By Kelley Herring
Proponents of plant-based diets claim your body can get everything it needs nutritionally from a diet containing only fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, grains, and seeds.
And while certain plant foods may provide health – and even medicinal – benefits, the truth is that the nutritional value of plant-based diets comes up short every time.
And the reason is nutrient density.
Nutrient density is a measure of the total quantity of nutrients contained per calorie of food.
For example, a cup of carrot slices and four saltine crackers both have about 50 calories. However, the carrots contain far more nutrients for the same number of calories. In this comparison, the carrots have greater nutrient density… while the crackers are more energy-dense.
For health and longevity, it is essential to obtain our calories from nutrient-dense sources – as opposed to sources that are rich in calories, but low in nutrients. These “empty calorie” foods tax our metabolism, increase cellular dysfunction, and contribute to weight gain, poor health, and decreased vitality.
Micronutrient Deficiencies & The Perils of Plants
Unfortunately, the majority of people in developed countries have a unique problem of being overfed and simultaneously undernourished.
That is, we consume LOTS of calories… with very little nutrition in those calories.
Of course, the greatest offenders in this category are processed foods made with subsidy crops including cereal grains, crackers, cookies, chips, breads, and pasta – foods in the center aisles of the grocery store.
But even if you’re eating a high-end, organic, raw-vegan diet prepared by a professional chef… you will still become “nutritionally bankrupt” by avoiding animal foods and eating just plants.
That’s because plant-based diets are high in anti-nutrients and low in micronutrients…
Micronutrients: The Nutritional Factor to Focus On
Micronutrients are the array of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, phytonutrients, and zoonutrients (like omega-3 fatty acids and choline). These nutrients are required by your body to ensure healthy metabolism, growth, proper immune function, and overall wellness.
And while we require micronutrients in much smaller amounts than macronutrients (which include fats, protein, and carbohydrates), most people today have multiple nutrient deficiencies.
In brand new research, scientists at UC Davis aimed to identify the top food sources of micronutrients that are commonly lacking, in an effort to reduce malnutrition globally.
They focused on the foods that provided the highest levels of critical micronutrients including iron, zinc, folate, vitamin A, calcium, and vitamin B12 (the majority of which happen to be lacking in plant-based diets).
By creating an aggregate global food-composition database, the researchers could gain clarity on those foods which should be added to the diet to prevent or reverse nutrient deficiencies.
And while previous studies have examined nutrient density, this study was unique, as it considered bioavailability and the presence of anti-nutrients like phytates.
The researchers ranked foods in four nutrient-level categories: Very high, high, moderate, low.
And The Top 15 Nutrient-Dense Foods Are…
The top fifteen foods the researchers selected provide an average of ⅓ the average intake for vitamin A, folate, vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc in a single serving.
Here they are in order of nutrient density:
- Small dried fish
- Dark leafy greens
- Bivalves (Mussels, Clams, Oysters)
- Crustaceans (Crab, Shrimp, Lobster)
- Cow’s milk
- Canned fish with bones (Sardines, Mackerel, Salmon)
Also, please note that the organs and shellfish (which fall under the “very high” nutrient-density category) will provide one-third of the recommended iron intake for women of reproductive age with the following amounts consumed: 20g spleen, 60g liver, 127g kidney, 147g bivalves, 161g heart.[i]
These are very small portions for a BIG nutritional impact!
Eating for Nutrient Density
Eating for nutrient density will not only help optimize your body’s biochemical processes to slow aging process and ward off disease, it may also help control your appetite.[ii]
Here are a few delicious, and ultra-nutritious meal ideas to get you started:
- Balsamic Pan Seared Beef Liver & Onions
- Asian Chicken Livers with Bacon & Water Chestnuts
- Wild Shrimp with Sauteed Collard Greens
- Grass-Fed Beef & Heart Burgers with Lacto-Fermented Pickles
- Deviled Eggs & Creamy Paleo Salmon Salad with Crudites
- Braunschweiger & Raw Havarti Cheese
- Quick Greek Lamb Burgers with Feta & Olives
- Filet Mignon & Turf
Nutrient-dense foods may cost a bit more…
But there is no wiser investment you can make than an investment in your health!
Read more of Kelley Herring’s Health and Wellness articles on our Discover Blog.
Love comfort foods, but not the carbs? Check out Kelley’s FREE new book – Carb Lover’s Keto – with 100 recipes for all of your favorite comfort foods. From Chicken Parmigiana and Coconut Shrimp to Buffalo Wings and Pizza. Discover how you can indulge – 100% guilt free!
 Beal T, Ortenzi F. Priority Micronutrient Density in Foods. Front Nutr. 2022 Mar 7;9:806566. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2022.806566. PMID: 35321287; PMCID: PMC8936507.
 Tremblay A, Bellisle F. Nutrients, satiety, and control of energy intake. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Oct;40(10):971-9. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0549. Epub 2015 May 13. PMID: 26394262.