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Building Healthier Diets: The Nutrient-Rich Foods Index

Adam Drewnowski, PhD

Professor, Epidemiology; Director, Center for Public Health Nutrition and Nutritional Sciences Program, University of Washington

In the fight against obesity, we need to be counseling the public on the need to spend less time counting calories and more time making sure that every calorie counts.

The goal of nutrient profiling is to provide “nutrition at a glance.” Not only are current nutrition facts panels complicated, they can create an environment of fear by stressing the avoidance of “bad” nutrients instead of encouraging the selection of good and better foods.

Nutrient profiling

The Nutrient-Rich Foods (NRF) Index was developed from the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans which identified nutrient density as a key concept in diet quality,1,2. It is a science-based, consumer-driven system of food guidance designed to enable individuals to build and enjoy healthier diets by getting the most nutrition from their calories.

The NRF Index uses the science of ranking or classifying foods based on their nutrient composition, assigning each food a unitary score that best reflects its total nutrient quality, and consists of nine beneficial nutrients to encourage and three nutrients to limit. Those to encourage are protein, fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C and E. Those to limit are saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium.

The NRF approach can help people to consume healthier diets and, ultimately, help achieve better health. In our recent study using the NHANES data base, NRF was contrasted with the standard negative approach to nutrition (i.e., stressing nutrients to limit). Accentuating the positive seems to be working. The nutrient-rich diets were associated not only with a higher consumption of whole grains, vegetables and fruits, but also with fewer calories. That nutrient-rich diets are also lower calorie diets has important implications for body mass index, blood pressure, and plasma lipid profiles.

The NRF index can also be used to identify the most affordable nutrient-rich foods. Affordable nutrition means maximizing nutrients per calorie and nutrients per dollar. Among the best sources of important nutrients per dollar are: milk, eggs, pulses and potatoes.3


  • The North American diet is energy rich but nutrient poor.
  • The Nutrient-Rich Foods Index offers consumers plenty of good choices to be made within and among the food groups.
  • Cost is also important: milk, eggs, pulses, and potatoes are among the key affordable nutrient-rich foods.


  1. Drewnowski et al. Nutrient-rich foods: Applying nutrient navigation systems to improve public health. J Food Science 2008;73(9):222-228.
  2. Drewnowski A, Fulgoni VL. Nutrient profiling of foods: creating a nutrient-rich foods index. Nutr Rev 2008;66(1):23-39.
  3. Drewnowski A. Pour des recommandations nutritionnelles réalistes : intégrer la densité nutritionnelle et le prix des aliments. CERIN Bulletin de Cholé-doc n° 113;2009/05-06.

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