Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Conventional nutritional wisdom says that micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are highest in fruits and vegetables. It’s true that there is an abundance of nutrients in fruits and veggies, but their content can’t compare with the nutrient density of organ meats.
Understanding Nutrient Density
The nutrients in our foods are in one of two categories, macronutrients or micronutrients.
Macronutrients are the main substances required in large amounts for the body and include carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
Micronutrients are the smaller nutrients and include vitamins, minerals, and other small compounds.
We need a mix of both kinds of nutrients, but foods vary in their nutrient content. Nutrient density refers to the amount of micro- and macronutrients for a given amount of energy or caloric content. I like to think of it as how much nutrient “bang” you’re getting for the given caloric “buck”-- the goal being to get the maximum bang for your buck.
While it seems like a straightforward measurement, it can actually get more complicated when you take into account other factors. Clinician and author Chris Kresser explains in his bestselling book The Paleo Cure that there are several issues with traditional nutrient density measurements, including:
Which nutrients to measure. Experts aren’t in agreement on which micro- and macronutrients are the most essential to the human diet.
Bioavailability. What’s more important than the amount of nutrients in a given food is the ability of your body to absorb them. Certain foods like cereal, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds contain compounds called phytates that can inhibit the absorption of certain nutrients. Bioavailability is not included in standard measurements.
Distribution of nutrients. Certain nutrients, like vitamin D and vitamin A are scarce in bioavailable forms whereas other nutrients, like protein, are abundant. Foods with the scarce nutrients should likely be weighted more heavily when measuring nutrient density.
Caloric density. Because nutrient density is measured against calorie content, certain foods have a lower score in traditional nutrient density scales because of higher calorie content. Some calorically dense foods such as processed and refined sugars result in weight gain, but others such as dairy and healthy fats don’t, which could discourage eating those foods.
To address some of these limiting factors in traditional nutrient-density scales, Harvard University chemist Dr. Mat Lalonde created a new scale in 2012. He identified 23 qualifying nutrients and proposed a new nutrient density score for a list of foods, listed below*. Note that Dr. Lalonde’s analysis does not take bioavailability into account.
*Average Nutrient-Density Score of Selected Food Categories. Adapted from Mat Lalonde.
The Top 5 Most Nutritious Foods
At the top of the chart are one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. The nutrients in organ meats are also high absorbable. Even without factoring in bioavailability, Dr. Lalonde proposed that organ meats are almost eighteen times more nutrient dense than whole grains and almost eleven times more nutrient dense than cooked vegetables.
Herbs and Spices
Although second on the list, herbs and spices are consumed in small quantities in our diets. They won’t have a large impact on our nutrient intake, but they should still be used often for the concentrated nutrients and added flavor.
Nuts and Seeds
While ranked third on the list, the nutrients in nuts and seeds are not as bioavailable because of their high phytate content. You can reduce the effect of phytates by soaking them overnight and then dehydrating or roasting them. This will break down much of the phytic acid, improving nutrient absorption.
This is great news for chocolate lovers! Cacao does also contain high levels of phytic acid, but they’re large broken down during the chocolate-making process. In addition to the high macro- and micronutrient content, cacao also contains high levels of antioxidants which are helpful in reducing inflammation.
Fish and Shellfish
In Dr. Lalonde’s scale, fish and shellfish are the only other animal foods in the top five. Besides having an impressive amount of vitamins and minerals, they’re also rich in essential fatty acids.
What About Vegetables?
Vegetables (both raw and cooked) are surprisingly lower on the scale. They do contain numerous nutrients that were factored into the measurements, but their totals simply are not as high as other foods. Bioavailability can be an issue with vegetables because many of the nutrients are bound to compounds that resist digestion. But the scale does not factor in vegetables’ rich amount of antioxidants such as bioflavonoids and polyphenols. These unique nutrients are increasingly studied and thought to be an integral part of our diets. Because of the antioxidants, high fiber content, and low caloric density, I recommend to keep vegetables in balance with other top nutritious foods.
How to Eat the Most Nutritious Foods
When most people learn that organ meats are the most nutritious food, they quickly explain that they just can’t stomach the idea of them. Many are surprised to learn that some traditional cultures ONLY consumed the organ meats of animals. The lean muscle meats were typically given away to the dogs. Organ meats are foreign to us because we’re not used to eating them in our modern diets. If you’d gone to the local grocery store even 50 years ago, you’d find a large selection of organ meats. As processed foods have grown in favorability, the consumption of organ meats has declined.
Another reason people avoid organ foods, such as liver, is because of the role liver plays in our bodies. The liver functions as a filtering system for toxins, but it does not store those toxins. It neutralizes them. Liver does, in fact, store many important nutrients that help the body rid itself of toxins. Toxins actually accumulate in fatty tissues and in the nervous system.
And finally there’s taste. There’s no doubt that liver and other organ meats have a distinctive flavor. There are many recipes that help those active in the kitchen create delicious dishes. Even if you don’t like to cook, there are packaged versions of organ meats that are very tasty. I recommend looking at specialty stores and butcher shops for recommendations. Liver in particular can be in prepared with herbs and even dairy to create a mild and very palatable flavor.
Nutrient density is an important concept to understand because our modern diet has become rich in calories but sparse in nutrients. Many people unknowingly suffer from nutrient deficiencies which can impact a large number of health conditions. Building your diet around the most nutrient dense foods will ensure your body’s key systems are equipped to function optimally. For more tips on the healthiest foods and practices, follow my Instagram feed @montgomerynutriton.