what about saturated fat?

  • The topic of saturated fat continues to be contentious.
  • While most people agree these days that minimising sugar and processed carbohydrates is a good, thing many still struggle with the idea of eating fat, particularly saturated fat.  At the other extreme there are some people who have heard the message to ‘not fear the fat’ loud and clear and seem to be making up for lost time by eating copious amounts of processed fat.
  • This article looks at what happens to nutrient density when we swing to the extremes of either very low or very high levels of saturated fat intake in our diet.  As per usual, optimal lies somewhere between the extremes.
  • If we focus on nutrient dense whole foods issues like dietary saturated fat and cholesterol tend to look after themselves.

saturated fat in various food approaches

There are plenty of different views on fat and saturated fat and very little agreement between the extremes.

If you spend much time trying to research the issue you will likely come away confused after trying to understand the implications of the epidemiological and rodent studies.

People are also very passionate on both sides of this argument.  It can be hard to know which guru to believe.

Is saturated fat the greatest dietary villain or saviour leading us from the wilderness of the low fat dark ages?


You may be aware that the USDA Dietary Advisory Committee recently changed position on dietary cholesterol and removed their upper limit on fat.[1]  They did however retain their recommended upper limit on saturated fat (10% in the USA and 11% in the UK).

As noted by Dr Frank Hu in the video below, the upper limit is not based on any specific research that higher levels of saturated fat are dangerous, but rather the fact that what they consider to be healthy diets (e.g. Mediterranean, Ornish etc) were within these upper limits.

Over the last four decades massive industries have developed around the concept of lowering cholesterol in your blood through diet or drugs in order to reduce your risk of heart disease, so there is going to be a high degree of inertia that will make any change in thinking happen slowly at best.

With all the concern and confusion about saturated fat I thought it would be interesting to check the saturated fat content of the highest ranking foods identified by the food ranking system to see how they compare with the upper limits.

The table below shows that none of the food lists exceed the recommended upper limit for saturated fatty acids.  Even the diabetic friendly low insulin load approach with half the energy coming from fat has a saturated fat level less than 11%.

approach SFA fat protein insulinogenic
most nutrient dense 5.6% 22% 30% 52%
low energy density 6.9% 17% 37% 55%
low insulin load 9.7% 49% 20% 30%

So it seems that focus on nutrient dense whole foods we end with moderate, but not excessive, levels of saturated fat.[2]  

what happens if we get rid of all saturated fat?

It’s always useful to test a theory by looking at what happens at the extremes.

I starting wondering about the relationship between saturated fat and nutrient density.

“What would happen to nutrient density if you removed ALL saturated fat?”

“Does avoiding saturated fat affect nutrient density for the better or worse?”

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the essential nutrients for foods that have no saturated fatty acids (SFA) compared to vegetables, seafood and the most nutrient dense foods.

This analysis indicates that if you eliminate saturated fatty acids the nutrient density plummets!  As you can see from the little red bars on the graph, you might be able to obtain solid levels of Vitamin C and Vitamin A from a diet with no saturated fat but everything else is abysmal!


how does SFA influence nutrient density?

So eliminating saturated fat completely doesn’t appear to be such a great idea.   But what does the other extreme look like?

I sorted the 7000+ foods in the USDA database by their saturated fat content and divided them into four equal “quartiles”.  The table below shows the SFA as a percentage of calories for the different quartiles.  Interestingly, only the highest quartile exceeds the arbitrary limit for saturated fat (i.e. 13% compared to the 10% arbitrary upper limit in USA or 11% in the UK).

quartile SFA fat protein insulinogenic
first 0.05% 18% 15% 72%
second 1.1% 20% 28% 63%
third 4.5% 32% 38% 52%
fourth 13% 50% 22% 38%

I think the most interesting observation here is in the right hand column.  The more you try to avoid saturated fat the more insulinogenic your diet ends up being.  That is, in the avoidance of saturated fat you may end up exacerbating any genetic propensity that you may have towards insulin resistance and diabetes by eating foods that require your pancreas to produce high levels of insulin to keep up!

One of the challenges with the low fat approach is that the avoidance of fat can often lead to increased consumption of highly processed, highly insulinogenic foods which tend to be a problem for people who are insulin resistant.

In the 70s when they started to encourage people to eat less saturated fat (which was associated with fried junk food) people didn’t eat more vegetables as they’d hoped.  Instead people ate more processed foods that now had to be sweetened with sugar to make sure it didn’t taste like cardboard.  Some would argue that this increase in low nutrient density carbohydrates has been a major contributor to the current obesity epidemic.


“Replacement of saturated fat by carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates and added sugars, increases levels of triglyceride and small LDL particles and reduces high-density lipoprotein, cholesterol, effects that are of particular concern in the context of the increased prevalence of obesity and insulin resistance.”[3]

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the nutrient density for the various nutrients for each of the saturated fat quartiles.  While it’s hard to digest all the detail on this chart it appears that, the third quartile (i.e. more saturated fat than average) tends to have the highest nutrient density on average however the second quartile is more consistently high (i.e. less highs and low).


The chart below shows the average of the nutrient density across the quartiles of saturated fat.  The lowest quartile has the lowest amount of nutrients both in terms of average and being consistently high.  The foods that are the highest in saturated fat have more nutrition than the foods low in saturated fat.  However the second and third quartiles have the most.


what’s the latest on saturated fat?

In this video from Dr Frank Hu points out that when you’re talking about whether saturated fat is good or bad it’s important to consider what you are exchanging it with.  For example, saturated fat is good if it’s replacing processed carbohydrates, but not so good if you are replacing your vegetables with processed saturated fat.

The most interesting paper I have found on the topic is Saturated fat and cardiometabolic risk factors, coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: a fresh look at the evidence by Dariush Mozaffarin[4] which indicates that, while total cholesterol in the blood may increase with increased dietary saturated fat, the changes in HDL and total cholesterol : HDL ratio are positive.


When we look in more detail it seems that saturated fats such as 14:0 and 16:0 (typically found in dairy) have positive effects on HDL and insulin sensitivity.


So in the end it seems the case for or against saturated fat is confusing at best (see the Good Fats, Bad Fats article for more detail).

More recently there has been a more thorough analysis of the data from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment (1968 to 1973) on which the diet-heart hypothesis was based and which has driven the avoidance of fat in the western diet.[5] [6] [7]   The understanding based on this original research headed up by Ancel Keys, was that increased fat raises ‘bad cholesterol’ which leads to heart attacks.

Does the more rigorous analysis of the full data still support this hypothesis?    To quote from Professor Grant Schofield:[8]

The diet-heart hypothesis says that saturated fat raises cholesterol and thus causes heart disease.  Widespread acceptance of this idea has shaped the way we look and how we eat more than anything else in the history of health and medicine.

It’s still the cornerstone of conventional wisdom and dietary guidelines in virtually every country. It’s still the reason the conventional experts can’t take the biologically obvious leap to embracing low carb healthy fat diets for important treatments like weight loss and diabetes.

So, 40+ years on. Here it is in all its glory, published in the BMJ no less. What did they find?

“Available evidence from randomized controlled trials shows that replacement of saturated fat in the diet with linoleic acid effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease or all causes.

“Findings from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment add to growing evidence that incomplete publication has contributed to overestimation of the benefits of replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils rich in linoleic acid.”

That’s right, there was no support for their hypothesis in a randomised trial of more than 9500. Replacing saturated fat with Omega 6 fat did reduce cholesterol, but as we’d predict had no effect on heart disease.

The one effect they did see was that older subjects who lowered their cholesterol had higher overall mortality.  Yes, cholesterol lowering in older adults caused more death. This is an effect already seen in some population studies.

So it seems that the diet–heart hypothesis that tells us to avoid fat, particularly saturated fat, is on shaky ground these days.

so what now?

So, should we avoid fat at all costs?


Or, after all these years of being told to avoid saturated fat should we rebel and make up for lost time?


As with most things, optimal lies somewhere between the extremes.

Perhaps if we focus on nutrient dense whole foods then issues like dietary fat and cholesterol will look after themselves?



[1] http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/assessing-the-new-u-s-dietary-guidelines/

[2] http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/nutrient-reference-values-nrvs/

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2943062/

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20354806

[5] http://www.pubfacts.com/detail/27071971/Re-evaluation-of-the-traditional-diet-heart-hypothesis-analysis-of-recovered-data-from-Minnesota-Cor

[6] http://whatthefatbook.com/prof-grant-on-minnesota-coronary-experiment/

[7] http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/the-case-of-the-missing-data-1.1412420

[8] http://whatthefatbook.com/prof-grant-on-minnesota-coronary-experiment/

garlic prawns, spinach, pine nuts

This “diet” food is so hard to take!   And with a great blood glucose response to boot!

Fresh prawns from the markets with spinach, pine nuts, shiitake mushrooms, butter and garlic.

Super high on the vitamins and minerals as well as aminos with the pine nuts and spinach.

Prawns are a nice way to get your DHA in as well.

net carbs

insulin load carb insulin fat protein


11g 35g 31% 50% 36%


nutritious low energy density foods for weight loss

  • Low energy density foods help you feel full with fewer calories as well as improving nutrient density per calorie.
  • Some people who benefit from an LCHF approach initially may, as their blood glucose and insulin levels normalise, also benefit by decreasing the energy density and increasing the nutrient density of their diet.
  • These low energy density foods will provide the nutrients you need with fewer calories.


Human appetite is an intriguing, multifaceted and complex system that works to keep us alive and drives us to obtain fuel to survive and nutrients to thrive.  Three key drivers of appetite are:

  1. metabolic flexibility,
  2. satiety, and
  3. satiation.

Someone who is metabolically flexible can easily switch between available fuel sources.  Their insulin levels are lower, and when food is not available, they can easily transition to using body fat for fuel and not be as compelled by their appetite to eat as often.

You can develop metabolic flexibility through intermittent fasting (which is the most effective thing to lower insulin levels) and by tailoring the insulin load of your diet to optimise your blood glucose levels (which we looked at in the last article).

Satiety is a longer term process that occurs when we have obtained adequate nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids).  We looked in detail at how we can maximise the nutrient density of the food we eat in the Building a Better Nutrient Density article.  Satiation occurs when we have had a good meal and feel full and no longer feel like eating.

If you want a more thorough discussion of these topics, I recommend checking out J. Stanton’s excellent series on satiety, satiation and hunger.  This article focuses on how we can identify and prioritise foods that maximise satiety (increasing nutrient density to reduce cravings) and satiation (feeling of fullness with fewer calories) for people who are metabolically flexible (i.e. reasonable blood glucose level) but still have some more weight to lose.

vegetarian / HCLF context

The message to reduce our intake of high-fat foods is not new.  It has been the cornerstone of much of the ‘conventional nutritional wisdom’.  We are told not to consume too much fat because it contains more than twice as many calories per gramme as carbohydrates and protein.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]

People who promote a vegan lifestyle point out that high-fat foods are not as filling as fruits and vegetables as shown in the diagram below from forksoverknives.com. [7]   This makes sense intuitively but appears initially to be at odds with the low carb high-fat approach.

calorie density… what 500 calories look like

Plant based diet advocates like Joel Fuhrman[8] [9] and Neal Barnard[10] [11] talk about low energy density as a key element of the effectiveness of their program.

Professor Barbara Rolls has also published the Ultimate Volumetrics Diet[12] based on her research into low energy density foods.[13]  [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]

The logic is that people typically eat a constant weight of food and hence if we can decrease the calories per gramme we will decrease overall energy intake.[19]


While I’m not sure I agree that 100g of celery will leave you as satisfied as 100g of butter, it’s worth noting that you would need to eat more than four kilogrammes (or 9lbs) of celery to get as much energy as you would from the 100g of butter.  So if the theory is partly true, it could make for an interesting ‘hack’ to limit energy intake (satiation)

It’s also worth noting that the nutrient density for these non-starchy veggies are very high per calorie (high satiety) while the net carbs and insulin load are still quite low.   Most people would need to eat a lot of these to significantly affect their blood glucose or insulin levels (maintaining metabolic flexibility).

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
celery 2.63 88% 1 4 17
broccoli 1.21 86% 4 9 42
beef steak 0.16 28% 0 21 305
butter  0.09 0% 0 1 734

A low-fat dietary approach, however, has its own challenges.  In the process of avoiding fat people often end up eating highly processed, highly insulinogenic foods which tend to be problematic for people.  These foods can drive people to become less metabolically flexible which in turn will affect appetite control.

People tend to try to ‘game the system’ eat foods with higher energy density and more food reward, regardless of the approach.

“Replacement of saturated fat by carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates and added sugars, increases levels of triglyceride and small LDL particles and reduces high-density lipoprotein, cholesterol, effects that are of particular concern in the context of the increased prevalence of obesity and insulin resistance.”[20]

Most people agree that highly processed low nutrient density carbohydrates are bad news as they will drive appetite and lead to obesity.

low carb/keto context

In low carb circles, some people hear the ‘don’t fear the fat’ and ‘butter is back’ message a little too loud and get caught overdoing added dietary fat.

It’s not uncommon to see messages along the lines of “I’m keeping to the keto macros but still not losing weight” or “I’ve hit a stall” on LCHF forums and Facebook groups.


“Eat fat to satiety” is useful advice for people who are insulin resistant and starting out on a low carb approach to manage blood glucose levels.  Eating adequate fat while minimising processed carbohydrates will decrease insulin levels and allow body fat stores to be used for energy which will, in turn, lead to improved metabolic flexibility and better appetite regulation.

However, it’s still possible to over consume high-fat foods, particularly for people who have a history of struggling to control their appetite.   Weight loss involves some level of energy restriction, especially if you are approaching your “goal weight”.  The sad reality is that there is no magic macro nutrient or food (other than perhaps indigestible fibre) that you can eat in unlimited quantities and still lose weight.  The key is to find what how we can manage appetite while minimising the feeling of hunger.

The Godfather of the ketogenic diet Dr Steve Phinney points out that in weight loss a significant proportion of energy comes from our body fat.[21]

In the “adapt phase” of the ketogenic diet scenario shown below 75% of the person’s energy is from fat, however, most of this fat is actually coming from body fat.


One benefit of a low carbohydrate dietary approach to weight loss is the reduction in blood sugar spikes meaning that people are often less “hangry” with less processed carbs.  Smoothing out the blood glucose swings means that people often can more easily extend the period between meals without feeling compelled to snack.


Some people hear the message that having high blood ketones means that the body is burning fat, and so they load up on dietary fat to attain high ketones.


In the video below Dr Eric Westman points out that on his ADAPT program

“very high calorie foods and drinks like cheese and cream are limited so your body will draw on its own store of fat energy”.

energy density and satiety

One of the most interesting pieces of research into the area of satiation is a 1995 paper by Susanne Holt, Jennie Brand-Miller and Peter Petocz, “A satiety index of common foods”.[22]  (Incidentally, this is the same team that did the original research into the insulin index a couple of years later.[23])   This research indicates that how much we eat at subsequent meals tends to be influenced by how much our stomach stretches, not just the calorie content of our food.

The chart below shows SELFNutritionData.com‘s analysis of the data from the 1995 paper which they have used to develop their Fullness Factor[24] parameter which is associated with energy density (i.e. calories per 100g), protein content and fibre.  Fat appears to be negatively correlated with satiety.


As we can see from the ‘building a better nutrient density index’ article, ranking foods by nutrient density per calorie gives us very high levels of fibre and protein, so we only need to add energy density to the system to improve satiety.

another step on the journey towards health

Does this mean that everyone looking to lose weight or normalise their blood glucose should adopt a low energy density approach?

Not necessarily.  Context matters.

Chris Gardner’s recent pilot study provides some useful guidance as to which approach might be best for a particular person.[25]


The chart below summarises the results of this study indicating that:

  • everyone does better with nutrient dense whole foods;
  • people who are insulin resistant do better on a reduced carbohydrate approach; while
  • people who are insulin sensitive do better on a low-fat, low energy density


It’s debatable where this cut over between insulin resistant and insulin sensitive lies, but the take home message seems to be that if you are achieving normal blood glucose levels then increasing your non-starchy veggies in exchange for added fat might be a good idea if you want to keep losing weight.

is blood glucose management the only consideration?

As we’ve seen previously in many charts like the one below,[26] [27] managing your blood glucose levels and improving your insulin sensitivity may be the most important thing you can do for your health.[28]  Having an HbA1c less than 5.0% significantly reduces your risk of heart attack and a range of other common diseases.


Simply eating more fat won’t automatically lead to more weight loss.  It’s the reduction in non-fibre carbohydrates that leads to decreased blood glucose and insulin levels, not the consumption of higher levels of fat.

Once you normalise your blood glucose and insulin levels, you will need to make sure make sure fat is coming from your body rather than your food if you want to continue your weight loss journey.

As someone loses weight improves their insulin sensitivity, they may then benefit by incorporating more foods with a lower energy density to ensure that their weight loss and improvement in insulin sensitivity continue.

So, if you’ve had success on an LCHF approach that has enabled you to normalise your blood sugars but you’re not achieving everything you’d hoped for you could consider incorporating more foods that have:

  1. reduced energy density (i.e. fewer calories per 100g),
  2. a higher nutrient density, and
  3. high fibre.

Ideally, this transition would be guided by regular monitoring to ensure that you’re still achieving excellent blood glucose levels.   If your blood glucose levels start to drift up, you might retreat to the higher fat options, ideally with some intermittent fasting.

on a personal note

On a personal note, I have had some success recently following the intermittent fasting protocol detailed in the how to use your blood glucose as a fuel gauge article.  My blood glucose levels are consistently lower, down from an average in the mid 5s to typically under 5.0mmol/L.


After reading Keto Clarity and living in the low carb/diabetes head space for a while, I have come to enjoy snacks like peanut butter with cream, cheese or butter.  These foods are satiating and yummy.  I find they turn off my appetite more than the simple carbs that would spike my blood glucose levels and make me feel hungrier.  When I’ve been active (e.g. riding to work which burns about 1200 calories in a day) or fast from a time energy dense foods can be an effective way to refuel quickly.

However, now my blood glucose levels seem to have now stabilised I’m now making an effort to snack on less calorie dense foods like the ones listed below and fill up on celery, spinach, broccoli, carrots and other green leafy veggies m that don’t spike my blood glucose levels.

comparison of approaches

The table below shows a comparison of the macro nutrients, percentage insulinogenic calories and the energy density for the highest ranking 1000 for different approaches.

approach % protein % fat fibre (g) % insulinogenic weight (g) / 2000 cals
all foods 25% 30% 19 55% 933
nutrient dense foods 34% 25% 60 31% 1118
nutrient dense low carb foods 26% 55% 22 30% 621
low energy high nutrient density 38% 19% 70 54% 1841
  • The most nutrient dense foods have a lower energy density than the average of all the foods (i.e. weight per 2000 calories).
  • Low carb foods have a higher energy density due to the higher fat content.
  • The low energy density foods have half the energy density of the average of all foods and a third of the energy density of the low carb foods.
  • The low energy density foods are also very high in indigestible fibre which will make it very hard to over consume these foods.
  • While the low energy density foods may have a higher percentage of insulinogenic calories, it will also be harder to eat as much of these foods, so the insulin load will likely still be quite low.

The chart below (click to enlarge) of the nutrients provided by each approach shows that focusing on lower calorie density foods enables us to increase nutrient density per calorie even more!


The chart below (click to enlarge) compares the nutrient density of this low energy density approach compared to all 7000+ foods in the USDA database and the moderated nutrient density approach (see the building a better nutrient density index article) as well as the average minus 0.8 times the standard deviation.  In both of these measures, the low energy density high nutrient density approach outperforms the other two approaches.


Low-calorie density high nutrient density foods for weight loss

Listed below is a summary of the top 1000 foods in the USDA foods database using this low energy density high nutrient density approach.

The list of vegetables is long as always.  However, the list of animal products is also significant, with a particular emphasis on seafood which provides essential fatty acids which are hard to obtain in large quantities from other sources.

You may also be interested in this interactive analysis of nutrient density versus energy density using Tableau that I think is pretty snazzy!

Notably absent from this list of low energy density foods are dairy and nuts.   Many people find that they do better in terms of weight loss when they cut out dairy and nuts.

If you have type 1 diabetes or are very insulin resistant, you may not do so well with the cereals, fruit, legumes, sweet potato or sweet corn, though you may find some of the other higher ranking foods useful.   As always you should ‘eat to your metre’.


You can see from the data below that the energy density (i.e. calories per 100g) of these vegetables is very low.  It would be physically difficult to overeat these foods.    If you’re managing your blood glucose levels, you will notice that the amount of non-fibre carbohydrates is also meagre.


The charts below from Nutrition Data Self show that broccoli has an extensive distribution of vitamins and minerals and would give you 92% of your DRI for vitamins and minerals and 83% of your protein in 1000 calories.

The only ‘problem’ here is that you will need to eat five bunches of broccoli to get 1000 calories!   You can see how you might be able to drastically drop your energy intake if you only ate low energy density high nutrient density foods.


food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
celery 2.63 49% 1 2 17
rhubarb 1.46 57% 3 3 21
lettuce 1.34 52% 2 2 17
turnip greens 1.31 39% 1 4 37
winter squash 1.22 80% 7 8 39
broccoli 1.21 57% 4 6 42
asparagus 1.12 46% 2 3 27
Chinese cabbage 1.02 60% 1 2 16
summer squash 1.00 65% 2 3 19
okra 0.94 57% 4 5 37
bamboo shoots 0.90 52% 3 4 28
bell peppers 0.86 64% 6 7 43
artichokes 0.83 33% 3 4 54
cabbage 0.81 53% 3 4 30
kale 0.75 74% 8 10 56
snap green beans 0.74 47% 4 5 40
seaweed (kelp) 0.74 43% 4 5 50
parsnip 0.73 38% 7 7 76
radishes 0.70 50% 2 2 19
peas 0.69 58% 5 7 51
mushrooms 0.65 70% 2 5 30
jalapeno peppers 0.52 54% 4 5 35
onions 0.52 77% 7 8 41
sweet potato 0.51 82% 17 18 87
collards 0.44 46% 2 5 40
dill 0.42 30% 2 4 52
pinto beans 0.44 60% 16 21 142
sweet corn 0.43 47% 10 13 111
eggplant 0.39 67% 7 7 41
mung beans 0.33 46% 1 3 26
beets 0.34 44% 4 5 48
mustard greens 0.27 45% 2 3 30
chives 0.27 34% 1 3 37
Brussels sprouts 0.24 54% 5 7 52
carrots 0.20 55% 5 5 39
shallots 0.27 60% 46 56 377
banana pepper 0.17 41% 3 4 39
parsley 0.15 49% 3 5 44
thyme 0.27 21% 14 19 359


The net carbs, energy density and percentage of insulinogenic calories is higher for the fruit in comparison to vegetables.  It is possible to overeat fruits, particularly if you are insulin resistant.


food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
cherries 0.72 84% 10 11 54
orange 0.49 77% 10 11 55
apples 0.48 77% 10 10 53
grapes 0.45 80% 15 15 77
figs 0.37 81% 16 17 82
mandarin oranges 0.31 63% 9 9 59
blueberries 0.32 72% 16 16 91
honeydew melon 0.30 88% 8 9 40
passion fruit 0.24 54% 13 15 109
litchis 0.20 80% 14 15 73
pear 0.14 69% 11 11 64

 grains and cereals

The net carbs, energy density and proportion of insulinogenic calories for the cereals and grains are higher than for the vegetables.  If you are insulin resistant make sure you eat to your metre.


food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
oatmeal 0.77 58% 8 10 67
teff 0.70 54% 11 14 101
spelt 0.58 54% 14 18 135
rice noodles 0.54 87% 22 23 105
quinoa 0.45 55% 14 16 120
millet 0.34 76% 20 22 118
oat bran bread 0.35 57% 29 38 264
rye bread 0.30 64% 37 45 282
rice bran bread 0.25 54% 31 37 273


Similar to grains, the legumes have a moderate energy density so are a good option to provide additional calories if you have filled up on the vegetables.


food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
lima beans 0.56 71% 16 23 129
navy beans 0.47 55% 15 20 143
lentils 0.35 62% 12 18 118
hummus 0.26 32% 8 14 175
tofu 0.17 28% 2 8 112


It is important to prioritise either regular fish intake or supplementation of omega 3 fatty acids.   I’ve included the insulin load rather than net carbs for the fish animal products which may be of interest if you are injecting insulin.


food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
oyster 0.31 57% 14 98
lobster 0.30 69% 14 84
anchovy 0.34 42% 21 203
tuna 0.30 50% 17 137
white fish 0.27 67% 17 102
salmon 0.28 50% 15 122
crab 0.26 69% 13 78
halibut 0.27 63% 16 105
mackerel 0.28 45% 17 149
Pollock 0.27 66% 17 105
rainbow trout 0.28 43% 17 162
shrimp 0.26 66% 19 113
swordfish 0.28 41% 17 165
sturgeon 0.26 47% 15 129
snapper 0.25 64% 15 94
octopus 0.26 69% 27 156
haddock 0.24 67% 18 110
caviar 0.30 32% 22 276
crayfish 0.21 64% 12 78
herring 0.26 34% 18 210
haddock 0.21 69% 15 85
abalone 0.21 76% 19 99
whiting 0.21 63% 17 109
sardine 0.24 36% 18 202
mussel 0.22 61% 25 165
clam 0.20 71% 24 135
cod 0.17 67% 17 99
perch 0.16 59% 13 91

animal products  

Similar to sea food, the energy density of the animal products is moderate.  Not as low as the non-starchy veggies but similar to the fruit, grains and legumes.


food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
beef liver 0.46 58% 24 169
chicken liver 0.43 48% 20 165
ham 0.26 55% 20 146
pork 0.25 54% 21 154
emu 0.24 63% 25 159
veal (leg) 0.25 56% 25 174
turkey breast 0.22 70% 22 127
chicken breast 0.22 56% 25 178
beef 0.22 50% 25 197

so how does it work?

This style of nutrient dense lower energy density approach is likely to be successful because it provides:

  1. nutrient dense proteins that will improve satiety,
  2. more fibre, water and bulk that will lead to increased satiation with lower levels of calories compared to a higher energy density,
  3. negligible levels of processed carbs which will help to keep insulin and blood glucose levels at normal levels which will allow body fat to be accessed for fuel,
  4. high levels of nutrition across the board (vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids) meaning that the body will be able to obtain adequate nutrition with a lower energy intake, and
  5. lower levels of dietary fat which will allow body fat to be used.

While many people from the LCHF head space might think of this as heresy, you might be interested to see that once we take the body fat into account, this style of approach is actually quite high in fat.

The table below shows the macronutrient split for a low carb approach versus the low energy density high nutrient density approach.  The last column shows that if we apply a 40% deficit with 800 calories per day coming from body fat then the macro nutrients are quite similar to the LCHF approach, with more than half the energy coming from fat.

approach nutrient dense low carb foods low energy high nutrient density (2000 calories) low energy high nutrient density (40% deficit)
% protein 26% 38% 23%
% dietary fat 55% 19% 11%
% net carbs 15% 29% 17%
% fibre 4% 14% 8%
fibre (g) 22 70 42
% insulinogenic 30% 54% 32%
deficit 0% 0% 40%
dietary energy (cal) 2000 2000 1200
body fat (cal) 0 0 800
total fat 55% 19% 51%


If you have lost some weight on an LCHF approach and have normalised your blood glucose levels, you may benefit from transitioning to a lower energy density high nutrient density approach.

If you want to fine tune this a little further, it might be worth tracking your insulin load.  You can tweak it to the point that you achieve excellent blood glucose levels (i.e. HbA1c < 5.0%, average blood glucose less than 5.4 mmol/L or 100 mg/dL) while also maximising nutrient density and minimising energy density.




[1] http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(12)00132-3/abstract

[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978012410540900003X

[3] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18439712

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23128764

[5] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14995052

[6] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6303104

[7] http://www.forksoverknives.com/the-calorie-density-approach-to-nutrition-and-lifelong-weight-management

[8] https://youtu.be/XZGgeGHU1Bs?t=31

[9] https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/eat_more_often_gain_weight.aspx

[10] https://youtu.be/2UPQfdIlzaA?t=466

[11] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=C6KTATgbTacC&pg=PA264&lpg=PA264&dq=neal+barnard+energy+density&source=bl&ots=JomyWaNJn7&sig=nAPHWYJL_V-NtSZeKl_82DigERU&hl=en&sa=X&sqi=2&ved=0ahUKEwjQjJqtiJvMAhVDHJQKHWe7AXsQ6AEIIzAB#v=onepage&q=neal%20barnard%20energy%20density&f=false

[12] http://www.amazon.com/Ultimate-Volumetrics-Diet-Science-Based-Strategies-ebook/dp/B007JLK9HW/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461080587&sr=1-1

[13] http://health.usnews.com/wellness/slideshows/the-10-best-diets-for-healthy-eating

[14] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/67/3/412.abstract

[15] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/88/6/1459.abstract?sid=238201eb-6207-4843-886b-9e1410e5a716

[16] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/1/174.abstract?sid=238201eb-6207-4843-886b-9e1410e5a716

[17] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14995052

[18] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17490955

[19] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4182946/

[20] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2943062/

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

[22] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/15701207_A_Satiety_Index_of_common_foods

[23] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/66/5/1264.abstract

[24] http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/fullness-factor

[25] https://www.dropbox.com/s/n8tzuiixb1n1cxi/Weight%20Loss%20on%20Low-Fat%20vs.%20Low-Carbohydrate%20Diets%20by%20Insulin%20Resistance%20Status%20Among%20Overweight%20Adults%20and%20Adults%20With%20Obesity-%20A%20Randomized%20Pilot%20Trial%20%281%29.pdf?dl=0

[26] http://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/03/21/wanna-live-forever/

[27] http://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/diabetes-102/

[28] http://diabetesupdate.blogspot.com.au/2007/05/misunderstanding-ukpds-7-is-not-good.html


post last updated July 2018

salad and salmon lunch

This is one of my favourite work lunches.

We often go to the markets on the weekend and then prepare a bunch of ready made lunches for the rest of the week.



(note: by “we” I mean my amazing wife Monica who knows how to make healthy food look and taste incredible…  I just tag along, take some photos and enjoy eating it).

This one has chorizo, spinach, cherry tomatoes, beans and a fig.


We will also make up some little containers of balsamic vinegar or olive oil with perhaps some feta cheese that you can add to it.


At work I throw a can of salmon, tuna or sardines on it with some balsamic vinegar and viola a spectacularly yummy lunch!

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This meal does well on the nutritional completeness, both in terms of vitamins and amino acids.

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net carbs

insulin load carb insulin fat protein


6g 27g 22% 58% 34%


More recently I’ve started having sardines instead of the salmon because it’s cheaper and even more nutrient dense.   Together with the salad it gives an even higher protein score.  Tuna is another option but it doesn’t do as well as the sardines or salmon on the vitamins and minerals.

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Sometimes when we don’t get around to doing the salads or taking a lunch I’ll just grab a quick can of the sardines which I’ve grown to like by themselves these days.  They’re filling, cheap and pack quite a nutritional punch all by themselves.

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