is there a relationship between macronutrients and diet quality?

Q:  To achieve optimal health, diabetes control and longevity you should:

  • Eat more fat to burn your body fat.
  • Follow a Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF).
  • Eat more protein and lift heavy.
  • Drink Bulletproof Coffee.
  • Fast more.
  • Decrease protein and eat more fat bombs.
  • Take exogenous ketones, butter and MCT oil to boost your blood ketones.
  • Eat only plants.
  • Eat no plants.
  • All of the above.
  • None of the above.
  • I give up! All you ‘diet gurus’ can’t agree.  I’m going back to Maccas where things are simple!

Although many of these answers are contradictory, all are ‘correct’ depending on which low carb / keto group(s) you belong to.  It can be confusing out there on the interwebs!

Image result for confusing

For the last two years I’ve been working to refine our ability to quantitatively define and optimise our food quality (a.k.a. nutrient density).

At the start of 2017, I developed the Nutrient Optimiser and have since run detailed macronutrient and micronutrients analyses for more than forty people, all with different starting points and with different goals.

2017-05-23

With all the conflicting advice out there and my personal quest to manage diabetes while maximising nutrient density, I wondered what my nutrient analysis tools might be able to tell us about the relationship between macronutrients and micronutrients to provide some clarity to the circular debates that I see so often online.

I’m never sure where these articles will end up when I start the analysis.  And this one is certainly interesting!

The analysis suggests that a nutrient dense diet is typically not low in protein.  However just focusing on increasing protein won’t necessarily lead to a nutrient dense outcome.

We get a much better outcome when we focus on the harder-to-find micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids).  From there we can tweak the nutrient dense template to suit our goals (e.g. weight loss, diabetes control, muscle gain, athletic performance or therapeutic ketosis).

Nutrient density

Let’s quickly look at what we mean by ‘nutrient density’ and how we can quantify it.

All foods

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the 8,000 foods in the USDA database in terms of the percentage of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) if you ate just a little bit of all of them.

It’s easy to meet the recommended minimum intake of the micronutrients shown at the bottom of the chart (e.g. vitamin B12 and most of the amino acids) (at least if you are eating animal products).

However, you really have to go out of your way to get adequate amounts of the nutrients at the top of the chart (e.g. omega 3, vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, manganese and magnesium).

The most nutrient dense foods

The chart below shows the micronutrients provided by the most nutrient dense foods.  When we focus on foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients we can get a massive boost in all the micronutrients.

Why should we pursue a nutrient dense diet?

With adequate amounts of nutrients being provided by the food we eat there is a good chance we will be able to satisfy our cravings with less energy.

Obtaining adequate levels of all the micronutrients will ensure that we have what we need to drive our mitochondria at full power rather than limping along.  We will feel energised and may find that our appetite turns off sooner and we will be less likely to overeat and get fat.[1] [2]  [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

The chart below shows a comparison of the most nutrient dense 10% of the foods available compared to all the foods in the USDA database.  We get a significant improvement in our food quality by prioritising more nutrient dense foods.

Which nutrients do we need to worry about?

After a ton of trial and error and systems refinement (and some robust debates with Ray Cronise) I finally figured out that maximising nutrient density works best when we only focus on boosting the nutrients that are harder to obtain.

The nutrients listed below tend to be generally harder to get in adequate quantities:

  • Alpha-linolenic acid
  • EPA + DHA
  • Choline
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Phosphorus
  • Zinc
  • Thiamine
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Niacin
  • Manganese
  • Folate
  • Selenium

Which nutrients are easier to find?

Listed below are the micronutrients that we don’t need to prioritise because they are fairly easy to get enough of:

  • Leucine
  • Valine
  • Sodium
  • Methionine
  • Isoleucine
  • Tyrosine
  • Riboflavin
  • Lysine
  • Vitamin B-6
  • Histidine
  • Threonine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Tryptophan
  • Iron
  • Vitamin C
  • Copper
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin B-12
  • Vitamin K

I have intentionally left out all the amino acids (i.e. protein) from the prioritisation because, as you will see below, it’s easy to get enough protein when we focus on the vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.

Can you get too much of a good thing?

As a general rule it’s hard to get excess micronutrients from real food, but it is possible.

  • While we can get more than thirty times the DRI for vitamin K from a nutrient dense diet there is no upper toxicity level of toxicity for vitamin K[12] [13] from natural sources.  However you can get too much menadione which is used as a vitamin K supplement.[14] [15]
  • We can get eighteen times the DRI for vitamin B12 from a nutrient dense diet, however again, there is no upper limit established for B12.[16] [17]
  • We can get seventeen times the DRI for Vitamin A from a nutrient dense diet. It is possible to get vitamin A toxicity, though again this typically occurs from supplementation.[18] [19]  There are some reports of Hypervitaminosis A from explorers gorging on polar bear liver, but this is not likely to be a common occurance.[20] [21]
  • We can get around twelve times the DRI for copper from a nutrient dense diet which is around the upper limit.  Though these high levels are unlikely to occur without high liver consumption which is not common.
  • A nutrient dense diet can provide around fifteen times the DRI for vitamin C however the upper limit is more than 20 times the DRI.[22] [23] Excessive vitamin C supplementation usually causes diarrhea, so it’s largely a self limiting situation.
  • A nutrient dense diet will provide around ten times the DRI for iron while the upper limit is set at around six times the DRI. Many women are iron deficient while many men have hemochromatosis which is excess iron storage.  Liver, mushroom, seaweed and spices are the highest sources of iron.  It’s useful to understand your current iron status to know whether you need more or less iron or should even be considering donating blood.
  • It is quite easy to get more than the DRI for amino acids. While high protein diets do not cause kidney disease in healthy people there is no need to chase excess super high levels of protein.[24]   And just like liver, most people will struggle to eat excessive amounts.

So yes, it is possible to get excessive levels of some micronutrients, though generally not a concern unless you are eating a LOT of liver or supplementing with synthetic nutrients.

The chart below shows the nutrient profile of Amy who is following a zero carb diet with a lot of organ meats.  While she is generally getting high levels of most nutrients, she is still not meeting the DRI for a number of vitamins and minerals that are typically found in plant foods (e.g. vitamin K1, calcium, manganese, vitamin E, magnesium and potassium).

At the other extreme we have David who is eating a plant based diet that has plenty of vitamins and minerals but less amino acids.  He knows he needs to supplement with vitamin B12 and vitamin D which are hard to get from a purely plant based diet.

When it comes to nutrient density I often see arguments around whether or not the daily recommended intake levels are correct and whether they might vary for different people with different dietary approaches and whether or not nutrients from plant or animal based food are more bioavailable.

While I think these are definitely under researched areas I think these discussions are not so relevant when we’re orders of magnitude above or below the DRI values.  We need to identify the full range of foods, from whatever source, that will provide the nutrients that we’re not getting enough.  We can then choose from within those to suit our tastes and preferences.  Our appetite can be a pretty good guide once we eliminate the processed hyper palatable nutrient poor foods that our willpower is no match for.

There is plenty of discussion about excess protein or excess calories.  While it’s true that excess is typically not good, I think it’s more valuable to focus on eating foods that contain more of the nutrients that we are currently not getting enough of.   When we’re eating nutrient dense whole foods we’re less likely to need to consciously worry about calories, protein, fat, carbs, sugar, fibre or whatever.

Is there any relationship between macronutrients and nutrient density?

While I don’t see a lot of discussion about nutrient density or food quality, there is seemingly endless debate in social media in low carb and keto circles around macronutrients.  People are often very passionate about eating more or less protein, carbs, fat and fibre.

Perhaps this is because macronutrients are reasonably easy to track and understand.  Or maybe it is because the previous approach hasn’t worked, so they swing to the other extreme.

We’ve been told for so long that fat is bad and now people are realising that it’s not as bad as they were told, so they swing to the other extreme.  Now fat can do no wrong.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of people who stick to fat being bad and wanting to avoid it.

Different people have different perspectives on the multifaceted topic of nutrition.

But is there really any value gained by focusing on primarily on macronutrients?  Will it improve our food quality or the adequacy of the various essential micronutrients?

To understand whether there is any useful relationship between the various macros and micronutrient adequacy I have plotted the various macronutrients versus the nutrient density score for the 8,000 foods in the USDA foods database.

Note: In this analysis a high nutrient density score means that a particular food has a relatively large amount of the harder-to-find nutrients listed above.  

Protein versus nutrients density

There is a lot of debate about protein and whether we should be getting more or less of it.

The chart below shows the nutrient density score for the harder-to-find vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids vs protein (%).

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Although amino acids have not included in the nutrient density score it appears that the more nutrient dense foods have more protein.  Conversely, foods with less protein have less of the nutrients that are harder to find.

It seems that if we avoid protein we will end up with less nutrients overall.  While if we focus on getting the nutrients that are harder to find we will get enough protein.

However, as they say, correlation does not equal causation.  There is a lot of scatter in this chart.  In this case the correlation (R2) of this relationship is 0.31.

This analysis makes me wonder if the studies that the benefits from increased protein are not at least in part from, not just getting adequate amino acids, but the increased levels of the other micronutrients that often come along with protein.

It’s hard to separate good nutrition and protein.

Fat versus nutrient density

The chart below shows the nutrient density score versus the percentage of calories from fat.

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The first thing to point out here is that there is a massive amount of scatter and a low degree of correlation between fat and micronutrients (R2 = 0.06).

However, it does seem that very high fat foods contain less of the harder-to-find nutrients.

Meanwhile at the other extreme very low fat foods can either be nutrient poor (e.g. sugar and processed grains which would be at the bottom left of this chart) or very nutrient dense (e.g. non-starchy vegetables which would be at the top right of this chart).

If we run a trend line through all these foods we see that the highest nutrient density occurs at around 30% calories from fat.

The reality is that not many people live primarily on high nutrient density low fat foods at the top left corner of this chart. People avoiding fat will often slip into the bottom left of this chart and resort to the low fat processed grains and sugars to get enough energy to get through the day.

Sugar versus nutrient density

There is currently a lot of focus on sugar as the primary culprit for our poor health.  Gary Taubes and Damon Gameau are down on sugar while Robert Lustig is leading the charge against fructose or fruit sugar.

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This analysis suggests that foods with more sugar have a poorer nutrient density, though it’s hard to make sense of this unless we differentiate between added refined sugar and naturally occurring sugar in plant based foods that come with a ton of other nutrients.  However, low sugar content does not necessarily guarantee excellent nutrient density.

Energy density versus nutrient density

Energy density is the amount of energy we get per gram of food.

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Minimally processed foods contain more water and fibre and thus have a lower energy density but also tend to have a higher nutrient density.

Meanwhile, processed foods that are shelf stable and easy to transport typically have less water and fibre and more preservatives.

While lower energy density foods have a higher nutrient density, most people won’t survive long on a diet of only lettuce, broccoli and celery.  They will need some more energy dense foods to survive.

However, if you are looking to lose weight in a hurry while still getting the nutrients you need, focusing on lower energy density foods might not be a bad place to start.

Most people agree that eating more veggies will be better for their health, but the unfortunate reality is that it takes some time and money to prepare the food yourself rather than reaching for a quick and cheap energy hit with minimal effort.

Net carbs versus nutrient density

Foods with more digestible carbohydrates typically have a lower nutrient density.

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However, simply going low carb doesn’t guarantee that we maximise nutrient density  There is a range of high and low nutrient density foods at the low carb end.

Whether or not you carbs are nutrient dense will likely depend more on whether they are highly processed or in their natural form, and will likely make a bigger contribution to their nutrient density than the quantity of carbs.

Fibre

Higher fibre foods contain more nutrients.  However, we can’t just add fibre supplements to maximise nutrient density.  Plant based whole foods that also happen to have heaps of fibre that provide us with more higher levels of nutrition.

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Insulinogenic calories

The proportion of insulinogenic calories is the proportion of the food we eat that requires insulin to metabolise.

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On the right hand side of the chart, highly processed foods with minimal protein and fat typically don’t provide a lot of the harder-to-find nutrients.

Meanwhile on the left hand side of the chart, foods with minimal fibre, carbs and protein are also less nutritious.

If we plot a trendline it appears that the maximum nutrient density occurs at around 50% insulinogenic calories.

If you are already insulin resistant you may want to steer your dietary ship to the left with a lower insulin load diet to the point that your pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood sugars.  Meanwhile if you’re fit and insulin sensitive you will be able to have more leeway when it comes to macros and insulin load.

Summary

So what to make of all this?  Which of these parameters has the best correlation with food quality or nutrient density?  The table below shows the various parameters sorted by their correlation (R2) with their nutrient density score.

parameter correlation comment
protein 0.32 Nutrient dense foods tend to have more protein.
energy density 0.15 Lower energy density foods are typically more nutrient dense.
net carbs 0.12 Foods with more net carbs are typically less nutritious.
insulinogenic 0.11 Nutrient density peaks at around 50% insulinogenic calories.  Extremes are not optimal.
fibre 0.08 High fibre foods are often more nutritious.
fat 0.07 Nutrient density peaks at around 30% fat.
sugar 0.04 High sugar content correlates with low nutrient density

It seems that if we want to optimise the quality of our diet we should:

  1. Focus on the foods that contain the harder-to-find nutrients.
  2. Not actively avoid protein.
  3. Chose lower energy density foods when we can.
  4. Avoid foods that are largely digestible carbs with minimal fibre (e.g. processed grains and sugars).
  5. Chose moderately insulinogenic foods without swinging to either extreme (though we should err on the less insulinogenic side if we already have diabetes).

Meanwhile, sugar, fat and fibre, aren’t spectacular predictors of nutrition.

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chasing nutrients vs chasing macros

So, if protein is good, more is better, right?   Bring me the bulk tub of protein powder!

Not so fast.  It is important to understand the difference between emphasising:

  • all nutrients,
  • protein,
  • less insulinogenic foods, and
  • harder-to-find nutrients.

Maximise all nutrients

The chart below shows what happens to the micronutrient profile when we simply maximise all nutrients.

The amino acids are through the roof (69% protein) because aminos are easy to find in our food system, but we’re still lacking in many of the harder to get nutrients.

Maximise protein

If nutrient density correlates with protein then it makes some sense to prioritise protein.    Doesn’t it?

The chart below shows what happens to the nutrient profile if we sort the USDA foods database by % protein.  It seems that if we simply focus on protein we get a poor vitamin and mineral profile.

Minimising protein and maximising fat

Minimising protein and carbs while maximising fat is all the rage in the keto scene.  Unfortunately, a very low insulin load diet is not a high nutrient density approach as we can see from the chart below.  While we get adequate protein (15%), the vitamin and mineral profile is poor.   With 80% of our energy coming from fat we are deficient in about half the micronutrients.

Perhaps a very high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach should be reserved for special circumstances and extra attention given to the nutrients you won’t be able to get from your food?

Prioritising the harder to find nutrients

The chart below shows the outcome when we focus the harder to find nutrients (excluding amino acids).  We get adequate quantities of all the micronutrients and still plenty of protein.

Learnings from the Nutrient Optimiser analysis

It’s one thing to look theoretically in a database of individual foods.  But it’s another to look at what people are eating in real life.  Next, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from analysing a lot of different people’s food logs in the Nutrient Optimiser.

The nutrient density score

But first, I need to introduce you to the Nutrient Density Score.

The chart below shows Rhonda Patrick’s nutrient analysis.  Rhonda’s diet is not particularly extreme in anything other than nutrients.

Rhonda would score 100% if she could achieve 200% of the DRI for the hardest to hardest to find lower half of the nutrients.  However, because she doesn’t achieve 200% with all of the lesser scoring half of the nutrients she only gets a Nutrient Density Score of 81.3%.

For reference, if we add a little bit of all the foods in in the USDA database we would get a nutrient density score of 63% .  The most nutrient dense 10% of the foods in the USDA database will give us a nutrient density score of 93%.  Even Rhonda has some room for improvement.

By contrast, the chart below shows Patrick’s nutrient density score which comes in at only 21%. Patrick is following a very high fat keto approach even though his blood sugars are great and he doesn’t appear to be insulin resistant, just obese.

With so many of his micronutrients being nowhere near the DRI vales Patrick will need to eat a lot more of his current diet to meet the daily recommended intake for most of the nutrients.

There is a good chance that that Patrick will be craving more food to obtain the nutrients that he needs to get through the day.  Even though he is trying to lose weight, he might end up overeating more calories using his current diet than if he spent a week eating with Rhonda.

The table below shows the nutrient density score for more than forty Nutrient Optimiser analyses that I’ve run to date along with:

  • protein (g/kg LBM),
  • protein (%)
  • fat (%)
  • fibre (%)
  • net carbs (%).

I encourage you to click on each of the names below to review their nutrient analysis to see what they are and aren’t eating to get these scores.

Name score protein (g/kg LBM) protein fat fibre (%) net carbs (%)
Rhonda Patrick 82% 2.5 17% 57% 10% 15%
Briana Theroux-Hulsey 79% 3.5 29% 21% 15% 35%
David Houghton 77% 0.6 17% 2% 21% 60%
Andy Mant v3 77% 4.4 27% 53% 5% 15%
Alber Van Zyl 75% 1.0 15% 77% 2% 6%
Alma Fuente 75% 5.3 27% 60% 7% 6%
Mike Berta 74% 2.1 31% 58% 4% 7%
Alex Leaf 74% 3.3 33% 26% 10% 32%
Alex Ferrari 74% 2.0 17% 54% 6% 24%
Deb Pinsky Lambert v2 72% 1.2 31% 61% 3% 6%
Luis Villasenor 72% 2.4 43% 48% 3% 5%
Gayle Louise 71% 2.4 40% 49% 4% 7%
Andy Mant v2 70% 3.0 26% 54% 6% 15%
Robin Reyes v3 69% 1.6 18% 67% 6% 8%
Ruth Jamieson v2 66% 1.6 18% 67% 6% 8%
Amy 65% 3.3 41% 57% 0 1%
Ingunn Lovik 62% 1.5 21% 70% 1% 8%
Sophia Thom 62% 1.1 24% 65% 4% 7%
Franziska Spritzler 61% 2.3 27% 55% 10% 8%
Sarah Koenck 58% 2.2 14% 77% 4% 6%
Ruth Jamieson v1 57% 1.4 19% 65% 7% 9%
Maria Fornaciari 52% 1.6 30% 61% 3% 6%
Matija Mlakar 50% 2.1 23% 49% 11% 17%
Nicole Jacobi 48% 2.8 32% 60% 3% 6%
Graeme Monteith 48% 2.6 18% 67% 5% 10%
Dave Knowles 46% 2.4 31% 63% 2% 3%
John Robertson 46% 1.4 16% 59% 4% 21%
Leah Williamson 44% 1.8 19% 75% 2% 3%
Balin Jones 43% 5.0 26% 66% 3% 5%
Andy Mant v1 34% 3.7 35% 54% 2% 9%
George 34% 0.8 9% 69% 9% 12%
Robin Reyes v2 32% 1.6 21% 59% 4% 15%
Lorraine Ayre 30% 1.3 19% 64% 5% 12%
Terry Palmer 29% 1.5 25% 62% 5% 8%
Paul Stansel 28% 1.5 18% 77% 2% 3%
Gigi Giodani 26% 1.6 15% 81% 1% 2%
John Kerr 25% 0.7 11% 84% 2% 3%
Robin Reyes v1 23% 1.1 13% 50% 2% 35%
Patrick Butts v1 21% 0.8 18% 73% 4% 5%
Patrick Butts v2 20% 1.4 26% 66% 3% 6%
Harry Nguyen 20% 2.3 20% 72% 4% 4%

In the charts below we’ll quickly look at the relationship between the macros and their nutrient score.

Protein

This chart shows the relationship between protein intake and each person’s nutrient density score.  The average protein intake for this range of people following a low carb or keto diet is 2.1g/kg LBM or 23% of energy.

On the top left corner of the chart we have David who is following a plant based diet and intentionally getting lower levels of protein but also maximising vitamins and minerals from plant based foods.

On the bottom left we have a number of people following a therapeutic ketogenic diet targeting low protein and high fat.

As long as you are not trying to target low protein and high fat to generate higher blood ketones then it doesn’t seem to matter what your protein intake is.  Most people get enough protein to support their activity levels.

The chart below shows the nutrient density score versus protein (%).  Again, it seems that it’s hard to get high levels of nutrients if you are targeting minimal protein levels.

% insulinogenic

The story is similar with insulin load.  Reducing the insulin load of your diet to the point that your blood sugars normalise is a great idea, but less is not necessarily better.  We want to avoid really high insulin levels but not drive it so low that we don’t have enough nutrients to repair our muscles and organs.

Fat

High levels of fat do not guarantee high levels of nutrition.

Net carbs

It’s good to reduce the carbohydrate load of your diet to normalise your blood glucose levels, but again minimising is not necessarily the best idea and may be unnecessary if you are not managing diabetes.

Higher levels of isn’t necessarily bad either when it comes to nutrient density.  On the top right of the chart we have David who is striving for a nutrient dense plant based diet with about 35% net carbs while for contrast we have Robin’s baseline junk food diet which also has about 35% net carbs which has about the same nutrient density score as the very high fat therapeutic keto dietary approaches on the bottom left of the chart.

Fibre

Higher levels of fibre typically correlate with more nutrition (although you can get heaps of nutrients from shellfish and organ meats with minimal fibre intake).

Summary

  • A nutrient dense diet is not low in protein; however focusing on protein won’t necessarily guarantee great nutrition.
  • Foods with a lower energy density are often more nutrient dense. To maintain our body weight and growth we will need to add more energy dense foods (i.e. more non-fibre carb and / or fat).  Meanwhile, dialling back the energy density and forcing your body to use your stored body fat can be a good strategy for weight loss.
  • Reducing your carb intake or the insulin load of your diet can be useful if you are managing diabetes. However less is not necessarily better.
  • For the most part ensuring you are getting the harder-to-find micronutrients will maximising your diet quality without going to macronutrient extremes.

references

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYXF0l18ciI

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncVJfZZ7bTM

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjUgX91VZpk

[4] http://perfecthealthdiet.com/2011/02/perfect-health-diet-weight-loss-version/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18469287

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19785688

[7] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13590840220143062?journalCode=ijne20&

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19263591

[9] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2007.00465.x/abstract

[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20142823

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2988700/

[12] http://www.consumerlab.com/RDAs/#VitaminK

[13] http://www.consumerlab.com/RDAs/#VitaminK

[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menadione

[15] https://www.amazon.com/Nutrient-Bible-Henry-Osiecki/dp/1875239545

[16] http://www.consumerlab.com/RDAs/#B12

[17] https://www.amazon.com/Nutrient-Bible-Henry-Osiecki/dp/1875239545

[18] http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/vitamin-a/safety/hrb-20060201

[19] http://www.consumerlab.com/RDAs/

[20] https://www.121dietitian.com/never-eat-a-polar-bears-liver/

[21] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1257872/

[22] http://www.consumerlab.com/RDAs/#VitaminC

[23] https://www.amazon.com/Nutrient-Bible-Henry-Osiecki/dp/1875239545

[24] https://chriskresser.com/do-high-protein-diets-cause-kidney-disease-and-cancer/

personalised nutrition… how to tweak the moving parts

There are a number of moving parts when it comes to optimising nutrition to suit your personal situation and goals.

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General nutritional recommendations are standardised for simplicity.    However simple and standard doesn’t always work for everyone, particularly if you aren’t average, or don’t want to be average.

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Just like people come in different shapes and sizes, their nutritional requirements vary widely depending on our situation and goals.

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The Nutrient Optimiser is a moderately sophisticated tool to optimise food choices to suit different people with different goals.  However, I don’t want it to be a black box. Ideally I would like people to understand the inputs and how best to refine their nutrition to suit their goals.

The problem is black boxes is you get what you put in.  If you understand the inputs you’ll have a better chance of getting the output you’re after.

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This article discusses the various parameters that the Nutrient Optimiser manages.    Even if you’re not a user, it may be of interest to see how you can truly personalise your nutrition.  If you are already using the Nutrient Optimiser this article will help you understand how the algorithm uses various parameters to determine the optimal foods for you.

Multicriteria analysis

The first thing to understanding is the parameters used in the multi criteria analysis which is at the heart of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm.  The image below illustrates the three main dials that you can adjust in the algorithm:

  • insulin load,
  • nutrient density, and
  • energy density.

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A multi criteria analysis is a way to combine a number of priorities.

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You do it all the time.  You want to have money in the bank but you also want to wear clothes and live under a roof.  So you balance these priorities depending on your goals.  You like to look and feel good but you also like to eat treats “occasionally”.  So you balance these priorities.

You want to have the proverbial cake and eat it too.  We make compromises all the time in life.  Living at the extremes is not always healthy or optimal.

I have written at length on the blog about the three key parameters of the system.  The pros and cons of having the various parameters at either extreme are highlighted in the table below.

Parameter Too high Too low
Insulin load Very high insulinogenic processed junk food that drives a blood glucose roller coaster. Super high fat therapeutic ketogenic foods do not provide high levels of the broad range of various essential vitamins and minerals.
Nutrient density Very high nutrient per calorie foods are also very low energy density.  For someone who is active and not looking to lose weight the most nutrient dense foods may not contain enough energy to provide satiety and prevent excessive fat loss. Low nutrient density processed junk food leads to a lack of satiety (nutrient hunger), overeating and a whole host of other health issues.
Energy density Energy dense foods are ideal for someone who is very active and looking to replenish energy, though not necessarily for someone who is less active or looking to lose weight. Low energy density foods are very bulky and hard to get enough energy  to maintain weight if you’re very active.

 

As you can see, these three parameters are important to different people to different degrees for different people.  The table below shows the ‘pre-set values’ in the system that have been found to work well for different goals.  More experienced users of the Nutrient Optimiser may want to tweak these values to refine the results to further suit their preferences.

approach insulin load nutrient density energy density total (absolute)
bulking -20% 60% -20% 100%
nutrient dense maintenance 20% 70% 10% 100%
weight loss (insulin resistant) 5% 70% 25% 100%
weight loss (insulin sensitive) 0 85% 15% 100%
therapeutic ketosis 15% 85% 0% 100%
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 10% 90% 0% 100%

You may have noticed that some of the parameters are negative (e.g. insulin load and energy density for the bulking approach).

While many people are eating too much, some athletes want to bulk up and / or get more energy “down the pie hole” to support their amazing feats of endurance.

Someone who is insulin resistant will want to minimise the insulin load of their diet, bodybuilders often want food to spike insulin around workouts to promote growth.  If you turn the nutrient density parameter negative you’ll get a list of processed junk food that you see in the supermarket aisles.

Adapting the system as you progress

People would ideally use these value as a starting point and refine them to suit your goals as you see fit and as you get fit.

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Someone who starts out with  diabetes, is on three medications and hundreds of units of insulin may need to start on the high fat therapeutic keto approach to reduce the insulin load of their diet.

Someone like this who is looking to progressively refine their diet would come back and re-run the Nutrient Optimiser every two to four weeks to see their new dietary recommendations and refinements.  Through continual, gentle, non-judgemental and anonymous guidance (with the support of the Nutrient Optimiser Facebook group community as required) they would be able to progressively refine their diet.

In time, their blood glucose would come down with lower insulin load foods.  But then they still might want to lose weight so they would start to prioritise lower energy density foods rather than low insulin foods so much.  Then as their weight came closer to optimal and they were more active they might swing back to some focus on insulin load to enable them to have a more nutrient dense suit of foods.

Where do I start?

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While there are a lot of parameters you can use, your average glucose levels and waist : height ratio is a pretty good starting place as shown in the table below.

A higher fat / ketogenic / low carb approach typically works really well for people who have elevated blood glucose and elevated insulin levels.  However, as blood glucose control and improved insulin sensitivity kicks in but you still need to lose weight energy density and nutrient density become more important.

The table below will give you a guide on which approach might be most appropriate based on your current weight blood glucose levels and body fat levels.

approach average glucose waist : height
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
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

 

Food preferences

There are a plethora of different approaches to choosing foods.  Some of these are based around avoiding allergens (autoimmune, lactose intolerant, nut allergy etc) or digestive issues (zero carb, low fodmap).  Some are based on religious belief systems (e.g. vegetarian).

Although the ideal approach is going to be to prioritise the most nutrient dense foods available, we have also created options to suit your preferences.

The recommended foods list will be based on the remaining top 10% foods.   Noting your preferences up front will save you sifting through a long list of foods that you may not want to eat.

option details
most nutrient dense No limitations
zero carb Eliminates vegetables, fruit, grains and any non-animal based sources of carbohydrate.
vegan / plant based No animal products or animal derived products such as dairy or eggs.
vegetarian No animal products but includes eggs and
paleo No grains, dairy or processed foods.
pescatarian Vegetarian plus seafood
gluten intolerant No grain products
nut allergy Excludes nuts
no salicylates  
no organ meats Excludes organ meats.
no offall  

Should I log my supplements?

No!

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But why not?

The goal of the Nutrient Optimiser is to identify nutrient deficiencies and whole foods to fill them.  If you don’t manage to fill the gaps, then you will know which nutrient you might need to supplement.

There is a credible line of thinking that the reason that many processed foods are fortified with B vitamins and the like is that we would find these foods unpalatable and lose our appetite without the fortification.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]  With fortification, we associate these otherwise nutrient devoid processed foods with essential vitamins and hence we are happy to keep eating them.  Unfortunately, they don’t also contain the full range range of beneficial nutrients that whole foods possess (i.e. essential, non-essential and the ones that we haven’t discovered yet) so fortified foods are unlikely to lead to optimal health.

If you are taking a ton of supplements then you may be able to continue to happily eat large quantities of nutrient poor processed food that you would otherwise lose your taste for.  If you cut back to foods that don’t need to be fortified or flavoured to make up for their nutritional deficiencies you will be able to hear your appetite again and let it guide you to whole foods that contain the nutrients you need at a particular point in time.

Regardless of whether this narrative is correct I think it’s safer to get your nutrients from real food.  Supplements supplement.  They shouldn’t be the foundation.

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If you still can’t quite cover off on the nutrients you need from real food, you can supplement in a targeted manner once you’ve got the foundation of whole foods in place.

Micronutrients

The Nutrient Optimiser compares the nutrients you are getting to the recommended daily allowance (RDA) or daily recommended intake (DRI).  Different RDA / DRIs are commonly given for different situations including  whether you are male or female and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Recommended micronutrient levels for men are typically greater than those for women (other than iron, which is greater for women).  Levels of micronutrients during pregnancy and breastfeeding are greater for obvious reasons.  These values (for adults) are included in the Nutrient Optimiser.

You may have blood tests that indicate you are deficient or sufficient in particular nutrients.  You may also be able to use tools like the Organic Acids Test or the NutrEval test to identify any nutrient deficiencies that you need to prioritise.

If you have this data you can override the recommendations from your food log to focus the nutrients you know you are low in.  For example you may have blood tests that you are getting a lot of vitamin D from the sun so you could decrease your dietary targets or you may have blood tests that suggest you are low in iron due to poor absorption so you can increase your dietary targets.

The daily recommended intake levels for vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids are shown in the table below.  Keep in mind that these are the recommended minimum levels to prevent the diseases of malnutrition.  There is generally no harm in being above these levels in a particular nutrient if you are getting it from real food.  However if a certain nutrient is super high there is a chance that you are neglecting other nutrients.

Vitamin men women pregnant breastfeeding
B1 (Thiamine) (mg) 1.2 1.1 1.4 1.4
B12 (Cobalamin) (µg) 2.4 2.4 2.6 2.8
B2 (Riboflavin) (mg) 1.3 1 1.4 1.6
B3 (Niacin) (mg) 16 14 18 17
B5 (Pantothenic Acid) (mg) 5 5 6 6
B6 (Pyridoxine) (mg) 1.3 1.2 1.9 2
Folate (µg) 400 400 600 500
Vitamin A (IU) 3000 3000 3000 3000
Vitamin C (mg) 90 75 85 120
Vitamin D (IU) 600 600 600 600
Vitamin E (mg) 15 15 15 19
Vitamin K (µg) 120 90 90 90
Calcium (mg) 1000 1300 1000 1000
Copper (mg) 0.8 0.8 1 1
Iron (mg) 8 18 27 10
Magnesium (mg) 400 310 350 310
Manganese (mg) 5.5 5 5 5
Phosphorus (mg) 1000 1000 1000 1000
Potassium (mg) 3800 2800 2800 3200
Selenium (µg) 55 55 60 70
Sodium (mg) 460 460 460 460
Zinc (mg) 11 9 11 12
Omega-3 (g) 1.6 1.1 1.4 1.3

Amino acids

There is a lot of passion around the topic of optimal protein levels.

I think the long and short of it is that if you focus on getting the harder to find nutrients you won’t need to worry too much protein.  However if you focus on getting particularly high or low levels of protein you will risk missing out on getting adequate vitamins and minerals.

However, unless you’re actively trying to avoid protein you will likely be getting enough.  Conversely, unless you’re trying to hammer down to get extra protein with powders, you will find it hard to get too much protein whole foods.

As long as you’re not living exclusively off hyperpalatable processed foods I think you can generally trust your appetite to make sure you’re getting enough protein.  People who are active and working out will need more protein to support muscle growth and recover.  People who are sedentary will need less protein (as well as fat and carbs).

The Nutrient Optimiser takes your weight and LBM into account to tell you how you’re positioned against normal healthy protein intake levels which are noted in the table below.

Scenario % calories g/kg LBM
minimum (starvation) 6% 0.4
RDI/sedentary 11% 0.8
typical 16% 1.2
strength athlete 24% 1.8
maximum 35% 2.7

To take things another step further, the Nutrient Optimiser also looks at the adequacy of the individual amino acids.  If you’re following a lower carb or paleo approach these are likely to be adequate.  If you’re vegan, fasting or aiming for therapeutic ketosis, the Nutrient Optimiser may encourage you to seek our more of specific amino acids if you’re not getting enough.  Although typically most people get enough of the amino acids unless they are actively trying to avoid protein.

The table below shows the minimum daily requirement of the various essential amino acids in terms of milligrams per kilogram of body weight as well as for someone who is 70kg and 100kg.  These target levels have been included in the Nutrient Optimiser based on your total body weight.  If you are deficient in any of these individual amino acids the Nutrient Optimiser will highlight foods that will fill the gaps.  The Nutrient Optimiser also checks to make sure you’re getting enough protein overall based on your lean body mass.

Amino acid(s) mg per kg body weight mg per 70 kg mg per 100 kg
Histidine 10 700 1000
Isoleucine 20 1400 2000
Leucine 39 2730 3900
Lysine 30 2100 3000
Methionine

Cysteine

10.4 + 4.1 (15 total) 1050 1500
Phenylalanine

+ Tyrosine

25 (total) 1750 2500
Threonine 15 1050 1500
Tryptophan 4 280 400
Valine 26 1820 2600

Common micronutrient deficiencies

Managing micronutrients is a bit of a moving feast.  You could run a reasonable argument that the various daily recommended intakes (DRI) are based on limited knowledge and understanding.  Realistically in the early stages of understanding nutrients and how they work in our body.

For this reason, the Nutrient Optimiser doesn’t try to hit the DRI for every single nutrient.  That would be unrealistic with real food (chemical concoctions like Soylent or other meal replacement products, might get closer, but who knows what you’ll be missing out on if you only get what we currently understand to be the essential nutrients).  Instead we want to highlight the nutrients that you are currently getting in smaller quantities and help you focus on the foods that contain more of those harder to find nutrients.

The chart below shows common micronutrient deficiencies.  The majority of people are not getting adequate amounts of vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and zinc.  However your situation will be unique.

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The Nutrient Optimiser will progressively train you to incorporate new foods and rebalance your diet to fill your nutritional gaps.  When you get to the point that most of your nutrient requirements meet the minimum from real food you might just find your appetite and cravings for particular nutrients start to diminish.

If you’re interested in checking out how the Nutrient Optimiser has worked for a number of other people check out the Nutrient Optimiser Facebook Page or the Nutrient Optimiser site for more details on the tool and how to be involved.

2017-05-23

 

references

[1] http://freetheanimal.com/2015/10/fortification-obesity-refinements.html

[2] http://freetheanimal.com/2015/06/enrichment-theory-everything.html

[3] http://freetheanimal.com/2016/05/enrichment-promotes-everything.html

[4] http://www.audible.com.au/pd/Health-Personal-Development/The-Dorito-Effect-Audiobook/B00WVLVT0Q

[5] https://www.amazon.com/Dorito-Effect-Surprising-Truth-Flavor/dp/1476724237