Nutrient-dense foods are rich in protein, vitamins, and/or minerals yet contain few calories. In addition, they are typically minimally processed. However, many of the lists of nutrient-dense foods found online include fruit, grains, and other items too high in carbs to be included in a keto diet.
Marty Kendall of Optimizing Nutrition has a great list of the most nutrient-dense foods that are also low in carbs.
In this excellent, extremely comprehensive article, Marty discusses how to best calculate nutrient density (ND) and provides ND scores for a number of low-carb/keto foods.
Although there are many nutrient-dense animal foods, the chart below shows that as far as nutrition per calorie is concerned, vegetables – especially leafy green vegetables – actually have the highest ND score.
However, foods such as eggs, fatty fish, and meat should also be considered dietary staples on a low-carb diet because they are rich in high-quality protein and provide valuable nutrients.
Here are 11 of the top nutrient-dense keto foods, their calorie and nutrient profiles, the health benefits these foods may provide, and ideas for including them in your diet.
Sardines are incredibly healthy. Sardines are rich in high-quality protein and several vitamins and minerals. In addition, they are an excellent source of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs).
Unlike most fats, omega-3 PUFAs are essential, meaning they must be consumed in food because your body can’t make them. The long-chain omega-3 PUFAs found in fatty fish like sardines have anti-inflammatory properties and have been linked to improvements in heart health, depression, and weight (2).
Interestingly, there are no human studies looking at the health impact of consuming sardines specifically. However, a 2015 rat study found improvements in inflammation and reversal of insulin resistance, which researchers believe may have beneficial implications in humans (3).
Sardines can be enjoyed in delicious recipes like Grilled Sardines with Olive and Caper Salsa, with avocado in Sardine Stuffed Avocado, in Sardine & Avocado hand Rolls (from the KetoDiet App) or as a salad with cucumbers and tomatoes. In addition, if you don’t have access to fresh sardines, canned sardines can be enjoyed right out of the tin.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (1):
|Fat||11.5 grams, including 1.5 grams omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids|
|Vitamin D||272 IU (68% of the Recommended Daily Intake, or RDI)|
|Niacin||5.2 mg (26% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||8.9 mcg (149% of the RDI)|
|Calcium||382 mg (38% of the RDI)|
|Iron||2.93 mg (16% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||52.7 mcg (75% of the RDI)|
Spinach is rich in beta-carotene, a phytonutrient (literally “plant nutrient”) that your body converts to vitamin A. Beta-carotene and other phytonutrients found in spinach function as antioxidants that help protect your cells from damage and potentially reduce cancer risk (5). Spinach is also a good source of nitrates, which have been shown to improve arterial function and lower blood pressure in adults (6).
In addition, spinach contains thylakoids, compounds that have been found to increase satiety and reduce hunger. In one study, overweight women who took spinach extract reported less hunger and fewer food cravings than women given a placebo (7).
Sautéing spinach in a little butter, coconut oil, or olive oil enhances its flavor and helps maximize the absorption of beta-carotene. Making recipes like Cheesy Grain-Free Spinach Crackers, Perfect Spinach & Feta Omelet or Vegetarian Keto Lasagna is another delicious way to incorporate this healthy vegetable into your diet.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (4):
|Carbohydrate||3.6 grams (of which 2.2 g is fiber and 1.4 g net carbs)|
|Vitamin A (as beta-carotene)||9,376 IU (188% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin C||28 mg (47% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||8.9 mcg (149% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin K1||403 mg (604% of the RDI)|
|Folate||194 mcg (49% of the RDI)|
|Magnesium||79 mg (20% of the RDI)|
Liver deserves its reputation for being a “superfood.” Liver is extremely rich in vitamin A, vitamin B12, and copper, providing well over 100% of the RDI for these nutrients. Liver is also rich in high-quality protein.
What’s more, liver is the best source of choline, a nutrient that like a vitamin in your body. Choline is important for brain health, metabolism, and protection of your cells’ DNA (9). Although the FDA hasn’t established an RDI for choline, it is an essential nutrient that modern diets often don’t provide enough of. In a 2007 study, researchers showed that inadequate choline intake led to muscle and liver damage in individuals with certain genetic profiles (10).
Admittedly, liver is an acquired taste and can be a little daunting to prepare. This easy recipe for 5-Minute Chicken Liver Pate, or Beef & Liver Meatballs and Endives with Liver Pate (from the KetoDiet App) can help you get started. Another way to introduce liver into your keto lifestyle is by eating liverwurst or braunschweiger, which have a milder flavor and don’t require any preparation.
Interestingly, the carb content of raw liver per 100 grams varies among different animals:
- Cod liver: 0 grams
- Turkey liver: 0 grams
- Chicken liver: less than 1 gram
- Veal liver: 3 grams
- Pork liver: 3 grams
- Beef liver: 4 grams
- Goose liver: 6 grams
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces of cooked beef liver (8):
|Vitamin A (as retinol)||31,718 IU (634% of the RDI)|
|Riboflavin||3.4 mg (201% of the RDI)|
|Niacin||17.5 mg (88% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||70.6 mcg (1176% of the RDI)|
|Folate||253 mcg (63% of the RDI)|
|Iron||6.5 mg (36% of the RDI)|
|Zinc||5.3 mg (35% of the RDI)|
|Copper||14.3 mg (714% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||36.1 mcg (52% of the RDI)|
4. Red Bell Peppers
Bell peppers, known botanically as Capsicum annuum, are referred to as capsicum in some countries, including Australia, New Zealand, and India.
Red peppers are very low in calories and an excellent source of vitamin C, especially the red variety, which provides more than 200% of the RDI.
The brightly colored pigments in red, orange, yellow, and green bell peppers provide phytonutrients with high antioxidant power. In addition, red bell peppers are the only food that contains capsanthin. Research suggests that capsanthin may help protect against cancer (12).
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams of red bell pepper/ 3.5 ounces (11):
|Carbohydrate||6.3 grams (of which 2.1 g is fiber and 4.2 g net carbs)|
|Vitamin A (as beta-carotene)||3,131 IU (63% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin C (as beta-carotene)||128 mg (213% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B6 (as beta-carotene)||0.3 mg (15% of the RDI)|
|Folate (as beta-carotene)||46 mcg (11% of the RDI)|
Eggs have been called nature’s perfect food, and with good reason. Eggs contain the highest biological value protein of any whole food, meaning their amino acid composition is the most easily absorbed and used by the body. They’re also well known for being filling and satisfying, making them a great choice for breakfast or any time of day.
In addition, egg yolks are rich in choline and the phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which help protect eye health (14).
What’s more, eating whole eggs may help reduce heart disease risk. In one study of men with metabolic syndrome, consuming a carb-restricted diet with whole eggs led to improved insulin sensitivity, higher HDL levels, and an increase in LDL particle size (15). In addition to being nutrient dense, eggs are inexpensive and versatile. Boil, fry, poach, or scramble them, or prepare them as Spicy Tuna Deviled Eggs, Keto California Eggs Benedict or use the egg yolks to make a batch of Low-Carb Lemon Curd.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (13):
|Vitamin A (as retinol)||487 IU (10% of the RDI)|
|Riboflavin||0.5 mg (28% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||1.3 mcg (22% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||31.7 mcg (45% of the RDI)|
Broccoli provides a number of impressive nutrition benefits yet is very low in calories. It’s especially high in vitamin C and vitamin K1, providing more than 100% of the RDI per serving.
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Broccoli is a member of the Brassica family, along with cauliflower, kale, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Brassica, also known as cruciferous vegetables, are plants that have been credited with anti-cancer activity (17).
One of the compounds responsible for its ability to fight cancer is sulforaphane, which is found mainly in broccoli. This phytochemical has high antioxidant activity that may help protect liver health. A study in men with fatty liver found that those who took high-sulforaphane broccoli extract experienced improvement in liver enzymes and other markers of liver function (18).
Broccoli tastes especially good roasted with seasonings that enhance its flavor, as in these recipes for Low Carb Garlic and Lemon Roasted Broccoli, Low-Carb Cream of Broccoli & Coconut Soup and Easy Chicken Stir-Fry.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (16):
|Carbohydrate||6.6 grams (of which 2.6 g is fiber and 4 g net carbs)|
|Vitamin A (as beta-carotene)||623 IU (12% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin C||89 mg (149% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin K1||102 mcg (127% of the RDI)|
|Folate||63 mcg (16% of the RDI)|
7. Shrimp and Prawns
Shrimp and prawns are popular shellfish in cuisines throughout the world. In addition to being a great source of high-quality protein, shrimp and prawns provide several B vitamins, copper, and zinc, and more than half of the RDI for selenium. Although shrimp and prawns are technically different animals, the terms are often used interchangeably, and their nutritional content is similar.
Like most seafood, shrimp and prawns are rich in iodine, a trace mineral that many people don’t get enough of, depending on the soil content in their geographic area. Iodine is important for brain and thyroid function, and pregnant women and children have been shown to be especially at risk of iodine deficiency (20).
Since shrimp and prawns are very low in fat, they taste best when grilled and combined with healthy fats, such as BBQ Prawn Skewers with Avocado Dip, Keto Spicy Prawn Hand Rolls or Low-Carb Prawn & Noodle Stir-Fry.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces of Shrimp (19):
|Fat||1.1 grams, including .35 grams Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA)|
|Niacin||2.6 mg (13% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||1.5 mcg (25% of the RDI)|
|Iron||3.1 mg (17% of the RDI)|
|Zinc||1.6 mg (10% of the RDI)|
|Copper||0.2 mg (10% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||39.6 mcg (57% of the RDI)|
8. Arugula (Rocket)
Arugula, also known as rocket, is a leafy green with a peppery flavor. Like other dark-green varieties of lettuce, arugula is rich in the fat-soluble vitamins A and K1. It’s also a good source of vitamin C, folate, and several minerals, including calcium.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids found in leafy greens have been shown to protect health in several ways, including improving immune function, helping prevent sun damage, protecting against free radical damage, and reducing cancer risk (22).
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (21):
|Carbohydrate||3.7 grams (of which 1.6 g is fiber and 2.1 g net carbs)|
|Fat||0.7 grams, including .35 grams Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA)|
|Vitamin A (as beta-carotene)||2,373 IU (47% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin C||15 mg (25% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin K1||109 mcg (136% of the RDI)|
|Folate||97 mcg (24% of the RDI)|
|Calcium||160 mg (16% of the RDI)|
|Magnesium||47 mg (12% of the RDI)|
|Potassium||369 mg (11% of the RDI)|
9. Wild Salmon
Salmon is one of the most popular fish in the world because of its delicate flavor, availability, and health profile.
Of all fatty fish, salmon ranks highest in vitamin D, providing nearly 1000 IU per 100-gram portion (24). Salmon is also rich in selenium and one of the best sources of the long-chain omega-3 fats EPA and DHA that help reduce inflammation.
Wild-caught salmon is lower in toxins and higher in most nutrients than farmed salmon, although it is slightly lower in omega-3 PUFAs due to its lower overall fat content. All canned salmon is wild caught.
Salmon is very easy to prepare and tastes great poached, grilled, baked, smoked, or served raw as sashimi. It’s also wonderful when combined with other healthy ingredients, as in this recipe for Salmon Patties with Avocado Dip, Keto & Paleo Salmon Poke Bowl and Healthy Salmon Gravlax.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (23):
|Fat||8.1 grams, including 2.6 grams omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids|
|Vitamin D||988 IU (165% of the RDI) (CHECK)|
|Thiamin||0.3 mg (18% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin K1||109 mcg (136% of the RDI)|
|Riboflavin||0.5 mg (29% of the RDI)|
|Niacin||10.1 mg (50% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B6||0.9 mg (47% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||3 mcg (51% of the RDI)|
|Potassium||628 mg (18% of the RDI)|
|Copper||0.3 mg (16% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||46.8 mcg (67% of the RDI)|
Mushrooms are an edible fungus that’s considered a delicacy in many cultures. There are several varieties, including button, shiitake, portobello, crimini, and porcini – all of which are nutrient dense and provide anti-inflammatory benefits (28).
Mushrooms also seem to help boost immunity. In a study of healthy adults, consuming shiitake mushrooms for four weeks significantly reduced levels of inflammation and improved markers of immune function (29).
Cooking helps bring out the flavor of mushrooms, which pair well with other vegetables and cheese. These Keto Italian Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms with spinach and bell peppers are a satisfying meal with a great nutrition profile. You can also try these Low-Carb Crumbed Portobello Mushrooms or Keto Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (27):
|Carbohydrate||4.1 grams (of which 0.6 g is fiber and 3.5 g net carbs)|
|Fat||0.1 grams, including 2.6 grams omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids|
|Riboflavin||0.5 mg (29%)|
|Niacin||3.8 mg (19% of the RDI)|
|Potassium||448 mg (13% of the RDI)|
|Copper||3 mcg (51% of the RDI)|
|Potassium||628 mg (18% of the RDI)|
|Copper||0.5 mg (25% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||26 mg (37% of the RDI)|
11. Grass-Fed Beef
Beef is extremely popular, and there is no disputing that it’s an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, not all varieties of beef are the same.
When it comes to nutrient density, the best choice is grass-fed beef. In addition to being lower in calories, grass-fed beef is higher in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants than meat from grain-fed livestock (31, 32).
Fortunately, grass-fed beef is widely available in most countries. Moreover, it’s tasty, filling and easy to prepare as steak, burgers, or combined with other nutritious foods, such as Beef, Spinach and Mozzarella One-Pot Bake, Paleo Beef Bourguignon or Healthy Homemade Beef Jerky.
Nutrient Profile per 100 grams/ 3.5 ounces (30):
|Fat||12.7 grams, including 88 mg omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids|
|Niacin||4.8 mg (24% RDI)|
|Vitamin B12||2 mcg (33% of the RDI)|
|Vitamin B6||0.4 mg (18% of the RDI)|
|Folate||253 mcg (63% of the RDI)|
|Iron||2 mg (11% of the RDI)|
|Zinc||4.5 mg (30% of the RDI)|
|Selenium||14.2 mcg (20% of the RDI)|
Take Home Message
Most keto foods are tasty, filling, and nutritious.
However, some provide more nutritional benefits per calorie than others. It’s best to focus on getting plenty of nutrient-dense foods into your diet, especially if you’re trying to lose weight or prevent weight gain.
In addition to providing important vitamins and minerals, these foods may also help fight inflammation, boost immunity, and decrease disease risk.
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