Nutrient Density: Count Calories No More

cabbageDr. Joel Fuhrman, author of Eat to Live, coined the now-trendy term “nutritarian.”  I love this term! A nutritarian describes someone who chooses foods based on their micronutrient per calorie content: they don’t bother counting calories, avoiding fats or eating only raw foods; a nutritarian doesn’t follow a “one-size-fits-all” diet plan or theory. Instead they focus on foods that are nutrient-dense, real and unprocessed.

Dr. Fuhrman says that diet quality depends upon:

  • The level of micronutrients per calorie
  • The amount of macronutrients that meet individual needs without excessive caloric intake
  • Avoidance of toxic substances such as trans fats, sodium and refined sugars

Fuhrman recognizes that phytochemicals (the compounds in plants that don’t have direct nutritional benefit but seem to support our immune system, the body’s detoxification processes and cellular repair) are mostly unknown, “unnamed and unmeasured.”

Nutrient Density

He points out that the foods that contain the highest amounts of known nutrients also contain the largest number of unknown compounds.

That’s the conundrum in the study of nutrition. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food, says that “nutritionism” is not the same thing as nutrition. Nutritionism is an ideology: it is based on the assumption that the key to understanding food is identifying nutrients and their effects on health.

This ideology is behind the marketing success of processed foods, says Pollan. When you qualify foods according to basic nutrients they contain, rather than the complex combinations of compounds in whole foods, the synergy that may exist between them and many other contributing factors of diet and lifestyle; you lose sight of the forest for the trees.

It’s easy to slap a label on a cereal box claiming that the product is “high in omega-3’s!” or label a quart of homogenized and pasteurized milk as “low fat!” This does not necessarily make that product good for you!

Low-fat, low-carb, and low-sugar labels help sell processed industrial foods and de-emphasizes differences in food quality and types of food. Michael Pollan points out that there are 80,000 known edible plant foods, 3,000 of which have been in common use and yet over 60% of the caloric intake in the worldwide diet consists of four subsidized, industrialized crops: corn, rice, soy and wheat.

Nutritionist Marion Nestle says that “The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science ”is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

600 calories worth of fast food french fries are NOT the same as 600 calories of kale. In the same vein, 600 calories of brown rice aren’t the same as 600 calories of kale either. Sure, brown rice is a natural food, but it is are also far less nutrient dense than kale (and a host of other foods), according to Dr. Fuhrman’s Nutrient Density chart.

Leafy green vegetables (like kale, collard greens, spinach, bok choy, cabbage and romaine lettuce) top the chart as the most nutrient dense foods. These foods have nutrient density scores at or close to 1000. Other foods that are very nutrient dense (with scores over 100) include:

  • Red Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Green Peppers
  • Artichokes
  • Carrots
  • Asparagus
  • Strawberries
  • Tomatoes
  • Blueberries

Oatmeal has a score of 53. To give a little perspective to this, you would have to eat 4 bowls of oatmeal to equal the nutrient density of just one bowl of strawberries and 20 bowls of oatmeal to equal one bowl of kale!

It’s a well-known fact that many Americans don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables each day, but even among those that do—you may not be getting all the nutrients you might expect.

Nutrient Degradation

In 2002, an analysis of Canadian supermarket produce by The Globe and CTV News found that nutrient levels had fallen off dramatically in fruits and vegetables during the course of just a generation.

Comparing nutrient level changes in a 50-year span, the analysts found that the supermarket potato had lost:

  • 100% of its vitamin A
  • 57% of its vitamin C and iron
  • 50% of its riboflavin
  • 28% of its calcium
  • 18% of its thiamine

Broccoli is thought of as one of the early “superfoods” and yet it’s lost 63% of its calcium and 34% of its iron.

Twenty-five fruits and vegetables were analyzed with similar findings.

Agronomist Phil Warman says that farming practices and market emphasis is at fault.

“The emphasis is on appearance, storability and transportability, and there has been much less emphasis on the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables.” High-yield production and disease-resistance is much more important to food producers today, says Warman.

UK professor Tim Lang agrees: “It’s an issue of consumer rights. We think of an orange as a constant, but the reality is—it isn’t.”

You’d have to eat 5 oranges today to get the iron your grandmother got from just one in her day and 8 to get the same amount of vitamin A.

This is one reason I will often recommend certain supplements for people. Food should always be your first line of defense, then supplements can do just that–supplement your diet.

Organic & Local Produce

Buying organic produce is definitely a step in the right direction to avoid dangerous chemicals, pesticides, herbicides and genetically-modified organisms (GMO). Buying organic isn’t alway necessary though, nor is it always your best bet for nutrient density.

Organic farmers can’t completely avoid widespread pollutants in the air, soil and water spread by industrial farms that strip crops of their beneficial compounds or dodge the falling levels of nutrient-rich soil on the planet.

Reporter Tom Paulson calls it “the thin brown line,” the three feet of topsoil that covers the earth and sustains life. This living biological matrix contains the essential compounds that plants turn into usable nutrients, and yet the National Academy of Sciences reports that American crop soil is being eroded at 10 times the rate that it can replenish itself.

Topsoil grows back at the rate of an inch or two over hundreds of years, but industrial agriculture is interfering with the process, says geologist David Montgomery. “The estimate is that we are now losing about 1% of our topsoil every year to erosion, most of this caused by agriculture. Globally, it’s pretty clear we’re running out of dirt.”

This soil degradation across the planet is contributing to rapidly rising cases of malnutrition, warns the United Nations.

The farming methods used by industrial agriculture leave soil little time to restore itself. Montgomery calls this “soil mining.”

Organic foods can often travel great distances to reach the supermarket, meaning the food has lost some of its nutritional value during transit time.

Buying local, organic, nutrient-dense produce (or growing it organically yourself) is, in my opinion, the best way to go.

The Big Picture

Dr. Fuhrman’s nutrient density formula is presently patent-pending. He uses 20 different nutrients, including essential vitamins and minerals, carotenoids and fiber, as well as ORAC scores to create a nutrient density standard by which to measure foods.

He points out, however, that nutrient density scores aren’t enough to consider in health. If you ate only foods high on his nutrient-density scale, your diet would be too low in healthy fats. If a very active person ate only the foods highest in nutrients; they would ingest too much fiber and not get enough caloric intake every day, says Fuhrman.

As in all things, there is no magic bullet and food fashions aren’t bandwagons anyone should jump on without enough information.


Dr. Joel Fuhrman (2010)

New York Times (2007)

Globe & Mail (2002)

Seattle Pi (2008)

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