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By Haley Golich MS, RD, LD

Last updated: 10/08/23

When we talk about “healthy” eating, many think of focusing on total calories consumed as the key to success. However, we often forget that not every calorie is created equally. The nutritional quality of the calories that we eat each day can have a significant impact on our efforts towards healthier living, disease prevention, and weight loss.

So, how do we determine if the calories we are consuming are high quality? One important first step is to understand the difference between foods that are calorie dense and foods that are nutrient dense.

What is a calorie dense food?

Calorie dense foods are foods that contain a high number of calories relative to their weight. This is typically due to a high amount of saturated fat, sodium, added sugars, and other simple carbohydrates. These foods are high in energy (calories), but lack the vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional components that are essential to a healthy diet. Examples of calorie dense foods are baked goods, sodas, processed meats, chips, pizza, and mayonnaise.

What is a nutrient dense food?

Nutrient dense foods contain a lower number of calories by weight but a higher number of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, lean protein, and other beneficial nutrients. Examples include fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, low-fat milk or yogurt, whole wheat pasta, and skinless chicken.

Example: A calorie dense meal vs. a nutrient dense meal

Take a look at the two meals below. What do you notice? At first glance, most might notice that the calories between the two meals are about the same. However, comparing calories shouldn’t be your only consideration. Picture each meal on your plate. You are probably realizing that the overall quantity of food you get from the meal on the right is much greater—in fact, you are getting two meals for the caloric price of one! The meal on the left is significantly higher in total fat, saturated fat, and sodium—all of which can increase our risk for chronic disease. The meal on the right, however, has significantly more protein and fiber—nutrients that help keep us feeling fuller for a longer period of time, as well as helping to lower cholesterol and improve gut health. This meal also contains more of the essential vitamins and minerals that keep our bodies functioning properly.

Dinner: McDonalds Quarter Pounder + Medium Fries Dinner: 6oz roasted chicken, ¾ cup brown rice, 2 cups steamed broccoli, ¼ cup avocado
Dessert: 1 container Greek yogurt, 1 cup sliced strawberries
Calories 860 785
Fat 44 grams 15 grams
Saturated Fat 15 grams 3 grams
Carbohydrates 83 grams 85 grams
Fiber 6 grams 24 grams
Protein 35 grams 80 grams
Sodium 1340 mg 330 mg


Can a food be both calorie and nutrient dense?

While there are many foods that we consider either calorie dense or nutrient dense, there are several foods that fall somewhere in between.  These foods are an important addition to a healthy diet but should be monitored closely to ensure proper portion sizes. Examples of foods that fall into this category are avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds, nut butters, dried fruit, and hummus.

The Bottom Line

When eating for optimal health—whether that be disease prevention/management, weight loss, or general health—opt for incorporating a variety of nutrient dense foods daily. This will help to ensure that you are getting all the vital nutrients that your body needs. Reduce calorie dense foods, as the added sugars, sodium, and saturated fat can lead to increased risk for weight gain, diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

For a list of foods and their caloric density, check out this handout.

The next time you sit down for a meal, remember to get the best nutrient bang for your caloric buck!