Does Nutrient Dense Make Sense?

With February being not only National Heart Month, Feb 16 is National Almond Day, and Feb 26 is National Pistachio Day.

I enjoy a serving of fats just as much as anyone else but it

Nutrient dense – it’s a common phrase that’s tossed around a lot these days.  And well I’d like to take a second to talk about what the heck it means.

It literally is:

“a measure of the nutrients provided per calorie of food, or the ratio of nutrients to calories (energy).

Foods that supply generous amounts of one or more nutrients compared to the number of calories they supply are called nutrient dense. Eggs, for example, have a high nutrient density, because they provide protein and many vitamins and minerals in proportion their calories.

According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension-(the only thing I disagree with – is they list no fats or oils as being nutrient dense). fuhrmannutrientdensitytable

While this isn’t from the most scientific of sources this ANDI score chart from whole foods, is very nice and helpful.  It is broken down into groups, however unlike Clemson’s guide it incorporates fats such as nuts.

That makes sense right?  That will incorporate lean proteins, eggs, fruits and veggies – especially the dark leafy green vegetables, beans, nuts, etc.

One thing I personally see people struggle with is having certain nutritious foods fall under “health halo” – and portion sizes are forgotten.  I see this happen most often with nuts, avocados, oils, and many carbohdyrate foods.  People categorize foods as “good or bad”, and let portions go out the door.

What I have seen in my experience is that these foods are perceived as “healthy” – and yes, they are nutritious foods.  BUT portion size is still really important.  Especially with these fats (oils, avocados, and nuts).  I have seen people come in with issues regarding their cholesterol – and they see on tv or the internet that things like avocados, walnuts, and almonds are “heart healthy” (which they are) – so they eat them.  A lot of them.  Then by the time I see them – weight has been gained.  Their lipid panels are better, but they have easily added 600+ calories to their day, and are now carrying around extra weight.  So these fats some are both nutrient and energy dense (like nuts) but all are energy dense- they are have more kcal per serving think of it this way: 400 calories

Here are some helpful portion sizes to remember > these are all equivalent to 1 serving of fat, 1 serving of fat roughly equates to about 45 calories

2 Tbsp Avocado

6 Almonds

2 Brazil Nuts

16 Pistachios

6 Cashews

1 tsp oil (olive, coconut, butter etc)

One serving of whole grains like quinoa, barley etc – is about 1/3-1/2 cup cooked depending on the grain.


So if we were hypothetically going by the old food pyramid recommendation of 5-6 servings of grains per day.  That would essentially be 1 cup of quinoa at one meal, and 1 cup of cooked rice at another.  So if you did that – you have essentially met your need for grains.  See how can be kind of easy to overeat on some of this stuff?

Same thing for nuts – a SERVING is only 6 almonds (about 45 calories) therefore 18 almonds (135 calories) meets our approximate daily need for fats.


On average we need about 3 servings or so of fat – ideally the monounsatured fats in our diet.  It’s also important to note that oils (olive, almond, etc) 1 serving is actually 1 tsp – so 1 tablespoon is actually three servings (1 tbsp = 3 tsp)

The bottom line with fats – is a little bit goes a very long way.  And too much in the sense of nuts, and even carbs can lead to an excess in caloric intake (versus that of vegetables that are high in nutrients and even lower in calories).

So enjoy – but remember that those “handfuls” add up, so the pre-packed packs are a great way to go.


  1. Do you think messaging from health professionals or online news sources that simply highlights the health benefits of a food plays a role in this issue? Many articles online list super foods or healthy foods and neglect to stress serving sizes.

    1. Yes – I think in general serving sizes are left out of the conversation for both nutritious and non-nutritious foods. Almonds and oils for instance – yes they are nutritious but also energy dense. I think serving sizes need to be in the conversation.

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