Energy Dense vs Nutrient Dense Foods

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

“Energy density” and “nutrient density” are phrases that get tossed around a lot in conversations about food and nutrition. Both are important concepts but they describe completely different aspects of food.


Nutrient density refers to how much nutrition a food provides per calorie. Nutrient density is most useful as a way to compare two foods. If a food provides more nutrition for the same amount of calories (or the same nutrition for fewer calories), it is more nutrient dense than the other food. Nutrient-dense foods contain high levels of nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals.These foods provide the most bang for your nutritional buck.For example, a glass of orange juice will contain more nutrients then a fizzy drink but a glass of tomato juice contains the same amount of nutrients with half the calories.


Energy density, on the other hand, describes how many calories a food has relative to its size or weight. Some of these foods are contain “empty calories,” in that they provide energy from calories without other significant nutritional value (as oppose to nutrient dense foods).


Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients. Berries, melons and some tropical fruits, such as mangoes and papayas, are considered nutrient-dense, as well as dark-green vegetables, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Lean meats are nutrient-dense as well. In addition to protein, beef and pork contain high levels of zinc, iron and B-vitamins. Many whole grains, including quinoa, barley, bulger and oats, are also nutrient-dense.

Your stomach also contains stretch receptors. When these are triggered by food, they send signals to your brain to tell you to stop eating. With high fibre, whole plant based foods, you can eat the most quantity for the the least amount of calories.


For example, take the picture above where you have two options:


Energy Dense (750 Kcal) 2 x Donuts 1 x Glass Orange Juice

Carbs: 111g, Sugar: 62.6g, Protein: 7.7g, Fat: 18.7g, Fibre: 2.8g, High in Vit C but no other Micronutrients.


Nutrient Dense (655 KCal) 2 x Wholegrain Toast 2 x Eggs 1/2 Avocado 2 cups Spinach 1 cup Berries 1 x Banana 1 x cup Black Coffee

Carbs: 75g, Sugar: 16.7g, Protein: 23.5g, Fat: 16g, Fibre: 14.6g, High in Vit C, Cholesterol, Calcium, Potassium, Iron and Vitamin A.


The Nutrient Dense choice will make you feel fuller for longer and stabilise your blood sugar levels for a longer period of time. The energy dense food choice will spike your blood sugar levels then cause them to drop giving you that ‘high’ then ‘low’ feeling triggering hunger again.


What choice will you make?

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