Calculating satiety: How to optimise your diet to manage hunger

The reasons we eat more of one food than another are complex.

Your appetite is driven by instincts that ensure your survival rather than helping you get abs or look good naked.

But when you’re hungry, your appetite knows what will enable you to refuel quickly.  Rather than broccoli and chicken breast…


…we reach for our favourite energy dense “comfort foods”.


We develop preferences, unconscious biases and mental narratives to explain why the things we like are good and why the things we don’t like are bad.

Then, we form camps, clustering in subcultures and draw battle lines around all-or-nothing beliefs about food, such as:

  • high/low carb,
  • high/low protein,
  • high/low fat, and
  • carnivore/plant-based.

In reality, all of these factors play a role in whether we consume more food than we need to.

It’s not always black and white.

It can be hard to quantify the relative benefits of the food we eat.

  • Controlled human feeding studies provide limited information due to their short duration and lack of resemblance to how we live and eat in the real world.
  • Nutritional epidemiology has done little to separate bias, ethical convictions and beliefs to identify practically applicable scientific principles of nutrition. It’s hard to validate the observations without large and expensive randomised controlled trials.
  • Discussions about satiety and satiation often get bogged down in complex mechanism theories that are also hard to validate and practically apply in the real world.


But now, with the widespread use of food tracking apps and the advent of big data, we can identify the properties of our food that tend to help us to reduce our food intake without excessive hunger.

big data

In an effort to progress our understanding of satiety, this article details the analysis of more than half a million days of food logs to understand how various parameters of the food we eat (e.g. protein, carbohydrates, fibre, fat, sugar, starch and energy density) influence whether a food or meal will fill us up or leave us hungry and eating more than we need to.

Finally, we detail a novel satiety formula that enables us to rank the foods that are likely to be more satiating vs the ones that are more likely to lead us towards obesity, diabetes and a raft of diet-related metabolic diseases.

As shown in the chart below, the Nutrient Optimiser Satiety Score correlate really nicely with the laboratory data.  It seems we now have a reliable way to rank the foods that will help us eat more (to recover from vigorous exercise) or eat less (to lose body fat).

satiety index correlation

What is satiety?

Satiety is the feeling of fullness that lasts for a period after a meal.

A satiating meal will make you feel full with less energy and stop you feeling hungry for longer.

Quantifying satiety to guide food choices to manage hunger is the holy grail of effective and sustainable weight loss.


Previous investigations

Perhaps the most noteworthy prior study on satiety is a 1995 laboratory experiment undertaken at the University of Sydney  (A Satiety Index of Common Foods, Holt et al 1995) where they fed 1000 kJ of 38 different foods to participants, measured their perceived hunger every fifteen minutes and then how much they ate at a buffet three hours later.

Image result for university of sydney

The resulting satiety index scores for each food are shown below.


  • White bread was given an arbitrary score of 100%, so anything with a score greater than 100% is more satiating per calorie than white bread, and vice versa.
  • The least satiating food was a croissant (with a satiety score of 47).
  • The most satiating food was a plain boiled potato (with a satiety score of 323).

The charts in the study are hard to make sense of, so I re-plotted the data in an effort to understand how each parameter influences satiety.

Energy density

Energy density is the weight of food per calorie.   The data support the view that foods with a low energy density like oranges and grapes are satiating.  They make us feel physically full with less energy.



Foods with more protein tend to be more filling.



This is where things get a little more interesting.  Like many things in nature, the relationships between fat and satiety seems to follow a ‘U-shaped curve’.

  • Low-fat foods are harder to overeat than higher fat foods.
  • Foods that are a mix of fat and carbs (e.g. cake and doughnuts) are less satiating.
  • Higher fat foods like egg and cheese are more satiating than those that are a combination of fat+carb.


Total carbohydrates

  • High carbohydrate low-fat foods are hard to over-consume.
  • Low carb foods are satiating.
  • Again, it’s the fat+carb combo that is hardest to resist.

But rather than just looking at carbohydrates as a whole, we can break out the separate components of fibre, starch and sugars.



Foods with more fibre tend to be harder to overeat.



  • Very high starch, low-fat foods without added fat are hard to overeat.
  • Low starch high protein foods are satiating.
  • Again, it’s the foods that are a mixture of fat and starch that are easy to overeat.


The plain boiled potato was the most satiating in the laboratory study.  People found it filling and hard to eat much at the buffet three hours later.  This could be due to the palatability of plain potato or the effects of resistant starch which forms with when we cook and cool potato.[1] [2]


  • Both high sugar juicy fruit and low sugar foods were found to be satiating.
  • The participants tended to overeat foods with a mixture of fat and sugar (note: the doughnut has a little sugar but lots of starch).


Limitations of the laboratory data

While this controlled laboratory study provides some interesting insights, there is not enough data to confidently deduce a strong relationship to predict the satiety effect of different foods not yet tested in the lab.

Recently, my Nutrient Optimiser partner Alex Zotov stumbled across a massive data set of half a million days of MyFitnessPal food logs that have given us some fascinating insights into what helps people to manage their appetite with less hunger.

Twenty-three years after the Holt satiety study, our hope is that the analysis of this data will help to refine our understanding of satiety.

As you can see from the chart below, here is a strong correlation between the observations from the controlled laboratory satiety data and the Nutrient Optimiser Satiety Index deduced from the free-living food logs.

The data

The data used in the analysis is from a ResearchGate publication MyFitnessPal Food Diary Dataset by Weber, Ingmar & Achananuparp, Palakorn (2016).


MyFitnessPal has more than 150 million users from all over the world and many people make their MyFitnessPal diary public.   The authors ‘scraped’ the public food diaries to compile an anonymised database of 587,187 days of food diaries logged by 9,900 MyFitnessPal users who had been recording for more than two months.

While there are undoubtedly inaccuracies in self-reported data, this is more than 1600 person-years of data!   While this data is essentially nutritional epidemiology on steroids, it gives us the opportunity to validate and refine the 1995 Holt laboratory data and validate our other theories about satiety.

Whether or not the MyFitnessPal users weighed and measured their food precisely doesn’t stop us using this data to make useful observations about the properties of our food that affect whether we eat more or less.  While there will be inaccuracies, they will largely be consistent across the ten thousand users and are not highly correlated with the parameters we are interested (i.e. protein, fibre, starch, fat and sugar).


Before being analysed, the data was “cleaned” using the following filters:

  • Remove food logs with a goal intake of fewer than 1000 calories per day and greater than 2500 calories per day (to focus on people trying to lose weight).
  • Remove days where people consumed less than 50% of their goal or greater than 300% of their goal intake (to remove external factors like fasting, parties or people not completing their food log).

As shown graphically in the chart below, the vertical axis is based on the users’ actual intake for the day divided by their goal calorie intake.

  • If this number is greater than 100% it means they reported consuming more than they planned to for that day.
  • If this number is less than 100% then they recorded less than they planned for the day.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 03.39.17.png

After cleaning, the data we grouped it in twenty ‘bins’ based on each parameter and calculated the average recorded calories/goal for each ‘bin’.

By using % of goal intake, we remove the requirement for the food diaries to be perfectly accurate and we can observe the general trends to see if they align with the laboratory data and our other theories about what fills us up.

While you may feel like you have a unique metabolism and have to find what works for you, I think it’s useful to look at what tends to work for most people most of the time.


The chart below shows that people who report eating more protein are more successful in meeting consuming less than their calories target.  Also shown on the chart are example foods that align with that macronutrient percentage.


As we move toward the right, we get ‘leaner’ protein foods with less fat and more energy from protein.  This observation aligns with other research that indicates that higher levels of protein lead to greater satiety.[3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

The average protein intake for Americans is less than 12%, which coincides with the level in the chart above where the satiating effects of a higher protein intake start to kick in.  Left to our own devices, it seems that we optimise our diet for maximum energy intake.  The chart below shows that protein intake in the US increased after the Great Depression in the 1930s as America became more wealthy.  In 1977 the Dietary Goals for Americans were introduced recommending that people cut back on saturated fat and cholesterol, and since then the percentage of protein has decreased[12].

Screenshot 2018-10-15 03.44.59.png

I have shown the protein frequency distribution on the chart below.  While the MFP users were consuming an average of 21% protein (which is higher than the average US intake), the satiety response curve suggests that they would get an improved satiety response with more protein.  What is really interesting here is that it seems that American’s, on average, have optimised their diet for the protein intake that minimises satiety and enables them to take in more calories.

protein frequency distribution.png


The analysis of the satiety response to % indicates that a very low-fat diet is hard to overconsume.  This observation aligns fairly well with the 1995 Holt laboratory satiety data.


Traditional cultures that lived on a diet of rice and vegetables (without added oil) tend to be lean and long-lived (e.g. the Kitavans and Okinawans).  However, given the opportunity, we tend to gravitate to an equal mixture of fat and carbs the enables us to consume more energy.

There seems to be some improvement in satiety with higher fat levels when we move from the fat+carbs danger zone to more fat+protein.  However, very high-fat intakes (that are only possible with large amounts of added fat) aren’t satiating.  It seems once we remove the protein from the fat we get a decrease in satiety.

The adage of ‘eat fat to satiety’ seems to be an oxymoron.  Encouraging people to eat fat until they feel satisfied is likely to lead many to eat more than they would if they prioritised protein and/or fibre.

The frequency distribution histogram below indicates that the MFP users were consuming an average of 34% fat.  Meanwhile, the average US fat intake of 42% corresponds with the hyperpalatable fat+carbs zone.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 03.48.47.png


The chart below shows the plot of % carbohydrate vs satiety.  In the centre of the chart, we see that on a calorie for calorie basis, foods that are a mixture of fat+carbs tend to be the easiest to overconsume.


This observation also aligns with a recent study showing that foods that replenish our carbohydrate and fat stores at the same time provide a double dopamine hit.[13]


We get an improvement in satiety when we reduce carbohydrate intake and move away from the carb+fat danger zone of food combinations that do not occur in nature.

Many people report an improvement in satiety and a spontaneous reduction in appetite when they reduce the carbs in their diet.  The MFP food log data indicates that the benefit of a low carb high-fat diet come from the low carb component rather than a focus on high fat.


It’s likely that with a reduced carb diet the improved satiety leads to a reduced intake which generates endogenous ketosis (i.e. from your own fat stores).

However, when we move further to the left we get a higher energy density and less fibre so the appetite suppressing effects of low carb diet diminish.

On the far right, we see that very high carb, low-fat foods are very hard to overconsume.  This aligns with what we see in people who follow a strict whole food plant-based dietary approach (without added oils).  It also aligns with the traditional diets of the people who are celebrated as the most healthy and longest-lived such as the Kitavans or the Okinawans.[14] [15] [16] [17]

However, the frequency distribution chart shows that few people are actually achieving the appetite suppression benefits of a high carb low-fat diet, but rather most people gravitate to the danger zone of moderate carbs which leads to poor satiety.  On average, the MFP users were logging 43% carbs which is slightly below the average US intake of 46%.  It seems our appetite leads us to optimise our diet for maximum calorie intake and foods that are a mix of fat and carbs if they are available.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 03.56.35.png

If your goal is weight loss, there are a number of viable options to get out of the hyperpalatable middle zone that is dominated by refined processed foods:

  1. A protein sparing modified fast style diet (>40%) with low carb (< 30%) and low fat (< 30%),
  2. High carb (> 60% carbs) low fat (< 30%).  
  3. A low carb approach with (< 30% carb) with higher protein (> 30%).   

We can’t resist carbs+fat

The chart below (based on data from the USDA Economic Research Service) shows that, with increased food processing, America’s diet has tended towards a similar level of fat and carbs in percentage terms.


This mixture of fat and carbs enables us to consume more of the high-profit margin hyperpalatable processed foods that food manufacturers are eager to sell us.  As shown in the chart below, our growing obesity levels have risen in parallel with an increasing supply of food.


Similarly, China has also been able to double their calorie intake mainly by adding vegetable oils to their diet.


This has resulted in a similar increase in obesity rates that we see across the world.[19]


Rather than just looking at carbohydrates as a whole, we can also look at our satiety response of fibre, starch and sugar separately.


Similar to the 1995 Holt study, that foods with more fibre tend to be more satiating.  This aligns with the research literature that foods that contain more fibre tend to be more satiating.[20] [21] [22] [23] [24] [25]



Foods with moderate levels of starch are easier to binge on.


However, foods with a lot of starch and very little fat seem to be more satiating.  But not many people eat more 50% starch, so we don’t have reliable data to understand what happens at the extremes.

starch frequency histogram.png

It’s worth noting that plain potato was the most satiating food in the 1995 Holt study.  A growing number of people are using a potato-only diet for successful weight loss.[26] [27]

Image result for potato

However, once we add oil, we get the potato chip or buttered potato which is hyperpalatable.



Lastly, we have sugar, which (surprisingly for some) seems to have a positive effect on satiety.


While sugar raises insulin more than fat in the short term and makes foods more palatable, it seems that high sugar foods can be more satiating (at least relative to fat).

People injecting (exogenous) insulin on a high carb diet will often put on weight and experience an increase in appetite.  This observation has led many to believe that foods that cause (endogenous) insulin to rise more in the short term cause weight gain, overeating and poor satiety.  However, it appears that this is not necessarily the case.

While the data doesn’t tell us what proportion of the sugar is added or naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, it’s worth noting that foods that are naturally high in sugar often have a lower energy density which makes them harder to overconsume.  Interestingly, Holt et al, in another paper discussing their data noted that foods that raise (endogenous) insulin more in the short term actually tend to promote satiety.[28]

Due to concerns around excess High Fructose Corn Syrup, soft drinks and the approval of artificial sweeteners like Splenda in 1999, the USDA food consumption data indicates that  Americans started consuming less sugar, with a 15% decrease in added sugars since then.


While foods with added sugar are likely not the most nutritious choice, it doesn’t appear that sugar is the primary culprit for the obesity epidemic.  Higher fat foods, and especially the starch+fat combination appears to be a bigger issue that sugar itself.

For many people, increasing vegetable intake (which contain sugar) will provide a net benefit by reducing energy density, increasing fibre as well as providing a complementary nutrient profile to an animal-based diet.  If you have diabetes, the Nutrient Optimiser will help you titrate down your insulin load to identify foods that will help you stabilise your blood sugars while also maximizing nutrient density.

Note: Sugar was not included in the final satiety formula because, once energy density was considered, it didn’t further improve the correlation with the Holt satiety data.  So, the Nutrient Optimiser Satiety Score doesn’t actively promote sugar but it also doesn’t bias against fruits and vegetables.

Summary of individual nutrients

The chart below shows the satiety relationship between each of the components of our food for comparison.  Overall,  protein, fibre (and possibly sugar) appear l to increase satiety, while fat, starch and non-fibre carbohydrates tend to cause us to consume more calories.


Food combinations

Although we can separate the satiety effects of individual macronutrients, we don’t consume macronutrients in isolation.  Foods come packaged together.  We never eat foods that are 100% protein, 100% carbs or 100% fat.

So I thought it would be interesting to look at combinations of nutrients in order to understand which ones we should avoid versus the ones we should prioritise for different goals.

The chart below shows the satiety response of the food combined with the biggest positive effect (protein+fibre) and negative effect (starch+fat).


Fat + starch

Hunger increases exponentially as more of our energy comes from fat+starch.

Managing or reducing the proportion of energy in your diet from fat and starch will be the most effective thing you can do to manage your appetite.


When we look at the foods that have more of their energy from fat+starch we can start to see why this is the case.  Regardless of willpower and dedicated weighing and measure these people will likely struggle to maintain a sustained calorie deficit. It’s the “comfort foods” like crackers, doughnuts, cookies and lasagne that you will go back to for seconds and not stop until they’re all gone.


The frequency distribution shows that there are a significant number of people getting a lot of their energy from the starch+fat combination.

starch + fat histo.png

Wheat and corn are typically harvested in summer and autumn while, before modern agriculture and refrigeration, we would have relied more on high-fat animals during winter (at least in temperate climates away from the equator).

As a general rule, foods that are a mixture of fat and starch do not occur in nature!

Whether by luck or good planning, the food industry seems to understand the hyperpalatability of fat+starch.


It’s the added fats and flours that have increased the most in parallel with the growing obesity epidemic.


In 2010, 60% of the energy in the American diet came from added fats and oils or grains and flours compared to only 46% in 1970.  In earlier times, before modern food processing, you can imagine this would have been much much lower.

If weight loss is a goal, you should reduce the foods and meals that contain both starch (e.g. wheat flour, corn starch etc) and added fats (e.g. canola, soy oil, rapeseed oil etc) together.

Protein + fibre

Rather than just avoiding the “bad” foods, this chart shows the foods with more fibre and protein that will provide greater satiety.  


These are the types of foods that are naturally available in spring or the style of food that someone following a Protein Sparing Modified Fast style diet would consume.

Rather than just avoiding hyperpalatable fat+starch foods, these foods will provide you with the nutrients you need with less hunger.


This chart shows the satiety response from the combination of fat and carbs.  Once we get beyond about 65% of energy from fat+carb, your hunger will ramp up, and allow you to consume more energy.


Fat+carb foods are rare nature, although there are a few examples.  Nuts like acorns contain a mix of fat and carbs to help animals build fat for winter.


Breast milk has pretty much an equal mixture of fat and carbs to allow a baby to grow quickly.


These foods would also be helpful for a bodybuilder wanting to bulk up.   Thinking in terms of fat+carbs with less protein will help you consume more calories without resorting to the hyperpalatable fat+starch combination (aka dirty bulk).

Oxidative priority

Another way to look at satiety is in terms of oxidative priority and the storage capacity of each macronutrient.  Satiety is correlated with our storage capacity for each macronutrient.

As shown in the figure below we have very limited storage capacity for protein (360 to 480 calories worth of labile protein in the bloodstream[29]) and a little more for carbohydrate (1200 to 2000 calories worth of glycogen in the muscles and liver).


We also find it hard to convert protein to energy (25% losses in conversion), easier to convert carbohydrate to energy (8% losses) and very easy to convert fat to energy (3% loses) or convert it to fat if not used.

We don’t over consume protein because we have nowhere to store “too much” of it and it’s hard to convert to energy.  Meanwhile, we have more room to store carbohydrates as glycogen in our liver, and we have virtually unlimited capacity to store fat.

Given the opportunity, we gravitate to foods that contain fat+carbs together (with lower protein) to ensure we have enough fat to survive the coming winter.

This is likely the reason why we always seem to have a “dessert stomach” after a hearty meal.  Your protein stores are full, but you have plenty of room for carbs and nearly infinite room to store fat.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 04.16.53.png

The bottom line is that, if we want to get abs, avoid diabetes, reduce our heart attack risk, and avoid Alzheimers and dementia, we need to reduce the amount of fuel that we line in front of our fat stores. If we only have foods available that fill one tank at a time, there is a natural limit to the amount of fuel we can fit in.  However, modern food processing gives us the ability to hack our natural satiety signals by filling all fuel tanks at once.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 04.16.22.png

Armed with this understanding, we can reverse engineer our gorge instincts to optimise your food choices for maximum satiety if your goal is weight loss.

Satiety formula

The aim of this analysis was to refine the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm to identify optimal foods and meals for different goals.  We combined the various satiety relationships described above into one formula to calculate the Nutrient Optimiser Satiety Score.

The chart below shows that we get a good alignment between the Nutrient Optimiser Satiety Score and the laboratory satiety data from the 1995 University of Sydney laboratory study for the 38 foods already tested.

satiety index correlation

The R2 of 0.6 indicates that the new satiety score using the MyFitnessPal data provides a good correlation with laboratory directly measured data.

We can now identify foods that will maximise satiety and help maintain a healthy weight with less hunger, deprivation and less reliance on willpower.

Satiety vs nutrient density

The satiety data is even more useful when combined with other parameters such as nutrient density or insulin load.

The chart below shows satiety vs nutrient density.  Foods towards the top right of the chart will be more nutritious and more satiating.  Overall it seems that satiating foods are generally nutrient dense.  (To look at the data in more detail click here.)



This chart shows satiety vs nutrient density for plant-based foods.  (To look at the data in more detail click here).


We can see that processed grains are clustered towards the bottom left corner while vegetables are generally towards the top right and legumes towards the centre.

While vegetables alone might be useful for weight loss, most people following a whole food plant-based dietary approach eat nuts and legumes to be able to get in enough energy.


The chart below shows the carnivore version of the nutrient density versus satiety chart.  (To look at the data in more detail click here.)


Egg whites are the most satiating option; however shellfish towards the top right of the graph will provide high levels of satiety and nutrient density.

Satiety vs insulin load

These charts show how we can use satiety and insulin load to identify foods that will provide a high level of satiety while also stabilising blood sugars.  (To look at the data in more detail click here.)

Screenshot 2018-10-15 04.21.54.png

This chart shows just a handful of popular foods to demonstrate how we can use this data.

Screenshot 2018-10-15 04.22.31.png

  • Many people start out with a hyperpalatable grain-based diet.
  • Transitioning to keto or low-carb foods will help them stabilise their blood sugars and provide energy.
  • However, if they want to continue to lose fat, they ideally need to move further along the satiety path while keeping their insulin load low enough to keep their blood sugars under control.
  • As they lose weight, they will come within their personal fat threshold, their blood sugars will stabilise, and they will be able to ramp up their satiety even further.


The chart below shows the satiety score vs insulin load for plant-based foods.  If you are looking to lose weight and control your blood sugars, you should avoid the processed grains toward the bottom left.




This chart shows the satiety score versus keto score for animal-based foods.  It’s interesting to see that, while a carnivorous diet cuts out lots of nutrient-dense vegetables (which not many people are eating a significant amount of), it also eliminates low satiety, insulinogenic nutrient-poor grains from the bottom left corner!  Perhaps this is the primary reason that the carnivorous diet is developing such a following.


The Never Hungry Diet app

While the purpose of this work was mainly to refine the third component of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm (in addition to nutrient density and insulin load) we have pulled out one element of the main Nutrient Optimiser program into the Never Hungry Diet web app.


Our goal was to create a simple app that you could take shopping to help you decide whether a food is a good choice and should go in your trolley.  In addition to showing the satiety score for your favourite foods, it also shows the % insulinogenic calories as well as the nutrient density score.


If your goal is weight loss, you could set yourself a mission to ensure that nothing goes in your shopping trolley with a satiety score of less than 50%.  Once you master 50%, you could try for 55% and then 60% and keep ratcheting up your minimum satiety cut off until you start to see your desired rate of weight loss on the scales.

So head over now to check out The Never Hungry Diet.  If you like it, you can add it to your phone for quick reference, so it looks and feels like an app.  (For instructions on how to add a webpage to your smartphone home screen to click here for Apple and here for Android).

Who should not eat high satiety foods and meals?

Before you dive into the deep end of satiety, keep in mind that nutrient dense, high satiety foods are not for everyone.

  • If you are a lean athlete, high satiety foods may not allow you to get enough energy to fuel your activity.
  • People with diabetes should initially aim for a diet with a lower insulin load to help them stabilise their blood sugars. Avoiding wild swings in blood sugar will also help to manage appetite, particularly if you are injecting insulin to control your blood sugars.[30]
  • Eating only the highest satiety foods can be hard work. Many people don’t want to cut out all comfort foods and dive into a Protein Sparing Modified Fast.  You may want to start more gently and ratchet up satiety over time to ensure you continue to get results.  But if you have been trying to lose weight for a while or you have stalled then dialling up the satiety score of your diet might be the next step on your journey.




I need to acknowledge my Nutrient Optimiser partner Alex Zotov’s role in the analysis of the massive data files and his role in the analysis and refining of the thinking in this article.  Thanks as per usual to Ted Naiman for letting me use his awesome infographics.  Also thanks to Stephan Guyenet, Cian Foley, Robin Reyes, Pat Smith, Helen Kendall and Lindesay Wilson for their comments and suggestions on the draft.















[12] Although overall protein intake has increased in absolute terms.



















Nutritional Myth Busting

Progress in science revolves around disproving and discarding theories that are no longer useful.

Scientists and engineers continually test their ideas to increase their chance of being right more often.

While correlation doesn’t equal causation, if things you believe to be causal are found to be completely uncorrelated you should review your beliefs to see if they are still useful.


Nutrition science is still relatively young.  There is still a lot to learn.

  • Vitamin C was only discovered in the mid-1700s by James Lind in the first documented randomised controlled trial.[1] [2] [3]
  • More than 100 years later in the mid-1800s that we first used vitamin C to treat scurvy.[4]
  • In 1890, Christiaan Eijkman found that fowls fed polished rice died sooner from paralysis.[5]  Eventually, it was determined the missing compound that was vitamin B1 (thiamine).
  • In 1912 biochemist Casimir Funk shortened the term “vital amine” to coin a new word “vitamin”.[6]
  • Other vitamins were only discovered around a century ago and there is still plenty of disagreement about how much we need of each of them, what they all do and how they interact.

It’s hard for nutritional research to move quickly because it’s unethical to do A/B testing on humans.  So we often rely on nutritional epidemiology which relies on comparing the health and habits of different populations (e.g. Ancel Keys’ Seven Countries study).


In a free-living environment, we tend to base our food choices on:

  • what’s available,
  • what we can afford,
  • what tastes good, and
  • what we feel like at the time.

We’re also really bad when it comes to recording what we eat, so it’s hard to study the effects of nutritional interventions.  Hence, rather than science or biology, our nutritional choices are often influenced by religious belief, ethical convictions and financial conflicts of interest.[7]

But we have been exposed to some powerful nutritional experiments over the past 50 years that have dramatically changed the way we eat.  Rather than looking at different populations, we now have a significant amount of longitudinal data to evaluate how our nutritional beliefs are working out for us.

In a controlled trial, scientists are obliged to abort an experiment if it appears that an intervention is causing a harmful outcome.  This article evaluates commonly held nutritional beliefs to see if they are still useful.

Demonisation of nutrients can lead to imbalances in other areas.  You ideally want a system to be as simple as possible so you can invest your limited energy into the things that matter (like getting more of the nutrients you’re lacking).

This post takes no prisoners, so if you have a pet nutritional theory or belief listed below, you might want to stop reading now.

  1. Dietary cholesterol is bad for you
  2. Saturated fat is a “bad fat”
  3. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are “good fats”
  4. Fat does not make you fat
  5. Carbohydrates make you fat
  6. Calories don’t count
  7. Salt is bad for you
  8. Sugar is public enemy #1
  9. Red meat and eggs are bad for you
  10. Macronutrient percentages matter

2018-09-22 03.00.16.png













You’re still here.

You were warned.

Let’s do this.

We’re getting fatter

One thing we do know is that we’re getting fatter.

The chart below shows the obesity rates (from US Centres for Disease Control) in the US from 1960 (when only about 13% of us were obese with a BMI > 30) to 2008 (when about 34% of Americans were overweight).[8]


Although obesity is becoming the new “normal”,[9] [10] most people don’t want to be fat.  Weight loss is a goal for many.

It’s not just about appearance.  Most people understand instinctively that obesity is not optimal.

Obesity also increases your chance of having a wide range of metabolic issues that are bad for the individual, your community and the economy.[11]


In this article we test long-term nutritional trends using one hundred years of data against US obesity rates.  Don’t worry, if you’re not in the US, this information will still be relevant as your diet and obesity rates are likely following the US.[12]


The food data used in this analysis is taken from the USDA Economic Research Service.[13]  I encourage you to download the data and have a play yourself.  Let me know in the comments below if you spot any errors in the analysis that require correction.

  • Where you see data plotted from 1910 to 2010, it is based on food availability (i.e. all food produced for people to eat).
  • Where you see it plotted from 1970 to 2015, it is “loss-adjusted data” which is corrected for wastage and is closer to the actual amount eaten.

Before you get caught up in the limitations and accuracy of the data, keep in mind that no real-world dataset is “perfect”.  Any measurement has errors.  Higher accuracy is more expensive, which means we end up only looking at a small number of people (e.g. in a metabolic ward in a hospital where you can control their food and movement).

For me, seeing the long-term trends of humans in the wild is much more useful than a few individuals for a couple of days in a metabolic chamber.

While the data has its limitations, it also gives us another viewpoint to test the observations that we can make from other sources.

And, while you might be able to find a lot of things that correlate with obesity, we’ll be focusing on the things that have changed significantly, not the irrelevant minutia.

We’re not trying to demonstrate causality with this data, but rather understand which beliefs do not align with reality.   If something does not appear to align with a claim or an accusation then the burden of proof is on the party making the claim to provide the evidence that, beyond a reasonable doubt, their claim is legitimate.


Belief #1:  Dietary cholesterol is bad for you

Let’s start with cholesterol as an example of a dietary belief that most people have decided is no longer useful.

This first chart shows the cholesterol available in the food system over the last hundred years overlaid with obesity rates since the 1960s.


Until recently, the recommended limit for cholesterol was 300 mg/day (or 200 mg/day if you had a high risk of heart disease[14]).  People in the 60s were concerned that dietary cholesterol was driving high cholesterol in the blood, which they believed caused heart disease.  However, we now understand that:

  • there are several risk factors for heart disease,[15] and
  • changing the amount of cholesterol in the diet does little to change the cholesterol level in your blood.[16] [17]


Because of the lack of evidence for a direct causal relationship between dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, the Dietary Guidelines Committee recently removed cholesterol as a nutrient of concern.[18] [19]



Belief #2:  Saturated fat is a “bad fat”

Saturated fat (which primarily comes from animal sources) has been blamed for many things.  The thinking was that, because saturated fat was solid at room temperature, it would solidify in your arteries and cause heart disease (note: if your arteries are ever at room temperature you have some bigger issues than the amount of saturated fat in your diet).

Saturated fat has been on the decline as a percentage of our total fat intake for a while (see red line in the chart below).

We are now consuming more “good fats”, particularly polyunsaturated fat (which usually come from industrially made “vegetable” oils like soybean and corn).


The chart below shows that both obesity and saturated fat have been trending up for the past 50 years.


However, when you look at saturated fat as a percentage of total fat, you can see that it is trending down in the opposite direction to obesity.


So, it seems that, while saturated fat is not a “free food”, it might not be as toxic as we have been led to believe, at least compared to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.




Belief #3: Monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fats are “good fats”

Mainstream advice (e.g. USDA Dietary Guidelines) suggests that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are “good fats” that should be used to replace saturated fat.   Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are prominent in plant-based oils (although seed oils still have some saturated fat).


A large amount of our dietary guidance has been driven by people with ethical or religious convictions against animal-based foods.[20]  It’s also relevant to note that the US Dietary Guidelines are controlled by the United States Department of Agriculture.  So it shouldn’t be a surprise that their guidance favours the products of agriculture (e.g. corn, wheat and soy).[21]


The chart below shows that the production of monounsaturated fat (olive oil and canola oil) has been trending up.


With the decrease in saturated fat, monounsaturated fat has also been increasing as a percentage of total fat.


Meanwhile, polyunsaturated fats (mainly from corn and soy) have also been on a steady upward trend.


Similar to monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat has been on the uptrend as a percentage of fat.


Over the past century, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have both increased by 300 to 400 calories per person per day.


When we look at the growth in fat consumed, we see that the increase in “salad and cooking oils” tracks with obesity while animal-based added fat sources (e.g. butter, dairy and lard) have not changed significantly since 1970.


Based on this analysis I don’t think we can call polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats “good fats” relative to saturated fat.



Belief #4:  Fat does not make you fat

Some people that believe that, because fat does not raise insulin, that it cannot make you fat.

While it would be nice if we could enjoy as much fat as we wanted, the data doesn’t seem to support this belief.

Obesity rates appear to have risen in line with fat intake over the long-term.


While fat doesn’t raise insulin as much in the short term, your pancreas still releases insulin to hold back your body fat in storage while you use up the energy coming in from your diet.

While insulin plays a role in converting the food you eat to energy, you can think of insulin like the brake signal to stop stored energy being released from your liver.  Your pancreas will raise your insulin levels while you use up the energy coming in from the food you’ve just eaten.  Insulin will be higher if you have more body fat and/or eat more (regardless of the macro split).


For more details on this check out the following articles:

I think we need to concede that dietary fat can be converted to body fat.



Belief #5:  It’s only carbs that make you fat

This belief is based around the idea that carbs raise insulin more than other macronutrients.

In people with diabetes, we have noted that injecting insulin can drive excess fat storage.  So, by extension, we have assumed that we will store more fat if we get more of our energy from carbs which cause a greater insulin response over the short term.[22]

As shown in the chart below:

  • Carbohydrate production decreased in the US from 1910 until about 1960.
  • Between 1960 and 2000, obesity rose in line with increasing carbohydrate intake.
  • From 2000, consumption of carbohydrates has dropped back while obesity has powered on.


When Dr Robert Atkins released his book in the 80s,[23] [24] it would have looked a lot like carbs were driving obesity.  Perhaps it was the popularity of the low carb movement that caused the reverse the trend in wheat and flour in the 90s.


However, the food industry adapted, and the obesity epidemic has powered on.

This divergence in the trend of obesity and both carbohydrate production and consumption should cause a healthy level of scepticism around the idea that carbs are the primary thing that makes us fat.



Belief #6: Salt is bad for you

Although we have successfully eaten less salty foods in line with the government guidance it has not helped to kerb the obesity epidemic.


The recommendation to reduce salt is largely due to the belief that high sodium levels cause hypertension.  However, more recently we have realised that the problem is a lack of potassium in our diet rather than excess salt.[25] [26] [27] [28] [29]

Decreasing sodium may have worsened the obesity epidemic by driving us to eat more to get the salt we need.



Belief #6:  Calories don’t matter

Counting calories sucks, so many people like to think that calories don’t count.

Many have great success when they switch to a diet that cuts out processed flours and added oils (e.g. low carb, keto, whole food plant based, paleo, keto, carnivore, South Beach Diet or Whole30) and they believe it’s the carbs/fat that they eliminated that caused their transformation, not the change in calories.


However, our obesity rates track reasonably closely with the increase in calories.


While food production dropped from 1910 to 1960, since 1960 both calories and obesity have been on an upward trend.


I think it’s safe to say that there is some relationship between calories and obesity.



Belief #7:  Sugar is public enemy #1

Many people believe that added sugars are the biggest issue with our food system.  However, it seems that added sugars and obesity diverged around 2000.


Americans were using 15% less added sugar in 2015 compared to the peak in 1999 when Splenda was released.


High Fructose Corn Syrup (which was cheap and abundant due to the subsidies applied to wheat and corn) replaced unsubsidised cane and beet sugar in the food system.


Sugar has risen a little from the mid-80s (7.5% to 7.8% of energy intake) but has not reached the levels of use that it was in the 1970s before HFCS (14% of calories).

With the creation of food flavour technology and artificial sweeteners, food manufacturers no longer rely on sugar to make their food-like products look and taste however they want them to while getting the energy from cheap flours and added oils.  The food industry has moved on to satisfy market demand in new and creative ways.

Added sugars represent only a small proportion of the extra calories being consumed since 1970.   The increase in added sugars is much less than “added fats and oils” and “flours and cereals” category and just about the same as the increase in “meat, eggs and nuts”.


So, while I don’t think you should be loading up on nutrient-poor added sugars, I don’t think the case against sugar as the primary driver of obesity is as strong as some people claim it to be.



Belief #8:  Red meat and eggs are bad for you

Due to fear of saturated fat or the belief that red meat causes cancer, people have been encouraged to eat white meat instead.

The ‘red meat, eggs & nuts’ food category represents about 20% of energy intake, which is down from 25% in 1970.  The overall increase in energy intake, meat, nuts and eggs have increased by between 25 and 50 calories per day.


In line with the recommendation to prioritise white meat, poultry has increased about as much as red meat has decreased.  Nuts have increased a little while seafood is stagnant and eggs have decreased.


Given that red meat has been in decline during the growing obesity epidemic, it’s hard to support the claim that red meat or eggs are having any significant impact on the obesity.



Belief #9:  Macronutrient percentages matter

The chart below shows protein intake increased with America’s rising affluence after the Great Depression in 1930.  The 1977 Dietary Goals for Americans encouraged a reduction in fat intake (particularly saturated fat).[30]  Since 1977, there has been a degree of ‘protein dilution’ which aligns with an uptick in obesity rates.


This also aligns with our previous observation from the food diary data that people who consume less protein tend to eat more.  While protein contributes to your calorie intake, if a larger proportion of your calorie are from protein it seems you are likely to consume less.


The chart below shows that there was some reduction in % fat and an increase in carbs between 1977 and 1999 in response to the dietary guidelines.  However, this has since largely reversed.


The more interesting long-term trend with increasing industrialisation and an increase in more refined food is a trend towards carbs and fat being similar in percentage terms.

In nature, we get a constant swing between carbs and fat to varying degrees depending on our latitude and season.  Given the opportunity, we tend to gravitate to foods that fuel our glucose and fat metabolism at the same time.

The image below from Cian Foley’s Don’t Eat for Winter shows how the glycaemic index of foods varies with seasons (in the northern hemisphere).  Mother Nature effectively fattens us up with higher GI foods in preparation for the coming winter.  It’s as if the presence of foods with a similar mix of fat + carbs tell your body that winter is coming and your set point raises.


In survival terms, our “good behaviours” are rewarded and reinforced.   We get a dopamine hit when we eat carbs and a dopamine hit when we consume fat.  However, a recent study confirmed that we get a synergistic dopamine hit when we consume foods that have carbohydrates and fats together.[31] [32]  We are much more motivated to consume foods that contain a mixture of carbs+fat.


These carb+fat food combinations are only possible with modern processed food, particularly the addition of added oils (from soy and corn) to processed flours (from wheat and corn).


Rather than having to follow seasonal variations, we can now eat the same highly rewarding food all year round, effectively giving our body the signal that winter is coming and we need to store some extra fat.

As shown in the charts below, China has experienced a similar trend to America.  Historically, living on a diet of rice with little fat, they found it hard to overeat.  However, over the past 50 years, they have doubled their calorie intake by adding edible oils to their diet.[33]


And sadly, the Chinese have also experienced similar growth in obesity rates.


We recently crunched the numbers on more than half a million days of food logs and found that people tend to eat less when they have more protein and more fibre while they ate more when they consumed foods with a mixture of fat and starch together.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 07.47.57.png

It’s nice when the different datasets and observations align to give the same conclusion.  We’ve been able to use this data analysis to refine the satiety calculation in the Nutrient Optimiser to identify foods and meals that maximise satiety as well as nutrient density for people wanting to lose body fat.


For more info on this topic check out the following posts:

So it seems that macronutrients matter to some extent, but it’s not a matter of high/low carb vs high/low fat being better than the other.

Protein dilution appears to play a role, but the trend towards a mixture of cheap and hyperpalatable refined fat and refined seed oils that is made possible by modern processed foods seems to be the overarching factor in our energy intake and obesity.


Correlation analysis

While correlation doesn’t equal causation, for completeness, I’ve tabulated the correlation coefficient and R2 value between some factors in the table below.

The things in this table have the lowest correlation with growing obesity.   It seems sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat (as a percentage of fat intake) have decreased during the growing obesity epidemic.

nutrient corr R2
sodium (per calorie) -0.986 0.972
cholesterol (per calorie) -0.948 0.899
saturated (% of fat) -0.892 0.796

Meanwhile, the table below shows the things that have increased along with obesity.  It seems that energy intake has the biggest impact on our obesity, however, there are a number of other parameters that have increased in parallel with the obesity epidemic.

nutrient corr R2
total energy (calories) 0.957 0.917
polyunsaturated fat (g) 0.935 0.874
total fat (g) 0.926 0.858
total carbs (g) 0.919 0.844
monounsaturated fat (g) 0.917 0.841
saturated fat (g) 0.873 0.761
polyunsaturated (% of fat) 0.857 0.734

What to do?

Based on this analysis, it appears that the most obvious place to start is to reduce your intake of the nutrient-poor added sugars, added oils and refined flours.

Next time you go shopping, try to reduce the number of items that you drop into your trolley that contain these nutrient-poor cheap subsidised products as an ingredient.  It’s better to purchase separate ingredients and cook at home rather than trusting food manufacturers.


Once you get things sorted at home you should start to think about what you eat when you eat out.  Restaurant and fast food chains are interested in taste and cost, not primarily your health.  The same is true for many pre-prepared meals.  Learn to read labels and be discerning like your life depends on it.

As you reduce your intake of processed foods you will need to compensate by raising your intake of the following food categories:

  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Seafood
  • Dairy
  • Fruit


People seem to benefit from a range of diets that appear to be diametrically opposite, including plant-based, high protein, low carb, paleo or keto.  It’s likely all of these work because they help you to stay out of the carbs+fat danger zone and avoid highly processed foods.

Some people swear by carb cycling, targeted keto (i.e. carbs around workouts) or even focusing on macronutrient extremes in each meal through the day.  Others like to focus on fresh local and seasonal produce.  Again, all of these help to keep you out of the appetite-stimulating danger zone that seems to occur when we get greater than 30% carbs and 30% fat in the same meal.






Thanks to Simon Saunders for the title graphic featuring Ted Naiman and myself.  Thanks to Cian Foley for his Don’t Eat for Winter insights.  Thanks to Lindsay Wilson and Stephan Guyenet for the inspiration to dig into the USDA data.  Also to Helen Kendall, Robin Reyes and Eveylyn Carbsane for review comments.  And a big shout out to Ted Naiman for constant inspiration and letting me use his infographics in most of my articles.



































Why our food system is screwed (in charts)

You may have noticed that we’re getting fatter.  Obesity seems to be the new normal.

Some people say we’re lazy and that we  need to be more disciplined and move more.


But it obesity likely also has something to do with what we’re putting in our mouth.[2]


In this article we crunch the numbers in an effort to understand what it is about our food is so different.  What changed in parallel with the booming obesity epidemic?

As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

Why should you care?

The cost of obesity, both personally and to our economy, is massive, at $2 trillion or 2.8% of the global GDP in 2014.[3] [4]

In the US alone, the cost of obesity to the healthcare system is $210 billion per year, with $4.3b lost due to absenteeism[5] and a further $506 per obese worker due to reduced productivity per year.[6]

At a personal level, being overweight will increase your chance of dying earlier with one of the common metabolic-related diseases.[7]


The cost of type 2 diabetes (which occurs when our fat stores can no longer absorb the excess energy coming in from our diet) is massive!  And it’s about to get a lot worse!


But it wasn’t always this way.  Many people have asked, “Why are we suddenly eating so much more?  What changed?”


Energy availability

Thanks to the USDA we have some great data to help us answer this question.[8]  As shown in the chart below, the energy available to each American started to increase around 1960.

Screenshot 2018-09-13 05.20.18.png

Since 1910, carbohydrate took a dip but has risen again since the 1960s back to around the levels they were a century ago.  Meanwhile, fat has been on a steady upward trend.  There are more than 600 calories of fat available per day person in the food system compared to a century ago.

Screenshot 2018-09-13 05.14.30

Since 1960, protein availability has increased by about 100 calories per day.  However, during the same time, fat and carbohydrate have both increased by between 400 and 600 calories per day per person.

Screenshot 2018-09-13 05.26.37.png

The reasons for this shift in our food system are complex and multifaceted.  However, I think the central factor is our appetite for foods that are cheaper and more convenient, whether that be at home, at work, when you go out to eat or on the battlefield feeding an army.

If you want to understand the politics behind the agricultural subsidies that contributed this explosion in energy availability I highly recommend you read Robb Wolf’s bonus chapter from his Wired to Eat which you can download for free here.

Loss-adjusted consumption

The data below is based on the “loss-adjusted” consumption data which accounts for wastage and gives us a better indication of the amount of food eaten.


Energy intake increased from around 2000 to 2500 calories per person per day between 1970 and 2010.  On average, we’re eating about 500 calories more than when I was born.  Overall, it seems, vegetables and fruit don’t make up a large proportion of our energy intake compared to:

  • added sugars,
  • meat, eggs and nuts,
  • flours and cereals, and
  • added fats and oils.

The chart below shows the change in intake from each food group.

  • Added sugars increased until around 2000 and then declined.
  • Flours and cereals increased, but have also decreased since 2000.
  • The big change is the added fats and oils.


Based on this data, if you wanted to play it safe, you could simply focus on consuming the foods that haven’t changed in the last forty years and avoid the foods that have exploded in our food system in parallel with the explosion in diabesity.

Added sugar

If we drill down into the added sugars category, we can see that high fructose corn syrup (which is made from the oversupply of corn due to the agriculture subsidies) increased by up to 170 calories per day, replacing the unsubsidised cane and beet sugar as the sweetener of choice.


Since 1999, use of HFCS has fallen, with a lot of people trying to reduce added sugar and the increasing use of artificial sweeteners (e.g. Splenda which was approved by the FDA in 1999)

Sugar has made a slight come back since the late 80s, but nowhere near the levels of sugar used in the early 70s before the agricultural subsidies were ramped up (280 calories per day or 14% of energy intake in 1970).

Grain products

Wheat and corn increased until the turn of the century.  But similar to added sugars, they have decreased since around 2000


Added fat intake

Now here is the real clanger, the breakdown of the change in added fat!


  • Shortening has fallen out of favour since 2004 after the banning of trans fat.
  • Margarine has been in decline for a while.
  • Butter, lard and dairy fats only make up a negligible amount of our dietary fat intake.
  • Increases in “salad and cooking oils” accounts for nearly 300 calories per day or about 60% of our energy increase.

Despite the innocuous sounding title, the increase in ‘salad and cooking oils’ is not just people adding a bit of extra olive oil to their salads.

Soy, canola and corn oil make up the vast majority of the added fats in our diet.


Canola oil was marketed as a low cholesterol alternative to saturated fat.  The theory was that Canola was safe because it didn’t turn solid at room temperature and hence would not clog our arteries and cause heart disease like saturated fat.  (As a side, if your arteries are ever at room temperature you have some bigger issues than your choice of fat.)

Our use of them is booming everywhere![9]


The availability of saturated fat, which is more prevalent in dairy and animal-based products, has increased by about 80 calories per person per day over the past century.  However, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, which are more prevalent in subsidised plant-based sources, have increased by 300 to 400 calories each!


There are some who believe that many of our health woes are primarily due to saturated fat and or excess consumption of animal-based foods.  However, the consumption data does not support this belief.

Growth in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (mostly from subsidised soy, canola and corn) have increased by six times that of saturated fat.  Given that meat and dairy consumption has been fairly stagnant, it is likely that even the increase in saturated fat is mostly from plant-based sources!

oils breakdown

When we combine subsided starches with subsidised fats we get a combination that is hyperpalatable and cheap.   Unsubsidised unprocessed whole food doesn’t stand a chance!

The cost of good nutrition

Unfortunately, good nutrition comes with a price.  The table below shows common grocery items sorted in terms of macros and cost per 2000 calories.[10]

food $/2000 cals % protein % fat % carbs
Canola oil $0.50 0 100 0
sugar $0.93 0 0 100
flour $1.18 14 6 80
mayonnaise $1.76 0 100 0
white bread $2.18 18 74 8
Weet-Bix $2.23 14 3 75
olive oil $2.26 0 100 0
corn flakes $3.01 6 1 92
coconut oil $3.21 0 100 0
cheese $3.71 23 74 3
pizza $4.34 19 36 45
Oreo cookies $4.62 3 38 58
milk chocolate $4.67 6 50 44
milk $4.92 22 47 31
potato chips $5.61 3 60 37
garlic bread $5.61 10 41 49
plain potato $6.49 7 1 92
Coke $9.30 0 0 100
Greek yogurt $9.46 13 73 14
bananas $10 4 3 93
avocado $14 6 70 24
chicken breast $14 76 24 0
broccoli $14 10 0 74
eggs $15 36 62 3
orange $17 7 2 91
apple $19 2 3 96
grapes $26 4 2 95
kangaroo steak $28 90 8 2
rump steak $34 48 52 0
sirloin steak $46 75 25 0
salmon $47 59 40 1
blueberries $98 4 5 91
spinach $139 30 14 56
  • Seed oils and flours are the cheapest sources of calories.
  • Foods with a higher energy density are cheaper per calorie.
  • Foods with more protein are more expensive.
  • Olive oil and coconut oil, which do not enjoy subsidies, are significantly more expensive than canola oil.

While most people won’t drink a lot of canola oil or eat a lot of plain sugar or flour, cheap processed food is typically a mix of refined fat and carbs with less protein and fibre.  And it’s not just about supermarket foods.  Any time you eat out there is a very high chance that the oils being used are the vegetable oils.

This isn’t fair!

At a fundamental level, I believe this is an issue of equity and discrimination against the most vulnerable people who can’t afford to invest in their health, whether in the supermarket, the gym, or the medical system.

  • They are not able to afford quality food even if they wanted to.
  • They are addicted to low satiety, hyperpalatable foods which are engineered to be over-consumed.
  • Eventually, they end up in the hands of the medical system which sells them drugs and surgeries to cure their ills.

Given the expense of obesity-related disease on our economy it would make sense to remove the subsidies from grain products and do what we could to make nutritious high satiety foods more affordable for the people who desperately need them.

I would love to see an economic analysis of the benefits to farmers who receive subsidies to help them create cheap energy versus the whole of system cost of health care, lost productivity and drugs one the economy as a whole.  Perhaps this will help to change policy in the future? But for now, you need to make an investment in your health.

Hopefully, providing people with better nutritional education and an understanding of what is really happening to them will help to cause a shift in the food market, with manufacturers responding to the demands of consumers for high satiety nutrient-dense foods.

What does this all mean?

Natural foods found in nature tend to contain either carb (e.g. summer or tropical foods) or fat and protein (e.g. winter or foods found closer to the north or south poles) but very rarely both at the same time.  The closest we get is milk (which is designed to help babies grow) and some nuts like acorns (which are available in autumn to help animals store fat to survive the coming winter).


However, our modern food system is full of the cheap products of subsidised agriculture which are a blend of fat and starchy refined grain products from wheat and corn that fuel our fat and glucose metabolisms at the same time in a way that has never occurred before!

These highly processed ingredients are mixed together and then artificially flavoured and sweetened to taste better than nutritious whole foods ever could!  Due to our survival instincts, we have no “off switch” for these modern Frankenfoods.  We just keep eating as long as we have access to them, even though they don’t provide much in the way of the nutrients we need to thrive.


What should you do?

Correlation doesn’t equal causation but is going to be a safe bet to avoid foods that contain the ingredients that have exploded in parallel with the obesity epidemic.

Avoid these foods


So what’s left to eat?


Addendum – How to read food labels

To help you understand what this means in practice, I thought it would be useful to highlight what to look out for on food labels.

Potato chips

While you probably won’t be able to eat a lot of plain potatoes, once you fry them in oil and add some salt you probably won’t stop until that packet is all gone.


Unfortunately, our taste buds have acclimatised to potato chips.  Our bliss point keeps on moving, requiring foods to be sweeter and with more and more flavour just to keep achieving the same stimulatory effect.


“Once you pop you just can’t stop”, but that’s because they’re made from a mixture of potato, oils, corn flour, wheat starch and flavourings.




Try to find a mayo on your supermarket shelves that isn’t mainly seed oils.



While Ritz crackers claim to be the “rich buttery classic” ironically they don’t actually contain butter, just a mix of flour, vegetable oils, salt and HFCS!


Tim Tams

It seems even chocolate needs a healthy dose of vegetable oils these days!



Before you graduate to practice on your own in the supermarket, I’ll leave you to spot the processed starches and oils in the last couple by yourself…






Your mission, if you choose to accept it…  Next time you go to the supermarket try to put nothing in your trolley that contains some combination of vegetable oils and flour listed on the ingredients.  Good luck!












Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper  

A popular adage suggests we should “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”.  [1] [2] [3]  [4] [5] [6]

We interrogated more than half a million days of food diaries to see whether it is actually helpful.


The chart below shows the proportion daily calories consumed at breakfast versus the proportion of a person’s daily target calories consumed based on their food diaries.  A score of 100% would mean that they achieved their calorie goal.  A score of less than 100% indicates the individual was able to consume less than their goal intake for the day.


The data from people eating three or more times a day indicates that, on average:

  • people who ate the least for breakfast tended to eat more across the day, while
  • people who consumed more of their daily calories at breakfast tended to eat less during the day.

People who front-loaded their calories at breakfast tended to eat around 20% less across the day!


Looking at the data for lunch, we see a similar trend.


If you can fit it into your lifestyle, a larger lunch seems to be better.


Where this data gets interesting is when we look at dinner.


People seem to do OK if their dinner is similar in size to breakfast and lunch.  However, we tend to overeat if we consume the majority of our calories at night.

Putting it all together

When we overlay all three meals, we see that prioritising breakfast is a good idea if you want to get or stay lean.


To prevent overeating, try to start your day with a hearty breakfast with a solid dose of protein and you’ll be less likely to overeat later in the day.

If you are already lean and need to recover from a hard day of activity, then eating at night will help you consume more energy and store it more effectively.

But is this result due to behaviour or biology?  Or perhaps a bit of both?


It’s possible to explain why we overeat at night from a purely behavioural perspective.

It can be hard to eat a lot at breakfast when you need to get off to work or at lunch when we might be at work or school and have to prepare a lunch and bring it from home.

But then at night, we have the fridge.


We have our friends and family.


We have Netflix.


We have the perfect storm of comfort food, social eating and self-soothing combined with being surrounded by less than optimal food choices that we tend to fill our patry and fridge with.


Food eaten later also has to be stored, at least until the next day to be used when we are more active.

Locking in your circadian rhythm

There have also been a number of interesting studies looking at the relationship between food timing and how it affects our body.


Compressing your feeding window to give your body a chance to spend time in a fasted state is useful.  However, it seems shifting your eating window earlier in the day is also beneficial.  This is commonly known as Early Time-Restricted Feeding (or eTRF).

Just like it’s beneficial to get sunlight in the morning and not gaze at blue light from our screens all night, it seems it’s also important to lock in our circadian rhythm with food in the morning and not overdo it at night.[8]


Being a shift worker is not good for your health.  Neither is eating like one.  [9] [10]


While keeping body fat levels low is important for diabetes management, eating earlier seems to improve our insulin sensitivity independent of weight loss.


We have greater insulin sensitivity in the morning.   Our body is primed to use food.  Food eaten later in the day is more likely to be stored for longer.

How to do it

eTRF is not always the most convenient thing.

Lots of people are not hungry in the morning, particularly if they tend to eat a large evening meal.

Left to our own devices, we tend to optimise for maximum storage to prepare for the coming winter.

Most people find it takes a week or two to get into the new groove of eating earlier.

Eating your main meal with the family at night is more social and eating in front of the TV when you’re relaxing can be fun.  But if you need that extra edge to manage your weight or diabetes then moving some of your dinner calories to breakfast might just be worth the effort.













Will Tim Ferriss’ 30g of protein at breakfast help you lose weight? 

You’ve probably heard that dietary adage about getting 30g of protein at breakfast to help manage your appetite.  Tim Ferriss popularised in his Four Hour Body and recently reiterated in this video.

But does more protein at breakfast actually help you manage your hunger and keep you satisfied?

To understand whether protein at breakfast helps with satiety, we plotted the proportion of daily calories eaten at breakfast versus the % goal calories logged for half a million days of MyFitnessPal data.


If someone recorded less than 100% it means that they successfully consumed less than their goal calorie intake for the day.  However, if they logged more than 100%, for whatever reason, they overshot their calorie goal.

This plot has a ton of scatter, but we can see towards the top left of the chart that a lower protein intake aligns with overeating.  Towards the lower right of the chart, we see that higher protein intake at breakfast aligns with decrease intake across the day.  Interestingly, foods with more protein tend to correspond to a higher nutrient density (i.e. more vitamins and minerals per calorie).

To help make sense of all the data we broke it up into a number of ‘buckets’ and took the average for each as shown by the dots in the chart below.


It seems that the people who ate the least protein at breakfast (left-hand side of the chart) ended up eating the most across the entire day.  While the people who ate the most protein at breakfast were more likely to consume less.

Interestingly, there seems to be an inflection point when you consume more than 11% of your daily energy intake as protein at breakfast.   Beyond this level, you don’t seem to get a lot more benefit from loading up on more protein.

That is, you get the “minimum effective dose” of protein with 11% of your daily energy intake as protein at breakfast.

The table below shows what this would look like for a typical female and male consuming 1600 and 2000 calories per day respectively.

calories per day

11% of calories

minimum protein at breakfast (g)









So, it seems that the 30g of protein at breakfast thing is true to an extent, it’s just on the low side if your goal is to manage hunger and control your energy intake with less effort.

The “typical female” would need to consume 45g of protein at breakfast to get the minimum effective dose for satiety while the “typical male” would need to consume 55g of protein for breakfast to reach their minimum effective dose of protein to optimise for maximum satiety.

If you’re not typical and want to refine your calculations, you should target 0.8 g/kg lean body mass (or 0.36 g/lb LBM) of protein at breakfast to optimise satiety. This is about a third of the daily protein requirement to optimise maximise satiety across the day shown determined by our previous analysis shown in the chart below.


So, in summary:

  • Satiety improves with increased protein at breakfast.
  • A low protein intake at breakfast appears to increase your chance of overeating.
  • The minimum effective dose of protein at breakfast appears to be about 11% of your daily calories, approx 45 g for women and 55 g for men or 0.8 g/kg LBM at breakfast.

How many times should you eat a day to lose weight?

Having access to half a million days of MyFitnessPal data to validate and bust dietary myths recently has been a lot of fun (in a nerdy data geek sort of way).

Another obvious question to ask is how many times a day should you eat to reduce your chance of overeating to stay lean, manage diabetes or lose body fat.


Most MyFitnessPal users seem to log their foods as meals rather than just entering them in one big lump.  And even after we clean up the data, we have nearly four hundred thousand days of data to analyse.

The chart below shows the number of times people said they ate per day versus the percentage of their goal calories that they consumed.


If someone logged less than 100% of their goal intake for the day, it means that they ate less than their goal intake.  If they recorded more than 100% of their goal, it indicates that they were not able to keep their intake below their target.

The data analysis suggests that:

  • If you ate more than three meals a day, you’re likely to consume more calories than average.
  • One meal a day (OMAD) seems to help you eat less than average. However, the optimum daily meal frequency appears to be two meals if you are looking to maintain a sustained calorie deficit.

The table below shows the numbers that sit behind the graph.

meals per day average calories % target n difference (calories)
1 1283 81% 5,553 -227
2 1244 79% 26,896 -266
3 1403 87% 93,062 -107
average 1510 90% 397,221 0
4 1536 91% 183,346 26
5 1632 93% 59,877 123
6 1730 95% 28,487 220
  •  The majority of people seem to eat four times per day (e.g. three meals and a snack).
  • Eating six times per means you’ll likely to eat around 220 calories per day more on average.
  • Limiting yourself to three meals a day and not snacking will help you cut more than 100 calories per day.
  • Cutting down to two meals a day will, on average, help you cut around 266 calories per day from your diet.

Why is it so?

Some people recommend keeping the metabolic fire soaked with lots of small meals.  However, the data confirms that most people aren’t able to restrain themselves if given the opportunity to eat frequently.


A recent study by Satchin Panda tracked via a smartphone app and found that the 10% of people who ate the least frequently actually ate 3.3 times per day!   The top 10% of people ate more than ten times per day.  As shown in the ‘feedogram’ below, the only time people didn’t eat was while sleeping.  People typically met their calorie needs for weight maintenance by 6:36 pm but kept on eating until they got to sleep at 11 or 12 o’clock.


Perhaps one meal a day doesn’t work so well because you are SOOOO hungry by the time you get to eat that you keep on eating and eating and eating; more than you would if you weren’t as hungry when you started eating.  And if you are at home with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard from dinner time until you go to bed, you can still get a lot of food in!

It’s likely that you would find it difficult to get as much high-satiety protein in one large meal compared two smaller meals.  To get all your daily calories in one sitting you’ll probably need to reach for more energy dense, lower nutrient density lower protein foods.

Perhaps three meals a day doesn’t work so well because we have more opportunities to eat than we really need, especially at home in front of the TV with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard that are often stacked with low protein comfort foods.

Two meals per day is a nice balance that enables us to eat satiating nutrient-dense whole food meals while still providing a significant fasting window during which time the body is able to practice drawing on our fat reserves.

It’s also easier psychologically because you’re not always thinking about food and restrict your intake.  You eat well in the allotted time and then get on with your day, knowing that you have had the food you need.

What about insulin resistance?

To be clear, as discussed in detail in this article, I’m not saying that reducing meal frequency works because it reduces insulin which leads to fat loss without regard to energy intake.   Limiting your opportunities to eat by compressing your eating window is merely a great hack to manage your energy intake.  This, in turn, leads to a reduction in body fat levels, lower insulin levels and reversal of diabetes.

Which two meals?

So by now, you’re probably wondering “If you’re going to eat only two meals per day, which two meals should they be?”

The table below shows a summary of the data for people who logged two meals per day.

meal combination goal (cals) total (cals) meal 1 (cals) meal 2 (cals) % target n
breakfast + lunch 1541 1100 423 677 72% 9041
lunch + dinner 1608 1234 561 672 78% 4935
dinner + breakfast 1575 1328 521 807 85% 4072
average 1575 1221 502 719 78% 18048

The chart comparing the three scenarios is shown below.  The analysis of the data suggests that:

  • The combination of breakfast and lunch is the stand out winner if your goal is to eat less.
  • Though not as good as the breakfast + lunch combo, combining our meals closer together at lunch and dinner seems to also be beneficial.
  • The worst outcome is for the two meals spread apart at breakfast and dinner.


If you chose to cut down to two meals per day then consuming them as breakfast and lunch may help you cut around 200 calories per day (or 17%) of your intake compared to consuming breakfast and dinner.


The table below shows the scenarios sorted from smallest intake to largest.

meal frequency average (cals) % target n delta
breakfast + lunch 1,100 72% 9,041 -410
lunch + dinner 1,234 78% 4,935 -276
one meal a day 1,283 81% 5,553 -227
dinner + breakfast 1,328 85% 4,072 -182
three meals a day 1,403 87% 93,062 -107
four meals 1,536 91% 183,346 +26
five meals 1,632 93% 59,877 +123
six meals 1,730 95% 28,487 +220

This chart shows the comparison of meal scenarios in terms of calories per day.


Whether you view it as restricting opportunities for overeating or better alignment with your natural circadian rhythm (or a bit of both), it seems that limiting your feeding window to earlier in the day (eTRF) is potentially a useful way to manage your food intake.

micronutrient ratios and why they are important

A number of people have asked for more info on the micronutrient ratios that we include in the Nutrient Optimiser reports. But it has been hard to find a reliable go-to resource to recommend on the topic.

So I thought it would be worth putting something together on the pros and cons of micronutrient ratios and how we use them to make sure we’re not exacerbating any micronutrient imbalances that may already have.


How we use micronutrient ratios

As you’re likely already aware, the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm reviews your micronutrient profile to pinpoint identify any shortcomings and recommend foods that contain more of the nutrients you are not getting enough of.

The chart below shows a typical micronutrient profile.  The nutrients that this person is getting plenty of are shown at the bottom of the chart, while the ones that they are not getting as much of are at the top.


By focusing on the weakest links we can improve your overall diet quality or nutrient density.  Identifying foods that contain more of these harder-to-find nutrients, the Nutrient Optimiser helps you to move your diet quality forward.

We’ve seen some fantastic results from people incrementally upgrading their micronutrient profiles!  With improved nutrient density typically comes improved satiety and energy levels.


Refining your priorities

You’ve probably heard it said that “if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.”

It’s a bit like that when we use the Nutrient Optimiser Algorithm to refine your nutrition at a micronutrient level.

We want to target the micronutrients that you need more of so you get the most ‘bang for your buck’ from the food you eat.

But, as well as identifying the nutrients that you need more of, it is also important to not prioritize the nutrients that you don’t need more of.

The Nutrient Optimiser considers your gender, eating patterns, food log, as well as nutrient deficiencies correlated with disease conditions to identify the nutrients that you are not getting enough

In addition to looking at which nutrients you’re lacking, we also look at a range of nutrient balance ratios to refine your shortlist of nutrients to emphasise by knocking out nutrients you may need less of.

There are a wide range of complex and interrelated interactions that occur between the numerous minerals in our environment.  We just look at the interactions ones that have some quantitative research for.


What do you do with the nutrient ratios?

Let’s look at an example to demonstrate how the Nutrient Optimiser refines the shortlist of nutrients we prioritise in your diet.


In the instance shown above, the micronutrient balance dials above suggest that we should:

  • not emphasise zinc due to the high zinc:copper ratio,
  • not emphasise sodium due to the low potassium:sodium ratio,
  • not emphasise calcium due to the high calcium:magnesium ratio,
  • not emphasise copper due to the low iron:copper ratio, and
  • not emphasise phosphorus due to the low calcium:phosphorus.

To be clear, we don’t emphasise nutrients or recommend supplements to manipulate these ratios.  Instead, we eliminate micronutrients from your shortlist to avoid worsening any current imbalances.

Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratio

One of the best-known micronutrient ratios is the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Before the advent of agriculture, we would likely have obtained more omega 3 fatty acids than omega 6.  However, these days, the typical omega-6:omega-3 ratio in the grain and seed oil based western diet is between 12:1 to 25:1.[1]


Even if you avoid bread and vegetable oils, the omega 6:omega 3 ratio in the food system is still quite high in a lot of the animal-based foods that are fed on grains (including farmed fish).


While you need some omega-6 fatty acids, excessive amounts can cause inflammation and overwhelm the anti-inflammatory omega-3s in the body.

Epidemiological studies suggest that a low intake of omega-3 fats may contribute to the development of mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, ADHD, personality disorder, and bipolar disorder.[4][5]

It appears that we should ideally have a ratio of less than 4:1 omega-6:omega-3,[2] and ideally closer to 1:1.[3]

If you find that your omega-6:omega-3 ratio is elevated, you can consider reducing foods that contain significant amounts of vegetable oils and prioritise wild-caught seafood.

Zinc : copper ratio

Copper and zinc are both essential nutrients, but they also need to be kept in balance.


Copper is vital for heart health, brain development and bone health.

Zinc is an immune system booster, ensures that your body stays healthy, and is used by more than 300 enzymes in the human body.  Zinc provides cell structure, regulates communication between cells, influences gene expression, supports a healthy immune system, and promotes healthy growth and development in children.

Zinc also helps other nutrients to work in the body (e.g. in the transportation of vitamin A into the bloodstream and in the absorption of folate).[6]  Too much zinc can interfere with the absorption of copper, potentially leading to a copper deficiency and neurological ailments.[7]

Excessive copper with low zinc, on the other hand, has been attributed to a number of serious conditions, including:

  • Anxiety, panic attacks, general inner tension
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Hypothyroid symptoms (cold hands and feet, brain fog, dry skin)
  • Overly sensitive, obsessive thinking
  • Insomnia/interrupted sleep
  • PMS
  • Fluctuating blood sugar, causing cravings
  • Mood swings, paranoia
  • Constipation
  • Racing heart/palpitations
  • Adverse reaction to vitamins and minerals (due to copper dumping from the supplements)
  • Poor attention span, spacey feeling
  • Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, overeating)
  • Yeast infections (candida and fungus)
  • Cramping and body aches.[8][9][10][11][12]

The optimal dietary zinc:copper ratio is said to be between 10:1 and 15:1.[13]

Generally, it’s not advisable to supplement with zinc or copper.  But instead you should make sure your diet has adequate amounts of whole foods that contain these nutrients, ideally in a reasonable balance.  Your body will absorb what it needs and excrete the rest.

Following the recommendations of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm will help move your zinc:copper ratio towards optimal.

Potassium : Sodium ratio

The potassium:sodium ratio is possibly the most important of all the nutrient ratios.


Managing sodium and potassium is a major priority for our body, with 40% of the body’s energy and 70% of the brain’s energy devoted just to managing the sodium-potassium pump, which is fundamental to our energy production.[15]


Recently there has been a lot of focus on sodium, which is an essential nutrient.[16]

Sodium is essential to help you to hold on to potassium if you are not getting high levels of potassium.  However, if you focus on getting enough potassium, you likely don’t need to worry so much about sodium.

It’s said that we have an appetite for salt because in times past it was hard to find while potassium was relatively plentiful, so we don’t tend to crave it the same way.  However, these days potassium is less abundant in our water supply and has been depleted in our soils.

Very few people meet the Adequate Intake level for potassium (i.e. 2.8g/day for women and 3.8g/day for men).[17][18][19]  Even fewer get close to the ideal potassium:sodium ratio of 2:1 which is crucial if you want to manage your risk of cardiovascular disease and tame elevated blood pressure.[20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29]

In summary, there’s no need to avoid sodium.  If you’re active and sweat a lot, you may actually need to supplement with more of it.[30][31]  There’s nothing wrong with salting your food to taste.  But if you are thinking of supplementing, you most likely need more potassium rather than sodium.

Calcium : phosphorus ratio

Higher calcium:phosphorus ratios tend to be associated with reduced risk of obesity.[32][33]

A calcium:phosphorus ratio of greater than 1:1.3 is said to be optimal.[34]

Supplementing calcium does not appear to be beneficial.  Whole foods are best.

Calcium : magnesium ratio

The human body needs adequate levels of magnesium to properly use calcium.[35]  Almost half of the US population is not meeting recommended requirements for magnesium.[36]


Meanwhile, magnesium deficiency affects calcium metabolism and alters levels of certain hormones that regulate calcium in the body.

High intakes of calcium may interfere with magnesium status by reducing intestinal absorption and increasing urinary losses.[37]

Additionally, magnesium deficiency is known to induce calcium deficiency.[38]

Calcium and magnesium also compete with one other and interfere with the other’s functions if they are out of balance.

Magnesium may prevent calcium from contracting muscles when the ratio of magnesium to calcium is incorrect.

The ideal calcium:magnesium ratio said to be between 1:1 to 2:1.

What to do to rebalance your ratios

The first instinct when you see your micronutrient ratios out of balance is to reach for the supplements to bring things back in line.  But unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Some feel that it would be simpler if we could just design the optimal mix of gruel with just the right amount of macronutrients and micronutrients, all carefully measured out from a bottle.  Some of the most interesting discussion on the topic of micronutrient ratios is in the DIY Soylent forums where people are paying particular attention to designing their vitamin and mineral infused protein shakes.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t tend to work well either. Isolated supplements aren’t equivalent to the nutrients found in real food.

While the Nutrient Optimiser will highlight some supplements to help you meet the Daily Recommended Intake levels for important nutrients, supplements don’t absorb into our system the same way and don’t appear in the right ratios and combinations.  While foods are always going to be optimal.

The foods and meals provided by the Nutrient Optimiser will help you to progressively rebalance your micronutrients by emphasising only the nutrients that you need more of.  When you focus on these foods, you will automatically get less of the nutrients you need to avoid.


  • The primary goal of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm is to help you get more of the nutrients you need without excess energy.
  • Various micronutrients interact with each other and compete for absorption, so balancing these nutrients is also beneficial.
  • Rather than emphasising nutrients based on your nutrient ratios, the Nutrient Optimiser uses the nutrient ratios as a safety check to make sure that you’re not being recommended any food that will push micronutrient imbalances and to maximise the benefit of your diet.
  • It’s impossible to calculate nutrient requirements perfectly. The best we can do is to refine your diet to provide your body with adequate levels of nutrients from whole foods and let your digestive system do what it does best.











































Don’t Eat for Winter!

Modern processed food uses the same formula that Mother Nature uses to provide hyper-palatable food in autumn to help us eat more, store fat, and prepare for winter.

In our modern food environment “comfort foods” are designed to be delicious and allow us to consume more of them.

We are instinctively drawn to foods that fit this special autumnal gorge formula because they provide energy quickly with minimal effort.

The modern food industry has responded to our prehistoric urges with an abundance of cheap and tasty foods that will quickly prepare you for winter 365 days a year.

This article lists nutrient-dense foods that use the autumn formula to help you achieve your goals.  If you are a hard-charging athlete, they will allow you to eat more to fuel your activity.  If you have some extra body fat you’d like to lose, we also will look at how we can use this understanding to manage our appetite.

The squirrel formula

After reading my recent articles looking at the relationship between macronutrients and satiety, Cian Foley contacted me to share his Autumnal Squirrel Gorge Formula.

Cian made the insightful observation that, rather than carbs alone or fat alone, it’s the combination of lower protein with moderate fat and moderate carbohydrate that makes foods easy to overeat and store fat.  While this was a survival advantage, it has a diabolical impact on our health today.


Foods with this unique macronutrient profile can help you recover from long bouts of exercise quickly.  But they will also help you store body fat efficiently if you’re not thin or active.


In nature, we have milk that helps babies grow.


Acorns help squirrels prepare for winter.


And now hyper-palatable junk food has been designed around the same formula that enables us to buy, eat and store more as body fat.


Fast food

I liked the way Cian presented the macros as a “star chart” on his Don’t Eat for Winter blog (as shown in the chart above).

I thought it would be interesting to build on this approach to look at the macronutrient profile of different food groups.

The chart below shows the macros for the average of all the foods in the USDA database (blue) compared to fast food (orange).  I have shown indigestible fibre and net carbs as well as protein and fat.


On average, fast food has more fat, less fibre and less protein compared to the average of all foods in the database.

protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
fast food 20% 42% 35% 3% 23%

Most nutrient dense

in contrast to fast food, the table below shows how the most nutrient-dense foods compare in terms of macronutrients and nutrient density.

[Note: Nutrient-dense foods are those that have higher levels of potassium, magnesium, zinc, selenium, vitamin E, vitamin B5, vitamin D, thiamine, choline and omega 3 which are harder to find in our commercialised and industrialised food system.]

  protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
nutrient dense 49% 20% 20% 11% 61%

Nutrient dense foods tend to have more protein and fibre, with less fat and digestible carbohydrate.


This table lists some of the most nutrient-dense foods along with their macronutrient split and nutrient density score.

names % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre ND
asparagus 34% 7% 30% 29% 96%
mushrooms 36% 3% 53% 9% 89%
oyster 43% 34% 24% 0% 88%
crab 91% 9% 0% 0% 86%
lobster 91% 9% 0% 0% 85%
spinach 41% 8% 18% 33% 85%

You don’t need a lot of these foods to get adequate vitamins and minerals.  These foods are harder to overeat, and you’ll be more likely to burn some of your body fat at the end of the day, rather than storing more.

High protein

As shown at the top of this chart below, the analysis of half a million days of MyFitnessPal data demonstrates that higher protein foods are typically more satiating and help people to eat less.


The table below shows the macro profile of the highest protein foods in the USDA database (i.e. the top 10% highest ranking foods).

protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
highest protein 77% 22% 1% 0% 43%

High protein foods are often animal-based and hence do not contain a lot of carbohydrates.  They also have a very respectable nutrient density score.


As discussed in this article, prioritising protein tends to lead to satiety and a spontaneously reduced energy intake.


If you’re interested in increasing your protein intake, the table below lists some higher protein foods.

names % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre ND
cod 97% 3% 0% 0% 28%
tuna 96% 4% 0% 0% 63%
shrimp 95% 5% 0% 0% 28%
haddock 94% 6% 0% 0% 64%
crab 93% 7% 0% 0% 48%
egg white 91% 9% 0% 0% 28%

Low fat / high carb

Interestingly, it seems that people consuming a low-fat diet or high-carb diet are also able to maintain a lower calorie intake.  Thin whole food plant-based vegans are an example of this.


The table below shows the macros for the lowest fat foods in the USDA database (which also happen to be high in carbohydrates).

protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
low fat / high carb 8% 1% 84% 7% 14%

The advantage of high-carb whole food plant-based foods is that it is hard to consume enough energy to overeat because of the low-fat content, low energy density and high fibre content.

The downside is that the nutrient density tends to be lower.  While green leafy veggies are an excellent source of micronutrients, processed grains and sugars are low in the nutrients we need more of.  The protein content of these foods is also lower and may not be adequate if you are trying to improve your body composition.


The table below shows some nutrient-dense foods that are low in fat and higher in carbs.

names % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre ND
pumpkin 13% 3% 78% 6% 62%
shiitake mushrooms 9% 3% 75% 13% 61%
butternut squash 8% 2% 75% 15% 55%
acorn squash 7% 2% 78% 13% 48%
parsnips 7% 4% 71% 19% 43%
winter squash 10% 3% 72% 15% 39%
Jerusalem-artichokes 10% 0% 81% 8% 37%
sweet potato 9% 1% 76% 14% 34%

Before the invention of refrigerators or the ability to store grains, humans would have consumed higher protein, higher fat foods in winter when energy from plant foods was less available, and vice versa.  Rarely did we have a situation where both carbs and fat were abundant at the same time.

Low protein / high fat

One of the more interesting observations from the MFP data analysis is that low-protein high-fat foods seem to have an inferior outcome in terms of satiety (as shown at the bottom of this chart).


If you are trying to lose body fat, avoiding protein and eating “fat to satiety” doesn’t appear to be a great strategy.  In fact, it is the only approach that led people to consistently consume more than their calorie goal.

The table and chart below show the nutrient density and macronutrient profile of the foods in the USDA database that have less protein and more fat.

protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
low protein high fat 5% 89% 4% 1% 10%


Nuts provide minerals, but as a general rule, the nutrient density of these foods is reduced.

names % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre ND
sunflower seeds 13% 76% 4% 6% 43%
brazil nuts 8% 85% 2% 4% 35%
almonds 13% 76% 4% 6% 29%
avocado 5% 76% 4% 15% 26%
sour cream 5% 86% 9.1% 0% 18%
peanut butter 14% 72% 11% 3% 18%
olives 4% 70% 14% 11% 16%
cream 3% 94% 3.2% 0% 15%
walnuts 14% 80% 2% 4% 11%

If you need to consume a therapeutic ketogenic diet to help with the management of epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or dementia, then you would be wise to pay extra attention to micronutrients and consider supplements and/or targeted foods that will provide additional nutrients.

Lower protein, moderate fat, moderate carbs

Coming back to the autumnal squirrel gorge formula, the My Fitness Pal demonstrated that we tend to eat more when we consume foods with less protein, but more carbs and fat at the same time.


In line with these observations, a recent study in Cell, Supra-Additive Effects of Combining Fat and Carbohydrate on Food Reward found that people are willing to pay more for foods that contain a combination of fat and carbohydrate.  We naturally crave these foods if they are available.  The processed food industry is only too happy to fulfil the demand.

The table below shows the macronutrient profile and nutrient density of the lower-protein (< 20%) foods that have moderate fat (>30%) and moderate carbs (>30%).

protein fat net carbs fibre ND
average 26% 32% 37% 5% 24%
low protein mod fat mod carbs 8% 42% 47% 3% 8%

Compared to average, these foods have less protein, more fat, less fibre and more digestible carbohydrates.  This is the macronutrient profile that is diabolical!


A selection of the foods that fit this macronutrient profile is listed below.  The most nutrient dense are mashed potato with butter, chocolate milk and potato chips, and it just gets worse from there.

names % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre ND score
mashed potatoes (with butter) 7% 42% 43% 7% 33%
chocolate milk 15% 36% 45% 4% 21%
potato chips 5% 56% 37% 2% 18%
custard 10% 50% 37% 3% 17%
french toast 14% 43% 44% 0% 16%
waffles 11% 44% 45% 0% 16%
blueberry muffins 5% 39% 55% 1% 14%
hash brown 5% 43% 48% 5% 13%
garlic bread 10% 43% 45% 3% 13%
human breast milk 6% 55% 39% 0% 13%
ice cream 7% 48% 44% 1% 12%
pancakes 11% 39% 50% 0% 12%
blueberry pancakes 11% 37% 52% 0% 11%
ice cream 7% 53% 39% 1% 10%
dark chocolate 4% 53% 38% 5% 10%
Snickers 6% 44% 48% 2% 10%
popcorn 7% 49% 37% 8% 10%
cheese bread 10% 46% 42% 2% 9%
Toblerone 4% 49% 45% 2% 8%
pecan pie 5% 47% 49% 0% 8%
acorns 6% 53% 41% 0% 8%
biscuits 8% 42% 49% 2% 8%
ice cream cone 6% 55% 38% 1% 7%
Twix 5% 54% 38% 2% 7%
Kit Kat 5% 45% 49% 1% 6%
white chocolate 4% 53% 43% 0% 5%
choc chip cookies 4% 42% 52% 2% 4%
Girl Scout Cookies 3% 46% 48% 4% 3%
pie crust 3% 51% 45% 1% 2%
Kit Kat 5% 47% 47% 1% 1%
toffee 1% 53% 46% 0% 1%
M&Ms 4% 36% 59% 2% 0%
Milky Way 4% 37% 58% 1% 0%
Milk Chocolate 4% 52% 42% 2% 0%

Looking down this list, you know intuitively that these foods are not good for you in significant quantities!  The only natural foods on this list are acorns (remember the squirrel formula?) and breast milk (which helps little things grow quickly into big things).  The rest are “comfort foods” that have been engineered to enable us to eat more of them while providing very little in the way of protein or nutrients.

These foods may be great if you have run a marathon but not so good if you’re a couch potato with some extra fat to lose.

Our ancestors would have loved these foods because they provide a lot of energy quickly with minimal effort and would enable them to survive through winter.

Our instincts help us avoid starvation.  In the olden days, we had to prioritise foods with higher energy density energy and didn’t have to worry much about nutrients.  Mother Nature knew exactly what we needed to prepare for winter, and just like mum’s cooking, we find it very hard to resist these foods when they are placed in front of us.


In his Don’t Eat for Winter book Cian included this chart that I think is brilliant!  He went through the USDA database and tabulated the average Glycemic Index of the foods that naturally grow in various months.  As you can see from the little humans below, the high GI foods do a great job of preparing us for winter when would rely on using the stored body fat as fuel.  Not only have we manipulated our food environment to be, we have manipulated our light environment so we are exposed to stimulating blue light from our screens and mobile devices any time we are not trying to sleep.


Today, the food industry has responded to our prehistoric urges with an abundance of autumnal foods with carbs and fats that will fatten is up for winter ALL YEAR ROUND!!!

I don’t think you can blame just fat or carbs.  Both the grains and added fats that have increased in our diet.


Grains, vegetable oils and refined dairy fats are cheap, transportable and have a long shelf life, but are not a necessarily a good investment if you are interested in managing your waistline, diabetes risk or your long-term health.

Putting ourselves in Grok’s shoes can be useful.  But rather than trying to follow in his footsteps, we need to reverse engineer our instincts to stay healthy and avoid the diseases of modern civilisation.


If you want to avoid obesity and overeating, then an excellent place to start is to stay away from low nutrient density foods that are low in protein and have a mixture of fat and carbs.   Ted Naiman’s infographic below sums this up nicely.


The combination of carbs and fat together is rare, but in today’s food environment it typically signifies “junk food” or “comfort food”.  We are almost powerless against these man-made food “products” when given the opportunity.

If you’re looking for a bit of extra help, you may want to check out your free and personalised Nutrient Optimiser report to find foods and meals that are ideal for your situation and goals and stop preparing for a winter!





why breakfast is the most important meal of a day

According to some, the idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was generated by Kellogg’s to sell cereal designed to decrease libido and control masturbation.


Today, many people like to skip breakfast because they are busy in the morning or to help manage their food intake across the day.


But what can half a million days of MyFitnessPal data tell us about whether eating breakfast is optimal to manage our appetite in order to stay healthy and lean?

To understand the effect of breakfast on our appetite we plotted the proportion of calories consumed at breakfast versus the degree to which people were able to achieve their calorie goal when logging in MyFitnessPal.  A score of greater than 100% means that a person was not able to achieve their target calorie intake.  A score of less than 100% indicates that a person’s reported consumption was under their goal.

is breakfast the most important meal of the day - scatter

Granted, there are limitations with self-reported data versus a metabolic ward study, but many of the concerns are common across the board and cancel themselves out.  While there is plenty of scatter, there is a definite trend towards eating less across the day in the people that consumed more of their daily calories at breakfast.

To help make sense of all the scatter, the chart below shows the average for the different “bins” of data based on the proportion of a person’s daily calories consumed at breakfast.

is breakfast the most important meal of the day - optimising nutrition.png

Most people instinctively prefer to eat a larger dinner with a minimal breakfast.  But keep in mind that our instincts have developed to help us avoid starvation and store fat in preparation for winter, not to avoid diabetes or look good naked.

It’s often more convenient to eat at night when we are with our family and friends and have unlimited access to our fridge and cupboard.  It’s easy to sit down in front of Netflix with a bag of chips and chocolate and eat mindlessly.  Afterwards, you go to sleep which maximises your body’s opportunity to store the food you just ate.

This data seems to align with emerging research indicating that early time restricted-feeding (eTRF) approach with a hearty meal eaten earlier in the day helps to improve satiety and reduce appetite.

The study from Satchin Panda’s lab found that, on average, people eat for 14.75 hours per day.  On average, people consume their maintenance calories by 6:36 pm, but many continue to eat as long as they are still conscious.


In the second phase of the study participants were encouraged people to follow a more compressed eating window with their the bulk of their food consumed earlier in the day.   Although it took some time to adjust, they unanimously loved the change!


Stay tuned for future articles where we’ll look at:

  • What should you eat at each meal if you want to maximise satiety and lose weight with less effort (spoiler alert: it’s not starchy cereal)?
  • How many meals a day is optimal?
  • Which meals are most important?

In the meantime, if you’re looking for some nutrient dense breakfast ideas tailored to your goals, head over and get your free Nutrient Optimiser report.  We hope you love it!



  • Analysis was limited to people who logged more than one meal a day to eliminate people who did not log meals.
  • Analysis was limited to people with goal energy intake between 1000 and 2500 calories to focus on people aiming for weight loss.
  • Analysis limited to people who achieved between 50% and 300% of their goal calorie intake to eliminate incomplete days and extraordinary eating days.
  • n = 310,479 days of data