Nutrient Density Part Two

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD

In Part One we discussed the receptors that live in your stomach that help you feel full and satisfied and introduced you to these food groups and their overall calorie density:

  • Vegetables = 100 calories/lb
  • Fruit = 300 calories/lb
  • Whole, intact grains and starchy vegetables = 500 calories/lb (brown rice, oats, wheat, barley, spelt, quinoa, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, etc)
  • Beans = 600 calories/lb
  • Animal products = 1,000 calories/lb (dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, poultry – a large variety and this is an average)
  • Processed complex carbohydrates = 1,400 calories/lb (whole grain breads, whole grain crackers, whole grain cereals, etc)
  • Processed, packaged foods = 2,300 calories/lb
  • Nuts and seeds = 2,800 calories/lb (avocado is included here)
  • Oils and fats = 4,000 calories/lb

Given that we eat 3-5 pound of food each day (1,2), let’s dig a little deeper! If you were to eat 4 pounds of vegetables, you would eat 400 calories. Pretty hard to overeat on vegetables, as they are high in fiber and water which easily signals our stretch receptors for fullness. But can you eat a plate of vegetables and feel satisfied? This is not a trick question – NO! If you’ll remember, there is a second type of receptor called density receptors. These receptors are there to ensure survival and sense the caloric density of a meal. Eating only 400 calories a day wouldn’t get you very far so these receptors are to be sure you eat enough.

Moving up this scale, fruit is 300 calories per pound. Fruit juice and dried fruit are not included in this number given that fruit juice lacks fiber and dried fruit lacks water – the 2 vital nutrients that give a food volume and nutrient density per pound. One cup of grapes is 110 calories while ¼ cup raisins is 130. Which would you be more likely to overeat? Because the raisins have a smaller volume, that’s the more likely choice. Wanting more has very little to do with will power or self control; remember you are physiologically and psychologically driven to eat a certain amount of food, 3-5 pounds per day. When you eat you want volume, it’s just a matter of choosing foods that are high in nutrient density and lower in calorie density. Dried fruit can be a great sweet treat or a way to add texture and flavor to foods, but for sake of discussion, it’s an important distinction.

Whole intact grains means as the grain comes out of the ground, before processing or grinding in any way. Examples include brown rice, oats, wheat berries (the whole kernal of wheat before ground to flour), barley, bulgur, etc. Whole grain pasta would also be included, due the fact that when it’s cooked, it absorbs water and expands. Refined flour pastas would not be included here; they lack fiber and would be classified as processed foods in this list.

A bit farther down the list you see processed complex carbohydrates, which begs explaining at this point. This category is for whole grain breads, whole grain cereals and whole grain crackers. While they are a whole grain, they will be more calorie dense. One cup of cooked brown rice (a whole intact grain) is 200 calories while 1 cup of whole grain flour is close to 400-500 calories. See the difference? To explain this idea further, you could take a cup of cornmeal at 400 calories and add it to 4 cups of boiling water to make polenta. That cup of cornmeal absorbs water and expands and becomes more nutrient dense rather than calorie dense.

I don’t wish to bad-mouth any of these food groups (that’s not what I do!) and whole grain breads can be a great choice. With all the confusion about bread, let’s see things as they are. If I had whole grain toast with breakfast, a sandwich for lunch (made with 2 slices of whole grain bread) and a whole grain roll with dinner, my overall calorie density would be greater than if I had a piece of whole grain toast for breakfast, brown rice for lunch and a sweet potato for dinner. The key here would be to choose foods from the groups listed as more nutrient dense more often and foods listed as more calorie dense less often.

Beans have 600 calories per pounds and I dare anyone to eat 4 pounds of beans and want to live to tell about it. Enough said. Therein lies the key: the amount of fiber and water inherent in these first four foods groups prevents overeating. The stretch receptors in your stomach will signal fullness. I do want to make a note about the higher fat items like nuts, seeds, oils and fats: we recommend you use them! Please don’t let this scale deter you from experiencing the health benefits as well as satisfaction that comes with including these in your meals. In Part Three, we will discuss how to build a meal that will satisfy both types of receptors while keeping nutrient density high and calorie density low to manage weight and prevent and treat chronic disease. See you soon!



1. Barbara Rolls, The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

2. “A Common Sense Approach to Sound Nutrition,” Jeff Novick, RD, accessed October 12th, 2013,