It makes sense intuitively that bulky food full of water and fibre will help you to feel full, even though they don’t provide a lot of energy.
Imagine if all you had to eat were non-starchy, fibrous vegetables like lettuce, broccoli, and celery. You would struggle to get enough energy.
Your stomach can only hold so much.
However, we gravitate to higher energy density foods to ensure we get the energy we need.
We get a dopamine hit from energy-dense foods helps to ensure our survival a species. This drove us to hunt down, dig up or fight with bees to get energy-dense foods.
However today, in a world of engineered foods, full of refined carbs and added fats, lower energy density foods may be helpful to reverse engineer your food environment if you are trying to lose weight.
Who should consider lower energy density foods?
Focusing on lower energy density foods only needs to be a priority once you are eating nutrient dense foods and have stabilised your blood sugars. People who are obese and insulin resistant often don’t do well with only celery, broccoli, mushrooms, grapefruit and lettuce to eat. Hunger and appetite often win in the long run.
While insulin resistant people often have plenty of stored body fat, their insulin levels are still very high. They may struggle to access their stored body fat and avoid the cravings driven by the blood sugar rollercoaster. A nutrient dense low carb diet with ‘fat to satiety’ can help these people stabilise their blood sugars without hunger.
Focusing on more nutritious foods that stabilise blood sugars is enough to help many people lose some weight. However, many find that their weight loss stalls after a while when using a ‘fat to satiety’ approach. Not fearing fat may have helped them start their journey, but ramping up their fat intake to higher and higher levels often doesn’t achieve the desired results.
At this point, lower energy density foods and meals can be useful to help take the next step to lose more body fat once your blood sugars are stable and you are in the habit of eating nutritious food. An extreme version of this approach is the Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) as detailed in Lyle McDonald’s Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and this article.
In short, the PSMF is often used by bodybuilders or weight loss clinics to provide the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and protein necessary with the minimum amount of calories to prevent loss of muscle mass and prevent cravings in dieting.
Low energy density foods
If you’re interested in trying out a lower energy density approach, the nutrient dense low energy density foods listed below will provide plenty of nutrients without too much energy.
Focusing on these foods will allow you to get all the nutrients you need without too much energy and be able to sustain a long-term energy deficit without excessive cravings. This chart shows how these foods stack up in terms of nutrients compared to the average of all foods in the USDA database.
Higher energy density foods
Alternatively, we can use energy density parameter to identify foods with a higher energy density to fuel your athletic endeavours or endurance event without having to resort to energy gels which will provide fast digesting energy but not a lot of nutrition.
The list of food will provide you with more energy while still being nutrient dense. This list contains more nuts, seeds, dairy and fattier cuts of meat.
As shown in this chart, these high energy density foods are not as nutrient dense as the lower energy density foods, however, they are still an improvement compared to the average of all of the food in the USDA database.
Energy density and satiety
Satiety is complex and involves more than just eating foods that are bulkier. Ensuring your diet contains enough protein (the most satiating macronutrient) and micronutrients (to avoid cravings), along with stabilising swings in your blood sugar (with a lower insulin load diet) are all pieces of the satiety puzzle.
One of the most interesting pieces of research into satiety is a 1995 paper by Susanne Holt and colleagues, “A satiety index of common foods”. This study fed participants 1000 kJ (239 calories) of various foods and looked at how much people ate at a subsequent meal. The study found that how much our stomach stretches is a significant factor in determining how satiating a particular food is.
The chart below shows SELFNutritionData.com‘s analysis of the data from the 1995 paper which they used to develop their Fullness Factor. This regression analysis shows that satiety per calorie tends to be positively correlated with:
lower energy density (i.e. calories per 100g of food),
higher protein content,
higher fibre, and
The most energy dense foods
The table below shows the energy density (i.e. calories per 100 g) of a range of foods and their weight per 500 calories.
calories / 100g
weight / 500 calories (g)
You might be able to eat more at dinner if you had a 40 g of chips for lunch compared to three kilograms of mushrooms or celery even though they both contain the same amount of energy.
Show me the data!
For those who like to see the numbers, the table below shows the energy density, nutrient density, macros and % insulinogenic of a range of food lists that we can quantify. The list is sorted from the lowest energy density to the highest energy density.
The energy density of real food can range from 30 to 450 calories per 100 grams.
The lowest and highest energy density foods are not necessarily the most nutrient dense, however, nutrient dense food tends to have a lower energy density.
The foods that contain very high levels of fat will be energy dense and not necessarily as nutritious on a calorie for calorie basis.
The weight loss approaches have a lower energy density. However, if you are trying to maintain weight or are very active you can still get a fairly nutritious outcome with higher energy approach.
nutrient density score
lowest energy density
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
weight loss (insulin resistant)
highest fibre foods
the most nutritious foods
highest protein foods
energy dense foods for athletes
lowest fibre foods
well formulated ketogenic
most ketogenic foods
When do we use energy density?
The table below shows when Nutrient Optimiser uses energy density diet based on your blood glucose levels and waist to height ratio.
average blood sugar
waist : height ratio
weight loss (insulin resistant)
100 – 108
5.4 – 6.0
5.0 – 5.4%
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
If you haven’t yet, make sure you head over to the Nutrient Optimiser get your free report complete which includes a list of foods and meals tailored to your goals.
This article unpacks each aspect of the Ketogains system.
Protein as a goal
The Ketogains macro calculator recommends a minimum protein intake of 0.8g per pound of lean body mass (LBM) (i.e. 1.8g/kg LBM), increasing to 1.0g/lb LBM (or 2.2g/kg LBM) on lifting days.
This protein intake level is more than would be recommended in a therapeutic ketogenic approach or even the average protein intake for the general population. It does, however, align with Steve Phinney’s recommended protein intake level for athletes and performance and represents a more optimal protein intake for active people.
From a sports nutrition standpoint, more than 2.2 gram per kilogram of total body weight is regarded as “high protein”. This could be as high as 3.0g/kg LBM when fat mass is taken into account. So, while the Ketogains protein recommendations might be considered high in therapeutic keto and vegan circles, the Ketogains recommendations would be ‘moderate’ in a sports nutrition and bodybuilding circles.
This chart above (from Lemon, 1998) shows that, for a strength athlete, muscle protein synthesis is maximised when they consume at least 1.8g/kg BW of protein.
Protein intake even more important when you are trying to lose weight. The higher the energy deficit, the greater is our need for protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass. If we are active and/or doing resistance training, then our requirement for protein is even higher again. As shown in the chart below from a recent review paper by Stuart Phillips, muscle mass is best preserved best when we have higher levels of protein, particularly if you are targeting an aggressive deficit. If you are targetting a moderate energy deficit (e.g. 10%) then a protein intake of around 1.5g/kg BW is appropriate. However, if we are targetting a very aggressive energy deficit then higher levels, up to 2.6g/kg BW will be beneficial to prevent loss of lean muscle mass. If we are active then we will also need more (dashed line) while we need less if we are sedentary (dotted line).
While it’s actually difficult to consume such high levels of protein due to the satiety effect, more protein won’t turn to chocolate cake. 
Protein contributes to your energy intake. So if your goal is fat loss, then you want to target the minimum effective dose of macronutrients and micronutrients.
As a general rule, a higher protein intake tends to lead to a better nutritional profile and increased satiety. Very high protein diets (i.e. above than 80% energy from protein) will likely rely on supplements and may minimise other foods that provide more vitamins and minerals. As you can see on the far left of this chart, actively targeting a low protein intake can lead to a poor nutritional outcome.
[note: If your goal is therapeutic ketosis for the management of epilepsy, dementia, cancer, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s you will need to pay particular attention to ensure you get your share of micronutrients.]
Carbs as a limit
As you can see in the chart below, you can get a reasonable level of nutrition if you consume anywhere between 0 and 60% of your energy from non-fibre carbs. However, with an exploding diabetes epidemic, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of people would do better if they reduced their consumption of refined grains and sugars.
If you have already developed insulin resistance or diabetes, then reducing your carbohydrate intake to the point you achieve normal blood glucose levels is a good idea, both in terms of overall health and controlling appetite that can be driven by excessive blood sugar swings.
The fact that much of the population is already insulin resistant is likely part of the reason the Ketogains approach, with its limit on carbs, has been so successful.
Low carbers are fond of saying “there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate”. However, unless you are focusing on getting lots of organ meat, shellfish, or fresh meat, you may benefit from consuming some non-starchy veggies to get your essential vitamins and minerals.
Twenty or thirty grams of non-fibre carbs doesn’t sound like much in the context of grains or sugars, but it can feel like a LOT of food to consume if it’s from non-starchy veggies.
Fat as a lever
So to recap before we get into discussing fat:
Adequate protein is critical to support muscle growth and repair.
Non-starchy veggies (which contain a small amount of non-fibre carbohydrates) provide vitamins and minerals (unless of course, you are eating heaps of shellfish, organ meat or drinking blood like the Maasai).
Recently, many people are swinging back from their fear of fat to embrace dietary fat again. Carbohydrate is a more explosive fuel source for emergencies, while fat is a slower burning and more efficient fuel source.
While there are essential fats, we don’t require much to meet our minimum requirements of essential fats. Beyond this, where you get your energy doesn’t matter that much.
Many people do fine on a diet that obtains a lot of the energy from carbs while other do well on a diet that get the majority of energy from fat. However, where things seem to go wrong is when people consume diet that is high in energy dense nutrient poor fat and carbs with minimal amounts of protein.
As you can see from the chart below, we can achieve a respectable nutritional outcome with a fat intake of between 10 and 65%. More fat is not necessarily better, but very low-fat levels are not great either as they tend to have minimal amounts of protein and other essential nutrients.
If you are trying to reduce body fat, then maximising the nutrient density and reducing the energy density of your food is a worthy goal. A protein sparing modified fast, an extreme version of this, provides adequate protein while limiting both fat and carbohydrates.
If you are looking to gain weight, add muscle or perform extended feats of endurance exercise on a regular basis, it may be beneficial to load up on more energy dense foods. However, conversely, if are not an endurance athlete but trying to use your body fat for fuel (like most of us these days living in a sedentary environment full of hyperpalatable food), you may want to wind your dietary fat intake back.
Once you’ve worked out your macros using the Ketogains calculator and got the hang of using fat as a lever to manage energy intake, the next step is to ensure you are getting your share of micronutrients.
Focusing purely on macros (e.g. Flexible Dieting, IIFYM, etc.) is short-sighted because it fails to consider micronutrients. Chronic energy restriction without attention to micronutrients can lead to chronic nutrient deficiencies, a lack of energy, increased hunger, rebound bingeing due to cravings and even death.
You’re likely aware that the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) trigger muscle protein synthesis and ensure you use the rest of the amino acids to build and repair your muscles. However, recent research has found that the amino acids arginine and lysine trigger satiety and hence we find foods that contain these amino acids more filling.
The chart below shows what your micronutrient profile would look like if you focused on branched chain amino acids (valine, isoleucine, and leucine) and the satiety-related amino acids (lysine and arginine) while also keeping carbohydrates low.
While we get plenty of protein with this approach, we would not obtain the recommended minimum levels of a large number of the essential vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids.
As much as we like to focus on macronutrients (i.e. fat, protein, carbohydrates, fibre, ketones), micronutrients are arguably a more useful to assist us in our nutritional decision making.
Getting adequate minerals is especially important for:
The chart below shows what happens to our micronutrient profile when, in addition to BCAAs, we also prioritise foods that contain the harder to find micronutrients. The purple bars represent the nutrients contained in the average of all foods in the USDA foods database while the blue bars represent the nutrients contained in the shortlist of foods.
In case you were wondering which foods will give you the most micronutrients while also having a lower energy density and fewer carbs, I have listed them below.
yeast extract spread
dairy & egg
whey protein powder
You should ideally focus on the foods closer to the top of these lists. But once you’ve eaten as much endive, alfalfa, liver and caviar as you can, feel free to move down the list to more energy dense foods or ones that you might enjoy eating more.
If you can’t get enough nutrient-dense foods, it may be beneficial to use supplements. Keep in mind though, the nutrients from whole foods are likely to be better absorbed.
Too many minerals at once will ‘give you a dose of the salts’ and all your expensive supplements will end up in the toilet. Whole foods are also more likely to contain other beneficial non-essential nutrients that come along with nutrient-dense foods.
You can do your head in focusing on the fluctuations on the scale or body fat from day to day. But, you want to see your overall weight and body fat reducing toward your target levels. People who successfully lose weight and keep it off manage their food intake, measure their weight regularly and are active!
If you’re a fitness model you might want to measure yourself daily. If you’re just starting to focus on eating well and lifting, then you might just want to weigh yourself weekly or monthly.
If you are not moving towards your goals over the long term, something needs to change.
But first, you need to set some realistic goals. Take the time to determine your current and target body weight, fat (in kg and %) and lean body mass (LBM).
body weight (kg)
body fat (%)
body fat (kg)
If you are disciplined, it is possible to lose 1% of your mass per week, but 0.5% is a more realistic and less aggressive target. If you are already lean, then it will be harder to lose fat without losing muscle so you may need a less aggressive deficit.
It’s not all about the weight on the scale. You can be losing fat and gaining muscle, the weight on the scale probably is the most reliable indicator that you’ve got your inputs right. If you’re getting enough protein and working out, incrased muscle mass should be looking after itself, and any loss should be mainly fat.
Keep in mind that body weight is a lagging measurement that tells you whether you’re on the right track. Tracking inputs (e.g. food intake and exercise) will be much more useful.
macros / calories
Personally, I don’t enjoy tracking my food, so I’ve designed a range of food lists and meals that will help most people improve from where they currently are. It will be pretty hard to get/stay morbidly obese if you eat only the foods and meals listed above.
But eating to satiety won’t guarantee you will lose weight. If you want to look like a fitness model, or you are not getting your desired results from ‘eating ad libitum’ you will likely need to track your food to overcome your inbuilt impulse to maintain a higher body weight and prepare for a possible famine ahead.
Tracking your food in an app like Cronometer can be a useful educational experience.
The Ketogains calculator will give you a starting point in terms of calorie intake based on your current weight and activity levels. If, after a few weeks, you are not seeing the progress you were hoping for you will need to adjust your inputs.
Performance/weight on the bar
Building muscle or achieving a performance goal is probably more important than weight loss, particularly if you are not trying to get down to a very low level of body fat.
The great thing about using a performance goal is that it is both a leading and lagging measure. By going harder, faster and heavier you are providing a greater stimulus for growth. And by measuring your performance outputs, you are ensuring that you are getting fitter/faster/healthier.
While being strong doesn’t guarantee weight loss, being stronger will improve your metabolic health, insulin sensitivity and ability to burn fat more effectively than nearly anything else.
Having more lean muscle mass will ensure you burn both glucose and fat more efficiently. Lean muscle mass is a key predictor of longevity.
Don’t be surprised if your appetite ramps up during the first few months of intensive lifting as your body goes into anabolic overdrive to recover and build new muscle. This should settle down though after a while, and you can then focus on dialling your diet in if you want to gain strength as well as lose body fat. You have a unique window of ‘newb gains’ during initial whne you can get stronger at in a way that you may never achieve again. You can focus on getting to single digit body fat later.
Other stuff that you could track
There are other things that you might like to track, but they will be less useful than the things mentioned above. Most people have limited time and don’t really want to live a completely quantified life. Unless this is your only hobby or you are a professional athlete or fitness model, you may quickly hit ‘analysis paralysis’ and give up.
There is no guarantee that technology will help you reach your goals. In fact, it seems that you are more likely to gain weight if you use wearables like a Fitbit. It’s hard to know whether this is due to the EMF or perhaps the wearer is always allowing themselves to consume the extra calories that their technology told them that they just burned with exercise.
So, coming from a biohacker nerd…. don’t try to track too many things at once! OK?
Heart Rate Variability
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measure of the variability between your heart beats. If you are stressed and/or exhausted your heart will be more rhythmically as well as more rapidly. If you are relaxed and well rested your heart will be more to stresses and quickly return to rest.
Measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) can tell you if you’re pushing too hard and need to rest recover or you’re not pushing hard enough and should be working harder to maximise your progress. Training when you are burning out can be counterproductive and lead to injury or under recovery.
HRV tells you whether your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system is balanced.
If you are “parasympathetic nervous system dominant” you might be overstressed from too much activity, not enough sleep, too much caffeine or work stress.
If you are “sympathetic nervous system dominant”, then it probably means your body wants to rest. You’ll probably do better if you listen to it and let it recover.
If your overall HRV is dropping, it means you are burning out and should consider slowing down.
After 1.5 years of measuring my HRV each morning, it’s uncanny how many times I will see my HRV fall a few days before you get the flu or hit the wall. I don’t like to stay still long enough to meditate, so tracking each day with Elite HRV is part of my relaxation, breathing and focus at the start of each day.
Your blood sugar and glucose control is a powerful indicator of metabolic health. But blood sugar readings can vary depending, not just due to the food you eat or your metabolic health, but also exercise and stress.
If you have diabetes, then refining your food choices to normalise your blood sugars is critical. However, regular blood sugar tracking is likely a waste of time and money for most people who are following a Ketogains style approach (i.e. tracking their food to ensure they are moving towards an optimal weight, getting adequate protein and lifting regularly) is unnecessary.
Unless you require therapeutic ketosis to help manage epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s measuring your blood ketones is also largely an irrelevant distraction.
Lots of people get caught up chasing ‘optimal ketosis’ by eating more dietary fat and less protein. However, this is exactly the opposite of what you need to gain strength and lose body fat.
Blood ketones do increase when we don’t eat. But high ketone levels don’t mean you are burning your own body fat. It could just be the three Bulletproof coffees and exogenous ketones you just had to get that are driving your high ketone levels.
Some people, especially those who are physically fit and/or have been practising a low carb diet for a long time, seem to have lower blood ketone levels, even if they are eating a ‘ketogenic’ diet. It’s hard to know whether this is due to the more efficient use of ketones or the fact they are burning more fat through non-ketogenic pathways.
Someone who is not so metabolically healthy can load up on exogenous ketones, butter and MCT oil and get a high blood ketone reading on their meter. But this may just mean that they have eaten a lot of fat that they are not burning (because of their lack of activity and/or poor metabolic health) and the fat is backing up in their bloodstream.
A healthy metabolism seems to keep the total energy circulating in the bloodstream fairly low (i.e. from glucose, ketones or free fatty acids). If you are metabolically healthy, you can easily access your fat stores so you don’t need to build up high energy stores in the blood. By contrast, someone with a less healthy metabolism seems to maintain higher energy stores in the blood (i.e. glucose, ketones, free fatty acids) as well as on their body.
Most people don’t need to worry about their blood glucose and ketone levels consciously. If you focus on nutrient dense food to optimise your mitochondrial function and strength building to keep pushing your mitochondria to produce energy at peak efficiency, then your body will probably look after the rest.
[At the risk of getting too technical, it’s worth pointing out that blood ketones rise because there is a lack of Oxaloacetate (from protein and carbs) available to burn Acetyl CoA from fat in the Krebs cycle, so the body defaults to a starvation protocol to produce ketones (AcetoAcetate).
If your NAD+ is low, AcetoAcetate will not be converted to Acetone so there will be lots of beta-hydroxybutyrate left in the blood to be measured on your meter. So, other than fasting and/or exercising to deplete your liver glycogen levels, one ‘hack’ to achieve high blood ketone is to avoid protein and eat a nutrient-poor diet low in niacin and other B vitamins (which produce NAD+). But don’t try this at home. It’s not a recipe for optimal health, just high blood ketone levels.]
Ketogains’ Tyler Cartwright has lost nearly three hundred pounds without exceeding 0.4mmol/L blood ketones on his ketone metre (other than that time he ate nothing but lard for two weeks as an experiment and got to 0.5mmol/L).
Breath ketones are an interesting indication of your metabolic health. But again, they’re not necessary if you are already focusing on a nutrient-dense diet without too much energy and plenty of activity.
BMI is often used to assess whether or not someone is at a healthy weight.
However, BMI is notoriously problematic for people with more muscle.
Waist to height ratio is a much better predictor of the years of life that you will lose due to your poor health.
Micronutrients and nutrient score
Focusing on the nutrient-dense whole foods above and the meals below will get you most of the way to optimal nutrition. However, you can also track your macronutrients in Cronometer to help you identify the nutrients you are not getting from your diet.
But then, once you’ve tracked your food in Cronometer, you are left wondering what foods and meals you should eat. and if need to supplement, how much of each supplement do you require and how much?
The Nutrient Score is a measure of the micronutrient quality of your diet. If you were able to get two times the recommended daily intake of all the essential micronutrients, you would get a perfect score of 100%.
To demonstrate what this looks like in practice, Ted Naiman’s diet got a very respectable nutrient score of 70%.
But the coolest competition is against yourself. Andy Mant managed to seriously up his nutritional game…
… by eating a LOT of nutrient-dense seafood…
… in preparation for his Paris wedding.
By following the recommendations of the Nutrient Optimiser analysis, Robin was able to improve her nutrient score to 32% (junk food diet) to 68% over a number of iterations (see report 1, report 2 and report 3).
In the process, she was able to significantly improve her blood glucose levels, dropping her HBA1c from 10.6% to 6.4%. Robin was also able to progress from taking hundreds of units of insulin per day to only needing occasional correcting doses to fine tune her blood sugars. She also managed to lose 2.6lbs per week!
And after a couple of rounds of following the Nutrient Optimiser recommendations and a couple of Ketogains boot camps the Matt Standridge (aka The Ketodontist) has stepped up from a nutrient score of 48% to 73%. He says he is feeling great and continues to gain muscle and lose fat.
The Nutrient Optimiser
While there are common themes, each person’s micronutrient fingerprint is unique. The optimal foods and meals that will balance your micronutrient profile are unique to you. The Nutrient Optimiser is the only tool that will tell you what foods are ideal to balance your diet while also aligning with your goals.
Currently, the Nutrient Optimiser is a manual report that will help you optimise your nutrition from the micronutrients based on your food log in Cronometer. We’re working hard to develop an automated system that will use your goals and whatever data you have to help you refine your nutrition to achieve your goals.
If you don’t want to track your food, the system will tell you what meals and foods will align with your goals. But if you want to step up your game and provide other data we can work with that to further refine your nutritional prescription to fill in your micronutrient gaps. The system will also adapt with you to improve your nutrition, ideally from diabetic to weight loss to achieving your performance goals.
The Ketogains protocol involves getting adequate protein (to support muscle growth and recovery) and adequate carbs to get essential vitamins and minerals. Fat is used as a level to manipulate energy intake to suit your goals.
If you are limiting your energy intake, maximising your nutrient : energy ratio is critical!
The Nutrient Optimiser can help you identify foods and meals that align with your goals and fill in your micronutrient deficiencies.
Chose what you track wisely. Trying to manage too many things can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’. If you manage the most important inputs, results should naturally follow.
I’ve been building a database of to help identify the meals that provide you with the nutrients you need more of and align with your goals.
If you are tracking in Cronometer, you can sign up for a Nutrient Optimiser analysis and report here to find out which foods and meals will help you move forward. I’ve also been working with Alex from Nutrient Hero for the past few months building a massive database of recipes we can use to optimise your nutrition.
It feels like it’s been a long time coming, but it won’t be too long before it’s all automated and online. If you want to be the first to trial the beta version then make sure you enter your email in the pop on this page or head over to NutrientOptimiser.com now to learn more.
The recipes below are some of the highest ranking when we prioritise some of the harder to find vitamins and minerals (potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, thiamine and choline) as well as higher protein and a lower energy density.
I have included the link to the Cronometer entry as well as the nutritional profile and a list of foods that will help you balance the nutritional profile of the recipe.
Gayle Louise created this simple omelette recipe for her Ketogains boot camp workout days. Nutritional yeast has a fantastic nutritional profile and adds a cheesy taste without the calories, minimising fat and maximising nutrient density.
Everyone loves coffee, and most people find potassium harder to get in their diet than sodium. So why not potassium coffee?!?! The milk and caramel syrup are not essential, but they give you that indulgent salted caramel taste.
Getting adequate minerals is critical to ensuring insulin sensitivity, nutrient partitioning, muscle building and recover and avoiding diabetes.
While most people don’t need to worry about getting too much salt, having a potassium : sodium ratio greater than two is hard to achieve for most people, even if they do eat a lot of greens.
My friend Raymund Edwards of Optimal Ketogenic Living has been doing a LOT of research into the wide-ranging benefits of alkalising electrolytes, in particular, potassium. This recipe was inspired by Raymund after hearing that he was adding potassium to his coffee.
Raymund said, “A potassium enriched coffee in the morning really wakes the muscles. It’s better than any warm up. Loose and alive we can feel the difference as they soak up actively the potassium especially after the night fast (where muscles have been releasing potassium). And the coffee in my view tastes so much better too.”
It’s hard to get a significant amount of potassium from tablets as they are limited to 99 mg which is only a fraction of the 3,800 mg of potassium that we need each day (you would need to take forty tablets to get the DRI for potassium!).
You can also add the potassium citrate powder to your drinking water, coffee or pre-workout mix. You would need more than 10g of the citrate powder to get your recommended daily intake of potassium, but, like all things, start slowly. However, in time, it might just make you feel amazing!
Dom D’Agostino infamously told Tim Ferriss in his sound check that his breakfast was sardines, oysters, eggs and broccoli. It might sound bizarre, but it packs a nutritional punch.
Most days my breakfast is some variant on frozen greens (spinach, broccoli, kale) + eggs + seafood (sardines, mackerel, oysters, mussels, anchovies) + nutritional yeast.
If you’re not focusing on losing body fat you can add cheese or peanuts for some extra indulgent taste, but leaving these out will help you increase your protein : energy and nutrient : energy ratio which is ideal if you are trying to lose body fat (and will make Ted Naiman and Luis Villasenor proud).
You could take more time to fry these ingredients up and plate them up nicely, but most of the time breakfast only needs to be time efficient and doesn’t need to look good. If you can start the day with a high protein nutrient dense breakfast, you’ll be less likely to succumb to other cravings later in the day.
250g frozen veggies. Spinach is always best, but broccoli or kale work too.
Three eggs. Consider removing the yolks if you are focussed on lower fat higher protein fat loss phase, though this will decrease the overall nutrient profile. The yolk is where all the vitamins and minerals are!
1 can of seafood (e.g. mackerel, sardines, oysters, mussels or anchovies).
1 teaspoon of nutritional yeast
Peanuts (optional, only if not looking to lean out)
1 oz mozzarella cheese (optional, only if not looking to lean out)
Photos of other variants (hey, they ain’t pretty, but they work).
Bacon, egg, spinach and mushroom
This is a variant on the common bacon and eggs recipe. The spinach mushroom and tomato round out the nutritional profile of the stock standard bacon and eggs.
The spinach provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin K and vitamin A. Most people think kale is the ultimate nutrient-dense green vegetable. However, kale just has a lot of Vitamin K1 and not so as much of everything else. Spinach has a much better nutritional profile across the board.
If you are focusing on reducing body fat and maximising nutrient density, consider eliminating the cream, draining the bacon fat and keeping the butter to a minimum for cooking. If your goal is bulking and recover, then you can be more liberal with the cream and cheese to taste. Remember, fat is a lever.
Fry bacon separately. If your priority is reducing body fat then you can let the bacon rest on a paper towel to drain the fat. Alternatively, bacon grease can be used to fry the spinach, mushroom and eggs.
The lipophobics and the aminophobics are both talking past each other at strawmen.
The hysteria is not just humorous, it’s confusing and turning away novices.
This phony controversy causes people to recommend insane amounts of protein at BOTH ends of the spectrum.
Protein tends to be a passionate topic of discussion n the online macronutrient wars. So I thought it would be useful to set out arguments at both extremes of the ‘protein controversy’ and detail some responses to bring some balance. My hope is that this article will bring some clarity to the civil war in the low carb/keto community.
The TL:DR summary is:
appetite is a reliable driver to make sure you get enough protein to suit your needs,
our appetite decreases when we get enough protein,
it’s hard to overeat protein because it’s hard to convert to energy, so the body doesn’t want more than it can use,
most people get adequate protein without worrying about it too much,
people who require a therapeutic ketogenic approach should pay attention to their diet to ensure that they don’t miss out on essential micronutrients while maintaining a low insulin load, and
if you prioritise nutritious whole foods, you’re likely getting enough protein but not too much.
If you want more detail, read on! The arguments and responses of the two sides are outlined below. The article then concludes with some learnings and observations from the Nutrient Optimiser about how we can optimise protein intake to suit our goals and situation.
High protein bros
This section outlines the arguments and responses from the “high protein bro” extreme end of the debate.
“There is no such thing as too much protein.”
Refined protein supplements do not contain the same quantity of much vitamins, minerals or essential fatty acids as whole foods.
As shown in the plot of percentage protein vs nutrient score, a focus on obtaining adequate vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids from whole foods typically leads to obtaining plenty of amino acids. Meanwhile, actively avoiding protein tends to dilute overall nutrient density in terms of vitamins and minerals.
The body typically down-regulates appetite before it consumes ‘too much protein’. It is physically difficult to eat ‘too much protein’ from whole foods (although hyperpalatable whey protein shakes may be another matter).
While protein is beneficial, we also need a balanced diet that provides the other vitamins and minerals (e.g. electrolytes that will enable the kidneys to maintain acid/base balance which is critical to insulin sensitivity which is hard to obtain from protein supplements).
In summary, it is possible to focus too much on protein to the point that you are missing out on other important micronutrients. Conversely though, if you chase micronutrients from whole foods you will get adequate amounts of protein.
“Fasting will cause you to lose muscle due to a lack of protein intake.”
A high-fat diet reduces the need for glucose and therefore the requirements for protein from gluconeogenesis decrease. Someone who is ‘fat adapted’ with lower insulin and blood glucose levels will also be more readily able to access their stored body fat for fuel.
The body defends lean muscle loss by upregulating appetite. People with more body fat and/or lower insulin levels will likely find fasting easier than people who are lean and/or have high insulin levels.
Fasting will drive autophagy, which is beneficial, to an extent. Fasting and feasting is a cyclic process of building and cleaning out. We need to balance both parts of the cycle. Humans generally do this well in the absence of hyper-palatable processed foods.
One of the benefits of fasting is that when you re-feed, your body will be more insulin sensitive so you will build back new muscle more efficiently with less protein and insulin required. People doing regular multi-day fasts should ensure their average protein intake is adequate over a number of days and not just on the days they eat.
You should target more nutritious foods on your eating days to ensure you are getting adequate nutrients over the long term. If your goal is to lose body fat, then re-feeding to satiety on very high-fat foods may be counterproductive in terms of fat loss and micronutrient sufficiency.
“Everyone needs to lift heavy weights and be jacked.”
Not everyone wants to look good with their shirt off or is willing to invest the dedication that it takes to have a six-pack. However, being active and having sufficient lean muscle mass is important to maintaining insulin sensitivity and delaying the diseases of ageing. Doing something is better than nothing. Having sufficient lean muscle mass is arguably better than manipulating macronutrients if your goal is glucose disposal and fat burning.
Low protein “ketonians”
This section outlines a number of arguments against ‘too much protein’ along with some responses.
“Too much protein will turn to glucose like chocolate cake in your bloodstream”
Protein can be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis if there is no other fuel available. However, gluconeogenesis does not come easily, and the body only resorts to increased levels of gluconeogenesis above baseline levels in emergency situations. Gluconeogenesis yields only 2 ATP from 6 ATP.
“Too much protein is dangerous for your kidneys”
High levels of protein are only a concern if you have a pre-existing kidney issue, and even then not everyone is in agreement.
“Protein is expensive and a waste to use for fuel”
The fact that using protein for fuel is metabolically expensive can be beneficial if our goal is fat loss as it increases overall energy expenditure. By contrast, fat and carbs are more efficient fuel sources. Higher levels of protein intake will drive satiety as well as being less efficient and cause more losses.
High protein foods are often financially expensive. Processed high fat and high carb foods are cheaper to produce and hence can have a higher markup applied to them. Thus, food companies tend to promote cheaper foods with a higher carb and/or fat content.
“Too much protein is dangerous for people with diabetes.”
People with diabetes convert more protein to glucose through uncontrolled gluconeogenesis (i.e. due to insulin resistance in Type 2 and a lack of insulin in Type 1). They also find it harder to build muscle due to a lack of insulin. Hence, people with diabetes may benefit from consuming more protein to maintain or gain muscle.
Conversely, people who are insulin sensitive may require less protein because they can use it more efficiently to build and repair muscle.
Older people tend to require more protein to prevent sarcopenia. A loss of lean muscle mass is a significant risk factor for older people.
As shown in the chart below, people with diabetes (yellow lines) produce more insulin in response to protein than metabolically healthy people (white lines). Forcing more protein beyond satiety may make diabetes management more difficult. However, most people get the results they require from reducing carbohydrates. The fact that protein turns to glucose can be a useful hack for people with brittle diabetes who want to get their glucose without the aggressive swings that refined carbohydrates can provide.
“Too much protein will make it hard maintain healthy blood sugar levels because protein stimulates insulin and glucagon.”
Protein requires insulin to metabolise. Insulin also works to keep glycogen stored in the liver.
As shown in the charts below, an increase in protein in the diet typically forces out processed and refined carbohydrate and so decreases your insulin and glucose response to food. [You can check out the interactive Tableau version of these charts here.]
People with Type 1 diabetes don’t have enough insulin to metabolise protein and maintain healthy blood sugars at the same time and hence require exogenous insulin.
People with Type 2 diabetes often have plenty of insulin but need to ‘invest’ their insulin wisely on metabolising protein to build muscles and repair their vital organs rather than ‘squandering it’ on refined carbohydrates.
People with hyperinsulinemia will often see their blood sugars decrease after a high protein meal as the insulin released to metabolise the protein also works to reduce their blood sugars.
If you see your blood sugars rise after a high protein meal you may have inadequate insulin. IF you have an insulin insufficiency, you may need to learn to accurately dose with insulin for protein rather than avoiding protein.
“High protein will shorten life due to excess mTOR stimulation.”
Humans need to balance growth (i.e. increased IGF-1, insulin and mTOR) with repair (i.e. autophagy, fasting and ketosis). Driving excess growth through unnatural means may not be beneficial for long-term health.
However, the research into protein restriction and longevity is either theoretical or in worms in a petri dish where they grew more slowly when protein and/or energy was restricted. Free-living humans typically don’t manage to voluntarily restrict energy intake. We seem to have an inbuilt drive to protect ourselves from a loss of muscle mass, depression (note: good nutrition, especially amino acids is crucial to brain function) and loss of sex drive, and generally feeling cold and miserable.
Longevity research in monkeys suggests that energy restriction or at least a reduction in modern processed foods is beneficial. However, there is no research in mammals that demonstrates that protein restriction extends lifespan or health span.
The low target protein values proposed by some for longevity (i.e. 0.6g/kg lean body mass or LBM) are practically impossible to achieve from whole foods without the addition of a significant amount of oils and refined fats and/or substantial calorie restriction to the point of rapid weight loss (e.g. check out the Nutrient Optimiser analysis of Dr Rosedale’s diet here).
There is a difference between lifespan and healthspan. Humans in the wild who are frail risk fractures and other complications related to muscle wasting and lethargy.
As shown in the chart below, there is an optimal balance between growth and wasting. Too much insulin and you grow to the point that you get complications of metabolic disease. Too little growth and you become frail, lose your muscle and bone strength then you may fall, break your hip and never get up again.
“Just eating protein won’t give you gainz!”
Yes indeed! You need to force an adaptive stress to cause muscle gains, not just eating protein. If you work out, you will likely crave more protein. This is natural and healthy and ensures that we can recover, adapt and get stronger.
“Overeating protein will make you fat.”
Excess consumption of any macronutrient will make you fat. However, eating more protein and fewer carbs and fat tends to increase satiety.
Research in resistance-trained athletes shows that overeating protein does not cause an increase in fat mass. Research in sedentary adults shows that overeating protein causes a more favourable change in body composition than overeating the same amount of calories from fat and/or carbohydrate.
“Too much protein will lead to rabbit starvation.”
Healthy people can metabolise up to 3.5g/kg protein per day and digest up to 4.3g/kg per day. This makes sense in an evolutionary context (or even in more recent times before we had refrigerators) when there wouldn’t have been a regular supply of food but we would have needed to be able to use the food when we came across a big hunt after a long famine.
Theoretical research suggests there is no upper limit to protein intake to the point it is dangerous. However, the practical upper limit seems to be around 50% of energy intake. If you force extreme levels of protein, you get thirsty and pee out the excess protein.
Growing children and active people tend to crave higher levels of protein to build and repair their muscles (i.e. 10-year-old Bailan Jones, shown on the right here with his brother, who is a growing young man with Type 1 who consumes 4.4g/kg LBM).
If you’re obese and eat only lean protein, your body will be forced to use body fat for fuel. If you are very lean and eat nothing but very thin protein satiety will kick in and you will not have enough body fat to burn. This is dangerous and leads to death. So if you are already very lean and going to live in the wilderness with only wild rabbits to eat, make sure you take some butter. However, most people will have adequate body fat to use for fuel for a significant period of time before rabbit starvation would be an issue.
“If you’re not losing weight, you should cut your protein and your carbs and eat fat to satiety.”
Reducing processed carbs helps to lower insulin and stabilise blood sugars and helps a lot of people reduce their appetite and lose body fat. However, not everyone reaches their optimal weight with this method.
LCHF / keto works until it doesn’t.
Many people find that they need to reduce dietary fat in addition to carbohydrates to ensure they burn body fat.
Restricting protein and carbs while eating ‘fat to satiety’ may lead to an inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals which can lead to cravings and a lack of satiety.
While reducing the insulin load of your diet to the point that we achieve healthy blood glucose levels often helps improve satiety, effective weight loss diets typically involve some permutation of reduced fat and/or carbs to achieve a reduction in energy intake.
Medical weight loss clinics typically use a version of a protein sparing modified fast which provides adequate protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass while restricting carbohydrates and fat.
People on a low carb or keto diet may have an increased requirement for protein due to the body’s increased reliance on protein for glucose compared to someone who is getting their glucose from carbohydrate. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient and eating more fat when your appetite is actually craving protein, or other nutrients may lead to excess energy intake.
“Too much protein will kick you out of ketosis and halt fat burning.”
Contrary to popular belief (which is often propagated by people marketing ketogenic products), ketosis is only one of a number of pathways that we burn fat.
Ketones (i.e. AcetoAcetate or AcAc) are produced when there we don’t have enough Oxaloacetate (OAA) to produce citrate in the Krebs cycle.
If you are consuming enough protein and/or carbs to provide OAA you will still burn fat but through the Krebs cycle rather than via ketogenesis. Thus, you may be “kicked out of ketosis” if you eat more protein but you’re still burning plenty of fat.
If you have high levels of NADH (which is associated with ageing and diabetes), more of your AcAc will be converted to BHB in the liver.
Most people will see ketones in their blood increase when fasting or restricting energy intake due to the lack of OAA as they burn body fat. As shown in the chart below, blood glucose levels decrease while BHB increases.
There are a number of beneficial processes (e.g. autophagy, increased NAD+, increase in sirtuins) that current during fasting/energy restriction that is associated with increased BHB. It is possible that many of the benefits related to BHB may actually be due to these other beneficial processes that occur in endogenous ketosis (i.e. it’s probably not the ketones).
We can force higher levels of BHB in the blood by eating more dietary fat and less protein and carbohydrates. In this case, high BHB may be an indication that you are eating more fat than can be burned in the Krebs cycle and it is building up in the blood. High levels of BHB in the blood do not mean you are achieving the same benefits via exogenous ketosis as we do in endogenous ketosis.
If your AcAc is not converted to BHB due to a low NAD+:NADH ratio you will tend to see more breath acetone (BrAce). If you do not have metabolic syndrome, you may see higher levels of BrAce (i.e. measured with the Ketonix) and lower levels of BHB in the blood. You should also be aware that exercise and an adequate intake of B vitamins in the diet will also increase your NAD+ levels and ‘kick you out of ketosis’.
Before you get caught up chasing ketones by whatever means possible, you should keep in mind that someone who is metabolically healthy and easily able to access their body fat stores for fuel (i.e. low insulin levels) will have lower overall levels of energy floating around in their blood (i.e. from blood glucose, ketones or free fatty acids). Higher levels of energy in the bloodstream is a sign of poor metabolic health and reduced ability to access and burn fat.
High levels of glucose lead to glycation. High levels of free fatty acids lead to oxidised LDL. High levels of glucose and free fatty acids tends to lead to glycated LDL. High levels of ketones can similarly lead to metabolic acidosis if not balanced with an adequate mineral intake which may also ‘kick you out of ketosis’.
The average fat intake of these people is 60%, with half the people between 54% and 68% calories. The average carb intake is 11% with half the people between 6 and 15%. So, we can see that this is generally a CLHF population.
Half of the people lie between about 1.4 and 2.5g/kg LBM with an average of 2.1g/kg LBM. In terms of percentage, half of the people sit somewhere between 18 and 29% of energy from protein with an average of 24% energy from protein.
Dr Rhonda Patrick, who is sitting at the top of the leaderboard, seems to be eating about 2.5g/kg LBM protein even though she says she is not particularly active and eats heaps of veggies.
People following a zero carb approach tend to be eating more protein (e.g. Shawn Baker at 6.1g/kg LBM and Amy on 3.3g/kg LBM) as more of their energy comes from animal food. Perhaps many of the satiety effects of a Zero Carb dietary approach are actually due to the high satiety effects of protein.
The people with less than 1.0g/kg LBM tend to be relying on a significant amount of added fats and do not tend to achieve the highest overall nutrient score (see examples here, here and here).
What are the recommendations?
The very wide range of protein intake levels can be confusing. Some are outlined below for reference.
In long-term fasting, we use about 0.4g/kg LBM protein from our body via gluconeogenesis.
The Estimated Average Requirement is 0.68g/kg body weight for men to prevent protein related deficiencies and 0.6g/kg body weight for women. For a woman with 35% body fat, this equates to 0.92g/kg LBM as a minimum protein intake. (Note: These standard values are in the context of someone eating a conventional diet where they would typically be getting plenty of glucose from carbohydrates and are not particularly active, and protein requirements may be higher where someone is active and using some protein for glucose via gluconeogenesis.)
The Recommended Daily Intake is 0.84g/kg body weight for men to prevent protein related deficiencies and 0.75g/kg body weight for women (Note: For a woman with 35% body fat this equates to 1.15g/kg LBM as a minimum for someone who is sedentary).
Steve Phinney recommends 1.5 to 2.0g/kg reference body weight (see slide below from his recent presentation in Brisbane) which equates to around 1.7 to 2.2g/kg LBM for someone wanting to lose 10% of their body weight to achieve their ideal ‘reference weight’. This increased level allows for some glucose to come from protein via gluconeogenesis and allows adequate protein for people who are not eating carbs and active.
Ketogains suggest 0.8 to 1.0g/lb LBM or 1.8 to 2.2g/kg LBM for people who are looking to maintain or build higher levels of muscle mass.
Mainstream bodybuilding recommends 1.7 to 2.5g/lb body weight or 3.7 to 5.5g/kg body weight. For someone with 15% body fat, this equates to 4.3 to 6.4g/kg LBM!!!
What happens to micronutrients when we chase protein?
When I first started tinkering with nutrient density, I assumed that we would want to boost all the essential nutrients (i.e. similar to Dr Mat Lalonde’s approach). The chart below shows the nutrients provided when we prioritise foods that have higher amounts of all the essential micronutrients. The amino acids are shown in maroon.
The ‘problem’ with this array of foods is that, because protein is easy to obtain, this group of foods ends up being very high in protein! Even the “high protein bros” won’t be able to consume seventy percent of their energy from protein.
As you can see from the figure below, we typically can’t eat more than 50% of our energy from protein. However, satiety levels tend to be highest, and hence energy intake is the lowest at around 50% protein (dark blue area).
There is generally no need to prioritise amino acids because it is easy to meet the Recommended Daily Intake for amino acids if we eat whole foods.
Emphasise only harder to find nutrients
Rather than prioritising all the micronutrients, the chart below shows the micronutrient profile that we get if we prioritise the harder to obtain micronutrients (shown in yellow) without prioritising any of the amino acids (shown in maroon). (Note: Vitamin E and Pantothenic Acid haven’t been prioritised as the target levels are based on population averages rather than deficiency studies).
As you can see, we still get heaps of protein. However, we get a much better micronutrient profile in the vitamins and minerals because we are only prioritising the harder to find micronutrients.
Maximising nutrient intake while minimising energy intake appears to be central to reducing natural energy intake and minimising nutrient related cravings and bingeing. It’s not hard to see how we could reduce our energy intake eating these foods while still getting plenty of the essential micronutrients.
Highest protein foods
For comparison, the chart below shows the nutrient profile of the highest protein foods. It seems when we prioritise foods based on their protein content we end up missing out on a number of the vitamins and minerals. Thus, there appears to be a danger that we will miss out on micronutrients when we focus only on protein.
Do plant-based diets provide enough protein?
The one situation I have seen people not meeting the recommended daily intake levels for protein is people following a purely plant-based diet. In the nutrient profile shown below, Sidonie is only getting 11% of her calories from protein and you can see that leucine is not meeting the DRI levels while methionine and lysine are just meeting the minimum levels. This may be a legitimate concern for someone on a plant-based diet as amino acids tend to be less bioavailable from plans in comparison to animals.
The image below shows the foods that will help to fill in the gaps in her current nutritional profile which is focused on high protein vegetables and legumes.
This food list shows the foods that would fill in Sidonie’s nutritional gaps if she was open to adding animal foods. This is an interesting contast to the typical food list for someone on a low carb diet which has a much longer list of vegetables to rebalance the vitamins and minerals.
Most ketogenic foods
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most ketogenic foods (i.e. the ones that require the lowest insulin by limiting carbs and moderating protein). It seems that, if you actually require therapeutic ketosis (i.e. to manage epilepsy, cancer, dementia or Alzheimer’s), you will need to pay particular attention to getting adequate micronutrients (i.e. notably, choline, folate, potassium, calcium and magnesium).
Lowest protein foods
And finally, the chart below shows the micronutrient profile if we actively avoid protein.
It seems that actively avoiding protein has a diabolical impact on the micronutrient profile of our food. However, when we focus on balancing our diet at a micronutrient level, everything else seems to work out pretty well.
So what should I eat?
With all the conflicting opinions it can be confusing to know what to eat.
In the end, it comes down to eat good food when hungry.
If we remove hyperpalatable processed foods, I think we’ll have a much better chance of being able to trust our appetite to guide us to the foods that will be good for us.
The food lists below have been prepared to provide the most nutrients while aligning with different goals (e.g. therapeutic ketosis, blood sugar control weight loss, maintenance or athletic performance). There are a whole lot of other lists in the Optimal Foods for YOU article that are tweaked to suit different goals.
I think if you limit yourself to these shortlists of healthy foods you will be able to listen to your appetite to guide you towards the protein rich foods, the mineral rich foods or the vitamin rich foods depending on your need right now.
If you’re an athlete, the “problem” with nutrient-dense foods like non-starchy vegetables and organ meats is that it can be hard to get enough fuel to support your activity.
Foods designed for athletes are energy dense but are not nutrient dense but rather are fast burning foods that don’t contain a lot of essential nutrients. These foods may provide fuel for the short term, but they can lead to gut distress in the short term and as well as inflammation and insulin resistance in the long term.
To overcome these problems, this list of foods has been designed to be both nutrient dense and energy dense to ensure someone who is very active can get enough fuel while maximising nutrient density as much as possible.
The energy density of the foods listed below comes out at 367 calories per 100g compared to 231 calories per 100g for all foods in the USDA foods database. They will contain enough energy to fuel an active life without spending all day chewing or overfilling your stomach.
From a macronutrient perspective these foods will provide you with:
more protein for muscle recovery,
more fat to produce energy,
more fibre due to the lower level of processing, and
less non-fibre carbohydrates which will normalise blood glucose levels while still providing some glucose for explosive power.
The chart below shows that these foods are quite nutrient dense, with all of the nutrients achieving greater than the daily recommended intake.
Nutrient dense, energy-dense foods for athletes
Listed below are the top 10% of the foods using this ranking including:
nutrient density score (ND)
energy density (calories/100g) and
their multi-criteria analysis score (MCA).
While the vegetables and spices in this list aren’t particularly energy dense, they will ensure that you get the vitamins and minerals you need to perform at your best. The lower energy density vegetables have been removed because they won’t be that helpful fueling for race day.
Seafood packs some nutrient density and energy density at the same time.
eggs and dairy
Eggs are nutritionally excellent. Butter has plenty of energy.
fats and oils
Fats and oils don’t contain a broad range of micronutrients, but they’re a great way to fuel without excessively raising your blood glucose or insulin too. From an inflammatory perspective, they’re going to be better than process grains and glucose for fueling as well as keeping insulin levels low to enable you to access your fat stores during endurance activities.
palm kernel oil
grains and cereals
The more nutrient dense bran component of wheat makes the cut. However, the more processed and more popular grains don’t make the list. Many people find the “train low, race high” approach to be useful to ensure you are fat adapted through fasted or low glycogen training but have some glucose in the system for explosive bursts on race day.
Legumes are moderately nutrient dense and have a higher energy density than most vegetables. Properly prepared legumes can be a cost-effective way of getting energy and nutrients, though not everyone’s gut handles them well.
nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are a great way to get some energy in, though they’re not as high in the harder to find nutrients.
Organ meats also do well in terms of nutrient density. Fattier cuts of meat will pack some more energy.
In Robb Wolf’s new book Wired to Eat he talks about the dilemma of optimal foraging theory (OFT) and how it’s a miracle in our modern environment that even more of us aren’t fat, sick and nearly dead.
But what is optimal foraging theory? In essence, it is the concept that we’re programmed to hunt and gather and ingest as much energy as we can with the least amount of energy expenditure or order to maximise survival of the species.
In engineering or economics, this is akin to a cost : benefit analysis. Essentially we want maximum benefit for minimum investment.
In a hunter-gatherer / paleo / evolutionary context this would mean that we would make an investment (i.e. effort / time / hassle that we could have otherwise spent having fun, procreating or looking after our family) to travel to new places where food was plentiful and easier to obtain.
In these new areas, we could spend as little time as possible hunting and gathering and more time relaxing. Once the food became scarce again we would move on to find another ‘land of plenty’.
The people who were good at obtaining the maximum amount of food with the minimum amount of effort survived and thrived and populated the world, and thus became our ancestors. Those that didn’t, didn’t.
You can see how the OFT paradigm would be well imprinted on our psyche.
OFT in the wild
In the wild, OFT means that native hunter-gatherers would have gone bananas for bananas when they were available…
… gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain energy dense honey …
… and eat the fattiest cuts of meat and offal, giving the muscle meat to the dogs.
OFT in captivity
But what happens when we translate OFT into a modern context?
Until recently we have never had the situation where nutrition and energy could be separated.
In nature, if something tastes good it is generally good for you.
Our ancestors, at least the ones that survived, grew to understand that as a general rule:
sweet = good = energy to survive winter
But now we have entered a brave new world.
We are now surrounded by energy dense hyper-palatable foods that are designed to taste good without providing substantial levels of nutrients.
Our primal programming is defenceless to these foods. Our willpower or our calorie counting apps are no match for engineered foods optimised for bliss point.
These days diabetes is becoming a bigger problem than starvation in the developing world due to a lack of nutritional value in the foods they are eating.
The recent industrialisation of the world food system has resulted in a nutritional transition in which developing nations are simultaneously experiencing undernutrition and obesity.
In addition, an abundance of inexpensive, high-density foods laden with sugar and fats is available to a population that expends little energy to obtain such large numbers of calories.
Furthermore, the abundant variety of ultra processed foods overrides the sensory-specific satiety mechanism, thus leading to overconsumption.”
what happens when we go low fat?
So if the problem is simply that we eat too many calories, one solution is to reduce the energy density of our food by avoiding fat, which is the most energy dense of the macronutrients.
However the problem comes when we focus on reducing fat (along with perhaps reduced cost, increased shelf life and palatability combined with an attempt to reach that optimal bliss point), we end up with cheap manufactured food-like products that have little nutritional value.
Grain subsidies were brought in to establish and promote cheap ways to feed people to prevent starvation with cheap calories. It seems now they’ve achieved that goal.
Maybe a little too well.
The foods lowest in fat, however, are not necessarily the most nutrient dense. Nutritional excellence and macronutrients are not necessarily related.
I am pretty burned out on the protein, carbs, fat shindig. I’m starting to think that framework creates more confusion than answers.
Thinking about optimum foraging theory, palate novelty and a few related topics will (hopefully) provide a much better framework for folks to affect positive change.
The chart below shows a comparison of the micronutrients provided by the least nutrient-dense 10% of foods versus the most nutrient dense foods compared to the average of all foods available in the USDA foods database.
The quantity of essential nutrients you can get with the same amount of energy is massive! If eating is about obtaining adequate nutrients then the quality of our food, not just macronutrients or calories matters greatly!
Another problem with simply avoiding fat is that the foods lowest in fat are also the most insulinogenic, so we’re left with foods that don’t satiate us with nutrients and also raise our insulin levels. The chart below shows that the least nutrient dense food are also the most insulinogenic.
what happens when we go low carb?
So the obvious thing to do is eliminate all carbohydrates because low fat was such a failure. Right?
So we swing to the other extreme and avoid all carbohydrates and enjoy fat ad libitum to make up for lost time.
The problem again is that at the other extreme of the macronutrient pendulum we may find that we have limited nutrients.
The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of different dietary approaches showing that a super high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach may not be ideal for everyone, at least in terms of nutrient density. High-fat foods are not always the most nutrient dense and can also, just like low-fat foods, be engineered to be hyperpalatable to help us to eat more of them.
The chart below shows the relationship (or lack thereof) between the percentage of fat in our food and the nutrient density. Simply avoiding or binging on fat does not ensure we are optimising our nutrition.
While many people find that their appetite is normalised whey they reduce the insulin load of their diet high-fat foods are more energy dense so it can be easy to overdo the high-fat dairy and nuts if you’re one of the unlucky people whose appetite doesn’t disappear.
what happens when we go paleo?
So if the ‘paleo diet’ worked so well for paleo peeps then maybe we should retreat back there? Back to the plantains, the honey and the fattiest cuts of meat?
Well, maybe. Maybe not.
For some people ‘going paleo’ works really well. Particularly if you’re really active.
Nutrient dense, energy dense whole foods work really well if you’re also going to the CrossFit Box to hang out with your best buds five times a week.
But for the rest of us that aren’t insanely active, then maybe simply ‘going paleo’ is not the best option…
… particularly if we start tucking into the energy dense ‘paleo comfort foods’.
If we’re not so active, then intentionally limiting our exposure to highly energy dense hyper palatable foods can be a useful way to manage our OFT programming.
enter nutrient density
A lot of people find that nutrient dense non-starchy veggies, or even simply going “plant-based”, works really well, particularly if you have some excess body fat (and maybe even stored protein) that you want to contribute to your daily energy expenditure.
Limiting ourselves to the most nutrient-dense foods (in terms of nutrients per calorie) enables us to sidestep the trap of modern foods which have separated nutrients and energy. Nutrient-dense foods also boost our mitochondrial function, and fuel the fat burning Krebs cycle so we can be less dependent on a regular sugar hit to make us feel good (Cori cycle).
Limiting yourself to nutrient dense foods (i.e. nutrients per calorie) is a great way to reverse engineer optimal foraging theory.
If your problem is that energy dense low nutrient density hyperpalatable foods are just too easy to overeat, then actively constraining your foods to those that have the highest nutrients per calorie could help manage the negative effects of OFT that are engrained in our system by imposing an external constraint.
But if you’re a lean Ironman triathlete these foods are probably not going to get you through. You will need more energy than you can easily obtain from nutrient-dense spinach and broccoli.
optimal rehabilitation plan?
So while there is no one size fits all solution, it seems that we have some useful principles that we can use to shortlist our food selection.
We are hardwired to get the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of effort (i.e. optimal foraging theory).
Commercialised manufactured foods have separated nutrients from food and made it very easy to obtain a lot of energy with a small investment.
Eliminating fat can leave us with cheap hyperpalatable grain-based fat-free highly insulinogenic foods that will leave us with spiralling insulin and blood glucose levels.
Eating nutrient dense whole foods is a great discipline, but we still need to tailor our energy density to our situation (i.e. weight loss vs athlete).
So I think we have three useful quantitative parameters with which to optimise our food choices to suit our current situation:
insulin load (which helps as to normalise our blood glucose levels),
nutrient density (which helps us make sure we are getting the most nutrients per calorie possible), and
energy density (helps us to manage the impulses of OFT in the modern world).
I have used a multi-criteria analysis to rank the foods for each goal. The chart below shows the weightings used for each approach.
The lists of optimal foods below have been developed to help you manage your primal impulses. The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs for a range of dietary approaches that may be of interest depending on your goals and situation.
At first, it sounds like a bizarre combination, but when the smartest guy in keto says that he has sardines, oysters, eggs and broccoli as his regular breakfast I wasn’t surprised to find this diet scored highly in the nutritional analysis.
Before he started saving the world by developing Warburg’s mitochondrial theory of cancer and oxygen toxicity seizures for DARPA Dominic D’Agostino studied nutrition and is rumoured to be able to do a 500-pound deadlift for 10 reps after a week of fasting.
Both physical and mental performance are undoubtedly critical to Dom, so it’s not surprising that he is very intentional about his diet and what he puts in his mouth to start each day.
As you can see in the plot from Nutrition Data below Dom’s breakfast scores a very high 93 in the vitamins and minerals score and a very solid 139 in the protein score.
You could say this meal was high protein (44%), low carb (10%) and moderate fat (46%), although his fatty coffee and high-fat desserts would boost the fat content to make it more “ketogenic”.
I’ve heard Dom say that he aims for a ‘modified Atkins’ approach with higher protein levels rather than a classical therapeutic ketogenic diet which is harder to stick to and might be used for people with epilepsy, cancer, dementia, etc. It was intriguing to see that Dom’s standard breakfast ranks the highest in nutrient density rather than therapeutic or nutritional ketosis.
Dom first mentioned his favourite breakfast concoction in his first interview with Tim Ferriss (check out the excellent three-hour podcast here). You can hear the shock and slight repulsion in Tim’s voice in the sound check as he responds with
I was aware that broccoli, eggs and sardines are nutritionally amazing, but then the oysters fill out the vitamin and mineral score to take it a little bit higher. Dom obviously understands the importance of Omega 3s which are hard to get in significant quantities from anything other than seafood.
I was surprised to see that oysters can be ‘carby’ (at 23% carbs) which is apparently due to their glucose pouch which varies in size depending on when they’re harvested.
If you wanted to skip the oysters due to taste or cost considerations, the combination of sardines, egg and broccoli still does pretty well. This option gives fewer carbs, a slight decrease in the vitamin and mineral score with a small increase in the amino acid score.
The combination of nutrient-dense seafood with nutrient dense vegetables is hard to beat. The chart below shows my comparison of the nutrients in the various food groups in terms the proportion of the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) from 2000 calories (click to enlarge).
I couldn’t get any photos of Dom’s breakfast, but I did get a picture of my current go to lunch. Each weekend I get a bunch of quality celery and chop it up into tubs to take to work each day. I have cans of mackerel and sardines in my drawer at work.
Celery does really well in terms of nutrient density per calorie and sardines and mackerel are high on the nutrient density lists without being outrageously expensive (e.g. caviar, anchovy, swordfish, trout).
When I feel hungry, I might start munching on the celery which is pretty filling and hard to binge on. Then if I’m still hungry, I’ll have as many cans of mackerel or sardines as it takes to fill me up (which is usually 2 to 4).
At around 2 pm this is my first meal of the day (other than espresso shots with cream) at around 2 pm. If I start to feel hungry before then I might check my blood glucose to see if I really need to refuel or if I think I’m hungry because I’m bored. I’ll then go home and have an early dinner with the family around 6 pm.
I’ve been known to indulge in some peanut butter with, cream, Greek yoghurt or even butter if I’m still hungry (e.g. if I’ve ridden to work) but I try to not overdo it as I’m not as shredded as Dom yet.
The simple combination of celery and mackerel also does pretty well in the ranking of 250 meals and aligns well with my current goal of maximising nutrient density and ongoing weight loss now that I’ve been able to stabilise my blood glucose levels.
Whatever is going on, it seems to help them run well too!
While I’m not sure you can say that these elite cyclists have eschewed all carbohydrate-containing foods, the trend away from processed carbs to whole foods is intriguing.
So if they’re going low carb does it mean they’re now butter, cream, MCT oil after starting the day with BPC?
Dr James Morton, head of nutrition at Team Sky and an associate professor in the Faculty of Science at Liverpool John Moores University explains:
We promote a natural approach to food. Our riders eat food that grows in the ground or on a tree and protein from natural sources.
They need energy, but they also have to stay lean and healthy with a strong immune system. A natural diet is the best way to achieve this.
Fat is important for everything from energy release and muscle health to immunity, but by eating the right food the fat takes care of itself. The riders eat eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, nuts, olive oil, avocados and some red meat for a natural mix of saturated and unsaturated fats.”
To achieve optimal weight, Dr Morton asks the riders to “periodize” their carb intake by eating more when they train hard and cutting back when they’re less active.
They routinely train in the morning after eating a protein-rich omelette, instead of carbohydrate-dense bread, to encourage their bodies to burn fat for fuel.
To produce ATP efficiently, the mitochondria need particular things. Glucose or ketone bodies from fat and oxygen are primary.
Your mitochondria can limp along, producing a few ATP on only these three things, but to really do the job right and produce the most ATP, your mitochondria also need thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacinamide (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), minerals (especially sulfur, zinc, magnesium, iron and manganese) and antioxidants. Mitochondria also need plenty of L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine, and ubiquinone (also called coenzyme Q) for peak efficiency.
If you don’t get all these nutrients or if you are exposed to too many toxins, your ATP production will become less efficient, which leads to two problems:
Your body will produce less energy so they may not be able to do everything they need to do.
Your cells will generate more waste than necessary in the form of free radicals.
Without the right nutrient sources to fuel the ATP production in the mitochondria – which in turn produce energy for the cellular processes required to sustain life – your mitochondria can become starved. The cells then can’t do their job as effectively.
So let’s look at the macro and micro nutrient analysis of Chris Froome’s “rest day breakfast” (pictured above). The analysis indicates that it does very well in both the vitamins and minerals score as well as the amino acids score.
If we throw in some spinach Froomey would improve the vitamin and mineral score of his breakfast even further. The addition of spinach increases the nutrient balance score from 57 to 77 while the amino acid score stays high.
Froome’s wife says eating more protein has been one of the keys to losing weight and building muscle leading up to the tour. Getting a quarter of your calories from protein is more than the 16% most people consume, however with 65% of the energy coming from fat you could also call this meal low carb, high fat, or even “ketogenic” depending on which camp you’re in.
#18 and 52 on the therapeutic ketosis ranking, and
#26 and 64 on the overall nutrient density ranking.
It seems it’s not just the low carbers, “ketonians” and people battling diabetes who are training their bodies to burn fat more efficiently. Maximising your ability to burn fat is critical even if you are extremely metabolically healthy.
The chart below shows a comparison of the fat oxidation rate of well-trained athletes (WT) versus recreationally (RT) athletes (who are not necessarily following a low carb diet). The well-trained athletes are clearly oxidising more fat, which enables them to put out a lot more power (measured in terms of their VO2max). It seems that your ability to efficiently burn fat for fuel it a key component of what sets the elite apart from the amateurs whether you call yourself vegan, ketogenic or a fruitarian.
While carbohydrates help to produce maximal explosive power, it seems that the glucose turbocharger works best when it sits on a big power fat fueled motor. According to Peter Defty (who spent the last couple of years helping 2016 Tour de France second place getter Romain Bardet refine his ability as a fat adapted athlete using his Optimised Fat Metabolism protocol), fat can yield more energy more efficiently with less oxidative stress which requires less recovery time.
Dr Morton also understands the importance of keeping carbohydrates low to maximise mitochondrial biogenesis and to access fat stores. If you want to learn more about his thinking on the use of diet to drive mitochondrial biogenesis you might be interested in checking out his array of published papers on the topic.On the topic of carbohydrate intake Morton says:
Amateur riders are taught the importance of carbohydrates for training and racing, perhaps too much actually.
From our research at Liverpool John Moores University, we now know that deliberately restricting carbs around carefully chosen training sessions can actually enhance training adaptations.
But then of course we must ensure higher carbohydrate intakes for key training sessions and hard stages in racing.
I believe this concept of periodising daily carbohydrate intake is the most exciting part of sports nutrition in the last decade and our challenge now is to address how best we do this practically.
Essentially, exercising your mitochondria in a low insulin and low glucose state forces your body to adapt to using fat for fuel and to use glucose and oxygen efficiently and effectively.
Not only is this useful for endurance athletes and people battling diabetes, training your body to use fat and oxygen more efficiently is also claimed to be important to minimise anaerobic fermentation which is said to increase your risk of cancer.
Many of us struggle to cope in an environment of excess energy from low nutrient density highly insulinogenic food. If we can’t obtain the necessary nutrients from our food to efficiently produce energy our bodies seek out more and more food in the hope of finding the required nutrients and enough energy to feel OK.
Our bodies do their best to use the energy that we give them, but they are working overtime to pump out insulin to store the excess energy that is not used. Over time our bodies adapt by becoming resistant to insulin to stop the excess energy being stored in our liver, pancreas and eyes when our fat stores in our muscles and belly can’t take any more. Then to overcome the insulin resistance the body has to pump out more insulin which makes even less of the energy we eat available for use.
When we call on our mitochondria to produce intense bursts of energy with minimal fuel (i.e. fasting) or glucose (i.e. low carb), we force our bodies to more efficiently the limited carbohydrate. Suddenly our bodies become insulin sensitive.
Recent studies indicate that people who are fat adapted are able to mobilise higher rates of fat at higher exercise intensities.
With a higher reliance on fat, they are able to conserve the precious glucose for explosive efforts.
Then, when they really need the power, they have both fuel tanks available to cross the line first… and second!
As well as identifying nutrient dense diabetic friendly foods, we can use the food insulin index to highlight more insulinogenic nutrient dense higher energy density foods for use by athletes or people wanting gain weight.
This article highlights more insulinogenic nutrient dense foods that could be used by metabolically healthy people to strategically “carb up” before events, to intentionally trigger insulin spikes (e.g. Carb Back-Loading, Alt Shift Diet or the targeted ketogenic diet) or to maximise growth for people who are underweight while still maintaining high levels of nutrition.
insulin load, a refresher
Many people with diabetes will try to reduce the insulin load of their diet to normalise blood glucose levels. It’s the non-fibre carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent protein, that drive insulin and blood glucose, particularly for someone who is insulin resistant.
Managing the insulin load of your diet is an effective way to get off the blood glucose roller coaster and stabilise blood glucose levels. We can calculate the insulin load of our diet based on the carbohydrates, fibre and protein using the formula shown below.
but why would you want to spike your glucose levels?
Much of the nutrition and diabetes world is focused on helping people who are struggling with insulin resistance and trying to normalise blood glucose. However, there are others who are blessed to be metabolically healthy who may want to strategically refill their glycogen tanks or raise their insulin levels.
Some follow a targeted ketogenic diet and strategically replenish glucose around workouts by eating higher carbohydrate foods.
Some bodybuilders use a cyclical ketogenic diet where they deplete glucose and then replenish glucose periodically.
Some fat adapted endurance athletes will look to ‘carb up’ before an event so that they have both glucose and fat based fuel sources (a.k.a. train low, race high).
Others find success with dietary approaches such as the AltShift Diet, Carb Back-Loading which alternating periods of extreme high and low carb dietary approaches (not always with the most nutritious high carb foods).
Dr Tommy Wood approached me to design a high insulin load and a low insulin load diet regimen that he could try for a month of each to see how his body responded. The constraint was that both the high and low insulin load foods would have to be nutrient dense whole foods so as to be a fair comparison of the effect of insulin load.
The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database prioritised for higher insulin load, higher nutrient density and higher energy density. In terms of macronutrients they come out at 36% protein, 15% fat and 44% net carbohydrates.
While these foods might not be ideal for someone with diabetes they actually look like a pretty healthy list of foods compared to the “food like products” that you’d find in the isles of the supermarket.
This chart shows the nutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods using this ranking compared to the average of all foods in the USDA foods database.
The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs detailing optimal foods for a range of dietary approaches (sorted from most to least nutrient dense) that may be of interest depending on your situation and goals. You can print them out to stick to your fridge or take on your next shopping expedition for some inspiration.
While a lot of attention is often given to macronutrient balance, quantifying the vitamin and mineral sufficiency of our diet is typically done by guesswork. This article lists the foods that are highest in amino acids, vitamins, minerals or omega 3 refined to suit people with different goals (e.g. diabetes management, weight loss, therapeutic ketosis or a metabolically healthy athlete).
I’ve spent some time lately analysing people’s food diaries, noting nutritional deficiencies, and suggesting specific foods to fill nutritional gaps while still being mindful of the capacity of the individual to process glucose based on their individual insulin sensitivity and pancreatic function. The output from nutritiondata.self.com below shows an example of the nutrient balance and protein quality analysis.
In this instance the meal has plenty of protein but is lacking in vitamins and minerals, which is not uncommon for people who are trying to reduce their carbohydrates to minimise their blood glucose levels.
The pink spokes of the nutrient balance plot on the left shows the vitamins while the white shows the minerals. On the right hand side the individual spokes of the protein quality score represent individual amino acids.
A score of 100 means that you will meet the recommended daily intake (RDI) for all the nutrients with 1000 calories, so a score of 40 in the nutrient balance as shown is less than desirable if we are trying to maximise nutrition. 
I thought it would be useful to develop a ‘shortlist’ of foods to enable people to find foods with high levels of particular nutrients to fill in possible deficiencies while being mindful of their ability to deal with glucose.
The list of essential nutrients below is the basis of the nutrient density scoring system used in the Your Personal Food Ranking System article, with equal weighting given to each of these essential nutrients. 
The only essential nutrients not included in this list are the omega-6 fatty acids which we typically get more than enough of in our western diet. 
essential fatty acids
alpha-Linolenic acid (omega-3) (18:3)
docosahexaenoic acid (omega-3) (22:6)
Previously I’ve developed short lists of nutrient dense foods also based on their insulin load or other parameters (see optimal foods lists).
But what if we want to get more specific and find the optimal foods for a diabetic who is getting adequate protein but needs more vitamins or minerals? What about someone whose goal is nutritional ketosis who is trying to maximise their omega-3 fats to nurture their brain?
To this end the next step is to develop more specific lists of nutrient dense foods in specific categories (i.e. omega-3, vitamins, minerals and amino acids) which can be tailored to individual carbohydrate tolerance levels.
I’ve exported the top foods using each of the ranking criteria from the 8000 foods in the database. You can click on the ‘download’ link to open the .pdf to see the full list. Each .pdf file shows the relative weighting of the various components of the multi criteria ranking system. The top five are highlighted in the following discussion below.
It’s worth noting that the ranking system is based on both nutrient density / calorie, and calorie density / weight. Considering nutrient density / calorie will preference low calorie density foods such as leafy veggies and herbs. Considering calorie density / weight tends to prioritise animal foods. Evenly balancing both parameters seems to be a logical approach.
You’re probably not going to get your daily energy requirements from basil and parsley so you’ll realistically need to move down the list to the more calorie dense foods once you’ve eaten as much of the green leafy veggies as you can. The same also applies if some foods listed are not available in your area.
This section looks at the most nutrient dense foods across all of the essential nutrients shown above. Consider including the weighting tables.
no insulin index contribution
If we do not consider insulin load then we get the following highly nutrient dense foods:
white fish, and
spirulina / seaweed
Liver tops the list. This aligns with Matt Lalonde’s analysis of nutrient density as detailed in his AHS 2012 presentation.
It’s likely the nutrient density of cod, which is second on the list of the most nutrient dense foods, is the reason that Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) eats an inordinate amount of it. 
It certainly seems to be working for him.
athlete and metabolically healthy
If you have no issue with obesity or insulin resistance then you’ll likely want to simply select foods at the top of the nutrient dense foods list. However most people will also benefit from considering their insulin load along with fibre and calorie density. Most of us mere mortals aren’t as active or metabolically healthy as Dwayne.
When we consider insulin load we get the following foods at the top of the list:
We grow basil in a little herb garden and use it to make a pesto with pine nuts, parmesan and olive oil. It’s so delicious! (And when I say ‘we’ I mean my amazing wife Monica.)
You’ll note that spices and herbs typically rank highly in a lot of these lists. The good news is that they typically have a very low calorie density, high nutrient density and are high in fibre.
The challenge again is that it’s hard to get all your energy needs from herbs alone, so after you’ve included as many herbs and green leafy veggies as you can fit in, go further down the list to select other more calorie dense foods to meet your required intake.
If we reduce calorie density, increase fibre and pay some attention to insulin load for the weight loss scenario we get the following foods:
wax gourd (winter melon),
If you’re wondering what a winter melon looks like (like I was), here it is.
The winter melon does well in this ranking because it is very fibrous, has a very low calorie density and a very low 8% insulinogenic calories which means that it has very few digestible carbohydrates.
Again, basil does pretty well along with a range of nutrient dense herbs. Basil is more nutrient dense than the winter melon while still having a very low calorie density.
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
If we factor carbohydrate tolerance into the mix and want to keep the insulin load of our diet low we get the following foods:
wax gourd (winter melon),
Wax gourd does well again due to its high fibre and low calorie density; however if you’re looking for excellent nutrient density as well, then chia seeds and flax seeds may be better choices. When it comes to flax seeds are best eaten ‘fresh ground’ (in a bullet grinder) for digestibility and also freshness and that over consumption may be problematic when it comes to increasing estrogens.
Then if we’re looking for the most nutrient dense foods that will support therapeutic ketosis we get the following list:
Good nutrition is about more than simply eating more fat. When you look at the top foods using this ranking you’ll see that you will need to use a little more discretion (e.g. avoiding vegetable oils, margarine and fortified products) due to the fact that nutrients and fibre have such a low ranking.
Omega-3 fats are important and most of us generally don’t get enough, but rather get too many omega-6 fats from grain based processed foods.
Along with high levels of processed carbohydrates, excess levels of processed omega-6 fats are now being blamed for the current obesity epidemic. 
The foods highlighted in the following section will help you get more omega-3 to correct the balance.
no insulin index contribution
If we’re looking for the foods that are the highest in omega 3 fatty acids without consideration of insulin load we get:
fish oil, and
I like salmon, but it’s not cheap. I find sardines are still pretty amazing but much more cost effective.  If you’re going to pay for salmon to get omega 3 fatty acids then you should make sure it’s wild caught to avoid the omega 6 oils and antibiotics in the grain fed farmed salmon.
Sardines have a very high nutrient density but still not as much omega 3 fatty (i.e. 1480mg per 100g for sardines versus 2586mg per 100g for salmon).
athlete and metabolically healthy
If we factor in some consideration of insulin load, fibre and calorie density we get:
It’s interesting to see that there are also excellent vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as marjoram (pictured below) and chia seeds (though some may argue that the bio-availability of the omega 3 in the salmon is better than the plant products).
Some of the top ranking foods with omega-3 fatty acids for weight loss are:
While seafood is expensive, brain is cheap, though a little higher on the gross factor.
Cancer survivor Andrew Scarborough tries to maximise omega 3 fatty acids to keep his brain tumour and epilepsy at bay and makes sure he eats as much brain as he can.
diabetes, nutritional ketosis and therapeutic ketosis
And if you wanted to know the oils with the highest omega-3 content, here they are:
Fish oil – menhaden,
Fish oil – sardine,
Fish oil – salmon,
Fish oil – cod liver, and
Oil – seal
This section will be of interest to people trying to build muscle by highlighting the foods highest in amino acids.
no insulin index contribution
So what are the best sources of protein, regardless of insulin load?
soy protein isolate,
Again, Dwayne Johnson’s cod does well, but so does the humble egg, either the whites or the whole thing.
We have been told to limit egg consumption over the last few decades, but now, in case you didn’t get the memo, saturated fat is no longer a nutrient of concern so they’re OK again.
And while egg whites do well if you’re only looking for amino acids, however if you are also chasing vitamins, minerals and good fats I’d prefer to eat the whole egg.
athlete and metabolically healthy
If you have some regard for the insulin load of your diet you end up with this list of higher fat foods:
whole egg, and
If we aim for lower calorie density foods for weight loss we get this list:
chia seeds, and
The bratwurst sausage does really well in the nutrition analysis because it is nutrient dense both in amino acids and high fat which keeps the insulin load down.
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
If you’re concerned about your blood glucose levels then this list of foods may be useful:
And those who are aiming for therapeutic ketosis who want to keep their insulin load from low protein may find these foods useful:
chia seeds, and
People focusing on reducing their carbohydrate load will sometimes neglect vitamins and minerals, especially if they are counting total carbs rather than net carbs which can lead to neglecting veggies.
I think most people should be trying to increase the levels of indigestible fibre as it decreases the insulin load of their diet,  feeds good gut bacteria, leaves you feeling fuller for longer and generally comes packaged with heaps of good vitamins and minerals.
At the same time it is true that some high fibre foods also come with digestible carbohydrates which may not be desirable for someone who is trying to manage the insulin load of their diet.
The foods listed in this section will enable you to increase your vitamins while managing the insulin load of your diet to suit your goals.
no insulin index contribution
These foods will give you the biggest bang for your buck in the vitamin and mineral department if insulin resistance is not an issue for you:
Peppers (or capsicums as they’re called in Australia) are great in omelettes.
Liver is also very high in vitamins if you just can’t tolerate veggies.
athlete and metabolically healthy
If we bring the insulin load of your diet into consideration then these foods come to the top of the list:
red peppers, and
It’s interesting to see so many spices ranking so highly in these lists. Not only are they nutrient dense but they also make the foods taste better and are more satisfying.
Good food doesn’t have to taste bland!
If weight loss is of interest to you then this list of lower calorie density foods might be useful:
It will be very challenging to eat too many calories with these foods. We find spinach to be pretty versatile whether it is in a salad or an omelette.
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
These foods will give you lots of vitamins if you are trying to manage your blood glucose levels:
turnip greens, and
Most green leafy veggies will be great for people with diabetes as well as providing excellent nutrient density and heaps of fibre.
If you really need to keep your blood sugars down then getting your vitamins from these foods may be helpful:
egg yolk, and
no insulin index contribution
Ever wondered which real whole foods would give you the most minerals per calorie without resorting to supplements?
Here’s your answer:
Even if you found a vitamin and mineral supplement that ticked off on all the essential nutrients there’s no guarantee that they will be absorbed by your body, or that you’re not missing a nutrient that is not currently deemed ‘essential’. Real foods will always trump supplements!
As you look down these lists you may notice that herbs and spices top the list of foods that have a lot of minerals. Once you have eaten as much coriander, basil, parsley and spearmint as you can and still feel hungry keep doing down the list and you will find more calorie dense foods such as spinach, eggs, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds etc which are more common and easier to fill up on.
athlete and metabolically healthy
If we factor in some consideration of insulin load then we get this list:
wheat bran (crude),
Wheat bran (crude) features in this list but it’s very rarely eaten in this natural state. Most of the value is lost when you remove the husk from the wheat.
As much as we’re told that we shouldn’t eliminate whole food groups, grain based products just don’t rate well when you prioritise foods in terms of nutrient density.
If you’re looking for some lower calorie density options the list changes slightly:
wheat bran (crude), and
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
If you’re trying to manage your blood sugars then this is your list of foods that are packed with minerals:
chilli powder, and
If you’re aiming for therapeutic ketosis then the higher fat nuts come into the picture to get your minerals:
pine / pinon nuts,
sunflower seeds, and
So what does all this mean and how can we apply it?
I don’t think it’s necessary or ideal to track your food all the time, however it’s well worth taking a typical day of food and entering it into the recipe builder at nutritiondata.self.com to see where you might be lacking.
Are your vitamins or minerals low? Protein? What about fibre.
If you find these are lacking you can use these food lists to fill nutritional gaps while keeping in mind your ability to process carbohydrates and attaining your personal goals.
I also have really enjoyed Chris’ discussion about heart rate variability (HRV), gut health and a range of other intriguing subjects. 
Chris is a software engineer who used to work for a hedge fund and has now chosen to go into full time nutritional therapy counselling with a bit of pro-mountain biking on the side! He’s also into kettlebells.
He has basically mastered all my passions and hobbies and taken them to the elite level! I’m not that jealous, really.
Chris is another endurance athlete who found he had pre-diabetic blood sugars (like Tim Noakes, Ben Greenfield and Sami Inkenen), and has turned to the ketogenic diet to normalise his blood sugars.
Chris posted his daily food dairy outputs from cron-o-metre  on Facebook recently and gave me permission to run the numbers on it to see what we could learn.
Using cron-o-metre is superior to MyFitnessPal because it tracks your micronutrients in addition to calories and macronutrients.
As shown in nutritional analysis below, Chris’s nutrient dense diet has achieved the RDI for all of the key micronutrients. His protein intake is solid but not high at about 1.5g/kg LBM.
Chris uses MCT oil to fuel his cycling with some slow release Superstarch to top off his glycogen stores for races without throwing him out of ketosis.
The plot of Chris’s macronutrients from his daily food diary shows that his diet is certainly ketogenic. When he occasionally measures his blood ketones they’re pretty high at around 2.1mmol/L. 
At the same time he gets a really solid 46g of fibre per day (compared to the RDI of 30g for men), with a low 5% net carbs and a very low 16% insulinogenic calories. One of the issues I see for a lot of people trying to reduce their carbohydrates is that they struggle to get enough fibre for digestion and good gut health.
But can a diet that is so highly ketogenic also provide adequate nutrition? I ran his daily food diary though nutrientdata.self.com and the results are solid.
The nutritional content would depend heavily on the source of his beef ground beef which makes up most of his protein on the day I have analysed. I know Chris also goes out of his way to eat organ meats, and the locally sourced grain feed beef that he gets would likely have a higher protein quality score than the ground beef profile in the USDA database.
It should also be noted that the data from his daily food diary entered into nutritiondata.self.com hasn’t captured everything given, because it didn’t seem to have yerba mate tea, kim chi and bone broth which would have a bunch more nutrients.
increasing the protein score
The table below shows how Chris’s food diary stacks up against the 200 or so other meals and daily diaries that I have analysed. I have used the diabetic / nutritional ketosis weighting in the ranking which prioritises a low insulin load with solid vitamins, minerals and protein.
The only area where the “base” food diary is lacking compared to the other meals is the protein score. The score of 0.01 for protein means that it is about average for the 200 meals analysed.
The calorie density score is low, however this is not a problem given that Chris is already quite lean (as you can see from the photo above).
Chris uses MCT oil to fuel his cycling, and weight loss is not a goal. Trying to get him to reduce the calorie density of his diet with more broccoli and mushrooms would mean that he just couldn’t physically get in enough fuel!
You can see from the comparison of the nutrients and amino acids from various protein sources below that muscle meat is not necessarily the most nutrient dense source of protein.
If we replace the ground beef with sardines which have a higher quality of amino acids we get the updated nutritional profile shown below. Both the protein score and the vitamin score has increased with the sardines.
So overall, Chris’s diet is currently well suited to his goals; however, refining the quality of the protein source could further improve the vitamin and mineral content of his diet.
Overall, I think Chris’s diet is a great example of how someone can get great nutrition and high amounts of fibre while still achieving ketosis.