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 we don’t need to eat tofu.

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 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 goes on a nice rant about our food system and those health professionals who still push ‘heart healthy wholegrains,’ ‘low fat’ ‘sodium free’ and ‘cholesterol free’ foods, and went about finding what was truly nutritious. Here’s what he found:

The Nutrient Density Food List

1. Organ Meats and Oils  17.05

2. Herbs and Spices  16.78

3. Nuts and Seeds  10.28

4. Cacao (chocolate)  7.97

5. Fish and Seafood  1.16

6. Pork  0.69

7. Beef  0.31

8. Eggs and Dairy  -0.56



Organ meats, gruesome and nutritious.

9. Vegetables (raw & unprepared) -0.70

10. Lamb, Veal and Wild Game -1.19

11. Poultry -1.71

12. Legumes (raw and cooked edible) -2.86

13. Processed Meat -3.10


You’re getting everything you need, right here.

14. Vegetables (cooked, blanched, canned, pickled) -4.84

15. Plant fats and Oils -5.41

16. Fruit -5.62

17. Animal Skin and Feet -6.22

18. Grain and Pseudocereal -6.23

19. Refined and Processed Oils -6.43

20. Animal Fats and Oils -6.88

21. Grains -7.04

22. Processed Fruit -8.12


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, essential fatty acids, 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.

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.





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 – you’re not going to eat 200g of nutmeg. But add in turmeric, parsley or basil into for a nutrient booster shot.

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.


Key Takeaways

The LOWEST score for beef is higher than the HIGHEST score for any grain.

Liver, kidney, heart are all packed with nutrients and should be eaten regularly.

The most nutritious cooked grains are already in negative numbers.

Grains can be nutrient dense in their raw state.

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. 

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.

Lastly, we should be abandoning this!


 Source: Nutrition Australia (no, really)



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

Thanks for reading.


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