Not all food is made the same.
While some foods are incredibly high in nutrients, others are just empty calories and even harmful to our health.
This article takes a look at some of the most nutritious foods available.
And if you think that only means fruits and vegetables, then you’d be wrong.
Here are 12 of the most nutrient dense foods in the world.
Crammed full of nutrients, if a “superfood” truly exists, then we have to give that recognition to liver.
Whether it’s beef, pork or chicken liver, all are incredibly rich in protein in addition to vitamins and minerals.
Here are the nutritional values of beef liver per 100g (1):
- Vitamin B12: 1176% RDA
- Copper: 714% RDA
- Vitamin A: 634% RDA
- Riboflavin: 201% RDA
- Niacin: 88% RDA
- Pantothenic Acid: 71% RDA
- Folate: 63% RDA
- Selenium: 52% RDA
- Phosphorus: 50% RDA
- Iron: 36% RDA
- Zinc: 35% RDA
- Manganese: 18% RDA
- Potassium: 10% RDA
As can be seen, liver is loaded with nutrition; it’s the most nutritious animal food in the world.
Liver also contains smaller amounts of magnesium, calcium, and vitamins C, E, and K.
How Often Should We Eat Liver?
Notably, liver contains vitamin A in such a high amount that we can actually experience hypervitaminosis A (toxicity) if we eat it too often (2).
Eating liver approximately once per week is enough, and it’s a great way to help ensure sufficient micronutrient intake.
Liver is also simple to make; just fry it in butter with some onions for a quick and easy meal.
For those who might not know, cacao comes from the seeds of a fruit (3).
Discovered centuries ago in ancient Mexico, chocolate now enjoys popularity throughout the world.
A point often overlooked by many is that cacao—and chocolate—are incredibly healthy.
But not all chocolate is made the same; you should aim for at least 85% cacao by weight. Pure cacao powder is also beneficial.
Here are the nutrients we can find in cacao per 100g (4):
- Manganese: 192% RDA
- Copper: 189% RDA
- Magnesium: 125% RDA
- Iron: 77% RDA
- Phosphorus: 73% RDA
- Zinc: 45% RDA
- Potassium: 44% RDA
- Selenium: 20% RDA
- Riboflavin: 14% RDA
- Calcium: 13% RDA
- Niacin: 11% RDA
The Benefits of Cacao
The nutrient density of cacao is certainly impressive; as you can see above, it contains almost every nutrient in the book.
However, that’s far from all.
Cacao also contains significant amounts of health-protective polyphenols that have extensive research-backed health benefits:
- Cacao products exert anti-inflammatory properties and positively modulate inflammatory markers involved in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) (5).
- Animal studies show that cacao polyphenols may prolong LDL-oxidation time, increase HDL, and decrease triglyceride levels (6).
- Cacao has several beneficial mechanisms of action on the brain. These include playing a role in the inhibition of neuronal death and inducing positive mood (7).
Eggs are probably the most nutritionally complete food in the world.
In short, an egg is a real-food version of a multi-vitamin and contains a neverending list of nutrients.
So, let’s take a look – here are the nutrients in 1 single egg (8):
- Selenium: 23% RDA
- Riboflavin: 14% RDA
- Vitamin B12: 11% RDA
- Phosphorus: 10% RDA
- Pantothenic Acid: 7% RDA
- Folate: 6% RDA
- Iron: 5% RDA
- Vitamin A: 5% RDA
- Vitamin B5: 5% RDA
- Zinc: 4% RDA
- Vitamin B6: 4% RDA
- Vitamin D: 4% RDA
- Calcium: 3% RDA
- Copper: 3% RDA
While these numbers may appear small, remember that this is for just one egg — if you eat several then they add up.
Besides this, eggs provide the most bio-available protein of all food and they’re high in healthy fats.
Further Benefits of Eggs
- Eggs also contain a range of antioxidant compounds, with two of the most important being lutein and zeaxanthin. These antioxidants help protect our eyesight as we age, and reduce the risks of macular degeneration (9, 10, 11).
- The nutrient choline is present in eggs. It’s crucial to our health, but many people have a deficiency in recent times. Choline helps protect against many adverse conditions such as diabetes and DNA damage (12, 13).
Ideally, look for pasture-raised eggs as they contain a better nutritional profile.
However, if affordability is an issue, then any egg is better than none.
Despite most people calling avocados a vegetable, they are a fruit—and they’re the most nutritionally dense fruit around.
Avocados play a prominent role in Mexican food, and they’re delicious and so adaptable.
For one thing, you can use them to make guacamole, a tasty side dish that’s full of nutrients.
Here is the nutritional profile per standard avocado (14):
- Vitamin K: 53% RDA
- Folate: 41% RDA
- Vitamin C: 33% RDA
- Vitamin B5: 28% RDA
- Potassium: 28% RDA
- Vitamin B6: 26% RDA
- Vitamin E: 21% RDA
- Copper: 19% RDA
- Niacin: 17% RDA
- Magnesium: 15% RDA
- Riboflavin: 15% RDA
- Manganese: 14% RDA
- Phosphorus: 10% RDA
As we can see, avocados are full of micronutrients, so it’s not surprising that they have a number of health benefits.
Why Avocados Are So Healthy
- Aside from the nutrient density, avocados also provide ample amounts of healthy fats, most significantly oleic acid (15).
- Avocados are a significant source of fibrous carbohydrate – and contain greater amounts of fiber than most grains (16).
- Another interesting point is that they have cardiovascular benefits. In a controlled trial, a group of people eating one avocado per day experienced a decrease in the majority of cardiovascular risk factors (17).
5. Wild Alaskan Salmon
The nutritional value of salmon is certainly impressive, containing approximately 25g protein and 2.5g omega-3 per 100g.
Regarding the micronutrient profile, salmon looks like this on a 100g basis (18):
- Selenium: 67% RDA
- Vitamin B12: 51% RDA
- Niacin: 50% RDA
- Vitamin B6: 47% RDA
- Riboflavin: 29% RDA
- Phosphorus: 26% RDA
- Pantothenic Acid: 19% RDA
- Thiamin: 18% RDA
- Potassium: 18% RDA
- Copper: 16% RDA
- Magnesium: 9% RDA
It’s clearly one of the most nutritious fish. However, not all salmon is made the same.
Wild Salmon vs. Farmed Salmon
- Firstly, farmed salmon from the Atlantic has a number of safety concerns relating to the overuse of antibiotics and pesticides. Additionally, animal studies even link regular consumption to an increase in conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes (19, 20, 21).
- On the other hand, farmed salmon also positively benefits heart health by increasing HDL levels and reducing triglycerides (22).
Salmon has substantial health benefits, but pollutants from fish farms are a potential problem.
The best of both worlds? Wild Alaskan salmon.
As this fish comes from the clean waters of Alaska, it offers all the benefits without the drawbacks.
You can also find some great salmon recipes here.
Shellfish as a whole are one of the best examples of nutrient dense foods, but oysters are truly impressive.
Oysters offer a significant amount of protein at 30g per 100g, and they contain the following vitamins and minerals (23):
- Zinc: 605% RDA
- Vitamin B12: 324% RDA
- Copper: 223% RDA
- Selenium: 91% RDA
- Vitamin D: 80% RDA
- Iron: 37% RDA
- Manganese: 18% RDA
- Phosphorus: 14% RDA
- Magnesium: 12% RDA
Despite the impressive nutrient profile, not many people eat oysters these days.
So, if you’re not sure on what to do with them and need some inspiration, here are some ideas.
- Five Fresh Oyster Recipes: a range of tastes with five differing flavors, ranging from gin and tonic to spicy chilli.
- Oysters Rockerfeller: baked oysters with bacon, butter, cream cheese and garlic — how can it not taste great?
- Grilled Oysters: a simple recipe featuring grilled oysters basted in garlic-herb butter.
Some people might be surprised when they see steak on a list of the most nutritious foods.
After all, we’re told to avoid red meat and concentrate on fruit, vegetables, whole grains, chicken, and fish.
Despite steak being none of these, it’s arguably much higher in nutrient density.
In particular, steak provides an ample supply of protein, healthy fats, and a range of nutrients.
Here is the nutrient profile for one 200g piece of steak (26):
- Niacin: 72% RDA
- Vitamin B6: 70% RDA
- Selenium: 64% RDA
- Zinc: 52% RDA
- Vitamin B12: 45% RDA
- Phosphorus: 45% RDA
- Iron: 22% RDA
- Potassium: 21% RDA
- Riboflavin: 16% RDA
- Vitamin B5: 15% RDA
- Magnesium: 12% RDA
This goes a long way to demonstrate that while some vegetables are great, they’re far from the only sources of vitamins and minerals.
It’s time for the first vegetable on the list, and that vegetable lives in the sea.
Seaweed is one of the most nutritious vegetables around, but it’s criminally ignored by the masses.
In the first place, the nutrient profile of seaweed is reasonable (27):
- Vitamin K: 82% RDA
- Folate: 45% RDA
- Magnesium: 30% RDA
- Calcium: 17% RDA
- Iron: 16% RDA
- Riboflavin: 9% RDA
- Zinc: 8% RDA
Not quite as impressive as the other foods, but seaweed has some unique properties that no other food can match.
Health Benefits of Seaweed
- Firstly, seaweed is the single biggest dietary source of iodine. This compound is a hugely important mineral that many people are deficient in, and it can make or break health.
- Secondly, seaweed contains some phytonutrients such as fucoidan that no other foods have. These antioxidants have positive effects on everything from cancer and insulin secretion to cardiovascular health (28, 29, 30, 31).
Moving back to land, spinach is another of the most nutrient dense vegetables.
It’s jam-packed with vitamins and minerals per 100g, as you can see below (32):
- Vitamin K: 604% RDA
- Vitamin A: 188% RDA
- Folate: 49% RDA
- Vitamin C: 47% RDA
- Manganese: 45% RDA
- Potassium: 16% RDA
- Riboflavin: 11% RDA
- Calcium: 10% RDA
- Vitamin E: 10% RDA
- Vitamin B6: 10% RDA
And just to point out: you get all these nutrients for only 23 calories of food.
In contrast, with grains like brown rice and whole grain bread, it takes over 350 calories to get a similar amount of nutrients (33).
Spinach also has some solid research behind it showing that it can help protect against a variety of chronic conditions.
- A randomized, controlled trial indicates that spinach decreases arterial stiffness and reduces blood pressure in healthy adults. Thus, it may be a useful food for CVD prevention (34).
- In animal studies, dietary spinach increases plasma antioxidant activity and reduces oxidative stress and DNA damage (35).
- Spinach contains bio-active compounds believed to have anti-carcinogenic properties (36).
Back at sea once more, sardines are another nutrient dense fish.
They are full of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and calcium from the small bones they contain.
Here are the vitamins and minerals they contain per 100g (37):
- Vitamin B12: 149% RDA
- Selenium: 75% RDA
- Vitamin D: 68% RDA
- Phosphorus: 49% RDA
- Calcium: 28% RDA
- Niacin: 26% RDA
- Iron: 16% RDA
- Riboflavin: 13% RDA
- Potassium: 11% RDA
- Magnesium: 10% RDA
- Vitamin E: 10% RDA
It’s worth remembering that an imbalanced ratio of omega 3 to 6 increases risk for virtually every chronic disease in the book (38).
This makes it especially important to eat some fatty fish each week; the vast majority of people are consuming far too much omega-6.
There are all kinds of different mushrooms in the world.
As well as tasting delicious, they all have a plethora of benefits too.
One of the kings of the mushroom world is the shiitake mushroom.
Here are the nutrients it provides per 100g (39):
- Copper: 45% RDA
- Vitamin B5: 36% RDA
- Selenium: 35% RDA
- Manganese: 10% RDA
- Riboflavin: 10% RDA
- Zinc: 9% RDA
Shiitake mushrooms also contain smaller amounts of minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and others.
Furthermore, research is growing by the day on the medicinal properties of mushrooms. Specifically, they contain a range of bioactive compounds that we are only just discovering.
Mushroom’s Medicinal Power
First of all, people tend to exaggerate “magical properties” of food.
As a result, we should take claims about mushrooms having miraculous effects with a pinch of salt.
However, there is some promising research behind them.
Personally, I love nuts, but almonds aren’t my favorite — that designation goes to macadamia.
However, looking at the nutrient profile and the various compounds they contain, almonds are the king of nuts.
Full of healthy fats, they also contain the following vitamins and minerals per 100g (44):
- Vitamin E: 131% RDA
- Manganese: 114% RDA
- Magnesium: 67% RDA
- Riboflavin: 60% RDA
- Copper: 50% RDA
- Phosphorus: 48% RDA
- Calcium: 26% RDA
- Zinc: 21% RDA
- Iron: 21% RDA
- Potassium: 20% RDA
- Niacin: 17% RDA
- Thiamin: 14% RDA
- Folate: 12% RDA
Just a handful (1 ounce/28g) in a day is a great way to get a wide range of micronutrients.
Further Benefits of Almonds
- Almonds contain various antioxidants such as resveratrol, quercetin, and catechin. These compounds are linked to reduced risk of several chronic diseases and they have protective effects on the heart (45).
- Low levels of HDL is a huge risk factor for cardiovascular disease, yet even low-dose almonds (10g) substantially raise HDL levels (46).
The Most Nutrient Dense Foods
Generally speaking, the most nutrient dense foods come from animals and the sea.
Perhaps this is why so many people enjoy success with diets like paleo and the ketogenic style of eating?
By the same token, some plant foods such as leafy greens, nuts, and sea vegetables can also be reasonably nutritious.
Given this, we should ask why dietary guidelines emphasize grains and high-sugar fruits so much.
If dietary guidance also focused on nutrient density, maybe we’d all be a little healthier.