The Most Nutrient Dense Food

The whole point of nutrition is . . .

To acquire nutrients.

But you’re probably doing it wrong, or at least not efficiently.

Certainly, if you’re following the dietary guidelines, you’re not getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to nutrients.  That is because the dietary guidelines, despite what they claim, heavily push foods that are not rich in nutrients, such as grains.  I wish I were joking, but here are foods that your very own USDA considers to be nutrient-dense:


Why talk about nutrient density?

Micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) are critical for all of your body’s biochemical processes – gene transcription, cellular repair, enzymatic reactions, protection against oxidative stress, etc.

Nutrient density is traditionally defined in terms of the content of nutrients relative to a particular amount, whether energy (calories) or mass (grams).  Consistent with the world’s myopic obsession with calories, it’s no surprise that it is most often expressed relative to calories.

Calories from proteins are substantially different from calories from carbohydrates or calories from fat.  There are many factors that need to be considered beyond calories.  The bioavailability of nutrients must be considered – how much of the nutrient of concern is actually absorbed into the body.  Consider also that the satiety effect of food is a critical consideration.  If I have to consume 5 lb of broccoli to get the amount of iron that would be available in ½-lb of beef, there’s no way that my stomach can handle that volume.  (Not to mention other limitations such as visual appeal, taste, ease of swallowing, eating time, abdominal bloating, flatulence, etc.)

Consider this analogy: Let’s say you had a chance to collect as much money as you could from a giant pile of coins.  If you had a limited time and a limited-size bag in which to collect those coins, are you going to pick up pennies?  Or are you going to focus on the higher-value coins?

Examples of Nutrient Density

Let’s take a look at the nutrient density of common foods.  Note that this nutrition data comes the Nutrition Coordinating Center Food and Nutrient Database, a comprehensive database produced at the University of Minnesota that serves as a premium resource for the scientific community.  I have added color-coding to highlight different tiers of nutrient density, with darker shades of green indicating higher nutrient content.

Blueberries and kale are commonly heralded as “superfoods”.  Blueberries have disappointingly little nutritional value, other than vitamin C.  Kale is rich in calcium and vitamin C, but there remains an issue of bioavailability: there is limited bioavailability of calcium due to the high oxalate content of kale.  Also, while kale is rich in beta-carotene (pro-vitamin A), only 5-10% of the total content is bioavailable, thanks to it being stored in chloroplasts which are not digestible by humans.

While often hailed as “the most healthy breakfast food”, oatmeal has little nutritional value.  All that it really has to offer is its high fiber content.

Also note that plant foods are completely devoid of vitamin B12.

Moving on to some common proteins – chicken, eggs, beef, salmon – there is much more nutritional value for the same serving size.  There is much more breadth of nutritional value in these foods relative to the aforementioned items.  Furthermore, the nutrients in animal proteins are significantly more bioavailable compared to plants.

What are the most nutrient dense foods on Earth?

Liver is the most nutrient-dense food on Earth. And it’s nearly perfectly complemented by salmon roe.

I know . . . I know . . . Nearly everyone groans at the mention of liver and claims that they can’t tolerate it.  That’s definitely a First World problem, as much of the World would fight for the luxury to decline such a nutrient-rich food option.  It’s important, though, to acknowledge the following two immutable facts:

1. Nature prioritizes nutrient density.

It’s no mistake that apex predators are meat-eaters and don’t waste time looking for grains and leafy greens.  Apex predators, like the big cats, raptors, bears, wolves, crocodiles, and orcas, all prioritize the most nutrient dense food in their environment, because doing so allows them to thrive.

When bears have a plethora of salmon available to them, their priority is selecting the female salmon so as to acquire the roe (eggs).  Salmon meat itself is certainly rich in nutrients, but the bears are instinctively seeking the more nutrient-rich eggs.

Similarly, the big cats are focused on the most nutrient dense food in their environment, that being organ meats from their land-dwelling prey.  Muscle meat can wait — in fact, they often leave it to be consumed by scavengers, such as hyenas and vultures.  The king of the jungle, however, is getting that precious liver.

Note that, after a brief feeding on the organ meats, this lioness is content.  Huge carcass of muscle meat is still available, but she struck gold, in terms of rapidly acquiring the richest nutrients possible in a short period, and thus she is satiated.

2. Every culture around the world incorporates organ meats in some way.

There are a plethora of ways that organ meats are incorporated in diets around the world – heart, liver, kidney, spleen, offal, tripe/chitterlings (intestine), sweetbreads (thymus and pancreas), tongue, blood sausage, brain, etc.

In the United States, the Baby Boomers and previous generations have routinely consumed liver.  I suspect that, especially for people who struggled through the Great Depression, liver was a cheap and highly nutritious option when other proteins were unaffordable.  Nowadays, liver is more likely to be processed into dog food than appear on the dinner plate.


“Yuck!  I’m not going to eat liver!”

That’s fine . . . this analysis is not to say that you have to eat liver to be healthy.  This is one situation, however, where I believe that we are more likely to thrive in good health if we follow Nature’s lead.

Be thankful for your luxurious access to foods that you consider appetizing, and perhaps consider finding a tolerable way to incorporate these nutrient-rich foods.  I acknowledge that eating liver straight-up can certainly be a challenge.  However, liver can be prepared in very palatable ways; it just takes some creativity, such as blending it with ground beef.

A common concern about eating liver is that the liver is known as the organ that filters out toxins from our circulation, and thus many people are concerned that toxins accumulate in liver tissue.

Fear not . . . Once toxins are filtered by the liver, the liver excretes them via bile which then exits the body via the intestine.  It wouldn’t make sense for the liver to continually accumulate toxic substances and retain them indefinitely.  Thus, there is no increased risk of exposure to toxins by consuming liver.

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