Understanding Nutrient Density may Help Americans Make Better Food Choices
Most Americans have an unbalanced diet that is lacking in important nutrients
Americans, in general, tend to have an unbalanced diet, consuming high levels of foods with low nutritional value and not eating enough of the foods that offer important nutrients. The diet of most Americans is low in vegetables, fruit, dairy and oils; exceeds recommendations for added sugar, saturated fat and sodium; and is too high in calories.1 Under-consumed nutrients include potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C.1 Of these, calcium, potassium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D are considered nutrients of public health concern because low intakes are associated with health concerns.1 Iron is an additional nutrient of concern for young children, for women capable of becoming pregnant, and for women who are pregnant.1
In general, by eating more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy, one can increase their intake of key nutrients and bring greater balance to their dietary patterns. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 (Dietary Guidelines) recommend a shift to “choose nutrient-dense foods and beverages across and within all food groups in place of less healthy choices,” in order to “meet nutrient needs within calorie limits.”1 By consuming nutrient-dense foods an individual can help increase their intake of under-consumed nutrients (potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C) while helping to decrease their intake of added sugar, saturated fat and sodium. Snacking occasions offer a significant opportunity to practice this shift as snacks contribute 25 percent of daily calories and most items labeled “snack foods” are too high in fat, salt and sugar.2
Nutrient-dense foods offer more of the nutrients to encourage and less of the nutrients to avoid
Nutrient density refers to the proportion of key nutrients to calories in a food. A nutrient-dense food has more of the nutrients to encourage (especially the nutrients of concern), relative to the amount of calories. Julie Hess, et al., used a version of the Nutrient Rich Foods Index (NRF Index) to look at the nutrient density of various snack foods.2
The snack foods received a nutrient density score based on their ratio of nutrients to encourage (protein, calcium, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and fiber) vs. nutrients to limit (sodium, saturated fat, and total sugar) per 100 calories.
The snack foods that contain more nutrients to encourage are considered nutrient-dense and received a higher score than those foods with more nutrients to limit.
For each 100 calories of a specific food, the amount of each nutrient to encourage was expressed as a percentage of its daily recommended value. These percentage values were added together. Then, for 100 kcal of the same food, the amount of each nutrient to limit was calculated as a percentage of the recommended limit. These percentage values were also added together. The NRF Index was then calculated as the sum of the values for nutrients to encourage minus the sum of the values of the nutrients to limit.”2
Choosing nutrient-dense foods is an important step toward a balanced diet and healthy dietary pattern
In order to make more nutrient-dense food choices and achieve a more balanced diet and overall healthier dietary pattern, it is important to look at the whole picture when considering meal and snack options. Hess, et al., explains that “a narrow focus on one component of a food obscures its overall nutritional value.”2 For example, instead of focusing on just calories, or fat, or a particular vitamin, it is more beneficial to take into account the balance of nutrients and calories in a food.
The Dietary Guidelines state that nutrient-dense foods can help Americans “to stay within energy requirements (calories) while meeting nutritional needs.”1 Unfortunately, some foods are eaten in forms that are not nutrient-dense and, instead, may contain added sugars, refined starches and/or solid fats, which contribute extra calories to the diet.1 Snacking occasions provide a good starting point for choosing nutrient-dense foods more often. Snacking is prevalent among Americans and provides a significant portion of calories; choosing snacks that are nutrient-dense can help meet recommended daily intakes of key nutrients.
Tips for identifying nutrient-dense foods
The nutrition facts panel can be used to help identify foods that may be more nutrient-dense. First, look for foods that contain the nutrients to encourage, such as potassium, dietary fiber, choline, magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and C. If these nutrients have a DV of at least 10%, then they are considered a good source. Then, check for the calories of the food. Keeping the calories lower and choosing foods with smaller amounts of sugar, low saturated fat and sodium, as well as choosing whole grains over refined starches, can help you make better choices.
Examples of nutrient-dense vs. less nutrient-dense foods1:
Low-sodium canned beans vs. regular canned beans
Baked chicken vs. fried chicken
Plain cereal and fresh fruit vs. frosted cereal
Steamed, sautéed or roasted vegetables vs. creamed vegetables
Fresh or frozen fruits (without added sugars) vs. fruits packed in syrup
Hess, et al. found yogurt was the top snack food (based on their version of the NRF index) of those studied.2 Milk and fruit were the second and third most nutrient-dense snack foods studied.2
Yogurt is a convenient and versatile nutrient-dense food
Yogurt was the top snack food on the NRF index, in the Hess study. It is a nutrient-dense food because it is rich in nutrients to encourage vs. calories. Most yogurts are sources of calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Calcium is essential to bone development and helps support and maintain normal healthy bones throughout life. Calcium and vitamin D work together, along with the type of high-quality protein found in yogurt, to help promote muscle and bone strength. Potassium helps support healthy blood pressure (in combination with limiting sodium intake).3
Here are 4 more reasons why yogurt is a great fit at any meal or at snack time:
1. Yogurt is rich in high-quality protein – It provides complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids. While yogurt and milk were top nutrient-rich foods, soy can also be a nutrient-dense alternative when dairy is not an option; it is a plant source of complete protein, containing all 9 essential amino acids as well.4
2. Yogurt is a source of B Vitamins – It contains B2 and B12 vitamins, which contribute to normal energy-yielding metabolism.5,6 Vitamin B2 also helps maintain normal vision.5
3. Yogurt is a fermented food – Cultures and fermentation can increase the nutrient content (e.g., B vitamins) and digestibility of foods.7
4. Yogurt is as versatile as it is nutrient-dense – It can be consumed on its own or in combination with other foods. It can be part of a snack, the whole snack, or part of a meal. Yogurt can be used in dips, dressings, marinades and smoothies and can be consumed at any time of day. Yogurt supplies 3 of 4 nutrients of concern; combine it with fruit or vegetables to also get fiber or consume yogurt fortified with fiber.
Nutrient-dense foods, like yogurt, may help Americans achieve a more balanced diet
Americans currently consume too few of the nutrients to encourage (those that are of public health concern) and too much of the nutrients to limit.1 In addition, Americans consume low amounts of fruits, vegetables, dairy and oils.1 Food choices can play a major role in the degree to which an individual can achieve a more balanced diet.1 Nutrient-dense foods offer high levels of the nutrients of concern and relatively low levels of nutrients to avoid. Snacking occasions provide a significant opportunity for making more nutrient-dense choices, since snacks contribute 25 percent of calories.2 Yogurt is a versatile nutrient-dense food, which can be consumed at any meal or snack occasion.
1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015. 8th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2015.
2. Hess J, Rao G, Slavin J. The Nutrient Density of Snacks: A Comparison of Nutrient Profiles of Popular Snack Foods Using the Nutrient-Rich Foods Index. Global Pediatric Health. 2017;4:2333794X17698525.