Nutrient Density: An Uncommon Guide to the World's Healthiest Foods

"It's like, totally healthy."

You hear this from your hipster friend who's raving about their biodynamic yoghurt with crushed chia seeds.

"Yeah, it's like alkalising, detoxifying, and it's got like, so much protein."

You don't question them, they seem confident and assertive.

Later on you question this 'nutritiousness' thing. How did this superfood culture come about? Do I need to ditch my steak and veg for kale chips? Do I need to spend $16 on a quinoa salad? Luckily, we can find some answers through science, and build a strong, healthy body from the most simple of foods, and avoid the super berries.

Before reading this you should familiarise yourself with the term 'nutrient density.' This is a measurement that researchers use to determine the amount of essential nutrients that are available in each serving of food. The most accurate and up to date research on nutrient density comes from Mat LaLonde, a Harvard Phd in organic chemistry and one smart guy. You can skip my post and watch his presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium here.

Mat crunched the numbers on food groups and their nutrient densities, and also critiqued our current understanding of what is nutritious, slamming recent studies that have omitted many of the essential elements that could make a food healthy (Vitamins A, B12, K and minerals sulfar, copper and potassium to name a few). One study even rated foods to the degree of which they don't contain the 'unhealthy' components of saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium - there are so very many things wrong with this. Other studies have been done by academics who have vested interests in plant based diets, and omit data such as vitamin B12, D and taurine (these are prevalent in animal foods). 

Mat used the formula:

Nutrient Density = (∑ Essential Nutrients Per Serving/Weight Per Serving)

Here's what he found:


1. Organ Meats 17.05 11. Poultry -1.71
2. Herbs and Spices 16.78 12. Legumes (raw and cooked) -2.86
3. Nuts and Seeds 10.28 13. Processed Meat -3.10
4. Cacao (chocolate) 7.97 14. Vegetables (cooked) -4.84
5. Fish and Seafood 1.16 15. Plant Fats and Oils -5.41
6. Pork 0.69 16. Fruit -5.62
7. Beef 0.31 17. Grains and Cereals -6.23
8. Eggs and Dairy -0.56 18. Refined and Processed Oils -6.43
9. Vegetables (raw) -0.70 19. Grains (cooked) -7.05
10. Lamb, Veal and Wild Game -1.19 20. Canned Fruit -8.12



 Organ Meats: Gruesome, Delicious and Nutritious! 


Best on Ground: Liver

Liver should be thought of like a nutrient bomb. Some primitive tribes knew this too, as Weston A Price observed that Native Indians would eat the organs first, and give the less nutritious muscle meats to the dogs.


Consistent Performer: Green vegetables.

Kale, spinach, swiss chard, broccoli are all packed with nutrients and should be eaten, a lot.


Most Underrated Herbs and Spices.

These are top competitors in their weight class, but unfortunately don't pack the weight that something like liver does - ie. you're not going to eat 200g of nutmeg. Add in turmeric, parsley or basil into for a nutrient kicker.


Most Overrated: Wholegrains

This guy is like the player that gets talked up in the pre game, yet fails to perform when it comes to crunch. Even the best of wholegrains is in negative numbers, and is no match for the meats and vegetables on the field.


Heathly Living Pyramid

 Source: Nutrition Australia (no, really)



Considerations and Limitations:

  • Mat doesn't include fiber, as he doesn't regard it as 'essential.' You can watch his explanation or read this from Mark Sisson. (Mat did go back and include fiber back into the calculations, and the results were much the same).
  • He didn't take into account phytonutrients, flavonoids and other antioxidants that can't be reliably measured.... The rabbit hole is deep on this, but Mat's work is more concerned with what is 'essential' and what we can reliably measured.
  • Mat could not get the data on the following: Essential fatty acids (all), as well as Chloride, chromium, cobalt, iodine, molybdenum, nickel, and sulfur.
  • In order to be conservative, Mat got data from grain fed beef which naturally has less nutrients. If he had measured grass fed beef, it would likely have ranked much higher.
  • For the sake of convenience, Mat divided the foods into groups (he examined 7907 different foods). So the number of -0.56 for eggs and dairy is an average of ALL of the foods that he examined in this area (yoghurt, milk, cream, butter, eggs etc), as is the value of -0.70 for vegetables. This would also explain the low nutrient density of the vegetable category, yes kale is super nutrient dense, but the category gets weighed down by the iceberg lettuces of this world - watch the whole presentation for a full breakdown of food groups.

paleo foods


What I found interesting:

  • Organ meats are the most nutrient dense foods. Liver, kidney, heart are all packed with nutrients and should be eaten regularly.
  • The most nutritious cooked grains are already in negative numbers.
  • Wholegrains are quite nutritious in their raw state. However once we cook them, we see much lower nutrient profiling. Previous studies have examined grains in their raw state, this could be why they're considered nutritious. 
  • The LOWEST score for beef is higher than the HIGHEST score for any grain.
  • Mat couldn't find accurate data of essential fatty acids and essential amino acids which would have put muscle meats, fish and organ meats much higher on the scale.
  • Fruit is surprisingly low in nutrient density. It's delicious, yes, but not THAT nutritious. I'll vouch that fruit has a lot more benefits in the form of flavonoids and antioxidants that Mat doesn't measure, so don't write it off yet.
  • Kale isn't just the latest hippie favourite, it's very high on the nutrient density scale.
  • Oysters and other shellfish are cheap and easy nutrient bombs.
  • A 'paleo diet' (meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds) is incredibly nutritious. 


A Final Word

Is this research the holy grail?! Probably not, in ten years time we'll probably find research about the microbiome and and digestibility etc. This data will help us cut through the noise from food companies and get back to eating just eating real food, or JERFing!









Steve is the owner and founder of Barefoot Health. He's studying Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and Chiropractic at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia. 

For nutrition consulting inquiries, go to


Steve Hennessy

Steve is a personal trainer, health coach, and owner of Barefoot Health. He’s currently studying Functional Diagnostic Nutrition and Chiropractic at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.


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