Nutrient Density vs. Caloric Density
As many of you health conscious folks know, there’s a big difference between the nutrient density and caloric density of foods.
Unfortunately, many dietitians, doctors and nutritionists don’t seem to consider this difference – not fully at least. They’ll say that they want you to eat a nutrient dense diet and at the same time hand you a leaflet for the USDA food pyramid where grains are at the bottom (eat the most of) and meats and eggs (eat less of) are nearer to the top. This ranking would suggest that grains are the most nutrient dense of all the food groups. But are they?
And what precisely is meant by “nutrient density?” As I see it, its the total amount of micro and macro nutrients within a given caloric amount of food. For fun, let’s do a simple food comparison.
If you compare (calorie for calorie), meats and other animal food sources to whole grains by themselves (meaning unfortified), grains actually come up wanting for many nutrients (fiber is not a nutrient by the way). Using an online nutritional database called Nutrition Data, let’s compare a single egg (80 calories) to a third cup of oatmeal (100 calories). Oatmeal is generally considered to be among the best grains money can buy.
If you open up the links in separate windows to compare, you’ll see that the egg is far more nutritionally dense than the 1/3 cup of oatmeal. (And the egg has 20 less calories!) If you compared the same amount of egg calories as the oatmeal, then the egg would be ahead in virtually every category.
Now, look at the top middle of each page on the ND site where the site ranks the foods in terms of optimal health, weight gain and weight loss. Oatmeal has a better score than eggs for optimal health yet, doesn’t hold a candle to an egg in terms of nutrient density. Why would the folks that run this site rank oatmeal over the egg? Oatmeal is also ranked higher than eggs for weight gain but equally for fat loss! Go figure.
Many experts argue that the USDA food pyramid is just a grain-based, agriculturally conceived pyramid which is not supported by good nutritional science. I happen to agree. In thinking about this blog on the Log Flume at Great Adventure on Sunday, I thought of a good way to look at this issue. (Fear sometimes does wonders for one’s thinking process.) We can indeed safely assume that the USDA food pyramid is agriculturally driven because grains are at the bottom of the pyramid, meaning, they are what the USDA says we should eat the most of.
But any registered dietitian or doctor worth her salt would tell you that fruits and vegetables are far more nutrient dense than breads and cereals and contain all of the vitamins and minerals that grains do as well as have far more fiber. No nutritional expert would ever suggest that a whole wheat bagel is healthier for you than a mixed green salad. If the pyramid is supposed to reflect how humans should eat to obtain optimal health, why at least aren’t fruits and vegetables at the bottom?
Food for thought.
What we want to eat the most of are the foods that are the most nutrient dense – not the most calorie dense. I urge everyone to think in terms of nutrients first when it’s time to eat and feed your family. Use the ND database to compare the foods you enjoy eating. I think you’ll be surprised what you’ll find out.