For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
Density is a degree of consistency measured by the quantity of mass per unit of volume—or, the proportion of one substance in relation to a whole. The concept of nutrient density, therefore, refers to the quantity of nutrients in relation to the total quantity of a particular food (usually measured by the number of calories).
Low caloric food containing plenty of macro- and micronutrients is considered more “nutrient-dense” than high-calorie, nutritionally-poor food, and many consider this a measure of overall food quality. Apart from general health, nutrient density is also an important consideration for athletes hoping to optimize their fuelling strategy.
Understanding the Whole: Not All Calories are Created Equal
Without diving too far into the rabbit hole of calories, it’s worth noting that not all calories are the same. For example, 100 calories of broccoli may deliver the same energy as 100 calories of white chocolate, but you don’t need us to tell you that the body will react in different ways to each. The reasons why could fill an entire article on their own, but consider the following:
Four calories of protein require more energy to metabolize than four calories of sugar. Depending on the desired effect of consuming these calories, you may want to choose one or the other at different times.
Hormone Response and Satiety
Fructose, for example, increases ghrelin (the hormone which makes you feel hungry) whereas oats increase leptin (which inhibits hunger pangs). Thus, after consuming 100 calories of fruit, your body will be craving more food sooner than if you’d eaten 100 calories of oatmeal.
High Glycemic Index foods spike insulin release and have a range of add-on effects (sugar high/crash) compared to low GI food.
A slice of white bread may contain the same number of calories as whole grain bread, but they’re fundamentally different. The latter contains four times the potassium, three times the zinc and twice as much protein and fiber as its white counterpart. Next time you’re faced with the choice, which would you prefer?
What are Foods with Good Nutrient-Density?
- Cruciferous vegetables: kale, cabbage, and arugula
- Berries: strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries
- Whole grains: oats, rice, whole grain pasta
- Legumes: beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans
- Nuts and seeds: chia seeds, macadamias, almonds, pistachios, flaxseed
- Greens: spinach, broccoli, chard, spirulina
What are Foods with Poor Nutrient-Density?
- Processed food: including meats, ready meals, and cheese
- Baked goods: donuts, pastries and anything fried
- Drinks: alcohol and many sports drinks too
How Does Nutrient Density Affect Sports Performance?
Nutrients are necessary for overall bodily function, from a healthy immune and digestive system to providing energy and to help us recover. There can be little contention that nutrients are important for athletes looking to repeatedly stress their bodies and recover on a frequent basis.
There are three main areas that a nutrient-dense diet will benefit athletes:
1. Optimize Performance
Athletes need fuel which their body can process and convert to energy. Appropriate sources depend on the desired outcome. A sprinter’s needs, for example, are different from an Ironman triathlete’s needs, but all athletes will benefit from nutrient-dense foods which the body is able to recognize and metabolize.
2. Speed Recovery
Consuming the full range of essential amino acids is necessary for muscle repair and growth, and a varied diet is all you need to get them. If you’re avoiding meat, these three plant-based recipes and two smoothie ideas are a great place to start.
3. Achieve Race Weight
Nutrient-dense foods will make you feel fuller for longer. Many studies have shown that someone on a diet high in nutrients will consume fewer calories. They’ll also have a lesser impact on blood sugar levels and subsequent insulin response. You can actually lose weight by eating more if you focus on nutrient-rich foods.
How to Improve Nutrient Density
A good shortcut is to choose more whole fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed grains; usually, the more processed something is, the fewer nutrients it has. It might be difficult to give up your favorite nutrient-poor foods (after all, they’re designed to keep you craving more!) but once you switch, you’ll notice more satiety, consistent energy levels, reduced inflammation, and better performance. It’s never too late to start reaping the benefits of a nutrient-rich diet!
This article originally appeared at Trainingpeaks.com.
James Eacott is a highly-qualified endurance coach, an experienced athlete, and a total nutrition geek. He’s on the development team at 33Shake natural sports nutrition, a leading-edge nutrition company specializing in powerful natural products for endurance performance. Follow @go33shake for more.