19 Most Nutrient Dense Foods

Get more bang for your bite with these yummy nutrient-rich foods.

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It’s no secret that following a healthy diet has many benefits, including building strong bones, preventing disease and supporting our mental health. But it’s not always easy to make the right choices when it comes to what we eat.

You know that certain foods are bad for you because they lack nutritional value. (See: donuts, chips and soda.) But do you know which foods are the best for supporting health and well-being? Known as nutrient-dense foods, these are the items that should top your grocery list every time, as they provide maximum nutritional bang for your proverbial shopping buck.

“Nutrient-dense foods have a lot of vitamins, minerals, proteins, healthy fats and complex carbs in a very small portion of food,” says Brenda Peralta, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator based in Costa Rica. “These foods ensure that you are getting the nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.”

So how exactly do nutrient-dense foods make such a major health impact and which foods qualify as nutrient dense? Here’s what the experts have to say.

Why nutrient-dense foods matter for health

It all starts with your gut microbiome, a.k.a. the millions of bacteria that live in your gut and affect everything from digestion to daily energy levels. “Research suggests that the quantity and variety of produce in our diet is the greatest predictor of microbiome health,” says Kelly LeVeque, a celebrity nutritionist and Seed Partner in Los Angeles. “Our microbiome directly impacts our immune system, [and contributes to the] synthesizing of vitamins, antioxidants and short chain fatty acids. It also increases the bioavailability of nutrients from our food.”

The fastest way to a healthy microbiome, believes LeVeque, is through a nutrient-dense diet. “As we come in to contact with endocrine disrupting chemicals, pharmaceuticals and food additives known to degrade our microbiome, it is increasingly important to support the proliferation of our microbes with fiber from plants,” she says.

Related: 50 Probiotic Foods to Give Your Gut a Little Reset

Measuring nutrient density

So how do you know which plants are nutrient dense? In short, nutrient density refers to the amount of nutrients you get per calories consumed. Say you have the choice of either 100 calories of potato chips or 100 calories of steamed broccoli. The amount of vitamins, antioxidants and other health-supporting compounds in broccoli far exceeds that of the chips, yet you’re consuming the same number of calories; broccoli, therefore, is considered a more nutrient-dense food.

If you’re serious about measuring your nutrient intake, start taking notice of the nutrition labels on things you buy at the grocery store and download a nutrition-tracking app like My Fitness Pal, with over 11 million foods in its database, to determine your approximate nutritional intake from meals you make from scratch.

Related: Using MyFitnessPal to Track Your Calories? Here's What Nutritionists Want You to Know

Increasing nutrient-dense foods in your diet

To bring more nutrient-dense foods into your daily diet, a kitchen audit may be the best place to start, suggests Elisabeth Wygant, Pharm.D., founder of BioLaVie Health Consulting in Oscoda, MI and host of the Thrive Mama! podcast. Even foods you might think are healthy, such as bread, pasta, cereal and protein bars may lack nutrient-dense ingredients, says Wygant. Other foods to eliminate: Vegetable oil and sugary sweets.

Once you’ve removed items lower in nutrient density, it’s time to restock. Wygant’s shopping list of nutrient-rich staples includes:

  • Avocados

  • Canned coconut milk

  • Cold-pressed organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  • Free-range, skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

  • Grass-fed beef

  • Organic arugula

  • Organic berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries)

  • Organic grain-free tofu

  • Organic ground flaxseed

  • Organic spinach

  • Organic sugar-free bone broth (chicken or beef)

  • Walnuts

Making these changes requires rewiring the way you think about the food you eat. “I understand how difficult it can be,” says Wygant, who suggests starting with small swaps, a little at a time, to help make the transition easier.

Where to find nutrient-dense foods

David Harris, head of crop research and development at Freight Farms, a hydroponic container farm business based in Boston, MA, advocates for hydroponically grown produce (grown locally using just water) over commercially grown produce because it can be eaten within hours or days of harvest, as opposed to the nutritional degrading that happens when commercial produce spends weeks in transit or sitting on a grocery store shelf.

Another challenge of commercially grown crops: Some of the most agriculturally dense areas of the country have seen a loss of up to 46% of topsoil, the nutrient-rich top layer of soil in which plants are grown. “Like humans and animals, the ‘you are what you eat’ rule applies to produce,” says Harris. “Plants are only as nutritious as the soil or environment they are grown in.”

Related: 20 Big Bowl Salads Recipes That Will Change Your Life for the Better

Best nutrient-dense produce

However your fruits and vegetables are grown, some produce is inherently denser in nutrients than others. When it comes to making choices, the superfoods here are a sure-fire way to bolster your intake of the good stuff, so add plenty to your daily menu.


Artichokes are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and they’re also particularly high in folate and vitamins C and K,” says Sarah Anderson, a functional medicine nurse practitioner in Charlotte, NC. “You can easily add them to pasta, salads and chicken or fish dishes. They are delicious roasted as a side dish as well.”


Blueberries are some of the most nutrient dense of all berries and they’re a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals,” says Kate Peterson, a registered dietitian in Waukesha, WI. “Not only that, but they’re also believed to have the highest antioxidant levels of all fruits and vegetables. Whenever possible, choose wild blueberries which have roughly 30 percent more antioxidants than regular blueberries.”

Related: Nutrient-Packed Fruits for Weight Loss


A popular choice to brighten up a simple one-pot meal, broccoli is low in calories, high in fiber and packed with health-boosting nutrients. “One cup of broccoli has 2.4 grams of fiber, or 9 percent of your daily recommended value,” says nutritionist Peralta. “Additionally, it has 100 percent of the daily recommended intake of vitamin K and vitamin C.” More perks: Broccoli contains vitamin A, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, pantothenic acid, manganese, selenium and potassium, as well as sulforaphane, which studies show has cancer-fighting properties.


“Pomegranates are loaded with antioxidants, which can help inhibit harmful free radicals,” says Los Angeles-based nutritionist Jennie Miremadi, who recommends integrating pomegranates into your weekly food rotation. “Pomegranates may also have cardiovascular benefits. In a study of atherosclerotic patients with carotid artery disease, patients who drank 1.7 ounces of pomegranate juice once per day for a year had 30 percent reduced arterial wall lining thickness and a 12 percent systolic blood pressure decrease.”


“Four prunes contain about 100 calories, 3 grams of fiber and 20 percent of your daily value for vitamin K,” says Elle Wittneben, R.D., the manager of nutrition services at Greater Boston Urology in Massachusetts. “Prunes also contain antioxidants, such as alpha and beta-carotene that some studies have shown may reduce cancer risk.” But the number one reason Wittneben recommends prunes to clients? Staying regular. “Prunes can be a natural solution to constipation,” she says. “They have a gentle laxative effect due to their fiber and sorbitol content.”

Sweet Potato

An easy substitute for starchy white potatoes, sweet potatoes make great fries and are also tasty mashed or baked. Kimberly Marsh, a registered dietitian in Denver, CO, recommends sweet potatoes because, “they are a great source of fiber, beta carotene, vitamin C and potassium.” Fiber aids with digestive health and weight management, says Marsh, and beta carotene and vitamin C are antioxidants that support immune function. For an innovative way to prepare, Marsh suggests cubing the sweet potatoes and cooking with onions, peppers and eggs for a breakfast hash.

Related: 50+ Energy-Boosting Foods

Nutrient-dense protein sources

Protein provides the building blocks for stronger muscles and more energy. But not all protein sources are created equal. The ones below are nutrient-dense choices that will help you get the most mileage out of every meal.


“Eggs are an extremely versatile protein that can be mixed into plenty of breakfast, lunch and dinner options,” says Kim Rose, R.D., a consulting dietitian for the food-tracking app Lose It! in Lakeland, FL. “With six grams of protein and four grams of fat in one medium egg, this simple ingredient is a winner any time of the day.


“Liver is a great source of vitamin B12, vitamin A, riboflavin, folate, iron and choline, all of which are necessary for your body’s optimal function,” says Anderson. “I recommend liver from grass-fed beef to maximize your nutritional intake.” For those who don’t like the taste or texture of liver, you can find it in supplement form as a capsule or pill. “You can buy it dehydrated from a reputable health food store or you can make your own at home,” Anderson adds.


“One 4-ounce serving of salmon packs in 23 grams of protein, so adding salmon to your meal can help you feel full longer due to protein’s effect on increasing satiety,” says Mackenzie Burgess, a registered dietitian and nutritionist in Denver, CO, and recipe developer for Cheerful Choices. Along with omega-3 fatty acids, “salmon is rich in all eight B vitamins, which help convert food into energy we can use throughout the day.” Burgess suggests making nut crusted salmon with a simple Dijon glaze.


Sardines are an inexpensive alternative to salmon and often come canned. “Sardines are a nutrient-dense food containing 22 grams of protein, 15 percent of your daily vitamin D needs and 1700 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. Sardines also contain iron, calcium and potassium. There’s a lot of nutrition in a serving of sardines!’” says Angela Houlie, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist and founder of My Fruitful Body Nutrition.

What to know about nutrient-dense dairy

When it comes to dairy, it’s worth looking into the benefits of organic products. A recent study published in Public Health Nutrition shows that organic milk does not contain any residues of pesticides or antibiotics and has lower levels of growth hormones than commercial milk.

Organic or otherwise, dairy products are typically packed with nutrients that can do your body good. Elizabeth Ward, RDN, co-author of  The Menopause Diet Plan: A Complete Guide to Managing Hormones, Health and Happiness, recommends low-fat milk, plain Greek yogurt and cheese as nutrient-dense dairy products to weave into your weekly menu plan. These are some of the ways dairy can benefit your health.


Cheese is a good source of calcium, protein, vitamin B12 and other nutrients. However, “cheese is higher in calories and fat than other low-fat foods in the dairy group, such as low-fat milk and fat-free yogurt, so you will consume more calories getting the nutrients you need from cheese alone versus alternative dairy foods that are lower in fat,” says Ward. (Bottom line: A little goes a long way.)

Low-fat milk

“Milk is an excellent source of calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D, as well as protein, vitamin A and several B vitamins,” explains Ward. “Low-fat and fat-free milk are more nutrient dense than higher fat milks because the lower-fat versions provide the same nutrients for fewer calories.”

Plain Greek yogurt

Fruit-flavored yogurts may be labeled fat-free but the added sugar increases the calorie content and reduces the nutritional value. Ward suggests choosing a plain yogurt that promotes gut health. “Plain Greek yogurt with active cultures is a source of probiotics—living organisms that help keep the gut healthy,” she says. “Eating yogurt on a regular basis may promote healthier blood pressure, too.”

Other nutrient-dense foods

If you’re not a veggie lover, fish eater or fan of dairy, don’t give up yet! There are other places you can find food with high nutritional density, including the following.

Black and green tea

Both black and green tea can help boost your nutrient intake, says Jill Weisenberger, R.D.N., author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. “Tea is commonly overlooked as a source of nutrition because it offers next to nothing in the way of carbs, fats, protein or calories,” says Weisenberger. “But there are lots of phytonutrients in black, green and oolong teas that are the same types of phytonutrients we get from vegetables.” Drinking tea is also associated with a lower heart attack risk, improved cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. “These effects probably come from the flavonoids,” says Weisenberger, noting you’ll find these in freshly brewed, but not bottled, tea.

Related: The Health Benefits of Green Tea


Milled flaxseed is a nutrient powerhouse and favorite of New York City-based Rachel Fine, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at To the Pointe Nutrition. “Flaxseed is a rich source of lignans, a powerful phytochemical with anti-oxidative characteristics,” says Fine. “It also contains a high percent of omega-3 fatty acids per serving which are important for heart health and brain health.” Keep in mind that flaxseed must be ground in order for the body to digest it completely and gain the full health benefits.

Related: The Best Foods High in Omega-3

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds contain 10 grams of plant protein and 12 grams of healthy fats, including omega-3 fats which we tend to not get enough of,” says Stephanie Coburn, a registered dietitian in Denver, CO, who suggests adding hemp seeds (also known as hemp hearts) to smoothies, oatmeal and salads as a simple way to boost your nutrient intake. “A three-tablespoon serving provides crucial nutrients like iron, thiamin, niacin, phosphorus, zinc, copper and magnesium.” Hemp seeds also contain small amounts of calcium, vitamin B6 and folate.

Herbs and spices

“Many favorite herbs like parsley, thyme and basil or spices like cinnamon, chili spice, nutmeg and mace, top the list of oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) scores,” says Annie Kay, a holistic dietitian in private practice in Great Barrington, MA. “ORAC is a measure of how much tissue-damaging free radical removal power a particular food has—it's the definition of being anti-inflammatory through nutrient density.” Plants with strong smells and flavors tend to be rich in antioxidants, says Kay and therefore have high ORAC scores. Her advice: “Spice up your meals and know that you are enhancing the nutrient density of your week the easy-peasy way.”


An often-overlooked superfood, there are a number of seaweed varieties and lots of different ways to prepare it. Seaweed is rich in many vitamins and minerals, amino acids, antioxidants and phytonutrients. What’s more, seaweed is a great source of natural iodine, which supports thyroid health. Add some seaweed to your salad, or make an entire salad just from seaweed.

And remember, just because it’s not on this list doesn't mean it’s not good for you: As a rule of thumb, most fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as whole foods (as opposed to packaged and processed foods), have solid nutritional benefits. And even though cookies don’t make the nutrient-dense cut, a sweet treat now and again is fine, too. You only live once!

Next up: 10 Nutrients to Make Sure You Get If You're Following a Vegan Diet