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Calorie Vs. Nutrient Dense Foods

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Calorie Dense vs. Nutrient Dense

Have you ever been told to eat “nutrient-rich” or “nutrient-dense” foods? Or to stay away from foods that have “empty calories”? When lingo like this is thrown around, it’s easy to get confused. 

In reality, the human body NEEDS both nutrients and calories.

Calories are the currency for your body’s energy needs. Higher-calorie foods provide more energy, while lower-calorie foods provide less energy. Foods that contain a lot of calories per pound are considered to be “calorically dense.” Those with fewer calories per pound are not. 

In terms of calorie density, this list provides a general overview of less calorically dense (at the top) flowing to more calorically dense (at the bottom)

  • Vegetables
  • Fresh fruit
  • Nonfat dairy
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Seafood, lean poultry, lean red meat
  • Dried fruit, jams, white refined grain products
  • Nuts
  • Fats and oils

As you see, some foods that are calorically dense are considered healthy, such as nuts and avocado, while others, such as sugar and friend foods, can have a negative impact on health and weight.

Caloric density doesn’t tell the whole story. You also have to look at the nutrients that a food contains. As in the earlier example, calorically dense nuts contain important nutrients and thus are considered nutrient dense (a good thing). But a calorically dense bagel or muffin lacks nutrients and is considered to be nutrient-poor or a source of empty calories.

When it comes to losing and/or maintaining your weight, the goal is typically to consume a diet that is filled with nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, fruit, dairy, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds and lean protein (fish, chicken, beef). These food range in caloric density (vegetables-low, nuts-high), but for the most part are on the lower end of the range. In addition, these foods tend to be higher in volume and water and keep you satiated. Ultimately, this helps to make sure that you still get adequate nutrition while achieving a calorie deficit.

Sugar, alcohol and high-fat foods such as French fries and pastries are calorically dense, but nutrient-poor. Foods that fall into these categories have little-to-no fiber, vitamins, minerals or antioxidants...basically contributing calories, but little else. Unfortunately, most of these foods also promote inflammation and are associated with an increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases.


Have you ever been confused by the terms “calorie dense” and “nutrient dense”. Does this clear it up and provide some insight on what you may be aiming to move your diet towards?

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