your personalised food ranking system


  • A number of attempts have been made to develop food rankings.
  • We can combine the concept of insulin load with nutrient density to help us make optimal food choices based on our goals, situation and budget.
  • This article looks at other ways to prioritise our our food choices quantitatively to design a food ranking to suit your situation, goals and budget.

Mat Lalonde’s nutrient density

Dr Mat Lalonde developed a ranking of foods based on nutrient density in terms of nutrients per gram using the USDA food database. [1]  This analysis identified organ meats as one of the more nutritious foods, with vegetables coming in second.  Fruits and grains landed much further down the list.

Lalonde noted that people wanting to lose weight may wish to prioritise in terms nutrient density per calorie, however he had chosen to analyse nutrient density in terms of weight as that might be more relevant for athletes (Lalonde is a CrossFit athlete as well as a biochemist). [2]

I was left excited, yet a little unsatisfied, wondering what the ranking might look like in terms of calories, or maybe some other measure.

Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI)

Joel Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) ranks foods based on micronutrients per calorie [3] but excludes a number of essential vitamins and minerals while placing extra emphasis on the oxygen radical absorbance capacity.

This approach heavily biases plant foods and seems to ignore the nutritional benefits of animal foods. [4]  Kale ranks at the top of the list, largely due to its massive amount of vitamin K.

Unfortunately a massive dose of vitamin K isn’t much use to us in the context of a low fat given that vitamin K (along with vitamin D and E) is a fat soluble vitamin.  It’s also not much use having a food that ranks off the chart in one nutrient but it’s that good in a number of other areas.   Vitamin K is important but you can only absorb so much in one day.

Another criticism that has been levelled at ANDI is that simply using nutrition per calorie prioritises very low calorie density foods that may not be viable for anyone doing a significant amount of activity.

Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Diet

Dave Asprey developed the Bulletproof Diet Infographic [5] which is a simple ranking of foods to avoid and preference based on both nutritional density and toxins.

The downside of this is that it shows only a select range of foods and doesn’t explain why each of the foods has the ranking that is has been given (though there is a good discussion of the toxins and various issues in his book [6]).

Most people would be happy with this visual list of foods to preference and avoid, and I recommend you check it out, however I wanted to see the numbers to understand why one food ranked above another.

nutrient density per dollar

I also came across a food ranking system in terms of nutrient density per dollar.  Dale Cumore of the blog Solving Nutrition [7] had created a ranking based on nutrient density per dollar cost of that food to arrive at the cheapest way to get nutrition for around 1000 foods that he could find cost data for.

Dale included a link to his  spreadsheet on his blog (in which he has mimicked Lalonde’s analysis [8]) for people to have a play with.  So I downloaded it to see what I could do with it. [9]     After dropping out the fortified products, we get the following list of foods based ranked on nutrient density per dollar.

  • bagels
  • French rolls
  • croissants
  • muffins
  • lentils
  • tortillas
  • rice
  • parsley
  • beef liver
  • spaghetti
  • Chinese cabbage (Bok Choy)
  • sunflower seeds
  • White bread
  • chicken liver
  • peanut butter
  • skim milk
  • peanuts
  • chives
  • whole eggs
  • brown rice
  • sweet potato
  • cabbage
  • orange juice

Grains are actually a cost effective way to get nutrients, however not necessarily the most healthy.    People believe that most if not all grains should be avoided. [10]  My ten year old daughter knows that if she eats bread she will end up tired, with a stomach ache and dark circles around her eyes.  However if  cost is your number one priority you might find this list useful.

cost per calorie

Cost will always be a consideration to some degree.  Some people may not have the finances to buy grass fed organic while others will have the means to invest in food as preventative medicine.  Listed below are the cheapest foods in terms of cost per calorie.  Again, grains (including white rice), candy and sugar rank up there with some of the cheapest ways to get calories. [11]

While it’s true that grass fed beef, salmon and organic vegetables can be more expensive than boxed cereals and sugar, it’s also worth noting that obtaining significant proportion of your calories from fats such as coconut oil and butter can actually be very cost effective on a per calorie basis.

  • pumpernickel rolls
  • croissants
  • bagels
  • canola oil
  • French rolls
  • margarine
  • what muffins
  • coconut oil
  • granulated sugar
  • rice
  • brown sugar
  • mayonnaise
  • doughnuts
  • tortillas
  • cake mix
  • peanut butter
  • cranberry juice
  • spaghetti
  • sausage
  • corn starch

nutrient density per calorie

Nutrient density per calorie is a useful measurement for someone wanting to lose weight while maximising nutrition.   One line of health and weight loss thinking says that once the body obtains adequate nutrients it will stop searching for food and overeating will be minimised. [12]  Using this approach vegetables shoot to the top of the list with things like spinach, liver, seafood oysters, kale and broccoli rank really well.

  • spinach
  • chicken liver
  • beef liver
  • beet greens
  • veal liver
  • pork liver
  • duck liver
  • goose liver
  • turnip greens
  • mustard greens
  • parsley
  • chard
  • oyster
  • coriander
  • dandelion greens
  • basil
  • caviar
  • kale
  • broccoli
  • All bran
  • collards

fibre per calorie

One of the more exciting concepts in the diet space recently is the concept that what you eat could possibly change your gut bacteria for better or worse.

While this area is still in its infancy the thinking is that lean people have a higher bacteriodes : fermicutes ratio and that this can be influenced by eating more fibre and taking prebiotics.

Typical daily fibre intake is around 17g for those of us in western civilisation. It is said that African hunter gatherer children obtain more than 150g of fibre per day from eating unprocessed foods in their natural state [13] and before the invention of fire and cooking our ancestors were eating more than 100g of fibre per day. [14]

Fibre in carbohydrate-containing foods neutralises the insulinogenic effect of the carbohydrate.  Fibre is not digestible by the human gut and hence it does not provide energy or cause a rise in blood sugar or insulin.

The typical western recommendation is to get at least 30g of fibre per day to improve your blood sugar and cholesterol levels.  Most people don’t achieve these levels even when eating “healthy whole grains”, largely due to the high level of processing in most popular foods.

It’s also worth noting that it’s better to lightly steam your veggies rather than cooking them until they’re soft so that the fibre remains intact.

Ironically the number one recommended source for fibre is from “healthy whole grains”.  While whole grains will be marginally better than processed grains such as white bread, they also have a high glycemic load and will be much more insulinogenic than other options such as non-starchy vegetables.  The end result of eating the whole grains is increased blood sugars and cholesterol, which is exactly what “healthy whole grains” was meant to help us avoid!

If we rank for fibre per calorie we end up with a few spices such a cinnamon, curry powder, or cocoa at the top of the list along with vegies such as turnip, artichoke, sauerkraut, cauliflower.  All Bran features in the list but only because it has been fortified with extra fibre.

  • cinnamon
  • turnip greens
  • artichoke
  • curry powder
  • sauerkraut
  • cauliflower
  • raspberries
  • lettuce
  • blackberries
  • lemon peel
  • All Bran (w/ added extra fibre)
  • oregano
  • wheat bran
  • eggplant
  • basil

practical application

These lists of foods ranked based on one measurement or another are interesting, however they are not particularly useful by themselves.  If we went by Lalonde’s system we’d be eating bacon and organ meats all the time.  If we went by the ANDI system we’d be living off kale.  And if we just looked at the proportion of insulinogenic calories we would be living off butter, cream and oils.

But it gets interesting though when you can combine the various measurements to highlight foods to suit your individual goals.

In my previous articles on diets for weight loss, blood sugar management and athletes I provide a list of optimal foods for using different weightings for the following:

  • nutrient density per calorie,
  • fibre per calorie,
  • nutrient density per dollar,
  • nutrient density per 100g,
  • proportion of insulinogenic calories,
  • calories per 100g, and
  • cost per calorie.

Listed below are the weightings that I’ve devised for each situation.

I’ve also developed a suite of ‘cheat sheets’ to highlight optimal food choices to suit your goals, whether they be weight loss,  normalising weight loss or or athletic performance.

Why not print one out and stick it to your fridge as a helpful reminder or use them for some inspiration for your next shopping expedition?

In the next article we’ll look at how we can use this style of analysis to identify diabetic friendly, ketogenic, nutrient dense meals.

weighting for blood sugar control and ketosis

ND / calorie fibre / calorie ND / 100g ND / weight insulinogenic (%) calorie / 100g $ / calorie
15% 5% 5% 10% 50% 10% 5%
weighting for weight loss
ND / calorie fibre / calorie ND / 100g ND / weight insulinogenic (%) calorie / 100g $ / calorie
15% 10% 10% 5% 20% 30% 10%
weighting for athletes and metabolically healthy
ND / calorie fibre / calorie ND / 100g ND / weight insulinogenic (%) calorie / 100g $ / calorie
15% 10% 10% 30% 20% 5% 10%
weighting for theraputic ketosis
ND / calorie fibre / calorie ND / 100g ND / weight insulinogenic (%) calorie / 100g $ / calorie
5% 5% 5% 5% 70% 5% 5%

references

[1] http://ketopia.com/nutrient-density-sticking-to-the-essentials-mathieu-lalonde-ahs12/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwbY12qZcF4

[3] http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/healthy-eating/andi-guide

[4] http://www.westonaprice.org/book-reviews/eat-to-live-by-joel-fuhrman/

[5] http://www.bulletproofexec.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Bulletproof-Diet-Infographic-Vector.pdf

[6] http://www.amazon.com/The-Bulletproof-Diet-Reclaim-Upgrade/dp/162336518X

[7] http://blog.paleohacks.com/ultimate-guide-paleo-diet-budget/

[8] The analysis considers the relative amount of calcium, iron, magnesium phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, panto acid, vitamin B6, choline, vitamin B12, Vitamin A, vitamin D, Vitamin E and Vitamin K across more than 1000 foods.  No weighting of these vitamins based on a view of their relative importance, though this refinement could be made to the analysis for a specific need.  This unweighted approach however highlights foods that have a broad spectrum of nutrients at significant levels.

[9] The statistical analysis in the spreadsheet downloaded compares the value of a nutrient in each food to the average of the full database of foods and gives it a score based on the number of standard deviations from the mean.  I also modified the spreadsheet such that a score for one nutrient could not be greater than three (i.e. three standard deviations from the mean).   Just because Kale has an inordinate amount of Vitamin K doesn’t mean that it ranks at the top of the list on the basis of just one nutrient.

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvfTV57iPUY

[11] If you wanted to view this cynically you could say that the fact that grains and sugars have the lowest cost per calorie enables food manufacturers to place the largest mark up on these foods when reselling them in cardboard boxes in the supermarket.  It’s harder to put a bar code on generic vegetables and meat products that are already relatively expensive.

[12] See discussion in chapter 17 Nutrient Hunger in Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet where he notes that a nourishing, balanced diet that provides all nutrients in the right proportions is the key to eliminating hunger an minimising appetite and eliminating hunger at minimal caloric intake is a key to weight loss.  

[13] http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/4067184.htm

[14] http://www.gregdavis.ca/share/paleo-articles/academic/The%20Ancestral%20Human%20Diet%20by%20S.%20Boyd%20Eaton.pdf

14 thoughts on “your personalised food ranking system”

  1. On the weightloss list of foods, what is a “frankfurter crab” and what about “ground chicken” makes it preferable to chicken that has not been ground?

    Like

    1. Thanks for the pickup. Crab should have been on the next line.

      I think chicken may have come up higher in the ranking possibly because it had a higher fat content and hence would be less insulinogenic. I’ve changed it back to just chicken.

      Like

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