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- Understanding Nutrient Density
- Nutrient-Dense Foods vs. Energy-Dense Foods
- Nutrient Density: Beyond the Label
- What Are the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods?
- Why Are Nutrient-Dense Plant-Based Foods Important?
- Nutrient-Dense Foods to Snack on All Day
- Do All Snacks Need to Be Nutrient-Dense Foods?
- Top Takeaways (TL;DR)
It can be hard to find healthy snacks that taste great. The sweet stuff you crave when your stomach is rumbling might satisfy your taste buds, but it can leave you feeling heavy and tired. Nutrient-dense foods do just the opposite: They give you energy to be present and focused in all of life's important moments.
And, if you're looking to reduce meat in your diet in favor of more plants, reaching for nutrient-dense snacks makes it easy. There are plenty of sweet and savory plant-based choices that crush cravings, fuel your lifestyle and give you all the nutrients you need.
Making nutrient density the foundation of your snacks is like leveling up: The more healthy choices you make, the better you'll feel, and the more energy you'll have to support all you do.
So, what are the most nutrient-dense foods for snacking? And how can you tell when you've hit on the right combination of nutrients?
We're going to walk you through all the details in this guide. We'll show you how to:
- Figure out which foods have the highest nutrient density
- Choose snacks with balanced nutrients
- Fuel every part of your day (and lifestyle!) with the right snacks at the right time
When we're done, you'll have a lot of tasty and nutritious ideas for conquering your next snack craving—the nutrient-dense way.
Understanding Nutrient Density
To start, what is nutrient density?
There isn't really a solid definition. (We know. We thought it was a little weird, too.)
The most common way of describing a nutrient-dense food is "high in nutrients, low in calories." In other words, getting the most nutritional bang out of every caloric buck. The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines added another factor: The "beneficial substances" (nutrients) in these foods aren't watered down by added sugar, added fats or natural solid fats present in the food.
Some foods, usually called functional foods, have additional health benefits beyond their nutrient content. Foods like berries, nuts and mushrooms contain phytochemicals, fiber and other compounds that support your body's natural functions, including immunity and digestion. While these qualities aren't usually included when considering nutrient density, they can turn a simple snack into a health-boosting powerhouse.
Nutrient-Dense Foods vs. Energy-Dense Foods
On the other end of the snacking spectrum, you'll find energy-dense foods. These are usually labeled as "bad" foods and lumped together into categories like high fat, high sugar and ultra-processed. (Think fast food, candy bars and those giant cookies that stare at you from grocery store bakery cases while you're trying to mind your own business and get the shopping done.)
Energy-dense foods are often equated with being low in nutrients, but this isn't always the case. Foods like peanut butter, hemp seeds and avocados are all higher in calories than, say, kale, but they're also great sources of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
That's not to say you should never have the cookie that's staring at you. But, when you're looking for a lasting energy boost, it's best to focus on nutrient-dense foods.
Nutrient Density: Beyond the Label
It's not always easy, especially since the traditional definition leaves out nutritious foods with higher calorie counts. But reading nutrition facts panels can at least give you an idea of how to assess nutrient density.
The next time you're shopping, grab your favorite snack and look at these six numbers on the nutrition label:
- Calories per serving
- Total fat (including saturated fat)
- Added sugars
- Vitamins and minerals
The Dietary Guidelines idea that more fat and added sugar means lower nutrient density can be a good rule of thumb for packaged products. Higher amounts of saturated fat in particular can indicate you're looking at a snack that isn't going to sustain you through an active day.
But, if you find a snack that offers a lot of vitamins and minerals along with a good amount of protein and fiber, you most likely have a nutrient-dense food. (And don't let the fat content of snacks containing nuts trip you up. They're one of the exceptions to the "low in calories" aspect of nutrient density.)
Of course, nutrition labels can only get you so far; they only show a limited number of micronutrients and don't say anything about phytonutrients. (Yet! Maybe someday...) They're designed to show macronutrients and "key" vitamins and minerals that most people are lacking. But checking labels is still a good exercise to get yourself thinking in terms of nutrient density when you're choosing snacks.
Since not every food high in nutrients has a label, and reading every single label can get tiring after a while, it helps to be able to identify nutrient-dense snack options at a glance.
What Are the Most Nutrient-Dense Foods?
Nutrient density can be measured in several different ways:
- Nutrients per a specific number of calories
- Nutrients per 100 grams
- Nutrients to emphasize vs. nutrients to limit
- Phytonutrients included or excluded
There's also a bit of a debate as to whether vitamins and minerals added to fortified foods contribute to nutrient density. Some researchers even dig down into the nitty gritty details to consider how many nutrients we actually digest and absorb from foods!
Sound complicated? We thought so, too. So, we made this nutrient-dense foods chart to clarify:
Mushrooms: A Secret Weapon for Nutrient Density
One food we noticed was missing from most nutrient-dense food lists: mushrooms!
When it comes to delivering tons of nutrition in small package, mushrooms win on a lot of points:
- Low in calories
- Good source of minerals like copper and selenium
- High in vitamin B2 and B5
- Decent source of protein
- Source of fiber, including beta-glucans, which have been studied for their immune-boosting properties
We love mushrooms and think all these characteristics more than qualify them as nutrient dense. And they taste really good. If you're trying to eat more plant-based snacks, the meaty texture and savory "umami" flavor of mushrooms make them a great (and easy) meat replacement.
Why Are Nutrient-Dense Plant-Based Foods Important?
Speaking of plant-based, did you notice how many foods in our nutrient density chart are plants?
It's no coincidence; plants are the nutritional superheroes of the food world.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a plant-based physician, illustrates this using his own formula for calculating nutrient density. Called ANDI scores, short for Aggregate Nutrient Density Index, Dr. Fuhrman's calculations take 34 different nutrients into account, including phytonutrients only found in plants. According to his chart, leafy greens like kale and collards are the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat. (And we were happy to see that mushrooms made the list!)
Research also highlights the benefits of including more nutrient-dense plant foods in your diet:
- In a review of studies using plant-based dietary interventions, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet resulted in healthier weight, less inflammation and more diverse gut microbiomes. It also appeared to improve energy metabolism, the process by which food is converted into energy.
- Eating more plant-based could also improve energy production by reducing body fat and increasing insulin sensitivity so that fuel from food can get into cells and be turned into energy more easily.
- People who stick to diets "higher in nutrient‐dense plant foods and lower in refined carbohydrates and animal foods" in the long term have a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, as well as a lower risk of all-cause mortality.
- The high fiber content of nutrient-dense plant foods feeds beneficial microbes in the gut, which can improve microbial balance and strengthen the immune system over time.
- Plants contain compounds called phytosterols, which may help lower cholesterol.
Every time you reach for a snack made from plants, you get some of these benefits. Emphasizing plant foods automatically increases the nutrient density of your diet and brings balance to what you eat.
And, if you're looking to cut back on meat, your snack choices are a great place to start. Snacking is a simple, enjoyable way to try new foods and get a feel for living a more plant-based lifestyle. Experimenting with different options will lead you to discover new combinations you can enjoy every day. Before you know it, you'll be reaching for nutrient-dense plants more often than not—and feeling amazing every time you do.
Nutrient-Dense Foods to Snack on All Day
So, when is nutrient density most important?
We'd say any time is the best time to eat more plants and level up on nutrients, but there are some key points during the day when it really pays off to be mindful about your snacks. We've outlined five of them here, with a bonus section on nutrient-dense foods that make great snacks whenever you need a little extra healthy fuel but don't want a whole meal.
The main thing to keep in mind? Balance. Nutrient-dense snacks should include a combination of all three macronutrients: protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates. You don't have to obsess over this, but it is important, especially if you're relying on snacks for energy when you're working out or powering through a busy day.
Don't worry; we've got you covered from when you get up until your head hits the pillow at night.
1) Heading Out to Work: Nutrition for a Healthy Morning
It takes more than a cup of coffee to give your day a good jump start! Your body and brain need nutritious fuel to be ready for whatever comes across your desk at work.
Load up on macronutrients, vitamins and minerals with one of these quick and easy morning snacks:
- Breakfast burrito with tofu scramble, beans and veggies in a whole-grain wrap
- Protein bar without added sugar
- Homemade protein bites or balls with beans, grains, dried fruit, nuts/seeds and/or nut butter
- Whole grain toast with nut butter and a banana
- Smoothie with fruit, nuts/seeds and leafy greens
- Overnight oats with fruit and nuts
- Chia pudding with fruit and plant-based milk
- Unsweetened plant-based yogurt with fruit and nuts or granola
(And yes, you can have the coffee, too. Just make sure it's along with your breakfast snack, not instead of it!)
For more energy all day:
Keep added sugars and refined carbohydrates out of your morning snacks. They'll give you a quick "rush" of energy, but you'll crash right back down again an hour or two later. Breakfast snacks should have as many nutrients as possible to power your day.
To fight inflammation, boost immunity and feel full longer, focus on foods that are high in antioxidants and fiber. Berries, bananas, leafy greens and whole grains all fit the bill!
2) Before Your Workout: Fueling Up with Nutrient-Dense Foods
Having a snack before a long, tough workout can help you push through and give your all. Try one of these combinations about an hour before you exercise:
- Protein smoothie with nut butter, fruit and greens (try beans or lentils instead of protein powder for even more nutrients)
- Bananas or apples with nut butter
- Toast with nut butter
- Sweet potato with nut butter
- Small bowl of oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit
To maximize power and endurance:
Build your pre-workout snacks primarily around protein and carbs, and go light on the healthy fats. Keep starchy carbohydrates to a minimum; you want something that will digest quickly for a boost of energy. Fruit is a great option for carbohydrates because it provides healthy sugars; choose high-antioxidant fruits to minimize soreness during and after your workout.
If you're more comfortable working out without eating first, that's okay, too. Just make sure you eat something to refuel when you're done.
3) After Your Workout: Restore and Replenish Nutrients
Exercise gives your muscles a beating and zaps your energy stores, particularly carbohydrates. Since you want to keep crushing your workouts (instead of being crushed by them), you need to focus on rebuilding, repairing and recovering. Nutrient-dense foods support all three.
We like the sound of these snacks after a tough exercise session:
- Protein smoothie (if you didn't have one before your workout)
- Fruit and nuts
- Whole grain toast with avocado and nutritional yeast
- Oatmeal with bananas or berries and nuts/seeds
- Edamame-based spread on whole-grain crackers
- Medjool dates stuffed with nut butter
- Hummus and veggies in a whole-grain wrap or with whole-grain crackers
- Plant-based yogurt with fruit and nuts/seeds
- Mushroom jerky
To speed recovery:
Combine nutrient-dense foods that provide about twice as much protein as fat in your post-workout snack. And don't forget about carbohydrates! You'll want more of them now than before your workout to replace what your body used.
As with your pre-workout snack, emphasize antioxidants from brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants go to work against inflammation to improve recovery and get your muscles ready for your next session.
4) On a Nature Adventure: Nutrients for Sustained Energy
When you feel like hitting the trails instead of hitting the gym, you need snacks that pack a lot of nutrition into something you can carry wherever your adventures take you. Here are a few great "on the go" foods to take on your next hike, bike ride or camping trip:
- Homemade energy bites or balls
- Homemade granola with dried fruit, nuts and seeds
- "Flapjack" bars made with bananas, peanut butter, oatmeal, nuts and dried fruit
- Dried fruit and nuts
- Edamame (roasted is tasty!)
- Fruit leathers made with 100% fruit
- Dehydrated meals with beans, veggies and grains (for longer hikes or camping)
For sustained energy:
Since you'll be moving a lot for most of the day, look for snacks that are both energy and nutrient dense. Include a balance of complex carbohydrates for fuel, protein for repair and recovery and healthy fats for sustained energy.
Fiber is also a must here. It helps you feel full longer and supports healthy digestion, which is key when you're eating a lot of snacks and smaller meals to keep your energy up. That's why we always bring a few bags of Moku when we head out for some time in nature. It's packed with 9 grams of fiber per bag—nine more than regular jerky!
5) Winding Down at Night: Nutrient Density for Better Rest
Having a snack in the evening can help you chill out and refuel after a busy day. Bedtime snacks can also make it easier to hit your nutrient requirements if you weren't able to eat balanced meals during the day.
Although it can be tempting to reach for your favorite comfort foods when you're tired, we recommend sticking with the same kinds of nutrient-dense foods you use to power your day. You don't need as many calories at night, so keep things simple with:
- Whole grain toast with almond butter and (optional) fruit
- Unsweetened dairy-free yogurt with fruit and a sprinkle of granola
- Sweet potato with peanut butter
- Banana with almond butter
- Small smoothie with fruit, sweet potato, almond butter and leafy greens
To get the best night's sleep:
Combine complex carbohydrates with protein to keep blood sugar stable and promote muscle repair while you sleep.
If your snack contains fruit, go for cherries or bananas. Bananas are a natural source of magnesium to help you relax, as well as both tryptophan and serotonin, which your body can convert into melatonin. Cherries are a direct source of melatonin! Almond butter also contains melatonin, so it's a better choice than peanut butter to help you drift off at night.
If you struggle with acid reflux or find that eating at night disrupts your sleep, skip the snack and opt for a cup of herbal tea instead.
Anytime Snacks for Nutrient Balance
What about those days when you can't find time to make a full meal? Or when you'd rather have a tasty snack instead of cooking something complex?
Nutrient-dense foods to the rescue!
You can throw these mini-meals together in a flash or mix up big batches to snack on all week:
- Fruit and nuts
- Veggies with hummus
- Date and nut bars (homemade or a prepared brand with whole food ingredients)
- Granola made with whole grains, nuts, seeds and dried fruit and sweetened with dates
- Homemade trail mix (try nuts and seeds mixed with dried fruit or freeze-dried fruit)
- Roasted chickpeas
- Dairy-free nut-based cheese and whole grain crackers
- Medjool dates stuffed with nut butter
- Celery with nut butter and raisins (a classic!)
- Veggies and hummus wrapped in a collard or lettuce leaf
To balance enjoyment and nutrients:
Getting in enough nutrients is important when you're replacing meals with snacks. Think about what you've already eaten during the day, and choose your snacks with balance in mind to fill in any gaps.
Of course, balance isn't just about eating foods with high nutrient density; it's about eating foods you like. Try out the options above, and experiment with your own combinations to find healthy, nutritious snacks that also bring you moments of joy.
Do All Snacks Need to Be Nutrient-Dense Foods?
The food you fuel your life with matters. Nutrient-dense foods naturally give you the energy you need to focus during the work day, maintain stamina during exercise or enjoy a weekend of outdoor adventures.
And snacking isn't the occasional indulgence it once was. Today, more people are choosing snacks instead of eating traditional meals. When you find yourself doing the same, it's important to focus on nutrient density.
Why? The snacks you eat for fun don't always have the balance of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats you need when you're on the move or winding down after an active day. So, while a cookie or some chips taste great, you better off having a snack with a stronger nutritional profile that will both quell hunger and provide healthy fuel.
It's not that fun snacks don't have a place; what matters is the overall nutrient density of your diet. Making nutrition the focus of your food choices the majority of the time is more important than snacking on specific nutrient-dense foods.
Small Steps to Healthy Changes
Use the suggestions in this guide as a starting point for choosing snacks that both boost health and make you feel good. Each snack is another opportunity to get more plants into your diet. Those little swaps can add up to big changes—and bring big benefits—over time.
Emphasizing nutrient density also makes you more mindful about what you eat. The time of day, how active you are and whether or not you're replacing a meal should all influence the type and size of your snacks. The more you think about these factors, the easier it is to reach for nutrient-dense foods.
Top Takeaways (TL;DR)
- Nutrient-dense snacking give you energy to stay present and focused.
- To maximize nutrient density, look for snacks high in nutrients but low in calories.
- Emphasize nutrient-dense foods from plant-based sources (or mushrooms!) for the majority of your snacks.
- Minimize energy-dense foods that have a lot of calories but few nutrients.
- When choosing high-calorie foods, go for nutrient-rich options like nuts, seeds and avocados.
- Include protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates for balanced snacking.
- Balance the nutrients in your snacks according to the activity you're fueling.
- Most of all -- enjoy what you eat!