Which nutrients are harder to get on a meat-only diet?
What about plant-based?
What about satiety (the new food metric that more people are starting to talk about lately)?
These questions came up again on Twitter recently, so I thought it would be fun to dive into the data to put some numbers behind the discussion.
In this article, we’ll dive into the nutrient profile of different dietary approaches. But if you just want the headlines, the table below summarises the results.
- An omnivorous diet allows us to maximise nutrient density and satiety and minimises ultra-processed foods.
- The more we narrow our food choices, the less nutritionally complementary foods we have to choose from.
- If we drop plants and keep seafood and dairy, we can still get a fairly nutritious outcome.
- However, nutrient density and satiety decrease as we exclude more foods from our repertoire.
- A meat-only diet provides heaps of bioavailable protein, which is the foundation of any healthy diet, but it can be harder to get several essential micronutrients, including vitamin K1, vitamin C, manganese, folate, calcium, vitamin E and omega 3.
Interested in learning more? Read on…
This analysis uses the 450 most popular foods used by our Optimisers, which include a broad range of foods, including meat, seafood, dairy, plants, nuts & seeds, with some processed foods. This selection of foods has an even macronutrient split (i.e. 30% protein, 35% fat and 30% net carbs).
This first chart shows the nutrient fingerprint of all 450 foods. The x-axis is based on the nutrients that this section of foods provides relative to the Optimal Nutrient Intake.
- Towards the bottom of the nutrient fingerprint chart, we can see nutrients like phosphorus, vitamin A, and copper are easy to get.
- However, toward the top, nutrients like vitamin K1, omega 3 and vitamins B2, B3, E and C are harder to get in optimal amounts.
Considering nutrients per calorie allows us to compare any food, meal or group of foods based on diet quality score, regardless of quantity. For more details, see The Diet Quality Score: Your Ultimate Measure of a Balanced Diet.
Maximum Nutrient Density (Omnivore)
Once we’ve calculated the Diet Quality Score for each food, we can identify the most nutrient-dense subset of foods. Over the years, we’ve created several ways to rank and prioritise foods for different goals. One of our favourites is nutrient density.
The chart below shows the nutrient fingerprint of the most nutritious 50 foods from all sources, showing we can easily hit the Optimal Nutrient Intakes for all the nutrients.
The infographic below shows some popular nutrient-dense foods, which include plant-based foods, animal-based foods, seafood and dairy. For more details and inspiration, check out our nutrient-dense food lists here.
Meat, Seafood and Dairy
The next chart shows the micronutrient fingerprint if we exclude all plant-based foods, which leaves meat, seafood and dairy.
- Towards the top of the chart, we can see that vitamins K1, C, calcium and folate tend to be harder to get without plants, even when we focus on the most nutrient-dense food options.
- Towards the bottom of the chart, we see that vitamins A, B12, copper and phosphorus are plentiful.
As you can see in the chart below, vitamin K1 tends to be more abundant in green foods and, thus, harder to get from animal products alone.
While not a dominant satiety factor, these foods align with eating fewer calories. Our Optimal Nutrient Intake stretch target of 600 mcg/2000 calories for vitamin K1 aligns with the point at which we get most of the satiety benefit from these foods.
Meanwhile, vitamin C features in the satiety equation, particularly when protein is low.
Again, we eat less when our food packs in more vitamin C per calorie. While we don’t usually have conscious cravings for vitamin C, sailors suffering from scurvy were seen to eat fruit ‘with emotions of the most voluptuous luxury’ after years at sea.
The infographic below shows some examples of popular nutrient-dense seafood options. It’s hard to go wrong with seafood as a great source of bioavailable protein and nutrients.
Animal-Based (Including Dairy & Offal)
But not everyone likes seafood, so I’ve re-run the analysis without it. The overall diet quality score drops from 73% to 66% with only meat and dairy. In addition to vitamin K1 and C, omega 3 and vitamin E become harder to get when we drop seafood from our repertoire.
Dairy and eggs are great sources of bioavailable protein and calcium, which people find challenging.
Our analysis shows calcium is a dominant satiety factor, second only to protein. We eat much less when we pack more calcium into our daily energy budget.
Based on this analysis, our Optimal Nutrient Intake for calcium is 1650 mg/2000 calories. Although this is only a slight increase from the DRI of 1200 mg/day, calcium is still a nutrient many Optimisers find challenging to get enough of.
Calcium is critical to maintaining our bones, so we crave calcium when running low. In Calcium: Taste, Intake, and Appetite (2001), Tordoff showed changing taste perceptions for calcium to maintain homeostasis in the blood and body.
Meat Only (Without Offal)
But not every strict carnivore eats dairy, so I’ve run the analysis again for animal products (with offal). Without dairy, calcium becomes a priority nutrient, along with vitamin K1, vitamin C, manganese, vitamin E, omega 3, magnesium, folate and potassium.
The infographic below shows some popular nutrient-dense, animal-based foods, with liver and offal ranking on the top.
Meat (without Offal)
But not every carnivore likes to eat offal (e.g. liver, kidney, brains etc).
So the updated micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrients the 50 meat-based foods provide without offal. This drops the diet quality score from 65% to 61%. Without offal, folate and vitamin A become priority nutrients.
Folate is a nutrient that we can get from plants or animal-based foods. Since 1998 the FDA mandated the fortification of bread, pasta, rice and cereal with folic acid to prevent neural tube defects due to combat the rise in nutrient-poor ultra-processed foods.
However, towards the bottom of the chart, we can see meat is still a great source of amino acids, zinc, B12, B3 and selenium, which can be harder to get in plant-based foods. A carnivore diet is a great way to get plenty of bioavailable protein and some of the essential nutrients. However, it is not necessarily optimal.
Whatever the name, any diet that works eliminates hyperpalatable ultra-processed foods that overdrive dopamine by combining refined grains, sugars and industrial seed oils. If you focus on packing in the nutrients you require from your food, these less optimal foods are automatically excluded.
For completeness, the chart below shows the micronutrient fingerprint of the most nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
- Towards the top, we can see that vitamin B12 is extremely difficult to find on a plant-only diet (other fortified breakfast cereals and mushrooms with a little manure that supplies the B12).
- Next, we have the limiting amino acids methionine and lysine; hence muscle protein synthesis will be more challenging on an exclusively plant-based diet.
- Additionally, selenium to get is challenging without seafood.
- We get some omega 3, but it will be less bioavailable from plant-based sources.
- At the bottom, we see that vitamin A is plentiful on a plant-based diet. Although this is not preformed vitamin A, most people could convert enough vitamin A from a nutrient-dense plant-based diet to meet their daily requirements.
You may have noticed the diet quality score for the most nutrient-dense plant-based foods (70%) is higher than for the animal-based (with dairy) (66%) or meat-only (61%) options.
To illustrate, the infographic below shows some popular nutrient-dense plant-based foods.
Plant-based foods can provide a LOT of nutrients per calorie. The catch is most of us wouldn’t be able to survive long on spinach, mushroom and bok choy alone.
Unfortunately, the term “plant-based” has become meaningless because it includes refined grains, sugar and industrial seed oils that are the primary ingredients in low-satiety ultra-processed foods like the ones shown below.
Unfortunately, quantifying nutrients gets a little messy because plant-based sources of some nutrients — like protein, omega 3, calcium, vitamin A, iron and zinc — are less bioavailable. So it’s impossible to calculate perfectly exactly what will make it from the food you eat into your bloodstream.
As shown in the figure below (Beal et al., 2023), only 10% of the omega 3 from plant-based sources is bioavailable, and only a proportion of plant vitamin A is converted to preformed vitamin A. Similarly, iron and zinc from plants are only half as bioavailable as the same nutrients from animal-based sources.
However, at the same time, worrying about bioavailability is irrelevant if we get minimal nutrients from our food.
100% of zero is still zero.
- The analysis above shows that a nutrient-dense plant-based diet can provide heaps of vitamin A, so the fact that only on twelfth of that vitamin A is irrelevant – someone on a plant-based diet will still get plenty of vitamin A.
- 100% of the calcium on a meat-only diet (without dairy) may be bioavailable. However, getting enough calcium from meat alone will still be challenging.
In our Micros Masterclass, we suggest Optimisers focus on getting enough of all of the essential nutrients they need from foods they enjoy eating and tolerate well. If their priority nutrients (i.e. those towards the top of their micronutrient fingerprint charts) are the less bioavailable ones, they can then look to fill in those gaps with other foods or even supplementation.
High Satiety Foods
Another approach to ranking foods is satiety. High-satiety foods enable you to dodge hunger with less energy, which is great for the growing majority of people who want to lose a bit of body fat.
We’ve been helping people optimise for satiety for over five years, but we recently fine-tuned our algorithm, calibrated to more than three hundred thousand days of food logging data from free-living people like you.
While protein % is the most powerful single factor in the satiety equation, considering the other nutrients we also appear to crave allows us to predict how much more accurately you’ll eat based on what you’re eating.
To learn more, check out Moneyball Nutrition: Leverage Big Data to Crush Your Hunger with the Nutrient You Need to Thrive.
Rather than all nutrients, the highest satiety foods prioritise the nutrients that tend to be related to eating less. The nutrient fingerprint below for the highest satiety foods shows you’ll be satisfied and get plenty of all the essential nutrients from these foods.
Nutrient-poor, low-satiety foods are designed to overdrive your dopamine response to food, making you feel addicted to them, so you’ll eat and buy more. Meanwhile, higher-satiety foods provide a healthy dopamine response because you’re getting the nutrients you need from your food without excess energy.
Your Micronutrient Fingerprint
It’s interesting to look at theoretical groups of foods, but simply thinking in terms of plant-based vs animal-based (or even protein % and satiety) tends to lead to futile circular arguments.
The best way to understand which nutrients your diet provides and which ones it lacks is to track how you eat for a few days. If you want to identify your priority nutrients and the foods and meals that contain more, you can try our Free Nutrient Clarity Challenge.
While there is plenty of argument across the animal-based vs plant-based divide, we find most Optimisers get the best nutrient profile from an omnivorous diet.
The table below shows each approach’s nutrient density, satiety index and macro split. Nutrient-dense animal-based foods and seafood are great sources of bioavailable protein and many nutrients, while plant-based foods help fill the gaps.
At Optimising Nutrition, we don’t care where you get your nutrients or what name you give to your preferred dietary approach, so long as you get the nutrients you need, primarily from the food you eat, in the forms and ratios your body understands.
Most people find the simplest way to start their journey of Nutritional Optimisation is with a simple food list, progressively adding more foods to their repertoire.
Click on the links below to download printable food lists optimised for different goals and preferences:
NutriBooster Recipes Books
But we don’t just eat individual foods. We combine them to create recipes. Over the years, we’ve worked hard to create a series of NutriBooster recipe books tailored to various goals and preferences, all with nutrients at the centre.
Click on the links below to download a sample of each of the NutriBooster recipe books:
As the title says, our NutriBooster recipes are designed to boost your nutrition one meal at a time and ensure you get everything you need from food without putting your hope in expensive pills and magic supplements.
Finally, if you want to take your nutrition to the next level and optimise your diet at the micronutrient level, you may be interested in our Micros Masterclass, where our Optimisers compete for a place on the nutrient density leaderboard.