What Is Nutrient Density: Getting the Most from Your Food

In traditional terms, nutrient density might be phrased as getting the best “bang for your buck” – or, in the case of food – the most nutrition from your calories. Nutrient-dense foods contain vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and protein. Nature is good and there are so many options, both animal and plant-based. Example of nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, full-fat dairy products, wild-caught seafood, grass-fed meats, pastured eggs, legumes, and nuts. Processed foods, on the other hand, tend to bear little weight on the nutrient density scale relative to their natural food counterparts.

Is Nutrient Density Good or Bad?

It’s good! Nutrient density is about getting value from food and making the most of your calorie allowance. Think of nutrient density vs. empty calories. Which would you choose?

  • A lollipop with 50 calories, almost all from added sugars.
  • An apple with 50 calories, most from natural sugars and fiber, with a sound helping of vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.

Both lollipops and apples can be sugary snacks, but one is clearly more nutrient dense than the other: the apple! (It’s no coincidence that the better of the two comes from nature, the other from a factory.)

What Nutrient Density Really Means

There are effectively two definitions. One promotes low-calorie options rich in vitamins and minerals. The other lauds higher-calorie options inasmuch as they provide nutrients like fiber (carbohydrates), essentially fatty acids (fats), and essential amino acids (protein).

The Traditional Definition

The traditional definition of nutrient density favors calorie-counting with attention to micronutrients. Micronutrients are your vitamins and minerals: vitamin C, vitamin B12, iron, magnesium, and so many more. They are not considered caloric and have benefits disproportionate to their small quantities. However, we must be careful not to ignore the value of macronutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and protein. A food can have a high calorie count yet be full of fiber, healthy fats, and several grams of protein – nutrients needed to support digestive health, cognitive function and muscle growth, just to name a few.

A More Balanced Definition

If nutrient density is measured traditionally, low-calorie plant milks, including nut milks, that are little more than water emulsions get an A+++. They are low in calories and typically fortified with vitamins (fortification is not as great as it sounds, believe us). The problem is, calories are a measure of energy; therefore, such emulsions are still missing vital sources of energy. For example, fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient, but also essential for a plethora of physiological functions. Should an almond milk that draws its nutrition from lots of almonds be penalized for possessing a wealth of essential nutrients, signified by a high calorie count? We don’t think so.

In our opinion, the best nutrient-dense options out there are wholesome, natural foods high in both micro- and macronutrients.

Why Is Nutrient Density Important?

Top health organizations have elevated nutrient density to a key dietary measure.

  • The World Health Organization uses nutrient density as a means to rank or classify how beneficial a food is for promoting health and preventing disease. 1
  • In 2013, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics revealed their Nutrient Rich Food Index, which was created by a group of food scientists and healthcare practitioners. This index uses nutrient profiles that have been validated against accepted measures of a healthy diet, such as the Healthy Eating Index created by the USDA. 2

Besides nutrition, foods in their whole, natural form are almost always superior in flavor to their processed counterparts. The addition of fillers, ironically, never adds to a food’s authentic flavor profile. In truth, it only masks it.

Within the realm of plant milks and creamers, Elmhurst is the paradigm for both supreme nutrition and flavor. Thanks to our HydroRelease™ method, our nut milks, for instance, contain up to 4x as many nuts as other leading brands, and no fillers whatsoever. Ever. We promise. Elmhurst’s original plant milks (almond milk, cashew milk, walnut milk, hazelnut milk, and oat milk) contain just nuts or grains, water, salt, a bit of cane sugar, and natural flavor. Unsweetened nut milks attain the maximum level of “simple,” being made with just nuts and water.

Let’s now go a little deeper to see what “4x as many nuts per serving compared to the leading brands” means for our products’ nutrient density profiles. It takes a little simple math to make a big point.

Say you are looking for 5g protein with your breakfast but prefer to avoid dairy. One of the more popular brands gives you 1g of protein per glass at the cost of 60 calories. Now let’s compare this product with Elmhurst Milked Almonds™. Our almond milk delivers 5g protein per serving from 150 calories. You’d need 4-5 glasses of the other product – or 240-300 calories – for the same amount of protein. At the heart of this is nuts per serving. Elmhurst uses 19 almonds per glass; its competitor, between 4 and 5. That’s 4x the nuts, meaning a far more concentrated and nutrient-dense product.

Ways to Improve the Nutrient Density of Your Diet

The best piece of advice we can give is to choose whole, natural foods! Here are some specific ways you can incorporate whole foods into your diet:

  • Drink your leafy greens. It’s challenging to eat well on a good day, let alone during the Holidays! Fortunately, you can find reprieve and reclaim nutrition by juicing veggies or making smoothies with leafy greens and whole food fats like avocado, nuts, or seeds.
  • Snack on veggies. 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetable daily will help you achieve a nutrient-dense diet. To fit all of these in, try adding a vegetable snack or two – for example, carrot sticks with hummus or cherry tomatoes with almond butter.
  • Decrease your reliance on filler foods. Filler foods include bread, pasta, crackers, potato chips. They are caloric and provide a solid dose of dietary energy, but not much else, particularly from a micronutrient perspective. Instead “fill up” on nutrient-rich vegetables and healthy fats like nuts (or a good nut milk, such as Elmhurst).
  • Top your meals with nuts and seeds. Nuts like almonds and cashews; and chia, sesame, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds make terrific nutrient-dense toppings. They’re easily added to everything from salads, to dinner portions, to your breakfast eggs.
  • Eat an additional serving of vegetables with every meal. Try building your meals around vegetables as opposed to the carbohydrate or protein options. Aim for a quarter to half your plate to be filled up with vegetable content.
  • Change your breakfast. Breakfast may be a lost opportunity for critical nourishment. Consider swapping out the toast for cereal or oatmeal infused with nutrient-rich Elmhurst Milked Almonds™ and many more.
  • Incorporate protein. From energy to blood glucose regulations, protein is important and should be consumed with every meal. You don’t have to depend on meat or dairy. There are plenty of vegan protein sources including beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Also consider a dairy-free smoothie as a snack or meal replacement. You can add 5g plant-based protein to your blended concoction using a single cup of Elmhurst Unsweetened Milked Almonds. You’d need 32oz (equivalent to a full carton of Elmhurst) of Califia, Silk, Blue Diamond, or Pacific unsweetened almond milk to achieve the same protein count. That’s a big smoothie!
  • Color is key. Artificial color may not be trusted, but natural color – for instance, the red pigment of a tomato (from lypocene) – can be a code for good things. Turmeric, pomegranate, beetroot, spinach, and kale are richly colored foods that, probably not by coincidence, have high antioxidant levels.

Why Choose Elmhurst Plant-Based Milks?

While natural foods low in calories are healthy (think fruits and vegetables), most commercialized foods low in calories are not – and certainly do not offer the biggest bang for your buck. To achieve their reduced calorie counts, such foods are often heavily processed and boast long ingredient lists, deviating from their true selves.

This is where Elmhurst differs from conventional nut milks, oat milk, and plant-based creamers. Only Elmhurst has a technology, HydroRelease™, that transforms the nut, grain, or seed to a creamy, concentrated beverage with all of its nutrients fully preserved.

Some of the results of this process:

Check out Elmhurst’s full range of plant milks, Barista Editions, and oat creamers: each uniquely concentrated upon true nutrient – and flavor – density.


  1. Wikipedia. Nutrient density 2019; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nutrient_density. Accessed August 1, 2019, 2019.
  2. Drewnowski A. Defining nutrient density: development and validation of the nutrient rich foods index. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2009;28(4):421s-426s.