Which Foods Are the Most Nutrient Dense?

By Jessica Campbell, MS, FNTP

The Food Foundation Guru has a love affair with butter, but there is a reason for my madness. You know vegetables and whole grains are healthy and it is not worth repeating that which you already know.Fats, however, have been grossly misunderstood and misrepresented as the bad guys, when in fact they are necessary for optimal health. Grains, surprisingly, are not as nutrient dense as we think.

Fats are en vogue in the holistic health community because so many of our clients are deficient in essential fatty acids. Even the mainstream guidelines are being altered. The American Heart Association (AHA), which has been a huge proponent of avoiding fats, revised their guidelines in 2013 and are revising the cholesterol guidelines again. It seems eating eggs is not so bad after all and egg lovers are getting the green light once again. No more egg white omelets, the most nutrient dense part of the egg is the yolk.

Unfortunately, our nation has ballooned into an obesity epidemic by replacing real foods like eggs with processed grains, hydrogenated oils and refined sugars. These foods are sold to us as healthy and  labeled "low fat". This "low fat" marketing convinces us that we are eating a healthy product, but when removing fat from foods, they are often replaced with manufactured toxins and are not nutrient dense.

An easy rule of thumb to follow is that all of the sugar, sodium and fats in processed foods are harmful. Instead of wasting time reading into the fat content, or checking how much sodium or sugar is in processed foods, we may benefit from simply looking at the nutrient density of real food.

Harvard University organic chemist Dr. Mathieu Lalonde created a scale for the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2012 that ranked foods according to their available nutrients. He used the essential nutrients as accepted by the USDA which included:

Vitamins: A, choline, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, C, D, E, and K

Minerals: calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, selenium, and zinc

Lalonde then used this equation based on the USDA data to find the nutrient density:

Nutrient Density = ∑ Essential Nutrients / Weight per Serving

You may be surprised by this list of 18 foods and their ranking of available nutrition. Do not get caught up in the negative numbers, this is based on RDA or the daily recommended allowance. Let's focus on which foods are the most nutrient dense so we can build a healthy food foundation.

   Rank of Foods                   Nutrient Density Score
   =============                   ======================
1. Organ Meats                     17.1
2. Herbs and Spices                16.8
3. Nuts and Seeds                  10.3
4. Cacao                            7.8
5. Fish and Seafood                 1.2
6. Pork                             0.7
7. Beef                             0.3
8. Eggs and dairy                  -0.6
9. Raw Vegetables                  -0.7
10. Lamb, Veal, and Wild Game       -1.2
11. Poultry                         -1.7
12. Cooked Legumes                  -2.9
13. Processed Meat                  -3.1
14. Cooked vegetables               -4.8
15. Plant Fats and Oils             -5.4
16. Fruit                           -5.6
17. Animal Skin and Feet            -6.2
18. Cooked Grains                   -6.2

One great point Lalonde makes in the symposium is the nutritional guidelines for the USDA are set for whole raw grains but we cannot eat them in that state. If the raw grains and legumes were recorded, they would appear at position #4 and #5. However, raw legumes and grains are inedible. Only at #18 do we find cooked grains which are the only way they can be digested. If you look at the SAD Guidelines in contrast to the above chart, why is there such an emphasis on grains and fruits? The steps taken by the AHA should be applauded, but I am not sure that adding back an egg is enough to get us back to optimal health.

Several interesting observations can be made from this ranking of nutrient density.

First, our grandparents were wise to eat liver and onions once a week. Organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods on the planet. If you are new to eating liver, I recommend trying an artisanal paté.  Or try this trick: freeze chicken livers separately and sneak one liver into ground beef or turkey. Even my picky, little eaters have never noticed the addition. If you really want to be an adventurous organ eater, try this delicious beef heart stew that my family adores.

Second, not only are fruits and vegetables not equal both are "light weights" compared to herbs. Herbs and spices are not only medicinal but extremely nutrient dense. Try to find a way to garnish every dish with a fresh herb or spice to mega boost the nutritional value of your food.

Finally, I realized I am clearly not eating enough chocolate. With cacao at #4, I am no longer depriving myself of this delicious delight. We are speaking of the most pure dark chocolate without the addition of sugar, milk and soy lecithin. The next time you crave a nutrient dense treat, try hot cocoa made with whole fat milk, unsweetened cocoa powder and a touch of raw honey for something nutritious and delicious!

This list is not a guideline to abruptly change your diet. I have simply come across more evidence that organ meats, nuts, beef, pork and eggs (even with their natural levels of fat), are seriously nutritious foods and do not need to be avoided in order to build your healthy food foundation. If you really want a taste of my love affair with healthy fats, then you simply must try my I Scream Smoothie.