Why You Probably Want to be Eating More Nutrient Dense Foods

sarah cuff Superfoods for Runners 4 Comments

Here on the Eat 2 Run blog I find myself talking a lot about performance nutrition. However in seminars and workshops, I often begin by presenting the basic premise we might apply to our daily food selection that will help us to build stronger, healthier bodies more resilient to injury. Because truth be told, it really is what we eat on a daily basis that makes arguably the biggest impact on our running performance.

When I was preparing to run my marathon last November, I’d been paying close attention to my daily nutrition for months – drinking green smoothies like they were going out of style, implementing the anti-inflammatory protocol full-force and eating plenty of nutrient dense foods. Things were going well, I’d been having great workouts and was feeling strong.

But as luck would have it I managed to sprain a rib only 2 days before I was supposed to run my marathon. The doctor told me lay low for 6 weeks, there’d be other marathons. And so I accompanied hubby to LA so he could at least run, meanwhile throwing myself a pity party and tossing any type of pre-race prep out the window. For 2 days I ate whatever, drank some wine, did not hydrate well and did not implement any of my usual pre-race ergogenic aides such as espresso shots or beet juice.

Despite being in severe pain I changed my mind last minute and chose to race my marathon on race day (full story here). And get this, I ran that race in the fastest time I’ve ever run a marathon to date. A new PR / PB, crossing in 3:30:31. How could this possibly have happened?!!

I’m convinced it was my previous months upon months of eating such great nutrient dense foods and avoiding nutrient-poor foods that built me such a strong foundation so that, despite being injured, in pain and forgoing any “proper” pre-race protocol, I was still able to run a great marathon. Call it what you will, I’ve always sworn by the power of a foundation rich in nutrient dense foods – but now even more so.

A nutrient dense food is simply one that contains the most vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients per calorie. So what are the nutrient dense foods we want to be eating more of? I look to a list called the ANDI scale (aggregate nutrient density index) for direction on which foods to include more of in my nutritional habits. Created by Dr. Joel Fuhrman, the ANDI scale ranks foods from 1 to 1000 – the higher the score, the more nutrient dense the food.

Keep in mind we are not meant to eat ONLY nutrient dense foods, but simply to include MORE of them in our daily nutrition habits (as a nutritionist who has seen plenty of ‘diet journals’ I can tell you that most of us are not eating enough nutrient dense foods!!). Because nutrient dense foods are also low in calories, they don’t necessarily provide us the fats, carbohydrates and proteins we need as runners to fuel our runs or build strong muscles. But they are absolutely key in reducing inflammation, helping with the recovery process and keeping us healthy (not to mention feeling more energized and looking younger).

So what foods are the most nutrient dense? Here is a list of some popular foods and their nutrient density acceding to Dr. Fuhrman, beginning with the most nutrient-dense foods available to us:

  • kale – 1000
  • collard greens – 1000
  • bok choy – 865
  • spinach – 707
  • arugula – 604
  • romaine – 510
  • cocoa (dry powder, unsweetened) – 518


  • basil, fresh – 475
  • parsley, fresh – 474
  • spearmint, fresh – 457
  • brussels sprouts – 490
  • carrots – 458
  • cabbage – 434
  • red peppers 420
  • broccoli – 340
  • cauliflower – 315
  • bell peppers – 265
  • mushrooms – 238
  • asparagus – 205
  • ginger – 200
  • tomato – 186
  • strawberries – 182
  • sweet potato – 181
  • blueberries – 132
  • iceburg lettuce – 127
  • grapes – 119
  • pomegranates – 119
  • cantaloupe – 118
  • onions – 109


  • orange – 98
  • cucumber – 87
  • sesame seeds – 74
  • lentils – 72
  • peaches – 65
  • sunflower seeds – 64
  • kidney beans – 64
  • pineapple – 54
  • apple – 53
  • peanut butter – 51
  • corn – 45
  • oatmeal – 36
  • shrimp – 36
  • salmon – 34
  • eggs – 31
  • milk – 31
  • walnuts – 30
  • bananas – 30
  • whole wheat bread – 30
  • almonds – 28
  • avocado – 28
  • brown rice – 28
  • white potato – 28
  • yogurt – 28
  • chicken breast – 24
  • ground beef – 21
  • cheddar cheese – 11
  • apple juice – 11
  • olive oil – 10
  • ice cream – 9
  • corn chips – 7
  • cola – 1

Really, the above list should just point out to you that there are a very select few foods that are extremely nutrient dense (they fall on the upper half of the scale, between 500 to 1000, bolded font in the list above) – and we’d do well to incorporate more of them. Specifically, they are leafy greens – we need to eat more leafy greens. You can see by these scores why some people find their daily green smoothies to be reinvigorating and life changing (such as Chris Cochran does) – click here for the recipe for Tropical Green Smoothie!

Beyond that, from 100 to 500 (regular font in the list above), we’d do well to incorporate more veggies and berries into our daily habits in general. And from there on in (italicized above) we’re looking at many of the foods we normally do eat (which for the most part is totally okay, as long as we’re also eating our nutrient dense foods!!).

My hope is that this helps you choose which foods you might wish to eat a few more of in your daily nutritional habits. I know that doing so has made a huge positive impact in my own personal running experiences, as well as in many of my clients and workshop participants running performances!

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running,

Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist
Run Coach
Therapuetic Coach

Comments 4

  1. Not sure that food will make you run faster, at least not in my opinion, no matter how dense the nutrients. Probably, unlike any time before, because your Dr. told you not to run, you rested before your marathon and that is why you had such a good result. People always under estimate the power of taper and rest. You only get better when you rest after beating yourself up training. I am a Nutritional Consultant and honestly, I would like to believe that great food would make me faster however – can not really swallow that (if you get my point)

    1. Post

      Aw haha, no food will not directly make you run faster (unless we’re talking caffeine or beet juice here). But eating good clean nutrient dense foods does build a strong healthy body that was able to train consistently and therefore was ready to race despite said sprained rib. I typically do rest the 2 days prior to a marathon – that was nothing new, and trust me, definitely have the taper down pat many marathons ago. Great food only makes one run faster because it helps with recovery and health to allow one to train consistently. And in the end, consistent training is where it’s at. Boom. Cheers.

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