What is Nutrient Density? Plus Top 11 Nutrient-Dense Foods and Beverages

5 min read

What is Nutrient Density? Plus Top 11 Nutrient-Dense Foods and Beverages

Posted May 02, 2024 Updated May 02, 2024

“Nutrient density” is a term that has recently gained a lot of interest. According to Google Trends data, worldwide search interest in nutrient density has grown by nearly 45% in the past five years. But what is nutrient density and why should you care? Join us for a deep dive into this trending term… 

What is Nutrient Density?

According to the National Institutes of Health, nutrient density defines foods that are high in nutrients but relatively low in calories. It also covers foods that contain beneficial nutrients like fiber, lean protein, healthy fats, and vitamins and minerals while limiting less healthy components like saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars. It’s important to note that despite some foods being high in calories, they can still be nutrient-dense since they contain a significant amount of healthful nutrients. Some examples include nuts, seeds, and some dairy products. 

Nutrient Density & the Dietary Guidelines

The concept of nutrient density was first introduced in The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) in 2005. However, they didn’t provide any formal definition for the term. The term remained undefined in the 2010 DGA and instead included food groups classified as nutrient-dense based on nutrients to limit rather than nutrients to encourage. However, in the most recent 2015-2020 DGA, they finally defined the concept of nutrient density and prominently featured it throughout the report. In this version of the DGA, they define nutrient-dense foods and beverages as those that provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components while supplying little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.    

Despite this newly minted definition and its heavy inclusion in the 2015-2020 DGA report, nutrient density remains a confusing term for most people. A 2019 consumer study of 1,000 U.S. adults found that two in three people have heard of nutrient density before, or at least thought they knew what it meant. However, less than a quarter of respondents reported that they could explain nutrient density to someone else. Moreover, 36% said they had never heard of the term before. This data shows that despite nutrient density being a term many have heard, there is a significant gap in understanding what the term actually means.

Top Nutrient-Dense Foods 

Given the confusion around this term, I think it's best to explain nutrient density with some actual examples of nutrient-dense foods. Below is a list of the top 11 nutrient-dense foods and beverages as well as the specific nutritional attributes that qualify them for this list:

1. Fruits and Vegetables 

Fruits and vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods around. That’s because they provide a myriad of nutrients for relatively nominal calories. Some of the top nutrients fruits and vegetables provide are fiber, vitamins (particularly vitamins C and A), minerals (especially electrolytes), and phytochemicals like antioxidants. Diets rich in vegetables and fruits could help improve blood sugar control as well as decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Remember that a variety of forms (fresh, canned, frozen, or dried) count towards fruit and vegetable intake. If you are opting for canned or frozen vegetables, choose options with no added or low sodium. For canned, frozen, or dried fruit, opt for options that have no added sugar or contain 100% juice for canned fruit. 

2. Fat-Free and Low-Fat Yogurt and Cottage Cheese

Fat-free and low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese are protein-rich options that also contain a variety of micronutrients like calcium, B vitamins like riboflavin and vitamin B12, and phosphorus. Protein supports feelings of fullness and promotes lean muscle, while calcium and phosphorus are key for bone health. B vitamins like riboflavin and vitamin B12 support cellular metabolism as well as the formation of red blood cells and DNA.

3. Eggs

Eggs are a protein-packed option that also contain healthy unsaturated fats. Egg yolks are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, particularly choline and lutein. The nutrient content in eggs plays a key role in lean muscle development, brain function, and eye health.

4. Seafood

Seafood is a great source of lean protein. A 3-ounce cooked serving provides about a third of the daily protein recommendation! Moreover, some types of seafood, such as oily fish, are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are essential fats that support brain, eye, and heart health. 

5. Lean Meats

Lean meats such as chicken breast, 90% or more lean ground beef or pork tenderloin, and pork chops are all nutrient-dense options. If you are unsure of what qualifies as “lean”, the USDA defines a lean cut as one that has less than 10 grams of fat and no more than 4.5 grams of saturated fat per 3.5 ounce serving. All these options are rich in protein and contain several B vitamins as well as selenium.

6. Pulses

Pulses are the edible seeds from a legume plant that include beans and lentils. They are a plant-based protein source that contains both soluble and insoluble fiber as well as unsaturated fats. Beans and lentils also contain iron, folate, and phosphorous. Increased consumption of legumes could also help reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.  

7. Unsalted Nuts and Seeds

Nuts and seeds provide plant-based protein, fiber, and healthy unsaturated fats, as well as a variety of micronutrients, depending on the nut or seed. For example, peanuts provide many different B vitamins, almonds contain calcium and vitamin E, and walnuts are rich in folate. Most are also sources of magnesium. Chia seeds and flaxseeds provide heart-healthy omega-3s as well as fiber and protein. Some great options include almonds, cashews, chia seeds, flaxseed, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts.

8. Whole Grains

Whole grains contain three distinct parts of a grain: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Each part houses different healthy nutrients. For example, the bran is fiber-rich and contains B vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The endosperm is comprised of carbohydrates, some proteins, and micronutrients. Lastly, the germ is the core of the grain and provides healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, and antioxidants. Common whole-grain options include barley, brown rice, bulgur, millet, oats, and quinoa. 

Top Nutrient-Dense Beverages

9. Fat-Free or Low-Fat Milk

Fat-free or low-fat milk provides 13 essential nutrients while delivering a balance of protein and carbohydrates. Additionally, milk is rich in calcium as well as B vitamins, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin D. If milk causes stomach upset, lactose-free milk is also a good option. Lactose-free milk is still real milk and contains all the same nutrients. 

10. 100% Vegetable and Fruit Juice Without Added Sugars

According to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, 100% vegetable juice or 100% fruit juice contribute to vegetable and fruit intake, respectively. However, it’s important to watch out for added sugars! A lot of “juices” are nothing but sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) in disguise, with very few actual fruits or vegetables. Check the back label and look for 100% juice without any added sugars. Since 80-90% of Americans do not meet daily fruit and vegetable recommendations, incorporating 100% vegetable and fruit juice without added sugars can help close these gaps. 

11. Prebiotic Beverages Like OLIPOP

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) are any drink sweetened with various forms of added sugars. They include regular soda (not diet), fruit, sports and energy drinks, sweetened waters, and coffee and tea beverages made with added sugars. Consumption of SSBs is linked with a variety of chronic conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and kidney diseases as well as tooth decay and cavities. As such, swapping SSBs for healthier and nutrient-dense alternatives like OLIPOP not only decreases added sugar consumption but also increases your intake of important nutrients like fiber

Nutrient Density: The Takeaway

Even with the growing interest in nutrient density, there remains confusion around what the term means and how to use it in day-to-day life. I hope this article helps clear some of this confusion to support healthier eating patterns. So swing by the store and pick up some of these nutrient-dense foods and drinks, including OLIPOP! Check out our store locator for help finding an OLIPOP near you. 


  1. Nutrient density - Explore - Google Trends. Accessed March 4, 2024. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=today%205-y&q=%2Fm%2F0czk6z&hl=en 
  2. Definition of nutrient-dense food - NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms - NCI. Accessed March 4, 2024. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/nutrient-dense-food 
  3. Drewnowski A, Dwyer J, King JC, Weaver CM. A proposed nutrient density score that includes food groups and nutrients to better align with dietary guidance. Nutr Rev. 2019;77(6):404.doi:10.1093/NUTRIT/NUZ002 
  4. Department of Agriculture U, Department of Health U, Services H. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 - Executive Summary in English. Published online 2020.
  5. Nutrient Density: Consumer Understanding, Perceptions and Behaviors – Food Insight. Accessed March 4, 2024. https://foodinsight.org/consumer-research-nutrient-density/ 
Cheat Sheet
  • Nutrient-dense foods and drinks are high in nutrients, low in calories, and skip out on unhealthy added sugars and fats. 
  • Top nutrient-dense foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, eggs, seafood, lean meats, pulses, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
  • As for beverages, some nutrient-dense options include OLIPOP, low-fat milk, and 100% vegetable or fruit juice.
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