Healthy Eating and Weight Loss: Nutrient vs Calorie Density

By: Dan Carpenter

Approximately 6 Minutes Reading Time


Brief Article Overview


  • Most of the confusion, debates and even arguments we see regarding nutrition often revolve around the prioritisation of either nutrient density or calorie density.
  • Calorie density is the calorie content of a food substance relative to it’s weight or volume.
  • Nutrient density is the abundance of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) relative to it’s weight or energy.
  • Calories are king when it comes to weight loss and gain.
  • Sufficient nutrients is crucial for general health and wellbeing.
  • The two are NOT mutually exclusive and we define as finding an optimal balance between them.



Nutrition Confusion 


We’ve all heard of “processed foods” which are full of “empty calories”. We’ve also heard of “clean eating” which involves restricting these processed foods and only eating highly nutritious “superfoods” full of antioxidants etc. But have you ever stopped to wonder what these phrases actually mean?


Furthermore, do you need to eat clean in order to lose weight? What does eating clean actually entail? What about flexible dieting, where people attain their desired physique whilst also eating some junks foods in the process? Is this unhealthy? Or is it justified?


There’s a lot of mixed messages out there, and the answer always seems to be.. it depends! So, to bring some order to this chaotic world of nutrition, let’s start by getting some definitions out of the way: 



Some Quick Definitions


1. Calories


A Calorie (kCal) is simply a measurement. It’s unit of the energy we get from food. Technically, 1kCal (it’s most common expression) is the amount of energy needed to heat 1 litre of water by 1 degree celsius.


2. Nutrients


Nutrients are substances that provide nourishment essential for the maintenance of life and for growth. They are broken down into:


  • Macronutrients – Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates.
  • Micronutrients – Vitamins and Minerals.


3. Calorie Density


This is a measure of the calorie content of food relative to its weight or volume. It is also called energy density and is usually measured as calories per 100 grams.



4. Nutrient Density


The amount of micronutrients in a food product in proportion to it’s energy content or weight. Terms such as nutrient rich, nutritious and micronutrient dense refer to similar properties.



5. Whole Foods


These are foods which are found as close to their “natural” state as possible and are minimally processed before being consumed. For example raw whole grains, tubers, legumes, fruits and vegetables.



6. Processed Food


A whole food that has had a series of mechanical processes (grinding / powdering) or chemical fortifications (added colouring, sweeteners, antioxidants, anticaking agents etc.), to change its consistency, flavour, shelf life or volume. As a simple rule of thumb, processed foods come in a bag / box, and contain more than one (often multiple) ingredients.


Note: The act of processing can affect foods in the following ways:


1. Acts as an initial form of digestion and breaks down long chain molecules such as complex carbohydrates into sugars, it also removes fibre. 


2. Introduces extrogenous chemicals, which may not be immediately harmful, but may cause low level inflammatory responses.


3. Can reduce nutrient density during the process.


4. Can increase calorie density during the process.


Eating “Healthily”, but Can’t Lose Weight? 


This is more common than you would think! We often have our clients telling us “I eat really well, but I just can’t seem to lose any weight!”. As we know, the bottom line when it comes to weight gain / loss is energy balance. This is where the phrase ‘calories are king’ comes from. In these common cases, there is a clear disconnect between eating for health (eating well) and eating for body composition. Here is a nice way to illustrate the point:

Healthy Eating and Weight Loss - Nutrient vs Calorie Density

Taken individually, both meals have similar calories and possibly even macronutrient profiles, so from a purely weight and body composition standpoint, they are pretty equal. 


However, before you run to your nearest fast food restaurant, there are some important distinctions. The Niçoise salad will be more voluminous and more satiating, keeping you fuller for longer. It’s nutrient quality and density will be higher and will provide more essential vitamins, minerals and fibre, which are all crucial for health and wellbeing. 


A Useful Guide


We’ve put together a useful guide to help you make smarter food choices taking calorie and nutrient density into consideration. As you can see here, there is a red zone, an orange zone, a yellow zone and a green zone:


  • Red Zone – Low in nutrient density and high in calorie density. We recommend a low consumption (<20% of Intake).
  • Orange Zone – Low nutrient density and low calorie density. Use as low calorie substitutes for red zone foods.
  • Yellows Zone – Highly nutrient dense, but also highly calorie dense. Encouraged, but control portion sizes.
  • Green Zone – “Free foods”, high in nutrient density and low in calorie density, so high consumption is encouraged.
Nutrient density vs calorie density chart
Some Healthy Foods are High in Calories


This is a trap we see a lot of our clients fall into! Some seemingly healthy foods can pack a punch when it comes to calorie density. These are usually foods high in fats such as nuts, seeds, avocados and (oily) fish. Although the oils in these foods are super healthy (high in omega 3), they need to be approached with caution in terms of portion size. For more information on this read our article on the ‘Golden Rules of Fat Loss’ here.


The Healthy Food Calorie Comparison


Here’s a nice illustration of how drastically food density can differ amongst health foods. This is not to say the foods on the right hand column should be avoided, but they just need to be approached with a bit more care and attention, especially if your goal is to maintain or lose weight. 

Low Calories, but Low Nutrients 


It’s true that if energy balance remains the same, so will your weight. But if a majority of your diet comes from low calorie processed foods which are also low in nutrients, your weight may not change but you may get sick more often, your energy levels might fluctuate, you could become moody and will feel hungry all of the time! 




We can now define superfoods as those which are in nutrients and low in calories. Below is an interesting chart we came across, which ranks some popular low calorie ‘superfoods’ in order of nutrient density (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index). You might want to add these to your next shopping list! 



We hope this article has cleared up some confusion, which helps you make better food choices. Remember these are general rules of thumb and everyone’s needs are different, depending on individual preferences, goals, intolerances, genetics etc.


We hope this knowledge will better equip you to unmask the truth behind advertising campaigns. Companies spend big money on wrapping products in attractive packaging and make exaggerated (or even false) claims about their health benefits. 


Being able to discern whether foods meet your standards is a critical skill when trying to improve your nutritional intake. Combine these diet rules with regular exercise and you’ll be well on your way to staying lean without feeling constantly restricted and hungry!



Food for thought? If this has encouraged you to think about your health, fitness & wellbeing, why not click this link and fill out our enquiry form. We’d love to see how we can help you on your journey.

Disclosure: This is article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.