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How To Choose Nutrient Dense Foods vs Calorie Dense Foods

There is a difference between Nutrient dense and Calorie Dense foods; furthermore, by choosing Nutrient Dense foods you are actively becoming Healthier you. Although sometimes used interchangeably, calorie-dense and nutrient-dense have very different meanings. Calorie-dense foods can also provide nutrients, but nutrient-dense foods will provide high levels of nutrients other than calories.

Calorie-Dense Foods

Calorie dense foods, also called energy-dense foods, contain high levels of calories per serving. Although some may be sources of nutrients, they need only to contain many calories in relation to volume to be considered calorie-dense. Some of these foods are contain "empty calories," in that they provide energy from calories without other significant nutritional value. Calorie-dense foods have their place in some diets, particularly those of people who must gain weight. However, most healthy people should avoid calorie-dense foods and beverages.

Sources of Calorie-Dense Foods

Many processed foods are considered calorie-dense, such as cakes, cookies, snacks, doughnuts and candies. Often, they contain high levels of calories with few healthful nutrients. Some "fast foods" also are considered calorie-dense, such as cheeseburgers and fries, because they provide many calories per volume. By choosing foods prepared with low-fat cooking techniques, you can improve the calorie-density of some foods.

Nutrient-Dense Foods

Nutrient-dense foods contain high levels of nutrients, such as protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, but with few calories. These foods provide the most bang for your nutritional buck. They are high-quality and generally are minimally processed. Nutrient-dense foods play an important role in most diets, offering a variety of important properties per serving.

Sources of Nutrient-Dense Foods

Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with nutrients. Berries, melons and some tropical fruits, such as mangoes and papayas, are considered nutrient-dense, as well as dark-green vegetables, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Lean meats are nutrient-dense as well. In addition to protein, beef and pork contain high levels of zinc, iron and B-vitamins. Many whole grains, including quinoa, barley, bulger and oats, are also nutrient-dense, especially ones that have been enriched with added vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron and zinc.

Some examples of Nutrient Dense foods vs Calorie Dense foods include:

Nutrient Dense Foods Include:

Large Apples = 110 calories

Extra Lean Ground Beef (4oz) = 167 calories

Two Slices of 100% whole wheat bread (1oz each) = 138 calories

Roasted Boneless Chicken Breast (3oz) =141calories

Calories Dense Foods Include:

Regular Not Lean Ground Beef (4oz) = 235 calories

Apple Pie (1/8 of pie) = 356 calories

Croissant (2oz) = 231 calories

Friend Chicken Wings (3oz) = 479 Calories

So, how many calories should YOU be eating? How many calories does someone over the age of 50 need to consume each day in order to maintain their current weight- not gain, and not lose?

Green = female, Red = Male

FEMALE MALE Activity Level Calories Needed per Day Activity Level Calories Needed per Day Female Not Physically Active 1,600*

Male Not Physically Active 2,000 – 2,200*

Female Moderately Active 1,800*

Male Moderately Active 2,200 – 2,400*

Female Active 2,000 – 2,200*

Male Active 2,400 – 2,800*

To answer that question, check out the current dietary guidelines on caloric intake by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

*These caloric recommendations are general dietary guidelines. Each person’s caloric needs are specific to the individual. Please consult your physician or a nutritionist with specific questions or for more information.

Not Physically Active (Sedentary): A lifestyle including only the physical activities of independent living.

Moderately Active: A lifestyle including physical activity equivalent to walking 1.5 – 3 miles/day at a 3-4 mph pace, in addition to the activities of independent living.

Active: A lifestyle including physical activity equivalent to walking 3+ miles/day at a 3-4 mph pace, in addition to the activities of independent living.


If you’d like to dig deeper and read more on nutrition for the 50+ population, please visit the National Institute on Aging at:

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