In our last article, we learned that good nutrition controls energy balance. It provides us enough energy to live and do the activities we want to do, but not so much that we get sick.
Say, I’ve got a wild idea…
Why don’t we just eat a pudding of combined sugar, oil, and amino acid powders to meet our daily energy needs?
We could eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Think about it…
- It provides all of our energy-delivering macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein).
- It could be easily stored as a dry powder, so it’s highly portable and it won’t go bad.
- It’ll be like living in the future!
We could turn this versatile powder into a drink, a delicious pudding, even bake it into cookies…
WE COULD BE EATING COOKIES FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH, AND DINNER!!!
And so long as we eat the right amount, we’re golden!
Not So Fast.
Principle #2: Good nutrition provides nutrient density.
The truth is, we need more than just raw energy from our macronutrients. Specific micronutrients help the body perform countless different chemical reactions which maintain the health of our various tissues, systems, and cells. Micronutrients can take the forms of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals found in our food.
- without Vitamin A, your skin and mucous-secreting cells would dry up
- without Vitamin A, your cells would become vulnerable to infection, harming your immune system
- without Vitamin K, your blood would not be able to clot
- without calcium, your muscles wouldn’t be able to contract
- without calcium, your bones and teeth would be brittle
- without calcium, your brain wouldn’t be able to communicate between neurons
What is Nutrient Density?
Based on the second principle, good nutrition doesn’t just provide the micronutrients we need, it provides nutrient density.
Since good nutrition must also account for energy balance, we have our first constraint.
Nutrient density means good nutrition provides as many micronutrients as possible per calorie of energy.
Poor Nutrient Density: A 600-calorie meal of a hamburger with fries and ketchup… or our familiar 600-calorie pudding of sugar, oil, and protein powder.
Great Nutrient Density: A colorful 600-calorie meal full of greens dressed with olive oil, bright and rich butternut squash, a sirloin steak, and some simmered fruits sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert.
KEY POINT: We need to prioritize getting as much nutrition as possible per calorie of food we eat
What Foods Maximize Nutrient Density?
The foods with the greatest nutrient density will be low in calories but abundant in various micronutrients. Most colorful plant foods fit under this umbrella, especially vegetables. They’re comprised mainly of water and fiber, but within their bright colors hide all sorts of nutritious phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals.
Did you know organ meats are also nutrient dense?
Although their caloric density is higher, organ meats like heart and liver will provide higher nutrient density, often in forms that are more easily absorbed than plant sources.
By choosing meals with a conscious awareness of getting the deep blues and purples, bright oranges, rich reds, and lively greens along with some organ meats, you’ll be more likely to fulfill your body’s requirements for all these nutrients.
The more calories you eat, the more opportunities you have to get your micronutrients.
Let’s use an example to demonstrate.
Jim is a 200lb man. Jim has been on a fat-loss diet and eating 2,000 calories each day.
Now that Jim is 200lbs, he is ready to start adding muscle and strength again to his leaner body. Let’s say Jim needs a muscle-building daily diet that consists of 4,000 calories which fuel his workouts and recovery.
Since Jim is eating all the same foods:
- his muscle-building diet is TWICE the total intake as his fat-loss diet. In only one day he’s eating what he normally ate in two days while losing fat.
- his volume of micronutrient intake will be TWICE as much during his muscle-building diet.
Our calorie needs depend on our individual physiologies and lifestyles. As your goals change (whether fat loss, muscle gain, or healthy maintenance), so must your eating habits. To maximize nutrient density, consider the following.
If you’re able to eat more food (more energy), then it should be easier to get more (micro)nutrition. You have more opportunities to get a variety of many nutrients.
High Calorie Diet = Plenty of Nutrient Opportunities
If you’re not able to eat as much food (less energy), you’ll have to be much more aware of prioritizing nutrient-dense foods. You have fewer opportunities to get nutrients.
Low Calorie Diet = Fewer Nutrient Opportunities
It’s much easier to get plenty of micronutrients when you’re eating a ton, but when you’re not eating as much (whether you’re dieting or just a smaller person), you must make every food count.
Suddenly our futuristic all-in-one nutrition pudding doesn’t seem as good as we once thought. It falls short, providing very little nutrition per calorie. Not to mention, that yummy nutrient-deficient energy pudding would do little to satisfy your appetite. You’d be hungry again very quickly.
Good try anyway.