While there’s no standardized definition for the term, nutrient density refers to the concentration of nutrients within a specified amount of food. Oftentimes, nutrient density is used to compare foods of equal calories. For example, when compared to a 100-calorie serving of candy, a 100-calorie serving of yogurt has a wider spectrum of nutrients. Yogurt is mainly composed of protein, carbohydrates, fats (if whole milk), and calcium. It might also be fortified with vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin D. On the other hand, candy is a rich source of sugar (carbohydrates) with no other nutrients alongside it.
So nutrient density is key for health, right?
Nutrient density can be a helpful concept for dancers looking to build a meal plan that supports their elevated needs as athletes. It supports the inclusion of a broad spectrum of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). It gets us thinking about how food can provide functional support- enhancing energy, supporting injury prevention and injury recovery, and improving immunity, just to name a few.
But too often, nutrient density is used to categorize foods with labels like “good” and “bad” or “healthy”/”unhealthy.” In the process, many foods are vilified and eating those deemed “bad” and “unhealthy” becomes an experience flooded with stress and food guilt. Clean eating lifestyles are a culprit; exacerbating this verbiage by setting extreme standards like
- Eating only minimally processed foods, and
- Avoiding all processed food (we know that processed foods are very misunderstood- here’s why).
Health is multifaceted with diet being only a small fraction of it. So, it’s important to understand that even foods not deemed nutrient dense can be part of a healthy lifestyle. Arguably, all foods have nutrients, even candy.
You’re ridiculous Rachel! Candy is unhealthy!
Let’s break it down: sugar is a carbohydrate and carbohydrates are nutrients that provide our body with energy. Therefore, sugar has one role in our body: energy. Energy is a great thing. However, an influx of energy (from a concentrated source like soda or candy) spikes our blood sugar. This spike is soon followed by an influx of hormones (ie. insulin) which under normal conditions, causes a sudden crash in energy.
These facts don’t translate to “candy is bad and you are bad for eating it.” Rather, these facts explain that candy, as a concentrated source of sugar, will be less supportive of sustaining your energy for prolonged performance. Instead of avoiding candy at all costs, you can learn to incorporate it at times when:
- It’s the most accessible option for energy.
- You need a source of quick energy (such as to get through the final 15 minutes of a 3-hour performance).
- You simply desire something sweet and want to honor that craving.
Eating only candy will not offer your body the necessary nutrients it needs for anabolic growth. Eating a variety of foods is needed to obtain a spectrum of nutrients that supports metabolic functioning. Including candy (if it’s something you enjoy) within a meal plan that also includes an abundance and variety of foods like grains, legumes, and produce, is encouraged.
But why not aim for nutrient-dense options when it’s available?
If it’s an option, then go for it! In regard to our candy example, you can increase the nutrient density by including it alongside other nutrient-dense options (perhaps adding some chocolate or ice cream to the mix- both come packaged with nutrients like protein and fat).
Or, you can try a healthified sweet treat (beware though… a common tactic of diet culture is to suggest healthified versions of foods commonly deemed less nutrient dense (chickpeas in brownies, anyone?) And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with boosting the protein and fiber content of your dessert, realize that enjoying the real deal will play a major role in your ability to feel satisfied.
So what should I prioritize?
Start with food neutrality. You can learn more about this topic here. Also, begin using The Healthy Dancer Food Flexibility Algorithm. Here’s an article that dives into the algorithm with a food commonly deemed less nutrient dense: breakfast cereals.
Because of the prevalence of dancer diet culture, it’s likely that the topic of nutrient density will continue to be used in the context of vilifying foods to the point of restriction. But remember, restricting foods, especially those often deemed less-nutrient dense (like sweets), often backfires.