Nutrient-dense foods are real and unprocessed, as opposed to chemically altered, man-made or synthetic ingredients. They provide plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.

Today, it can be hard to obtain all the nutrients you need due to factors like mass production of processed foods, soil depletion and difficulty getting fresh, organic, local foods.

Some of the best ways to increase the nutrient density of your diet include purchasing seasonal/local produce, growing your own garden, and eating more healthy foods like leafy greens, berries and meat from pasture-raised animals.

What Is Nutrient Density?

Stop counting calories and start paying attention to nutrient values

Nutrition, we’ve all heard the word, but have you ever really considered what it actually means? The dictionary definition is ‘the process of providing or obtaining the food necessary for health and growth’.

What does that actually mean relative to your food choices?

Do you ever pay attention to the nutritional value of an item of food?

To be more specific – do you choose your food based on its micronutrient content or do you choose your food based on the number of calories it contains?

Let’s compare one gram of sugar to one gram of whole rolled oats; both contain exactly 4 grams of calories per gram. What this means is that if you eat a teaspoon of sugar or a teaspoon of oats, both will provide you with exactly the same amount of energy; however, that’s where the similarity ends as they are definitely not the same from a micronutrient point of view.

Sugar is an empty calorie as it is completely devoid of any vitamins, minerals or fibre; whereas one gram of oats contains many different minerals, vitamins and fibre.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess which is better for your body – a completely ‘dead’ substance like sugar or one that nourishes?

All calories are thus not created equally.

There are three major food categories (macronutrients) namely protein, fat and carbohydrate and all of these will contain micronutrients (vitamins, phytochemicals and minerals) in different ratios.

Only protein and fat are essential for life, carbohydrates are not.

More of this topic in the low carb section.

So if calories provide the body with energy why should you care about the nutrient content of your food?

Eating nutrient-dense and plant-rich, foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds together with meat, eggs and dairy from pasture-raised animals supply both the right amount of macronutrients and the vital micronutrients that unleash the body’s incredible power to heal itself, slow the ageing process, and refuel itself with renewed vitality.

When you make a food choice, always think about how closely it resembles its natural state.

The individual ingredients in a tossed salad containing organically grown lettuce, tomato, cucumber and red pepper can be instantly recognised and identified compared with a piece of bread where a stretch of the imagination is required.

Most people would say that the bread is made from flour but what process did the grain need to go through to eventually become the flour that is used to make the bread? And what else in addition to the flour is required to make a loaf of bread? Besides the bleaching process that is used to make flour white, what other chemicals are used in commercial baking to make loaves of bread?

The point is that the end product barely resembles the original product that is used to make it (in this case wheat).

This is what is known as ‘processed’ food as it requires many different processes to produce the end product.

Typically, the more processes needed to make the product, the more it is stripped of its nutrition and the worse it is for you!

A well-rounded, largely unprocessed diet is superior to taking supplements and eating a processed diet because real foods have complex chemical structures that are very difficult to replicate. For example antioxidants, enzymes and phytochemicals found in many plant foods support the immune system, the body’s detoxification processes and cellular repair, and help with the digestion process.

A food stripped of these is nutritionally dead and is very difficult to digest, requiring your liver and pancreas to work overtime!

Nutrient-dense foods are real and unprocessed as opposed to chemically altered, manmade or filled with synthetic ingredients. Nutrients found in healthy, whole food include micronutrients like essential vitamins, trace minerals and electrolytes, plus macronutrients including carbohydrates (both “simple” and “complex”), proteins (amino acids) and different types of healthy fats.

While whole foods provide lots of essential nutrients processed foods tend to offer the opposite — lots of “empty calories” with very little or zero nutritional benefit in return.

Author and lecturer Michael Pollan points out that there are 80,000 known edible plant foods, about 3,000 of which have been, or still are, in common use in the human diet. And yet over 60% of calorie intake worldwide consists of just four highly subsidized, industrialized crops namely rice, wheat, soy and corn (not to mention the genetically modified problem with the latter).

This is an issue because it means that people obtain much of their daily calories from foods that don’t offer many nutrients. While certain staple crops might provide some vitamins, minerals and fibre, for example, common foods like potatoes or rice — they don’t provide nearly the amount that more nutrient-dense foods do.

Nutrient Depletion

It’s a well-known fact that many South Africans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, but even among those who do, they may not get all the nutrients they might expect.

Nutrient degradation describes the loss of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in food due to factors like depleted soils, food manufacturing, processing and shipping, storage and to a lesser extent cooking and heating foods.
In 2002, an analysis of Canadian supermarkets produce by The Globe and Mail and CTV News found that nutrient levels had fallen dramatically in fruits and vegetables during the course of just a generation.

Comparing nutrient level changes in a 50-year span, the analysts found that the average supermarket potato had lost:

  • 100 percent of its vitamin A
  • 57 percent of its vitamin C and iron
  • 50 percent of its riboflavin
  • 28 percent of its calcium
  • 18 percent of its thiamine

Modern agricultural practices and client demand are mostly at fault for nutrient degradation. The emphasis is on appearance, storability and transportability with very little emphasis on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.

In his book “Wheat Belly” William Davis MD writes that modern wheat has been genetically altered to provide processed-food manufacturers with the greatest yield at the lowest cost. Consequently, this grain has been transformed into a nutritionally bankrupt yet ubiquitous ingredient that causes blood sugar to spike more rapidly than eating pure table sugar and has addictive properties that cause us to ride a roller coaster of hunger, overeating and fatigue.

Soil Depletion

How Soil Depletion Causes Low Nutrient Density.

A major problem regarding nutrient density is the fact that industrial farms are growing crops in soil that has falling levels of nutrients. Reporter Tom Paulson calls it “the thin brown line,” the three feet of topsoil that covers the Earth and sustains life. This living biological matrix contains the essential compounds that plants turn into usable nutrients, and yet the National Academy of Sciences reports that crop soil is being eroded at 10 times the rate that it can replenish itself.

Topsoil grows back at the rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years, but industrial agriculture is interfering with the process, says geologist David Montgomery. “The estimate is that we are now losing about 1% of our topsoil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture. Globally, it’s pretty clear we’re running out of dirt.”

This is one of the reasons why supplements are needed. Food should always be your first line of defense, and then supplements can do just that — help to supplement your diet. While the nutrient content of certain foods may be lower than in previous decades, it doesn’t mean you should stop consuming them. It means that more than ever it’s important to make the most of the calories you consume. One way you can boost your nutrient intake is to buy seasonal, local and organic produce.

The Top Nutrient Dense Food

Some of the most nutrient-dense foods available to us include:

  • Offal from grass fed animals (liver, sweetbreads, heart)
  • Organically grown leafy green vegetables (like spinach, kale, bok choy, cabbage and beet greens)
  • Organically grown red, yellow, green and orange peppers
  • Organically grown cruciferous vegetables like brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage.
  • Organically grown artichokes and green beans
  • Organically grown root vegetables the likes of carrots, parsnips and sweet potato
  • Organically grown asparagus
  • Organically grown berries like gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries, blueberries, goji berries and cranberries
  • Organically grown tomatoes
  • Sea vegetables
  • Avocado
  • Garlic
  • Coconut
  • Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir and kimchi
  • Just about any other unprocessed plant food

Besides fruits and veggies, other whole foods have high nutrient density values too. Examples include wild fish, organic eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, grass-fed lean meats and poultry, and unprocessed grains.

Removing processed foods from your diet will automatically reduce the amount of sugar, chemicals, colourants and additives. In fact, because nutrient-dense foods are low in calories to begin with (because they tend to have lots of fiber, water and no additives), you may be able to actually eat MORE food but still lose weight in the process.

Healthy foods like veggies, fruits, and in moderation legumes/beans or whole grains are very voluminous and filling — therefore not very easy to overeat.

It is vital to eat a variety of real foods that you enjoy from all different food groups including good fats and protein in addition to plants.

Think positively about what types of foods you should be eating, rather than focusing on those that you shouldn’t have eaten. And above all, practice self-awareness by paying attention to how your dietary choices make you feel. Everyone is a bit different, so it’s up to you to decide which exact type of diet ultimately serves you best.


In order to avoid dangerous chemicals, pesticides and genetically altered foods, choose organically grown produce (or better still grow your own) is definitely a step in the right direction.

The reality is that organic farmers can’t always completely avoid widespread pollutants in the air, soil and water plus many organic foods travel great distances to reach the supermarket, meaning the food has lost some of its nutritional value during transit time and contributed to a larger carbon footprint.

Why seasonality affects nutrition

Due to the abundance of choice when it comes to food variety we become spoiled for choice. Many fruits and vegetables are seasonal which means that they only grow at certain times of the year. Yet walk into any supermarket and you can find food like avocado’s, oranges, asparagus and grapes all year round.

Read the labels and you will see that they are imported from Spain, Portugal, Zambia and the EU. Make a point of avoiding imported fresh foods, not only are they more expensive but they have been stored and shipped over long distances thus reducing their nutritional value.

Most locally grown apples are harvested between March and May, yet they are available all year round! Do yourself a favour and eat an apple that has just been plucked off the tree and you will notice the difference!

Apples are stored for up to 8 months of the year, leaving them nutritionally depleted by the time January rolls around.

Futhermore, a chemical called diphenylamine is sprayed on to apples during storage in the cold rooms to prevent their skins from blemishing and to keep them nice and shiny.

The point I am trying to make is to eat what is in season; not only will you be guaranteed the maximum nutritional value but you will also give your body a break from eating the same foods day in day out plus you will become more adventurous and try new foods that you wouldn’t ordinarily have tried before.

Where possible buy locally produced, fresh foods. Shop at supermarkets that focus on local and natural, or at farmer’s markets or even better start a community agriculture group!