Nutrient vs. Calorie Density: Why Does it Matter?

  • Published: 4/12/2023
  • 5 min. read

We need food in order to function, nourish our bodies, give us energy, and help prevent diseases; but some are much more beneficial than others. Some provide more calories compared to nutrients while some are the other way around. Learn which foods are calorie versus nutrient dense and when it’s important to choose each.

Calorie vs. nutrient density 

Some foods offer our bodies more calories when compared to nutrients and some more nutrients when compared to calories. This can be classified as “calorie density” or “nutrient density”.

What is calorie density?

First off, what exactly is a calorie? Calories are a value of how much energy a food or drink can provide our bodies. Calories mainly come from macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein), but they also exist in alcohol, fiber and sugar alcohols. 

Our bodies need calories to perform basic functions such as breathing, digesting, circulating our blood, moving or exercising (1). The amount we need is based on factors such as our height, weight, body composition, genetics, and gut bacteria. Check this out if you’re curious about your calorie estimation: Calorie Intake Calculator For Weight Maintenance.

So when something is considered to be “calorie dense” it is “dense” in calories. In other words, calorie dense foods are the ones that contain a high amount of calories in relation to their overall weight.

What is nutrient density?

Let’s start with the definition of nutrient. Nutrients are chemical compounds that are used by our body in order to function properly and maintain our health and wellbeing (2). Nutrients are essential for building and repairing and regulating processes that happen “behind the scenes” such as supporting digestion of food and contracting our muscles to keep us moving. 

The opposite of calorie dense, nutrient dense foods are the ones that are high in nutrients but relatively low in calories. These foods contain lots of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats without many calories (3).

Calorie vs. nutrient dense foods

While many foods are considered to be either calorie or nutrient dense, many fall somewhere in between. These different categories can all be part of a healthy and well rounded diet. 

Rich in calories & nutrients

Foods that are high in calories and nutrients may be helpful for cases when you need to gain muscle or weight, or if you’re sick and at risk for burning more calories that you usually take in such as having a high fever. These foods are considered to be healthy and also contain a good amount of calories.

  • Proteins: red meat (in moderate amounts, preferably non-processed and organic when possible), salmon or other oily fish, whole milk, cheese, full-fat yogurt.
  • Fats: nuts and seeds, nut butters, plant oils (olive oil, canola oil), olives, avocado.
  • Carbohydrates: barley, quinoa, brown rice, whole grain pasta or breads, oats.

Rich in calories & low in nutrients

Foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, sometimes referred as “empty calories”, are the ones that are best to have in moderation, as they don’t provide much (if any) nutrients. They also tend to be highly processed and contain high amounts of sugar, unhealthy saturated fats and sodium which have been linked to disease and obesity (4).

  • Beverages: soda, energy drinks, artificial or concentrated juice.
  • Sweets: chocolate, hard candy, sugar. 
  • Baked goods: cakes, cupcakes, croissants, brownies, cookies. 
  • Condiments: jam, jelly, mayonnaise, whipped cream, salad dressing. 
  • Fried foods: french fries, donuts, tempura, deep-fried chicken, churros. 

Low in calories & rich in nutrients 

These foods are health all-stars because they help keep us satisfied with lower calories while providing our bodies with lots of nutrients. They tend to be higher in water and fiber content. Fiber is helpful because it bulks up our food but we don’t digest it, rather our healthy gut bacteria benefit from it. 

If you're trying to maintain or lose weight, these are great to focus on. Lower calorie yet nutrient dense foods are shown to help increase satiety, meaning you’ll stay more full (5). Just make sure you eat enough calories as a base. Learn more about it here: You Need To Eat Enough Calories

  • Fruits: berries, melon, oranges, apple, kiwi, grapes. 
  • Vegetables: leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, tomato, cauliflower, zucchini.
  • Soups (best homemade): vegetable soups, bone broth, vegetable broth. 
  • Lean proteins: chicken breast, tofu, white fish, egg, low fat dairy. 

Low in calories & in nutrients 

This includes things like artificial sweetened products, which are not needed for health or wellbeing. Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that are added to our foods and drinks that “trick” our brains into thinking we had sweets, but they don’t contribute any calories nor raise our blood sugar. The Food and Drug Administration generally recognizes these as safe, but some health authorities suggest using caution and having them in moderation (6).

  • Sweeteners: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium, sucralose, and neotame.
  • Drinks with artificial sweeteners: diet soda, sugar-free syrups (commonly used in flavored coffee)
  • Foods with artificial sweeteners: some types of pudding, jello, candies, baked goods, yogurt, gum.

Balance is best 

Keep in mind that a food’s quality is not determined by a single characteristic, rather a sum of all its parts and in relation to what your body needs. Calories are important but it also comes down to the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that you get from foods.

When eating for your optimal health and wellness, it’s best to choose a variety of nutrient dense foods on a daily basis. This will help ensure that you get all the nutrients that your body needs to help defend against disease and live a longer, healthier life. Reducing the high calorie and low nutrient dense foods can also help reduce your risk of weight gain, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. To make sure your meals contain a blend of the right amount of calories and nutrients, download the Lifesum app.

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