Nutrient Density, Essential Nutrients and More Part I
Updated: May 14
Understanding the concept of a nutrient-dense diet
Micronutrient deficiencies are shown to be one of the root causes of chronic health conditions worldwide, and statistics in the United States indicate that 50 percent of Americans are at risk for deficiency in at least one vitamin and many of them, at risk for multiple nutrient deficiencies.
In reality, numerous sources including the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report have highlighted deficiencies in key nutrients within the U.S. population such as vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E, folate, and iron included in the overall risk of multiple deficiencies. (1)
Besides, it is well documented that the long-term consumption of highly processed foods, which typically have little nutritional value, and excessive energy leads to deficiencies in key nutrients and excess fuel that is likely the cause of many chronic modern health conditions.And without any question, the standard American diet (SAD) filled with highly processed foods with high-energy density and depleted of nutrients is one contributor to this alarming statistic. (2, 3)
So, in order to revert this malnutrition situation, where the majority of the population is well-fed but malnourished, it is crucial to remove the inflammatory highly processed foods from our tables.
Instead, studies shown that the best way to treat and prevent nutrient deficiencies and promote and maintain a stable, relatively constant environment and optimal health is through a balanced, diverse and nutrient-dense diet, loaded with readily available vitamins, minerals, amino acids and other nutrients. (4, 5)
Besides, the conversation about a nutrient-dense diet requires us to understand the bioavailability of nutrients in our food since the amount of (bio)available nutrients in our food is always lower than the total amount of nutrients our food contains.. ( 6)
The bioavailability of nutrients indicates the portion of the nutrients in our food that is absorbed by our digestive tract and released into the bloodstream, ready for our body to use them.
As you could see, this can be an overwhelming topic. So, let’s understand it step-by-step in order to better feed ourselves, avoid nutrient deficiencies and prevent chronic health conditions.
What does nutrient-dense mean?
The expression nutrient-density indicates the concentration of minerals, vitamins, fatty acids, amino acids, and other nutrients in a specific food. And this term is defined in different ways by the ancestral health community, and by the conventional nutritional world.
In the conventional nutritional world, a nutrient-dense food is high in nutrients and moderately low in calories.
On the other hand, the ancestral health community include foods that are high in calories and saturated fat in the list of some of the most nutrient-dense foods available on the planet. They look for optimal nutrition at an affordable cost such as meat, organ meats, fatty fish, full-fat dairy, free-range poultry and eggs, nuts and seeds, etc.
These different opinions suggest that we must consider nutrient density and caloric density independently since the foods that are suggested by the ancestral health community are high and dense in calories but, all nutrient-dense options packed with highly bioavailable and essential vitamins and minerals to health and well-being. (7, 8, 9)
What are the critical nutrients for good health?
Researchers found that there are at least forty essential nutrients critical for normal metabolic function and well-being.
Nutrients are chemical substances required by our body to sustain basic functions as growth, maintenance, and repair. And most of the vital nutrients our body needs are obtained by eating a balanced, diverse and nutrient-dense diet. (10, 11, 12)
Which are the forty essential nutrients to normal metabolic function?
The forty essential nutrients to good health are grouped into six categories:
Fats (lipids), proteins, carbohydrates, water, vitamins and minerals.
Fats, carbohydrates, and protein are classified as macronutrients as they make the bulk of our diet. Water could be classified as a macronutrient as well, however, since it does not contain energy/calories, it is considered a micronutrient. And since vitamins and minerals are required in smaller amounts they are classified as micronutrients.
The calories (daily caloric index) and micronutrients we daily need are basically provided through these three main macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats and proteins. And after a meal, our macronutrients are digested and broken down into molecules that provide us with different micronutrients (minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, etc., with different functions in our body. (13, 14)
Within the six major essential nutrient groups, there are subgroups as you can see below:
3) Fatty acid or lipids
Proteins in reality are required for practically every essential function in the body and are made of chains of amino acids that are the basic building blocks of the proteins.
The uniqueness of different proteins is then determined by which amino acids it contains, how these amino acids are arranged in a chain, and further complex interactions the chain makes with itself and the environment.
Some amino acids are non-essential or dispensable and can be excluded from our diet. Some amino acids are essential because our body cannot produce them in sufficient quantities, and they must exclusively be obtained through proper nutrition or supplementation.
Of the 20 amino acids, here there are listed the nine essential ones:
Threonine, leucine, Phenylamine, valine, histidine, lysine, isoleucine, methionine, tryptophan
Here there are listed the non-essential amino acids
Alanine, asparagine, aspartate, glutamate, arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, proline, and serine.
Implementing a diet with good variety of all the amino acids above is crucial to preserve overall health. And I am going to talk more about it in the next series of articles about proteins.
Vitamins are organic micronutrients classified as either water-soluble or fat-soluble ones.
The essential water-soluble vitamins:
Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12, and C.
The essential fat-soluble vitamins:
Vitamins A, E, D, and K.
6) Essential minerals
Minerals are inorganic micronutrients and are classified as macro-minerals or micro-minerals.
The essential macrominerals (electrolytes)
The electrolytes are required in a good amount per day.
Calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and chloride.
The essential microminerals (trace minerals)
The trace minerals are those required in a small or trace amount per day.
Iron, copper, zinc, selenium, iodine, manganese, fluoride, molybdenum,and chromium
What is an essential nutrient?
Consider that the essential nutrients are compounds that our body cannot make in sufficient quantity, and these nutrients must come from our food as they are vital for disease prevention, growth, and good health. (15)
In the next article, I am going to talk about RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of nutrients, Paleo diet, food diversity, bioavailability of nutrients, and more.