You’ve probably heard the term ’empty calories’ — when you are consuming calories with no nutritional value. Often people use the term when talking about iceberg lettuce or beer or cookies. There’s an important technical term in the science of nutrition that explains this concept much better and how it affects your body: nutrient density.

Cutting back on less nutrient-dense foods is the key to obtaining and maintaining a healthy weight. We all require a certain amount of nutrients to power our bodies. No matter what, to be healthy, we need these nutrients.

Calories and nutrients

Calories, or actually kilocalories, are the measure of energy in food. When you eat, you are taking in potential energy counted in calories. The ratio of calories to nutrients is the nutrient density.

One common example is the potato chip vs. the potato. Because there are fewer nutrients per calorie in a serving of potato chips than in a serving of potato, the chips are less nutrient dense than the potato.

The key to your weight

So when it comes to weight management, eating more nutrient-dense foods means taking in more nutrients and fewer calories. Nutrition coach Dr. Ellen Glovsky of Northeastern University explains:

So I can get those by consuming more energy — more energy than I am burning in a day, which would cause me to gain weight. Or I can get those nutrients by consuming fewer calories, in which case I’m going to lose weight.

Thinking about and choosing nutrient-dense foods is a key ingredient to eating healthier.