Don’t Eat for Winter!

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

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

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

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

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

The squirrel formula

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

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

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

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In nature, we have milk that helps babies grow.

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Acorns help squirrels prepare for winter.

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

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Fast food

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

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

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

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

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

Most nutrient dense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High protein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low fat / high carb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Low protein / high fat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lower protein, moderate fat, moderate carbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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  • Floyd Aldrich says:

    Specifically where does Kefir fit in this? I’ve been drinking a glass a day

  • Fantastic article Marty… it’s fascinating that the only natural foods in that list of junk foods are acorns and baby milk… that is a pretty major backing up of my hypothesis with some hard data.

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