Nutrient-Dense Foods: Getting the Best of Each Bite

How do you decide which foods your child should have? One way is by selecting foods with high nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods are important for tackling feeding problems and malnutrition in children.

Nutrient density refers to the amount of beneficial nutrients in a food, in proportion to its volume, weight or energy content. Nutrient-dense foods contain a high ratio of essential nutrients to energy. In contrast, energy-dense or “empty calorie” foods contain higher calories and/or fewer nutrients for the same amount of food.

For example, compare wholegrain bread and white bread. A slice of both types of bread contains about 60 kcal. However, a slice of wholegrain bread contains more fibre, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, vitamin B2 and vitamin B3, and less sodium than a slice of white bread. This means that wholegrain bread is more nutrient-dense and more nourishing to the body.

Examples of nutrient-dense foods include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, milk and dairy products, seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, peas, beans, seeds and nuts.

Tackling malnutrition

Some children tend to be picky about their food, eat less of what they should or have other feeding issues. In certain cases, especially when the problem is not addressed early, it can lead to malnutrition problems such as obesity, underweight, wasting, as well as stunting. The National Health & Morbidity Survey 2019 reported 21.8% prevalence of stunting.

A diet focusing on energy-dense foods (e.g. sugary beverages, fried foods) may help these children to regain weight quickly, but not regain their normal physiological or immunological functions. Thus, a thin child may become obese, and yet remain undernourished.

Many overweight children are also stunted, indicating the lack of nutrients required for growth. Weight gain is not the only indicator to determine if a child’s growth is on track and if his/her diet is adequate. Height gain should also be measured.

Therefore, nutrient-dense foods provide sufficient vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients that contribute to the recommended nutrient intake required for optimal growth, while staying within calorie and sodium limits. A child’s diet that prioritises nutrient-dense foods is key to preventing malnutrition and is also a fundamental strategy to remediate any malnutrition problems.

Food for thought

Do note that children with wasting and stunting have different requirements. A child with wasting has low weight-for-height and higher energy needs; thus, he/she could benefit from an energy-dense and nutrient-dense diet. Meanwhile, a child with stunting has low height-for-age and does not necessarily require more energy; thus, an energy-dense diet could lead to obesity if given to him/her. If you have any concerns about your child’s health and growth, please consult a paediatrician to identify the problem and take further action.

Make the wise choice

This table helps us see that both drinks have an equivalent energy density, but milk has a higher nutrient density compared to sugarcane juice. A glass of milk contains more protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and vitamins than a glass of sugarcane juice, while providing almost similar amounts of calories.

Nutrient-dense foods give your children the best out of each bite, and every nutritious bite counts at their young age. In our effort to fight malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, selecting nutrient-dense foods is a crucial step to complement other healthy practices – balanced and moderate food intake, varied diet and regular growth monitoring.

An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.

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