Let’s start at the beginning…
What are nutrient-dense foods?
At a basic level food contains macronutrients like fat, protein and carbohydrates, along with micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and other phytochemicals. The more nutrients a type of food contains per calorie, the denser that food is in nutrients. These are called nutrient-dense foods.
Conversely, foods that are low in nutrients but high in calories are often called empty calorie foods. Like crisps and sugary drinks.
An American doctor, Joel Fuhrman - who calls himself a “nutritarian” - has created a scoring system that measures the nutrient density of food.
This is called the ANDI scale where ANDI stands for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index. He calculated this by dividing the nutrients in a certain food by the calories it contains and reckons that is the formula for health. Where health = nutrients/calories.
Criticism of the ANDI Scale and so-called superfoods
While Dr Fuhrman is seen as one of the most influential diet doctors in America, he also has many critics. He advocates a healthy lifestyle, but he is pretty extreme (low protein, strict vegan, no coffee, or alcohol, or sodium) and some of his teachings are a bit kooky.
He is one of those people who believes you can win the war on disease by controlling your diet. While bad eating habits definitely lead to a variety of diseases, I am afraid there is no such thing as winning the war on disease. We all get sick and eventually we will all die.
The low carb, high fat people also have issues with him, as his approach relies on calories as the main denominator, where foods that are high in calories are penalised and score low – even if they are very nutritious.
This is why something like watercress is at the top of the list of nutrient-dense foods, while anyone can tell you you’ll be pretty miserable if you had to live off watercress alone. Calories are not the enemy – empty calories like alcohol and sugar are.
But while perhaps flawed, Fuhrman is not a lone charlatan. The Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have developed a classification scheme of food that provides, on average, 10% or more per 100 calories of the daily value needed of 17 nutrients
These are called Powerhouse Fruit and Vegetables or PFV (or superfoods) and are associated with reduced chronic illnesses and look very similar to the ANDI Scale.
So which are the most nutrient-dense foods?
You might wonder, but where is salmon and melon and banana and avo and nuts? Remember the food that score high on this list are very low in calories too, which immediately disqualifies a whole list of things. Not to say that those foods aren’t healthy!
Check out this article for a list of foods that are relatively nutrient dense – i.e. high in nutrients despite being high in calories.
So what must you actually eat?
Many medical practitioners and dieticians will agree with Dr Fuhrman that it’s a good idea to eat about 500 grams of raw fruit and vegetables and another 500 grams of cooked vegetables daily. But I'm with other nutritionists and doctors who agree if you combine that with other healthy foods like avo, eggs, salmon, almonds, black beans, sweet potatoes, tofu and liver – i.e. food that is also high in macronutrients like healthy fats, carbs and proteins, you really can’t go wrong.