Nutrient density at macronutrient extremes
In the previous article, Which Nutrients is YOUR Diet Missing?, we looked at nutrient density and the micronutrients that you might be lacking when following popular dietary strategies such as vegan, Paleo, keto, or zero carb.
As a follow-up, I thought it would be interesting to look at the effect on essential micronutrients if we define our dietary approach in terms of macronutrient extremes such as low carb, high fat, high protein, high carb, or low protein.
Humans tend to think in extreme terms. It’s easy to follow a binary approach to nutrition, but which, if any, of these, are the most useful in terms of maximising the nutrition provided by our diet?
For most of my life, best practice nutrition has been defined by a fear of fat which spawned the low-fat processed food era.
And because protein is necessary for muscle growth, more must be better?
But protein is also insulinogenic, so less protein must be good. Right?
And then of course, there is low carb, which has been popular since the appearance of the Atkins diet appeared in the early 1970s.
But then there are a good number of people who still define their diet as being high carb.
All of them seem to be similarly zealous about their all-or-nothing approach.
But are any of these macronutrient extreme approaches beneficial? And if so, which one leads us to the optimal selection of nutritious foods that will lead to health, happiness, optimal weight, and longevity?
Why bother with nutrient density?
The premise of nutrient density is that we want to maximise the quantity of essential micronutrients that we need to support our bodily functions while not overdoing energy intake.
Micronutrient dense foods allow us to obtain adequate nutrition with fewer calories. Then, with our nutrients accounted for, higher micronutrient density might just lead to higher satiety levels, reduced appetite, reduced food intake and optimal body fat levels.
At the other extreme, if we consume fewer foods with a lower nutrient density, we will likely end up needing to consume more food to obtain the nutrients we need to survive and thrive. If our appetite drives us to keep on eating until we obtain the nutrients we need, we may end up having to consume too much energy and and end up storing unwanted energy as fat.
In this post, we’ll look at the micronutrients provided by the highest-ranking foods when we sort the eight thousand foods in the USDA database by the most and least fat, protein, and carbs.
|Approach||% protein||% fat||% net carbs||% fibre|
|low net carbs||33%||67%||0%||0%|
|most nutrient dense||49%||19%||20%||12%|
|least nutrient dense||7%||32%||59%||2%|
|high net carbs||3%||2%||92%||2%|
This chart shows the macronutrient split for these extreme approaches.
While low carb is still in the lead in terms of internet searches (as shown in the Google Trends data below), the ketogenic diet is becoming pretty popular these days.
The chart below shows the nutrients provided by 2000 calories of the fattiest foods. Nutrients are expressed in terms of the percentage of the daily recommended intake (DRI), for each nutrient, per 2000 calories (i.e. a typical daily intake).
While we achieve adequate amounts of about half of the essential micronutrients with a therapeutic ketogenic diet, we may need to consider supplementing some of the harder to obtain nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin D, potassium, choline, vitamin K, and magnesium.
Looking at things from the other extreme, a low-fat diet will give you a ton of vitamin C, sodium, manganese, and iron. However, it will be harder to obtain adequate quantities of the twenty-one essential nutrients, particularly essential fatty acids.
These days, the US Dietary Guidelines have lifted their limit on fat and cholesterol but retained their limitation on saturated fat. Saturated fat and trans fats remain the two nutrients that we are advised to avoid.
The chart below shows the outcome when we avoid saturated fat. The top 10% of foods with the lowest saturated fat are lacking (i.e. < 100% DRI) in nineteen essential nutrients.
At the other extreme, foods with the most saturated fat are slightly better with seventeen essential micronutrients lacking.
As discussed in the ‘What about Saturated Fat?’ article, I think saturated fat is neither a concern nor a priority. Saturated fat a great clean-burning fuel, but there’s no need for us to make up for the last four decades of avoidance by suddenly binging on it.
The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of the quartiles of saturated fat in terms of percentage of energy. It seems that the foods with moderate levels of saturated fat that are the most nutrient dense.
Once you move past the fear of fat, the next hot topic is optimal protein levels.
The ‘high protein bros’ recommend more protein for muscle growth and satiety, while many in the low carb/keto community target lower protein levels for longevity and ketosis through minimising insulin and mTOR signalling.
As shown in the chart below, when rank foods to minimise protein, we end up with only four essential nutrients meeting the recommended daily guidelines to prevent malnutrition.
At the other extreme, if we prioritise protein we end up with ten nutrients that we fall short of. The other twenty-six essential nutrients meet the minimum recommended levels.
Not only does protein contain essential amino acids, this analysis indicates that higher protein foods generally come bundled with high amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B-12, selenium, vitamin B-6, riboflavin and copper.
It’s one thing to talk about targeting the minimum daily protein that you can get away with if you are looking to preserve muscle in fasting or extreme calorie deprivation during long-term weight loss. It’s a whole different discussion if you’re looking to minimise protein while making up the rest of your daily energy intake with fats or carbs!
The chart below shows the nutrients we obtain if we maximise energy from non-fibre digestible carbohydrates (i.e. net carbs). This high carb approach provides adequate amounts of twelve of the essential nutrients, while still being inadequate in twenty-four essential nutrients.
The chart below shows that low carb performs better than high carb, only falling short in sixteen essential micronutrients.
One of the benefits of a low carb approach is that it often forces the elimination of many processed foods that fill the supermarket shelves to satisfy the demand for low-fat foods driven by the admonition by the for the last four decades by the ruling dietary establishment to minimise fat.
A nutrient dense diet contains less non-fibre carb than the typical diet, but some people will do better, at least for a while, on a carb restricted diet. Another major benefit of low carb is for insulin resistant people when they can lower their blood glucose and insulin levels on a carb restricted diet. Many people find it easier to lose excess body fat once they have restored their insulin sensitivity.
Nutrient density of foods
You’re probably wondering where all these analyses are headed.
With all of these extreme approaches being so deficient in many micronutrients, you must be thinking “I hope there is a happy ending to this story, and soon.”
The good news is that we can manipulate our food selection to maximise micronutrients. But first, here’s something to scare you even more.
The chart below shows the outcome when we minimise the harder-to-find nutrients. This low nutrient density approach ends up being adequate in only three essential nutrients: sodium, vitamin C and iron.
The good news is shown in the chart below, which quantifies the nutrients provided by the most nutrient dense foods when we prioritise for the harder to find nutrients. Alpha-linolenic acid (found mainly in nuts and seeds) is hard to come by in adequate quantities, however, we can obtain the daily recommended intake of all the other nutrients when we prioritise the harder to find micronutrients.
comparison of nutrients adequate
It’s a little hard to present and digest this analysis clearly. There is no agreed protocol to compare the nutrient density of foods. So I’ve tried to summarise it in a number of different ways to allow you to draw your own conclusions.
Firstly, the chart below shows the number of nutrients that each macronutrient extreme is adequate in, from the most nutrient dense at the top to the least nutrient dense at the bottom.
The chart below shows a stacked bar chart of the various nutrients in terms of % DRI. It’s like we have added up all the above charts for each nutrient and stacked them on top of each other. This chart demonstrates that there is a massive difference between the most nutrient dense and least nutrient-dense approaches. If you’re foods that have a lower nutrient density you might just be hungrier compared to if you are eating the same number of calories of the most nutrient-dense foods which will much more effectively provide you with your essential micronutrients.
But wee needn’t be too concerned about the micronutrients that are easy to obtain. What we really care about is the nutrients that are harder to obtain. The chart below shows the sum of the eighteen nutrients that are harder to obtain for each extreme approach.
Nutrient density index applications
It seems that thinking in terms of macronutrient extremes has some usefulness. However, focusing on micronutrient density seems to provide an order of magnitude improvement in the level of actual nutrients provided by our food.
Maybe it’s time for a new trend?
The ‘problem’ with nutrient dense foods is that that they are so lean and contain so much fibre that it can be hard to consume enough calories to maintain weight. You’ll just be too full!
If you are insulin sensitive and not looking to lose weight, then you could consider adding some more ‘Paleo friendly’ carbs such as beets, squash, yams, and sweet potatoes, and/or some fattier cuts of meat to fuel your activity. If you are insulin resistant, you may need to add some fattier (but still relatively nutrient dense) foods to maintain your weight while also keeping your blood glucose and insulin levels in check.
Perhaps micronutrient density is the most important parameter to pursue in our diet. Then with that cornerstone in place we can personalise our nutritional approach to suit our goals (e.g. weight loss, ketosis, athletic performance or healthy maintenance).
The various food lists in the table below are designed with micronutrient density as the main priority, but also consider insulin load and energy density to suit different goals.
|approach||average glucose||waist : height|
|therapeutic ketosis||> 140||> 7.8|
|diabetes and nutritional ketosis||108 to 140||6.0 to 7.8|
|weight loss (insulin resistant)||100 to 108||5.4 to 6.0||> 0.5|
|weight loss (insulin sensitive)||< 97||< 5.4||> 0.5|
|bulking||< 97||< 5.4||< 0.5|
|nutrient dense maintenance||< 97||< 5.4||< 0.5|
In the end, no one sticks to an optimal list of foods that perfectly balances their diet 100% of the time.
I’ve been working on a system that will give you feedback on YOUR current diet, identify which nutrients you are currently lacking, and which supplements or real whole foods you may need to add or subtract to optimise your nutrition. Most people don’t eat perfectly all the time, but we could all use some help moving forward towards optimal.
Check out the Nutrient Optimiser page for more details.
 There is a strong case for the idea that the DRI for vitamin C could be relaxed for a diet with lower glucose. See http://breaknutrition.com/ketogenic-diet-vitamin-c-101/ and http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/2005/pdf/2005-v20n03-p179.pdf