "It is now estimated less than 10% of adults and only 2% of children get the minimum daily requirement of vital nutrients their body needs to seek its ideal weight or ward off chronic illnesses. The chronic illnesses that develop as a result of poor eating have become so serious that in 2006 the Center For Disease Control and Prevention announced that this generation of children may be the first not to live as long as their parents."  Wicks: Nutrient density & weight loss

To make matters worse, the old RDA [recommended dietary allowance] now updated to Recommended Daily Intake [RDI], merely represents the daily intake level required to avoid acute deficiency symptoms — it does not represent the nutrient intake needed to promote optimal health .... that is, the minimum amount of a nutrients a person needs in order to avoid a malnutrition-triggered disease, like scurvy or rickets. Furthermore, they don’t really take into account gender, age, or decreasing amount of digestive enzymes as we age.

Many persons are aware of the need to select a good diet but refrain from doing so because they have become addicted to foods like sweets, snacks and processed foods. They find it very difficult to switch to non-addictive foods. Nevertheless, this is not a good excuse for eating foods that are full of calories but few quality nutrients.

What is nutrient-density?

Nutrient density means how many nutrients you get from a food, given the number of calories it contains. Nutrient density connects nutrients to calories. Nutrition experts focus on the number of calories that are linked to a 2000 calorie diet and not about the number of nutrients in the diet. Making matters worse, many weight loss experts use the adage" you need to lose 3500 calories to lose one pound of body fat;" overlooking the more important information about the number of nutrients one ingests or nutrient-density.

Nutrient density is a concept pioneered by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, and is simply the measurement of the concentration of micronutrients in food. Some foods, like green vegetables have very high nutrient density measurements. Processed foods have very low nutrient density measurements. Foods that are nutrient dense are associated with greater health, increased energy and weight loss.

Dr. Fuhrman refers to his dietary style as a Nutarian diet because it is based on choosing an adequate amount of foods that have the highest nutrient density. Adequate consumption of foods high in vitamins, minerals, amino acids and phytochemicals is essential for a healthy immune system and to empower your body’s detoxification and cellular repair mechanisms to protect you from cancer and other diseases. Fuhrman: Nutrient density 2016 Fuhrman points out that:

If you need to lose weight, you will find that the more nutrient dense food you consume, the more you will be satisfied with fewer calories and the less you’ll crave low-nutrient, empty calorie [junk] foods. You will also keep the weight off as this is an eating plan for life that you will come to appreciate and love.

How do you know which foods to choose? To answer this question, Dr. Fuhrman created the aggregate nutrient density index, or ANDI. The ANDI ranks many common foods on the basis of how many nutrients they deliver to your body for each calorie consumed. It also helps you visualize how nutrient dense green vegetables, fruits are and how foods compare with one another. Foods are rated on a scale of 1-1000. 1000 is super good while 1 is terrible.

Food labels list only a few nutrients [e.g. 24 or fewer nutrients], but ANDI’s are based on thirty-four important nutritional parameters. The ANDI is a simple way to help you identify and eat larger amounts of nutrient-rich foods. The higher the ANDI and the greater percentage of those foods in your diet, the better your health will be.

Not surprisingly, the foods that have a high ANDI score are straight from nature, primarily vegetables and fruits. Nutritional science in the last twenty years has demonstrated that colorful plant foods contain a huge assortment of protective compounds. Only by eating an assortment of these nutrient-rich natural foods can we access these protective compounds and prevent the common diseases that afflict Americans.

To see how well the foods you eat rate, take a look at this sample of ANDI scores: Fuhrman: ANDI scores for foods 2017

Though the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) is not the only thing that one needs to consider, attention should be given to consuming a variety of high ANDI scoring plant foods, to maximize the total ANDI score for a meal or a day's diet. Dr. Fuhrman specifically recommends that people consume greens, beans, onions, mushrooms, berries, seeds and tomatoes on a regular basis to maximize immune function and protection against cancer. Missing from Fuhrman's list of foods to eat are beets, brewer's yeast and onions. Finally, ANDI does not give good points for Flax seeds that are a super source of antioxidants. Fuhrman's ANDI gives little attention to avocados that contain a superb amounts of nutrients.

The ANDI score for a food also overlooks the nutrients in lesser amounts, referred to as helpers or co-factors and food enzymes, that may be in very small amounts but essential for all the other major nutrients to work in that food.

Examples of nutrient density versus high calorie low nutrients:

George Matelian gives a simple example of nutrient density in foods: Mateljan: nutrient density in foods

Let's say you're low on vitamin E, and decide to eat a food that is not nutrient dense. A slice of white bread will give you about 1/10th of a milligram of vitamin E. This 1/10th of a milligram will cost you about 80 calories [the number of calories in a slice of many white breads]. Now let's compare this number and amount to a slice of 100% whole wheat bread.

Whole grain products, like most whole foods, are nutrient dense. A slice of 100% whole wheat bread will cost you approximately the same number of calories (about 70-75 calories) but the vitamin E content will be substantially different. Instead of getting only 100 micrograms of vitamin E in exchange for your 70-80 calories, with 100% whole grain bread, you will get between 250 and 500 micrograms. Or, to put it somewhat differently, you would have to eat between 2-1/2 and 5 slices of run-of-the-mill white bread in order to get the same amount of vitamin E as is found in one slice of 100% whole wheat bread. And those extra 1-1/2 to 4 slices would cost you as much as 320 additional calories.

Getting your nutrients from nutrient dense foods is clearly the way to go! Why? Because in this example, it would save you about 320 calories. While that amount might not sound like a lot, in terms of average walking, it would mean an additional 45 minutes of walking just to break even. It would also be the equivalent of a 33-pound weight gain every year if it happened on a daily basis.

 Another example: a 1-cup serving of fresh broccoli contains about 30 calories. Broccoli is filled with calcium and magnesium; vitamins A, C, and K; and other nutrients. A regular soft drink contains about 150 calories per 12 ounces, with sugar, water and chemicals. The broccoli is considered a nutrient-dense food, while the soft drink is considered a calorie-dense or nutrient lacking food. The concept of nutrient density is virtually the opposite of empty calories.

Nutrient-dense foods are rich in nutrients compared to a calorie-dense food that are higher in calories but usually low in nutrients.

An interesting observation about selecting foods is the theory of nutrient deficiency. A diet deficient in nutrients causes the pleasure-feeling center in the brain to feel hungry. A diet lacking nutrients tells the brain that it needs to eat more foods that have nutrients. Such a person craves to eat, usually foods that have very few nutrients .... contributing to excessive empty calorie foods that contribute to a silent incubation of obesity. According to Dr. Fuhrman, if you can't stick to a diet, you cannot achieve permanent weight loss and health. If a diet does not provide the nutrients you need, then your body will want more food and it will be nearly impossible to maintain a proper weight. This is the key to permanent 'weight loss' and it can be made part of any diet strategy.  Fuhrman: Nutrient density 2016

Conclusion:

Whole, organically-grown foods are more nutritious than junk or processed foods. The reason is simple: nothing is contained in a fresh, whole organic food that doesn't need to be there. Plant foods contain all the nutrients, co-factors and enzymes needed for the plants to grow and be digested by humans.

Although nutrient-density is the best approach to understanding how to eat better, there are numerous flaws if one just relies on this eating approach:

1. The flaw in recommended diets and especially nutrient analyses is that they only take into consideration at most 40 minerals, vitamins and amino acids that the human body needs; while leaving out a vast majority of nutrients, co-factorial nutrients and essential plant enzymes. James A. Duke, James, PhD, reported in several of his books in 1992, that there are over 3000 phytochemicals, that can be considered as nutrients. This information has been ignored by nutritionists and others as food sources.  Duke: Plants 1992

2. Nutritionists, when doing a diet analysis, assume that there are only 40 nutrients that the human body needs. This assumption is rejected by Dr. Roland Thomas, head of Bioage [Spirulina SuperFood], claiming to include at least 90 nutrients in the supplement spirulina SuperFood. Thomas: Superfood - Genius within  SuperFood number of nutrients are based on mother nature spirulina [sea weed] creating its own survival food that, in turn, has become part of the human-food DNA.

3. Nutrition experts create confusion by linking food and nutrients to calories and implying that we count calories instead of focusing on the number of nutrients in a food. The best recent approach to all the nutrition confusion is the approach taken by a medical nutrition doctor, Dr. Joel Fuhrman.

4. Missing from Fuhrman's nutrient-dense diet ANDI considerations are the sun's energy waves, photons, as the key to plant food freshness. Also missing are exosomes that have RDA information about good and bad foods that the human body is programmed to decipher and interpret. Both of these are overlooked in nutrient-density.

So how does the human body [ not diet analysis or medical doctors] interpret whether it is getting an adequate amount of nutrients? The human body automatically diagnoses whether there are sufficient nutrients in the food one eats. When one eats insufficient nutrients, then it sends response messages like flatulence, bloating, constipation and especially feeling hungry in spite of having just eaten.

Jackie Wicks and others argue that diets have failed you and not the other way around. It is fashionable to say that "diets don't work."  Wicks: Nutrient density & weight loss Scientists now believe that many people feel hungry because their body is not getting the nutrients it needs. Kendall:What is nutrient density although we need more research on this issue.

The poor diet and lifestyle choices of our youth start to catch up with us as we age. But the good news is that embracing a healthful lifestyle, including a nutrient-dense, plant-rich diet, can allow us to maintain optimal health and achieve enhanced longevity.

"In the United States, as in other countries, too much of the food that is consumed has almost no nutritional value. I [Dr. Fuhrman] am talking about highly processed foods that are often referred to as “empty calories” because they are so low in micronutrients. These are products, not whole foods. Eating commercially baked goods, snack foods, luncheon meats, ice cream, soda, and oils, is dangerous. They are usually made with sweeteners, white flour or loaded with sodium, sugar and fat [that make us addicted]. Our addictions to these high-calorie, low-nutrient foods have led to astronomically high rates of obesity, cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes."  Fuhrman: Nutrient density 2016

Whole organically-grown foods are mother nature packaged in its lowest calorie form. Scientist have now confirmed that eating fresh raw vegetables, fruits and nuts is a very healthy diet that avoids red meats, junk and processed foods.

We need to dream of having hope of eating better. We are on the verge of new innovative ways of farming food. The missing and essential link in the nutrient-dense diet is getting raw, fresh vegetables and eating these the same day so as to preserve the photon energy and exosomes. Innovators in the past 10 years have been evolving new ways of growing plants and getting these to the plate fresh and raw. There are several innovative approaches to traditional land-soil farming, like aquafarming, aerofarming, and vertical farming. All of these innovations to producing food are trying to get food from the growing stage to the table faster than traditional farming that requires storage and transportation .... resulting in loss of vegetable freshness. Building a small vertical enclosed farm inside a food supermarket would be such a dream example. We should expect more and better innovations in the future.

Vertical farms produce crops in stacked layers, often in controlled environments such as those built by AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey. AeroFarms grows a variety of leafy salad greens entirely indoors using a process called "aeroponics," which relies on air and mist. Unfortunately, such farming still requires storage and transportation. But this could be overcome by building such farms adjacent to supermarkets, thereby minimizing storage and transportation. Now we are dreaming of a new way of farming, economics and living.

Below is a video of a vertical, a miniature greenhouse by a company, Infarm, in a German supermarket: Do: greenhouse in supermarket 2016

 

This innovation makes vertical farming and fresh produce accessible to the public by allowing shoppers to grab fresh vegetables straight from the source. With this sustainable and environmentally friendly technology, transportation, storage indoor farm in Parisand refrigeration are no longer factors in getting produce to the people. The idea of growing and harvesting vegetables indoor has spread to Paris, France, as illustrated in the photo on the right.

Meanwhile, while we hope and wait for a more applicable version of vertical farming in the supermarket, you will still need to go to the grocery store or organic farm that sells the freshest food in your area.

 

 

 

 

Finally, nutrient-density helps us to select foods that have the highest amount of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Here is a sample of such a vegetarian meal [ Food data analysis in table below from  USDA: Nutrient analysis in foods ]:

FoodNutrient-densityServ AmtMajor nutrients [co-factors or nutrient helpers not included]
kale 1000 3/4 cup 1 cup = B12, vit D; Ca, Cu, Fe, I, Mn, K, Se, Zn, fiber
broccoli flowers 376 3/4 cup 1 cup = Ca, Cu, Mg, Mn, P, K, Se, Na, Zn; vit A, C, K, B2, B9,  fiber,
carrots grated 240 1/2 cup 1 cup = Ca, Cu, I, Mn, P, K, Se, Zn, S; B1, B5, B7, B12, C, D
tomato 164 6 small cherry 1 cherry = B1, B5, B12, vit D; Ca, Cu, Mn, K, Se, Lipocoene
lentils [pinto beans] 100 3/4 cup 1 cup = B2, B5, B7; Ca, Co, Cu, I, Mn, k, Se, Zn, S, amino acids,  fiber
sunflower seeds 78 2 tbspns 1 oz = B1, B5, B7, B9, B12; Ca, Cu, Fe, I, Mn, K, Se, Na, Zn, S, fiber
apple raw 76 1 medium 1 fruit = Ca, Fe, K, P, A, C; B9, K, B9, choline,  fiber
peas green 70 4 tbspns Ca, Cu, Fe, Mn, P, K, Na, Se; B1, B2, B3,B5, B6, vit K, amino acids
flax seeds ground 65 2 tbspns 1 tbspn = Cu, I, Mn, P, K, Se, S; B2, B3, B5, B 12,  fiber
almonds 38 6 seeds 1 almond = B2, B5, B9, vit E, choline;  Ca, Fe, Mg, Mn, P, K, Zn, fiber
avocado 37 1 medium 1 med = B1, B2, B5, vit D, vit C; Ca, Cu, Fe, I, Mn, K, Se, Zn, S
onions raw ?? 1 medium 1 medium = vit A, B1, B2, B5, B7, B12; Ca, Cu, Mn, K, Se
beets, boiled ?? 1 medium 2 beets = vit A, B1, B2, B5, B7, B12; Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg, Mn, P, Se, Na, Zn,  essential methyl group
Total ANDI score 2244

Fuhrman's ANDI table did not give values for onions, Brewer's yeast and beets. Beets provide nitrous oxides facilitating methylation that is a most essential for body functioning. Brewer's yeast supplies amino acids that may be missing in a vegetarian diet. Another important missing nutrient are plant enzymes and co-factors.

Numerous hi-density foods may be substituted for those in the table above; for example, collards, spinach and romaine lettuce for kale and other fruit for apple. This meal, if repeated over time, and avoiding sugar, fats and processed foods, will make you feel good, not feeling hungry, have minimum flatulence and a soft bowel movement.

Although Dr. Fuhrman's ANDI table is the best short food guide for selecting foods to eat, one should not rely on it as a final word about a nutrient dense diet. The reason is that fresh raw vegetables and fruits may not be readily available where many live, like in a desert where food is not grown due to lack of water.  One should consider ingesting plant based supplements and getting adequate amount of exposure to sunlight. But avoid supplements that are chemically engineered, as these are recognized as toxins by the body. Sorochan: Vitamin-mineral supplements 2019

Dr. Bruce Ames, Emeritus Professor at University of California, Berkeley, summarizes the relevance of all this information about nutrient-density:  Ames: Low nutrient intake can cause diseases 2006  Ames: Need better clinical trails on micronutrients 2007

"A large body of evidence indicates that deficiencies in many micronutrients cause DNA damage, such as chromosome breaks. Some of these micronutrient deficiencies also cause mitochondrial decay with oxidant leakage and cellular aging and are associated with late-onset diseases such as cancer. Ames also introduced a theory that provides a rationale for why micronutrient deficiencies may lead to greater risk of chronic diseases such as cancer. He proposed that DNA damage and late-onset diseases are consequences of a “triage allocation response” to micronutrient scarcity. Episodic shortages of micronutrients were common during evolution. Because natural selection favors short-term survival at the expense of long-term health, Ames hypothesized that short-term survival was achieved by allocating scarce micronutrients by triage, in part through an adjustment of the binding affinity of proteins for required micronutrients. The hypothesis is testable, and, if correct, it predicts that micronutrient deficiencies triggering the triage allocation response would accelerate cancer, aging, and neural decay but would leave critical short-term metabolic functions, such as ATP production, intact."

Dr. Ames’s Triage Theory of optimal nutrition states that the human body prioritizes the use of vitamins and minerals when it is getting an insufficient amount to keep functioning:  Smith: Dr. Bruce Ames on nutrition

"The term “triage” is borrowed from the field of urgent medical care. Triage means deciding which patients to treat when faced with limited resources. When presented with more sick patients than there are resources to treat them all at the same time, doctors must decide which patients to treat first based on the severity of their condition.

So the patient in cardiac arrest comes first, followed by the patient with a hemorrhaging wound in need of stitches, then the patient with severe influenza, and so on. This provides the best chance for all the patients to survive.

Our bodies evolved to do pretty much the same thing. Faced with limited nutritional resources, the human physiology must “decide” which biological functions to prioritize in order to give the total organism—and the species—the best chance to survive and reproduce."

Finally, Dr. Ames has touched on the subject of how our bodies work with nutrition. But there are many more ways that our body works in silence. Sorochan: How body works 2019

The human body is in a survival mode all the time.  It slides from a well state to incubating a disorder or disease and visa versa while attempting to stabilize the body systems with no present signs or symptoms of mineral or vitamin imbalance and no visible signs of disorder or disease. Most persons vacillate at this survival level, probably harboring at least one body health problem, often incubate a second disorder and not be aware of it. A person may go through her/his entire life nutritionally deficient or unbalanced and not know it while socializing, enjoying physical, mental and emotional activities. During this seemingly well time, depending on the severity or lack of nutritional balance, one may never become severely ill, while incubating diseases [ cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes] and the body balancing these out with overall low level survival wellness. It is safe to say that if there are no visible signs of disease, that most persons and medical doctors would assume such a person to be healthy.  However, in real life, the body of a person appearing to be in good health and functioning may not necessarily be well, the degree of wellbeing is compensated, hidden and medically undiagnosed. The significance of this information is that the human body needs nutrients [ good food] to prevent hatching diseases silently and survive. How the body works is essential motivation to eating better, losing body weight, avoiding chronic diseases, dealing with auto-immune disorders, helping bones to heal and just staying healthy.

So .... now you, the reader, should have some information and understanding how the body prioritizes food intake. And how sugar, fat and salt can make you addicted to crave to eat more junk foods that have these additives. But the final step is acting on all this information. You need to act on it. If you have a chronic condition like being overweight or obese, then you need to change how you shop for food, how you select foods and how you eat. You need discipline! discipline! discipline! and a desire to be better! It is your decision about acting in this information.

References:

Ames Bruce N, Joyce C McCann, Meir J Stampfer, Walter C Willett, "Evidence-based decision making on micronutrients and chronic disease: long-term randomized controlled trials are not enough," The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 86, Issue 2, August 2007, Pages 522–523.  Ames: Need better clinical trails on micronutrients 2007

Ames Bruce N., "Low micronutrient intake may accelerate the degenerative diseases of aging through allocation of scarce micronutrients by triage," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, [PNAS], November 21, 2006 103 (47) 17589-17594.  Ames: Low nutrient intake can cause diseases 2006

Ames Bruce, "The Triage Theory by Bruce Ames," News in Nutrition, June 19, 2017.  Ames: Triage theory of nutrition and health 2017

Brynie Faith, "Food and the brain's reward system, "Psychology Today, August 15, 2013.  Brynie: Food and brain reward system 2013

Do Tiffany, "This German Supermarket Grows Its Own Produce," Food Republic, March 24, 2016.  Do: Greenhouse in supermarket 2016

Tellez L.A., and others,   "A Gut Lipid Messenger Links Excess Dietary Fat to Dopamine Deficiency," Science, August 16, 2013.  Tellez: Food linked to brain addiction center 2013

Duke James A., Handbook of Phytochemical Constituents of GRAS Herbs and Other Economic Plants, 1992.  Duke: Plants 1992

Fuhrman Joel, "Nutrient Density," Dr.Fuhrman, May 19, 2016.  Fuhrman: Nutrient density 2016  Fuhrman: ANDI scores for foods 2017

Kendall Marty, "Nutrient density 101," Optimizing Nutrition.  Kendall:What is nutrient density

Kresser Chris, "What Is Nutrient Density and Why Is It Important?" Health Coach, September 27, 2018.  Kresser: Why nutrient density? 2018

Mateljan George, "What is nutrient density and why is it so important?," The George Mateljan Foundation for The World's Healthiest Foods.  Mateljan: nutrient density in foods

Smith Philip, "Life Extension® Interview with Dr. Bruce Ames," Life Extension, August 2011.  Smith: Dr. Bruce Ames on nutrition

Sorochan Walter, "How your body works," April 11, 2019.  Sorochan: How body works 2019

Sorochan Walter, "Vitamin-Mineral Supplement update," Freegrab.net, June 29, 2019.  Sorochan: Vitamin-mineral supplements 2019

Thomas Roland and Michael Kiriac, " Awaken the Genius within," Bioage,  Thomas: Superfood - Genius within

USDA, "Food Data Central,"  USDA: Nutrient analysis in foods

Via Michael, "The Malnutrition of Obesity: Micronutrient Deficiencies That Promote Diabetes," ISRN Endocrinol. March 15, 2012; 103472.  Via: Malnutrition of obesity 2012

Wicks Jackie, "What Is Nutrient Density?  Wicks: Nutrient density & weight loss

Wikipedia, "Nutrient density."  Wiki: nutrient density