Category Archives: cheat sheets

no carb foods

For most people, the optimal dietary approach seems to include a balance of plant and animal based foods.  Some people prefer more (or all) plants due to ethical or religious reasons, while others prefer to avoid vegetables and grains.

Some people just don’t like veggies, while others struggle to digest plant fibres and find relief from debilitating digestive, mental health[1] or other symptoms when they avoid plant based foods and even dairy.[2] [3] [4]

Others feel that the nutrients in plant based foods are less bioavailable and that the nutrients in animal based foods will be more easily absorbed.[5]

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The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrients provided by:

  • the most nutrient dense zero carb foods,
  • the most nutrient dense plant based foods, and
  • the most nutrient dense foods available.

As you might expect, the zero carb foods (red bars) do well in the proteins and fatty acids while the plant based foods (blue bars) generally contain more vitamins and minerals.

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Going zero carb will reduce the insulin load compared to most dietary approaches, although the higher levels of protein may mean that you won’t necessarily be ‘ketogenic’ or showing high levels of blood ketones.

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While the recommended daily intake values for various nutrients is debatable, it appears that it is more difficult to obtain the recommended quantity of calcium, magnesium, potassium, vitamin E and vitamin C on a zero carb approach compared to others that contain plant based foods and hence it may be useful to supplement these nutrients.

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You’ll notice the most nutrient dense zero carb foods listed below contain a solid amount of organ meats which are very nutrient dense.  The chart below shows the nutrient density of the highest ranking zero carb foods with and without organ meats (cutting out all carbohydrate containing foods narrows the list of available foods from 8000 to 2887 and removing offal narrows the list to 2784 available foods).  Organ meats makes a significant difference to the levels of copper, manganese, selenium, vitamin A and vitamin B-12.  So if you are going to go with a zero carb approach it makes sense to maximise your organ meats.

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The zero carb foods below are sorted using both nutrient density and insulin load (to make sure you’re not just eating lean protein).  Also included in the table are the nutrient density scores, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load, energy density and the multicriteria analysis score (MCA) that combines all these factors (see the building a better nutrient density index article for more details on the MCA process).

offal

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
turkey liver 9 21 189 1.6
lamb liver 9 20 168 1.4
chicken liver 9 20 172 1.4
beef brains 5 8 151 1.4
lamb kidney 8 15 112 1.3
veal liver 8 26 192 1.2
beef liver 9 25 175 1.2
chicken liver pate 4 17 201 1.1
lamb brains 3 10 154 1.0
beef kidney 5 20 157 0.8
pork liver 5 23 165 0.7
beef heart 3 16 165 0.7
lamb sweetbread 3 15 144 0.7
liver sausage -2 10 331 0.7
turkey heart 3 20 174 0.7
lamb heart 3 19 161 0.6
sweetbread -2 9 318 0.6
beef tripe 3 14 103 0.6
beef heart 2 23 179 0.5

animal products

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
ham (lean only) 8 17 113 1.1
ground turkey 2 19 258 0.8
chicken breast 6 22 148 0.8
pork chop 5 23 172 0.8
roast ham 3 18 178 0.7
roast pork 3 20 199 0.7
turkey ham 3 14 124 0.7
ham 1 11 149 0.7
turkey drumstick 4 21 158 0.7
turkey meat 4 21 158 0.7
turkey (skinless) 2 16 170 0.6
turkey bacon -1 11 226 0.6
turkey drumstick (with skin) 0 15 221 0.6
chicken (leg with skin) 2 18 184 0.6
pork ribs 2 21 216 0.6
pork loin 2 19 193 0.6
pork shoulder 4 22 162 0.6
pork sausage -0 13 217 0.6
turkey -1 21 414 0.6
leg ham 4 22 165 0.6
pork 2 22 209 0.6
meatballs -1 14 286 0.6
veal loin 3 20 175 0.6
ground pork 3 25 185 0.6
salami -2 17 378 0.6
turkey 3 23 189 0.6
bratwurst -2 13 333 0.5
kielbasa -2 12 325 0.5
bologna -1 11 172 0.5
pork sausage -2 16 325 0.5
bacon -3 11 417 0.5
pork ribs -2 16 361 0.5
lean beef 3 23 149 0.5
veal 4 24 151 0.5

seafood

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
fish roe 10 18 143 1.6
caviar 7 23 264 1.5
salmon 9 20 156 1.5
trout 8 18 168 1.4
sturgeon 8 16 135 1.4
mackerel 3 10 305 1.2
crab 10 14 83 1.2
anchovy 6 22 210 1.2
halibut 9 17 111 1.2
crayfish 9 13 82 1.2
sardine 5 19 208 1.2
oyster 7 14 102 1.0
cisco 3 13 177 1.0
cod 8 48 290 1.0
lobster 8 15 89 1.0
flounder 7 12 86 1.0
herring 3 19 217 0.9
pollock 8 18 111 0.9
rockfish 7 17 109 0.8
perch 6 14 96 0.8
shrimp 6 19 119 0.7
haddock 6 19 116 0.7
tuna 4 23 184 0.7
whiting 5 18 116 0.6
white fish 5 18 108 0.5
octopus 5 28 164 0.5
clam 4 25 142 0.4
scallop 5 22 111 0.3

dairy and egg

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
egg yolk 4 12 275 1.4
whole egg 4 10 143 1.2
kefir 5 7 41 0.7
whey powder 9 82 339 0.6
cream -4 5 340 0.5
sour cream -3 6 198 0.5
feta cheese -2 15 264 0.4
butter -5 3 718 0.4
cheddar cheese -2 20 410 0.4
limburger cheese -2 15 327 0.4
camembert -2 16 300 0.4
blue cheese -2 19 353 0.4
Swiss cheese -2 22 393 0.4
cream cheese -4 10 350 0.4
gruyere cheese -2 23 413 0.4
cream cheese (low fat) 5 19 105 0.4
edam cheese -3 21 357 0.3
muenster cheese -3 19 368 0.3
Monterey cheese -3 19 373 0.3
gouda cheese -3 21 356 0.3

other dietary approaches

The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs 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.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help identify the optimal dietary approach for you.

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notes

[1] https://zerocarbzen.com/2016/10/04/zero-carb-interview-amber-ohearn/

[2] https://www.gutsense.org/fiber-menace/about-fiber-menace-book.html

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/10/05/ketogenic-fibre/

[4] https://zerocarbzen.com/

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3153292/

[6] However, keep in mind that this analysis is based on the USDA database that includes all the nutrients in the food rather than what will be absorbed.  Species specific nutrient bioavailability is still an emerging area.  While we can measure the nutrient in a food, it is hard to quantify how much of those nutrients are digested and absorbed into the body.

energy density, food hyper-palatability and reverse engineering optimal foraging theory

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.[1]

But what is optimal foraging theory[2]?   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.

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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…

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… gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain energy dense honey …

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… and eat the fattiest cuts of meat and offal, giving the muscle meat to the dogs.

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OFT in captivity

But what happens when we translate OFT into a modern context?

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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.

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We are now surrounded by energy dense hyper-palatable foods that are designed to taste good without providing substantial levels of nutrients.

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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.

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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.[3]

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.”[4]

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.

Sounds logical, right?

The satiety index demonstrates that there is some basis to the concept that we feel more full with lower energy density, high fibre, high protein foods.[5] [6]   The chart below shows how hungry people report being in the two hours after being fed 1000 kJ of different foods (see the low energy density high nutrient density foods for weight loss article for more on this complex and intriguing topic).

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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[7]), we end up with cheap manufactured food-like products that have little nutritional value.

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Grain subsidies were brought in to establish and promote cheap ways to feed people to prevent starvation with cheap calories.[8]  It seems now they’ve achieved that goal.[9]

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Maybe a little too well.

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The foods lowest in fat, however, are not necessarily the most nutrient dense.     Nutritional excellence and macronutrients are not necessarily related.

In his blog post Overeating and Brain Evolution: The Omnivore’s REAL Dilemma Robb Wolf says:

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Well, maybe.  Maybe not.

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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.

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But for the rest of us that aren’t insanely active, then maybe simply ‘going paleo’ is not the best option…

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… particularly if we start tucking into the energy dense ‘paleo comfort foods’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  1. We are hardwired to get the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of effort (i.e. optimal foraging theory).
  2. Commercialised manufactured foods have separated nutrients from food and made it very easy to obtain a lot of energy with a small investment.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

the solution

So I think we have three useful quantitative parameters with which to optimise our food choices to suit our current situation:

  1. insulin load (which helps as to normalise our blood glucose levels),
  2. nutrient density (which helps us make sure we are getting the most nutrients per calorie possible), and
  3. energy density (helps us to manage the impulses of OFT in the modern world).

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I have used a multi-criteria analysis to rank the foods for each goal.  The chart below shows the weightings used for each approach.

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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.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant this survey may help you identify your optimal dietary approach.

survey

I hope this helps.  Good luck out there!

post last updated OCtober 2017

 

references

[1] http://ketosummit.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_foraging_theory

[3] http://www.hoajonline.com/obesity/2052-5966/2/2

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24564590

[5] http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/fullness-factor

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104

[7] https://www.nextnature.net/2013/02/how-food-scientists-engineer-the-bliss-point-in-junk-food/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy

[9] http://blog.diabeticcare.com/diabetes-obesity-growth-trend-u-s/

the most ketogenic foods

Ketosis occurs when the body’s glucose stores and insulin levels are low and the body increases its use of fat for fuel.  The insulin load of a food is related to its carbohydrate, protein and fibre content.

Calculation of the percentage of insulinogenic calories enables us to prioritize of foods with a lower insulin demand which will lead to nutritional ketosis and improved blood glucose control.

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Listed below are the most ketogenic foods based on the percentage of insulinogenic calories (excluding fats and oils).  Also included in the tables below are:

  • the nutrient density score (ND) ,
  • net carbohydrates or insulin load which will be of interest if you are insulin resistant and / or managing blood glucose levels, and
  • energy density (calories/100g) which will be of interest if you are watching your weight.

vegetables

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
chicory greens -0.28 27% 1 28
artichokes 0.71 33% 3 54
chives 0.21 34% 1 37
cilantro -0.46 36% 1 28
parsnip 0.64 38% 7 76
turnip greens 1.15 39% 1 37
banana pepper 0.19 41% 3 39
spinach -0.54 41% 1 29
seaweed (kelp) 0.78 43% 4 50
beets 0.28 44% 4 48
mustard greens 0.19 45% 2 30
collards 0.36 46% 2 40
mung beans 0.63 46% 1 26
alfalfa (sprouted) -0.54 46% 1 31
asparagus 0.94 46% 2 27
snap green beans 0.64 47% 4 40
pickled cucumber -0.87 48% 1 13
celery 2.67 49% 1 17
parsley 0.11 49% 3 44
radishes 0.66 50% 2 19
lettuce 1.10 52% 2 17
bamboo shoots 0.74 52% 3 28
endive -0.62 52% 2 20
cabbage 0.67 53% 3 30
arugula -0.03 54% 2 31
jalapeno peppers 0.54 54% 4 35
Brussels sprouts 0.19 54% 5 52
carrots 0.14 55% 5 39
cauliflower -0.61 57% 3 28
okra 0.92 57% 4 37
rhubarb 1.22 57% 3 21
broccoli 1.06 57% 4 42

fruit

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
olives 0.00 15% 3 90
avocado 0.01 18% 5 131

nuts and seeds

26765969aae6926f

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
macadamia nuts 0.12 5% 5 769
pecans 0.15 5% 4 762
coconut milk 0.03 8% 4 246
Brazil nuts 0.09 9% 4 704
pine nuts 0.15 11% 9 647
coconut meat 0.09 11% 16 703
flax seed 0.08 12% 2 568
walnuts 0.10 15% 7 683
hazel nuts 0.10 16% 15 692
chia seeds 0.10 16% 8 511
tahini 0.16 16% 13 633
almonds 0.11 16% 15 652
sesame seeds 0.12 18% 14 603
sunflower seeds 0.18 20% 11 491
cashew nuts 0.11 22% 24 609
pistachio nuts 0.15 23% 19 602

 dairy and egg

dairy20and20eggs

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
butter 0.11 0% 1 734
cream 0.10 5% 5 431
sour cream 0.12 9% 4 197
cream cheese 0.15 10% 8 348
Limburger cheese 0.17 18% 15 327
brie cheese 0.15 19% 16 334
egg yolk 0.18 19% 15 317
muenster cheese 0.16 20% 18 368
Camembert cheese 0.17 20% 15 299
Monterey Jack 0.16 20% 19 373
blue cheese 0.17 20% 18 354
feta cheese 0.17 22% 14 265
mozzarella 0.15 23% 18 318
ricotta cheese 0.09 25% 11 174
Greek Yogurt 0.02 27% 9 130
whole egg 0.17 29% 10 138

seafood

seafood-salad-5616x3744-shrimp-scallop-greens-738

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
caviar 0.28 32% 22 276
herring 0.24 34% 18 210
sardine 0.22 36% 18 202
swordfish 0.28 41% 17 165
anchovy 0.31 42% 21 203
rainbow trout 0.27 43% 17 162
mackerel 0.25 45% 17 149
sturgeon 0.23 47% 15 129
tuna 0.27 50% 17 137
squid 0.16 50% 21 170
salmon 0.26 50% 15 122

animal products

7450703_orig

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
foi gras 0.12 11% 13 459
beef ribs 0.12 13% 12 349
pepperoni 0.16 14% 17 487
frankfurter 0.11 14% 11 322
pate 0.13 16% 13 315
chorizo 0.15 17% 19 448
duck (with skin) 0.13 17% 14 331
salami 0.13 18% 12 258
lamb 0.15 24% 18 308
veal brain 0.09 25% 8 133
bratwurst 0.05 25% 11 171
polish sausage 0.10 26% 17 259
beef steak 0.16 28% 21 305
salami 0.11 29% 12 166

Depending on your goals, the following lists may also be of interest:

superfoods for therapeutic ketosis

A therapeutic ketogenic diet has a very low insulin load from non-fibre carbohydrates and a higher amount of dietary fat to achieve higher ketone to manage chronic conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, alzheimer’s, dementia etc.

The chart below shows our insulin response versus insulin load which considered fibre and protein as well as carbohydrates.  People wanting to following a ketogenic diet should eat foods towards to the bottom left of this chart.

Chrome Legacy Window 2052016 53236 AM.bmp.jpg

We can quantify the insulin load using the following formula:

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 x protein

The foods listed below have a very low insulin load while still maximising nutrient density (ND) as much as possible.  Also included in the table are the nutrient density score, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load and energy density.

nuts, seeds and legumes

26765969aae6926f

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
coconut milk -5 5 230 1.5
flax seed 0 16 534 1.5
coconut cream -6 7 330 1.5
pecans -5 12 691 1.5
macadamia nuts -5 12 718 1.5
brazil nuts -2 16 659 1.5
sesame seeds -2 17 631 1.4
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 1.4
hazelnuts -2 17 629 1.4
coconut meat -6 9 354 1.4
pine nuts -2 21 673 1.4
walnuts -1 22 619 1.3
almonds -1 25 607 1.3
peanut butter 1 27 593 1.3
almond butter -1 26 614 1.3
pumpkin seeds 2 29 559 1.2
peanuts -1 29 599 1.2
butternuts -3 28 612 1.2
sesame butter -1 33 586 1.1
pistachio nuts -2 34 569 1.0

seafood and animal products

7450703_orig

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
mackerel 1 10 305 1.5
sweetbread -3 9 318 1.4
bacon -4 11 417 1.4
liver sausage -3 10 331 1.4
bologna -6 9 310 1.4
bratwurst -1 13 333 1.3
pepperoni -4 16 504 1.3
beef brains 3 8 151 1.3
kielbasa -3 12 325 1.3
blood sausage -5 13 379 1.3
knackwurst -4 12 307 1.3
liver pate -4 13 319 1.3
pork ribs -2 16 361 1.3
salami -1 17 378 1.2
frankfurter -4 12 290 1.2
turkey bacon -2 11 226 1.2
beef sausage -3 15 332 1.2
duck -3 15 337 1.2
chorizo -3 19 455 1.2
meatballs -3 14 286 1.2
lamb rib -2 17 361 1.2
pork sausage -2 16 325 1.2
lamb brains 4 10 154 1.2
headcheese -4 8 157 1.2
turkey -2 21 414 1.1
pork sausage 1 13 217 1.1
cisco 4 13 177 1.1
caviar 9 23 264 1.0
bologna -2 11 172 1.0
ground turkey 4 19 258 1.0
T-bone steak -1 19 294 1.0
turkey drumstick (with skin) -1 15 221 1.0
ham -0 11 149 0.9
chicken liver pate 5 17 201 0.9

vegetables, fruit and spices

spanish-olives

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
alfalfa 15 1 23 1.8
olives -5 1 145 1.8
endive 18 1 17 1.7
avocado -1 3 160 1.7
chicory greens 16 2 23 1.7
curry powder 5 14 325 1.6
escarole 14 1 19 1.6
coriander 15 2 23 1.4
poppy seeds 2 23 525 1.3
paprika 8 26 282 1.3
beet greens 12 2 22 1.2
sage 5 26 315 1.1
blackberries 2 3 43 1.1
caraway seed 3 28 333 1.1
zucchini 14 2 17 1.0
mustard greens 9 3 27 1.0
marjoram 5 27 271 1.0
mustard seed 2 37 508 1.0
banana pepper 8 3 27 1.0
eggplant 6 3 25 1.0
raspberries 0 4 52 1.0
collards 8 4 33 1.0
thyme 7 31 276 0.9
nutmeg -5 32 525 0.9
cloves 7 35 274 0.9

eggs and dairy

dairy20and20eggs

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cream -5 5 340 1.6
butter -6 3 718 1.6
egg yolk 5 12 275 1.4
sour cream -4 6 198 1.4
cream cheese -5 10 350 1.4
limburger cheese -1 15 327 1.2
camembert -1 16 300 1.2
cheddar cheese -1 20 410 1.2
brie -3 16 334 1.2
feta cheese -1 15 264 1.2
blue cheese -1 19 353 1.1
Monterey cheese -2 19 373 1.1
muenster cheese -2 19 368 1.1
goat cheese -3 14 264 1.1
Swiss cheese -0 22 393 1.1
whole egg 6 10 143 1.1
gruyere cheese -1 23 413 1.1
Colby -2 20 394 1.1
edam cheese -1 21 357 1.1
gouda cheese -1 21 356 1.1
ricotta -2 12 174 1.0

nutrient density

The chart below shows the nutrition provided by this high fat approach.  The therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach does not provide the DRI levels of:

  • tyrosine,
  • phosphorus,
  • alpha linolenic acid,
  • threonine,
  • vitamin A,
  • copper,
  • vitamin K,
  • riboflavin,
  • selenium, and
  • lysine.

Hence this style of therapeutic approach is idea for a shorter term intervention with a higher nutrient density approach being adopted when possible.

2017-02-26 (18).png

other dietary approaches

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.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help identify the optimal dietary approach for you.

image02

post last updated April 2017

superfoods for athletes and the metabolically healthy

People who are metabolically healthy can focus on maximising nutrient density without worrying too much about their blood glucose or calorie density.

These foods are ranked using nutrient density per weight which prioritises higher calorie density foods which is more appropriate for an athlete wanting to replenish energy rather than minimise calories.  If you’re just completed a 100km ride it makes sense to reach for the nuts than the parsley to replenish energy.

Someone who is active and metabolically healthy will be able to tolerate higher levels of carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores after intense exercise.  However there is no need to eat more carbohydrates than would raise blood glucose levels to 6.7mmol/L (12omg/dL).  Exceeding this level would indicate that the liver and muscle glucagon stores are overfull and excess carbohydrate could lead to insulin resistance and metabolic damage.

The list of veggies is not as long as you might think because they are not as nutrient dense as the other options.  Veggies more extensively on the weight loss list where a lower calorie density is more of a priority.

Who People doing intense exercise and / or people who are metabolically healthy:

  • HbA1c < 5.4mmol/L (ideally less than 5.0mmol/L)
  • Average blood sugar < 5.4mmol/L (100mg/dL)
  • Average fasting blood sugar < 5.0mmol/L (90mg/dL)
When If your blood sugars or weight deviate from optimum consider reverting to the optimal foods for weight loss or diabetes.
Macro
  • 5 – 30% carbohydrates
  • 15 – 30% protein
  • 40 – 80% fat
How Nutrient density, high fibre, and cost with less focus on choosing low insulinogenic foods.

For more details see

nuts, seeds & legumes

  • chia seeds
  • flax seeds
  • sunflower seed
  • same seeds
  • pumpkin seeds
  • soybeans
  • sesame butter
  • brazil nuts
  • peanuts
  • walnuts
  • almonds
  • hazel nuts
  • pistachio nuts
  • coconut meat
  • pine nuts
  • pecans
  • macadamia nuts
  • peanut butter
  • cashew nuts
  • lentils
  • coconut milk
  • coconut cream
  • bread beans
  • split peas
  • beans
  • natto
  • lima beans
  • mung beans
  • chick peas

vegetables and spices

  • parsley
  • basil
  • paprika
  • spearmint
  • rosemary
  • thyme
  • cinnamon
  • turnip greens
  • spirulina
  • alfalfa
  • spinach
  • artichoke
  • cauliflower

dairy and egg

  • egg yolk
  • whole egg
  • Parmesan
  • Gruyere
  • goat cheese
  • Edam
  • Gouda
  • cheddar
  • provolone
  • blue cheese
  • Colby
  • Limburger
  • brie
  • mozzarella
  • cream cheese
  • feta
  • sour cream
  • cream

animal products

  • bacon
  • caviar
  • beef
  • pepperoni
  • liver
  • chorizo
  • mackerel
  • lamb
  • salami
  • anchovy
  • herring
  • pork
  • salmon
  • foie gras
  • turkey
  • veal
  • roe
  • sardines
  • goose
  • chicken
  • halibut
  • bratwurst
  • ham

fats and oils

  • fish oil
  • butter
  • palm oil
  • avocado oil
  • walnut oil
  • coconut oil
  • lard
  • hazelnut oil
  • almond oil

fruit

  • avocado
  • olives

other

  • wheat bran (crude)
  • All Bran
  • rice bran (crude)
  • wheat germ
  • cocoa (unsweetened)

Download printer friendly version.

ND / cal

ND / weight fibre / cal fibre / weight calories / 100g

insulinogenic (%)

5%

30% 10% 5%

5%

45%

 

 

superfoods for weight loss (high nutrient density, low energy density)

People who are insulin resistant will typically benefit from eating foods with a lower insulin load which helps normalise insulin and blood glucose.  Managing appetite is easier once you get off the blood sugar roller coaster.

However, people who are obese but insulin sensitive seem to benefit even more by reducing energy density and maximising nutrient density.

The foods listed below will help you get the nutrients you to thrive with fewer calories.  These foods will help you naturally reduce cravings and appetite.

In terms of macronutrients these foods have:

  • more protein (which will prevent loss of lean muscle mass),
  • more fibre (which will make you full and slow digestion),
  • less fat (assuming you will be burning more fat from your body, not your plate or coffee cup),
  • less digestible carbohydrates (which will help maintain stable blood sugar levels).

2017-02-18 (1).png

Once your blood glucose levels have been brought under control by reducing the insulin load of your diet, foods with a low energy density and high nutrient density will likely help you continue your journey towards optimum health and weight.

As shown in the chart below, these foods are very nutrient dense and provide a significant improvement in nutrient density.

2017-02-18 (2).png

The chart below is from a recent pilot trial by Christopher Gardner of Stanford (Weight loss on low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diets by insulin resistance status among overweight adults and adults with obesity: A randomized pilot trial) which showed that the people who were insulin resistant generally did better on a higher fat, low carbohydrate diet while people who were more insulin sensitive did better on a lower fat, lower energy density approach.

image15

Everyone in the study did better by eating more nutrient dense unprocessed foods regardless of the macronutrient composition!

These foods will enable you to minimise your energy intake (calories) without and reduce your chance of experiencing any nutritional deficiencies.  For example, if you were fasting or dieting, focusing on these foods would maximise your chance of long term successes and minimising cravings.

The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database prioritised for high nutrient density and low energy density.  The highest ranking foods involve lean proteins, non-starchy veggies and seafood.  High-fat dairy, processed grains and energy dense nuts and seeds don’t make the list.

The nutrient dense, high fibre, low energy density foods listed below will help you feel full with fewer calories, increase satiety and make it easier to control appetite.  This approach is similar to a protein sparing modified fast which reduces your dietary fat on the basis that it will be coming from your body. Adequate protein is also critical to building lean muscle mass which is essential to your metabolic health.

“A nourishing, balanced diet that provides all the required nutrients in the right proportions is the key to minimising appetite and eliminating hunger at minimal caloric intake.”

Paul Jaminet

Also included in the table are the nutrient density score, load, energy density and the multi criteria analysis score (MCA) that combines all these factors.

vegetables

image19

food ND calories/100g MCA
spinach 17 23 3.7
watercress 17 11 3.5
endive 16 17 3.4
asparagus 15 22 3.3
chicory greens 14 23 3.1
basil 14 23 3.0
coriander 14 23 3.0
seaweed (wakame) 14 45 3.0
chard 13 19 2.9
brown mushrooms 13 22 2.9
arugula 13 25 2.8
escarole 13 19 2.8
lettuce 13 15 2.8
broccoli 13 35 2.8
zucchini 12 17 2.8
parsley 12 36 2.7
Chinese cabbage 12 12 2.7
beet greens 12 22 2.7
okra 11 22 2.5
seaweed (kelp) 11 43 2.5
alfalfa 11 23 2.4
pickles 10 12 2.4
celery 10 18 2.4
dandelion greens 10 45 2.3
cauliflower 10 25 2.3
chives 10 30 2.3
white mushroom 10 22 2.3
mung beans 10 19 2.3
yeast extract spread 11 185 2.3
summer squash 10 19 2.3
radicchio 10 23 2.2
snap beans 9 15 2.2
turnip greens 9 29 2.2
portabella mushrooms 9 29 2.2
mustard greens 9 27 2.1
sauerkraut 9 19 2.0
cucumber 8 12 2.0
spirulina 8 26 2.0
shiitake mushroom 8 39 2.0
cabbage 8 23 2.0
collards 8 33 1.9
artichokes 8 47 1.9
dill 8 43 1.9
radishes 7 16 1.8
jalapeno peppers 7 27 1.7
banana pepper 7 27 1.7
bamboo shoots 7 27 1.7
turnips 6 21 1.6
onions 6 32 1.6
edamame 7 121 1.6
pumpkin 6 20 1.6
peas 6 42 1.6
Brussel sprouts 6 42 1.6
soybeans (sprouted) 6 81 1.5
red peppers 5 31 1.4
chayote 5 24 1.4
kale 5 28 1.4
winter squash 5 40 1.4
eggplant 5 25 1.4
butternut squash 5 45 1.3
paprika 7 282 1.3
red cabbage 5 29 1.3
sage 7 315 1.3
carrots 4 23 1.2

seafood

seafood-salad-5616x3744-shrimp-scallop-greens-738

food ND calories/100g MCA
crab 13 83 2.8
lobster 12 89 2.6
crayfish 11 82 2.4
fish roe 11 143 2.3
cod 12 290 2.3
oyster 10 102 2.1
halibut 9 111 2.0
shrimp 9 119 1.9
flounder 9 86 1.9
pollock 9 111 1.9
salmon 9 156 1.9
perch 8 96 1.8
trout 9 168 1.8
rockfish 8 109 1.8
white fish 8 108 1.7
sturgeon 8 135 1.7
haddock 8 116 1.7
scallop 7 111 1.7
caviar 9 264 1.7
anchovy 8 210 1.6
whiting 7 116 1.6
octopus 7 164 1.5
clam 6 142 1.5
sardine 6 208 1.3

animal products

7450703_orig

food ND calories/100g MCA
ham (lean only) 9 113 1.9
lamb liver 9 168 1.9
veal liver 9 192 1.9
turkey liver 9 189 1.9
lamb kidney 8 112 1.9
beef liver 8 175 1.8
chicken liver 8 172 1.8
beef kidney 7 157 1.5
pork liver 6 165 1.3
chicken breast 5 148 1.2
lamb sweetbread 5 144 1.2
pork chop 5 172 1.1
turkey drumstick 5 158 1.1
turkey meat 5 158 1.1
lamb heart 5 161 1.1
leg ham 4 165 1.0
lean beef 4 149 1.0
veal 4 151 1.0

dairy and eggs

image08

food ND calories/100g MCA
cream cheese (low fat) 10 105 2.2
kefir 7 41 1.8
whole egg 6 143 1.3
low-fat milk 5 56 1.3
egg yolk 6 275 1.3
milk 5 61 1.2

other approaches

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.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help identify the optimal dietary approach for you.

image02

 

post updated July 2017

optimal foods for YOU

It’s no secret that there is no perfect diet for everyone.  Your nutritional requirements depend on many factors, including your age, health status, activity levels, and goals.

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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years designing prioritised food lists to suit a range of goals and situations.  This article summarises this labour of love into what I hope will be a useful resource that will help a lot of people.

I have grouped the various food lists into the following categories:

  • foods to optimise your metabolic health (e.g. therapeutic ketosis, diabetes management, weight loss, bodybuilding, and athletic performance, etc.),
  • foods that boost specific nutrients associated with common health conditions,
  • ethical, philosophical and religious considerations, and
  • macronutrient and micronutrient extremes (low carb, keto, high protein, low protein, etc.).

For those of you who just want to know which foods you should eat more of, I have included the food lists up front.

If you want to understand how I have developed the various food lists, continue reading to the end of the article.

Metabolic health, diabetes management, weight loss and athletic performance

Most people do well if they eat more nutrient dense foods.  However, we can tailor our food choices beyond nutrient density to better suit different people with different goals.

The table below contains optimal food for various metabolic situations.  In the table below you can:

  • click on the ‘PDF’ to open a printable list of ‘foods’,
  • download the list as graphic to save to your phone by clicking on the ‘foods’, or
  • click on the ‘nutrients’ to see the amount of each nutrient that those groups of foods contain.
approach average glucose (mg/dL) average glucose (mmol/L) PDF foods nutrients
well formulated ketogenic diet > 140 > 7.8 PDF foods nutrients
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8 PDF foods nutrients
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 PDF foods nutrients
protein sparing modified fast (PSMF) < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
most nutrient dense < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
bodybuilder < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
endurance athlete < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients

I hope that these lists will help all those people who just don’t know what to eat.  Lots of people, my family included, have found these useful to print out and stick to their fridge or take it shopping for some inspiration.

If you belong to the 50% of the population that has diabetes or pre-diabetes,[1] your priority should be to normalise your blood glucose levels with a lower insulin load diet.  You can use your current blood sugar levels to choose the nutritional approach that will best support your journey towards optimal metabolic health.

The well- formulated ketogenic diet approach is designed for someone who has very high blood sugars or requires therapeutic ketosis.  The diabetes and nutritional ketosis approach will be more nutritious and suit people looking to manage their diabetes.  Before too long, with the reduction of processed carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels will stabilise to more optimal levels.

Once you have your blood glucose levels under control, you can then focus even more on increasing nutrient density and reducing energy density if you are looking to lose weight.   The weight loss (insulin resistant) foods will help you to reduce the energy density of your diet while keeping the insulin load down.  Stabilising blood sugar levels, normalising insulin levels and reducing hyper palatable processed carbs will help many normalise their appetite, reduce food cravings and naturally eat less.

The protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) approach aims to provide all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids with the minimum amount of energy to enable you to achieve aggressive weight loss while minimising your chance of developing nutrient deficiencies, keeping cravings at bay and losing your lean muscle mass.

In the long run, you may even find you have the energy to work out or build muscle for fitness and longevity.  This increased level of activity may require higher levels of protein and other nutrients.   You may also need higher energy density foods to enable you to ingest enough energy to support your activity levels.

The bodybuilder food list will provide you with plenty of amino acids and minerals to support recovery while the endurance athlete food list increases energy density to fuel increased activity levels while still keeping nutrient density high to fuel activity levels.

How do I implement all this information?

Not that long ago, before the advent of artificial flavours, colourings, refrigerators and packaged food, we were more in touch with our actual nutritional needs and went hunting and gathering in search of the foods that contained the nutrients we needed.  We ate until we got what we needed from the food and stopped.

The idea is that these food lists would help you to refine your food choices and make up for your appetite that might have been corrupted by the modern food system.  When you go shopping each week try to buy more of the foods that are at the top of your list and make sure you find a way to incorporate them into your cooking during the week.  You will not be able to eat all of the foods on the list.  You may find that you like some more than others.  Keep working down the list until you find foods that you enjoy and can easily eat lots of.

You will likely need to prepare your food more than relying as much on processed and pre-packed foods.  It may take a little bit more effort, but your health is worth it!

Nutrients to address deficiencies associated with common conditions

Most people are somewhere on the spectrum of metabolic health and will do well focusing on the foods that keep their blood sugars stable.  However, there are others that have developed specific conditions exacerbated by long term nutrient deficiencies.  Hence, focusing on the foods that provide more of the nutrients associated with these conditions can help manage or even reverse some of these conditions for some people.

The table below contains a range of food lists that are designed to provide more of the nutrients related to a diverse range of common health issues.  Eating these foods will not guarantee a reversal of a particular condition.  However, prioritising these foods will improve your chances of recovery and minimise reliance on drugs and other medicines.

If you don’t yet have any of these conditions, simply focusing on the most nutrient dense foods[2][3] may reduce your chances of developing poor health.

Some foods make an appearance on many of the lists (e.g. spinach, watercress, broccoli, organ meats).  However, as you look through each of the lists, you will see that they are unique in their ranking of the various foods required to provide the prioritised nutrients.  While eating any of the foods on the list will be helpful, focusing on the foods towards the top of the list will maximise the nutrients you need for your condition.

approach score PDF foods nutrients wheel references
most nutrient dense foods 99.0% PDF foods nutrients
aggressive weight loss (PSMF) 98.4% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
adrenal fatigue 99.1% PDF foods nutrients
asthma 98.5% PDF foods nutrients wheel
autism 95.5% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
depression 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
dyslipidemia 99.1% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
estrogen 98.4% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
fatigue 98.1% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
female fertility 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
hypertension 98.2% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
hypothyroidism 98.8% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
inflammation 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
methylation 97.6% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
sleep and insomnia 98.8% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
telomeres 96.9% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
low carb autoimmune friendly 97.3% PDF foods nutrients
alkaline (diabetes friendly) 96.9% PDF foods nutrients
testosterone 97.7% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
alkaline 96.4% PDF foods nutrients
autoimmune & SIBO 95.7% PDF foods nutrients
weight loss (insulin resistant) 99.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
diabetes friendly, autoimmune, & SIBO 76.0% PDF foods nutrients

The nutrients prioritised in these lists are generally based on research compiled by Spectracell which identified nutrients that are typically deficient in a range of conditions.  You can click on the “wheel” and “references” in the table for more details.   Check out the full Spectracell nutrient wheels for a range of conditions here.

Where there is no Spectracell “wheel” available, the nutrients used in the analysis were based on the Nutrient Bible by Henry Oseki which is an excellent detailed resource on the individual nutrients as well as the likely nutrients to support various conditions.

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The value of real food

Many modern foods are fortified with synthetic nutrients (e.g. folic acid, B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, iodine, etc.).[4]  While it may appear that the food companies are doing this for the benefit of your health or to make up for deficiencies in their processed foods grown quickly using chemical fertilisers, there is good research suggesting that fortification helps to ensure that we don’t lose interest in what would otherwise be bland unpalatable foods.[5] [6] [7]

By adding in a smattering of nutrients that our body actively seeks (e.g. iron, folate, B vitamins, sodium etc) we will maintain an increased appetite for these foods while not getting the range of other nutrients that are also important but do not drive our appetite to the same degree (e.g. potassium, magnesium, choline and vitamin E).

Paul Jaminet in his Perfect Health Diet[8] says “Potassium is the intracellular electrolyte while sodium is the extracellular electrolyte.  Cells continually pump sodium outside the cell and potassium inside.  Good health depends on the proper dietary balance between potassium and sodium.  Paleolithic diets were high in potassium, low in sodium; salt was rare and highly valued.  So we evolved mechanisms for protecting against the threat of low sodium levels: a food reward system that powerfully rewards salt consumption, and a hormonal network that shuts down urination and sweating whenever sodium is scarce.  There are no similar mechanisms to protect us against low potassium levels, even though they are every bit as devastating for our health.”

While supplements can be helpful, obtaining nutrients from whole foods will also maximise your chance of absorption and increase your chance of getting all the necessary complementary micronutrients in adequate quantities without being excessive. Note: excess supplementation of minerals can quickly cause diarrhoea, or the kidneys will excrete excess nutrients from supplements.’

I have not included fortified foods that may score highly due to a narrow range of synthetic micronutrients that have been added to highly processed and sugar ladened products.

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Nutritious whole foods will provide you with not only the essential nutrients that we can quantify but all the other beneficial non-essential nutrients, phytonutrients, enzymes, and cofactors[9] [10] that are not yet quantified or in the USDA database.

Ethical, philosophical and religious considerations

Many people choose to base their food choices on moral convictions or religious beliefs.  I do not have any issue with people making their food choices based on ethical considerations or religious beliefs.  I do, however, object to people claiming that their approach is nutritionally superior and forcing it onto others on that premise which is not supported by science.

The lists in the table below will help you find the most nutrient dense foods associated with each of these approaches.  The food lists have been sorted based on their nutrient score from highest to lowest at the bottom of the table.

approach score PDF foods nutrient profile
the most nutrient dense foods 99% PDF foods nutrients
nutrient dense Paleo 99% PDF click nutrients
low carb Paleo foods 97% PDF foods nutrients
pescetarian 95% PDF foods nutrients
bivalve vegan 92% PDF foods nutrients
low carb pescetarian 95% PDF foods nutrients
whole food plant based 80% PDF foods nutrients
plant based (diabetes friendly) 76% PDF foods nutrients
zero carb 76% PDF foods nutrients
Paleo (without ND) 64% nutrients
zero carb (no offal) 58% PDF foods nutrients
plant based (without ND) 57% nutrients
zero carb (without ND) 42% foods nutrients

As you might expect, we achieve the most nutritious selection of foods when we focus purely on nutrients.   If you chose to limit your food choices due to other ethical considerations, then you should pay particular attention to the foods that will provide you with more of the harder-to-find essential nutrients.

In the long run, the goal is to get the nutrients we need from our food to enable us to thrive without over consuming energy.  This will give us the best chance of maintaining an ideal body weight, energy levels, performance and avoid the modern diseases of ageing.[11]

See the discussion below detailing the pros and cons of each approach and the nutrients that may need to be supplemented based on the various approaches.

Macronutrient extremes

Some people like to define their nutritional approach in terms of large or small quantities of a particular macronutrient (e.g. low carb, low fat, high protein, low protein, high or low saturated fat, etc.).  The analysis in the table below shows the implication on the nutrients available if you follow any of these approaches.

I think it’s useful to understand the pros and cons of these extremes, particularly in terms of the micronutrients available and the range of foods involved in any of these more extreme approaches.

While high protein, low carb or ketogenic appear to have some positive impact on nutrient density, focusing on the most nutrient dense foods provides a vastly superior micronutrient outcome.

approach score PDF foods nutrients
the most nutrient dense foods 99% PDF foods nutrients
average of all foods in USDA database 75% nutrients
high protein foods 58% PDF foods nutrients
lowest carb 54% nutrients
most ketogenic 42% PDF foods nutrients
highest fat 33% PDF foods nutrients
lowest saturated fat 32% nutrients
lowest fat 31% PDF foods nutrients
highest saturated fat 29% nutrients
lowest fat 31% PDF foods nutrients
the most insulinogenic foods 27% PDF foods nutrients
highest carb 15% nutrients
lowest protein 5% PDF foods nutrients
the avoid list 3% foods nutrients

So that brings us to the end of the food lists section.  I hope you find an approach that will suit your current goals and situation and have a glimpse of how you can continue to move your health forward.

I have intentionally included a lot of data in these tables to allow you to fully understand the pros and cons of each approach and compare the nutritional options you might be interested in.  I hope you will dig into the data in the table for the short list of approaches that you may be interested in.

If you want to learn more about how these lists were developed I invite you to read on to learn about nutrient density, insulin load and energy density, and how they can be combined, using the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm to optimise our food choices.

 

Nutrient density

While there are a range of useful parameters that we can use to optimise our nutrition, the most important is arguably nutrient density.

Nutrient density is simply the amount of nutrients per calorie or the amount of the essential nutrients you get in your food each day.  Ideally, we want to be meeting the daily recommended intake for all of the nutrients.

Micronutrients seem to have been largely overlooked in our current discussion about nutrition. Perhaps this is because micronutrients are harder to quantify.  Without an easy way to quantify micronutrients we tend to focus on simpler metrics such as fat, carbs, saturated fat, protein, vegan, plant based, Paleo, keto, etc.

Unfortunately, neither avoiding a particular nutrient (saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, etc) or aiming for a macronutrient extremes (high fat, low fat, low carb, high carb, high fibre, low protein, etc) or even following our religious or ethical convictions (vegan, vegetarian, plant based etc ) are especially useful when it comes to identifying foods that provide us with the most micronutrients.

But what if we could quantify the micronutrient content of the food we eat?

Enter nutrient density!

The graph below shows the average of the micronutrients in the eight thousand or so foods in the USDA food database as a proportion of the daily recommended daily intake (DRI).  Imagine you ate just a little bit of all of these eight thousand foods to make up your 2000 calories for the day.

The nutrients at the bottom of this chart are easy to obtain in our food system (e.g. vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin K, and various amino acids).  There is little need to worry about these easier to find nutrients.  However, where this analysis is useful is that it highlights the nutrients that we might have to pay extra attention to obtaining in adequate quantities (e.g. vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, etc.).

After a lot experimenting with different approaches to develop a quantitative analysis method for optimising nutrient density, I found that:

  1. Prioritising foods that are high in only one nutrient (e.g. potassium, omega 3, magnesium, vitamin D, niacin, etc.) means you risk missing out on all the beneficial and complementary nutrients that typically come with real food and isn’t particularly useful.  You usually come up with a range of obscure processed foods that have been supplemented with that nutrient.
  2. Focusing on maximising the quantity of all the essential nutrients gives us a VERY high protein list of foods.  Protein is relatively easy to obtain in our food system.  Prioritising the amino acids provides a list of foods that will be very hard to consume because they are 70% protein.  We tend to get more than enough protein when we focus on the harder-to-obtain vitamins and minerals.
  3. Using the Nutrient Optimiser we can focus on the foods that contain more of the nutrients that are harder to find.  When we maximise a range of the harder-to-find nutrients, we get a variety of whole foods that contain a broad spectrum of the essential nutrients.

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods in the USDA database when we prioritise for the harder-to-find nutrients (i.e. vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, pantothenic acid, selenium, and niacin).  The red bars denote the nutrients that have been prioritised.   That is, foods that contain more of these micronutrients per calorie rank higher in the analysis.

If you compare the chart below to the chart above, you will see that by focusing on the foods that contain harder-to-find nutrients we significantly boost all thirty-four essential nutrients!

If you focus on eating foods in this list, you will have a good chance of getting plenty of the essential micronutrients.  The most nutrient dense foods in each category are at the top of the list, so you would ideally focus more on the food at the top of the list as much as you could.

I don’t think it matters too much if you want to focus more on animal or plant based foods.  We tend to achieve the best nutritional outcome when we include a range of vegetables, animal products and seafood.

  • What is notably missing from all of these lists is sugar and refined grains which have a very low nutrient density.
  • Fruits also do not feature in the lists (other than the exclusively plant based lists) due to the lower nutrients per calorie compared to nonstarchy vegetables and animal foods.
  • Dairy and nuts make an appearance on the lists only where it is not a priority to keep energy density low or to lose weight.
  • Red meat tends to feature more prominently when we need to boost nutrients such as glycine, cysteine and glutamine which are not as prevalent in seafood.

The nutrient score

You will notice the “nutrient score” for the most nutrient dense foods is 98.7%.  But what does this mean?

The nutrient score is designed to compare the various nutritional approaches quantitatively.  We want to meet the daily recommended intake of a particular nutrient.  However, there may not be much value getting more than twice the DRI.  Once you’ve achieved two times the DRI your efforts would be best spent seeking out other nutrients.  If we achieved two times the recommended daily intake for all the nutrients, we would get a score of 100%.  That is, we get a perfect score if the entire red rectangle was filled in.

A lot of these food lists score close to a perfect score because they contain a range of the most nutrient dense foods.  This is not practical in real life.  The nutrient score of a real life diet will be lower than the optimised short list of nutrient dense foods.  We tend to choose more energy dense foods that may not be as nutrient dense, or we don’t consume the range of foods that would be necessary to attain a very high nutrient score.  Dr Rhonda Patrick currently holds the record for the highest scoring food log with 82%.  You can check out her Nutrient Optimiser analysis here.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can see from the chart below that focusing on the least nutrient dense foods will provide an inferior outcome.   If all we have to eat is these nutrient poor foods, we will likely develop nutrient deficiencies.  Our cravings will drive our appetite to derail even our best calorie restriction intentions.

Energy density

The great thing about nutrient dense whole foods is that they typically force out the energy dense processed foods in our diet.

Whether it be low carb, whole food plant based or Paleo, the magic happens when we switch out nutrient deficient foods for foods that provide you with the nutrients we need with less energy.

The ‘problem’ however with nutrient dense whole foods is that they make it hard to ingest enough energy.  If you are active and are not wanting to lose weight, you may need some higher energy density foods.

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Over at KetoGains, they talk about using ‘fat as a lever’.[12]  If you are not worried about being low carb or ketogenic or your blood sugar control, you can also think of ‘energy density as a lever’ to manage the amount of energy you can get from your diet.  While a ketogenic diet is typically higher fat, if you want to lose body fat then some of the fat contribution to your diet should come from your body, with less fat required from your plate or coffee mug.

Energy density is a simple concept that can help you fine tune your food choices and is calculated by dividing the calories in a food by its weight.  Used in isolation it isn’t particularly useful, but can be helpful whne considered along with nutrient density once you have stabilised your blood sugars by tweaking the insulin load of the food you eat.

If you have stabilised your blood sugars and are trying to lose weight, then minimising the energy density of the foods you eat will help you feel physically full with less energy intake.  Practically this might involve filling up on more nonstarchy veggies and perhaps leaner cuts of meat.

Focusing on foods with a lower energy density can help you to get the nutrients you need without overdoing the energy intake.

Alternatively, if you are an athlete and need to ingest a lot of fuel, then focusing on higher energy density foods may be helpful.

Insulin load

As shown in my analysis of the food insulin index data below, the amount of carbohydrate correlates with how much our blood sugar rises in response to food.  [You can click on the images below to see more detail or click here to drill down into the data more in Tableau online.]

However, carbohydrates alone don’t do a great job of explaining our insulin response to the food we eat.  As you can see in the chart below, some high protein, low carb foods still elicit a significant insulin response.

We get a much better prediction of our insulin response to food once we account for the fibre and protein content of our food.  Thinking in terms of insulin load (i.e. net carbs + 0.56 x protein) is useful if you are manually injecting insulin to manage your diabetes.  If you are insulin resistant, you can reduce the insulin load of your diet to the point that your pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood sugars.

Reducing the insulin load of your diet will help achieve more stable blood sugar levels and get off the insulin rollercoaster that drives hunger and energy levels.  While various studies have not been able to demonstrate a metabolic advantage of one macronutrient versus another, it seems that appetite control is easier for people who are insulin resistant when they manipulate their diet to stabilise their blood sugars.

While too much energy from any source can promote insulin resistance in the long run (note: the pancreas secretes insulin to stop the flow of energy out of the liver when we have plenty of energy coming in via the mouth), increasing the proportion of fat in your diet will lessen the amount of insulin required by your food.

Increasing the percentage of calories from fat in your diet will also reduce your glucose response to food.

Although protein does need some insulin to metabolise, higher protein foods will typically force out the processed carbohydrates and reduce your insulin levels.

So what does all this mean?

If you are part of the 50% of the population that has diabetes or prediabetes, then manipulating the insulin load of your diet will help you stabilise your blood sugar levels.  This is a critical priority.

The problem with focusing only on insulin load, however, is that the least insulinogenic foods are primarily refined fats (cream, butter, olive oil, etc.) and do not contain a lot of the essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that we need to thrive and be metabolically healthy.

The solution is to find the optimal balance between insulin load and nutrient density.  As your blood glucose levels start to improve you can start to focus more on nutrient density and then on reducing energy density if you still need to lose weight.

The various food lists have been developed using a multi-criteria analysis algorithm that uses nutrient density, energy density and insulin load to highlight the ideal foods for a particular person.

Pros and cons of different dietary approaches

The table below outlines the pros and cons of each of the higher level nutritional approaches, who they will be appropriate for and which nutrients are harder to find.

approach who harder to find nutrients Pros Cons
well-formulated ketogenic diet Someone with an average blood sugar greater than 140 mg/dL or 7.8mmol/L or people who require therapeutic ketosis (i.e. for the management of conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.) Vitamin D, choline, potassium, vitamin B5, zinc, niacin, magnesium, calcium selenium and folate. Aggressively lowers insulin load to stabilise blood sugars and drive ketogenesis.  Higher fat levels can help to increase satiety while in early adoption phase. High energy density and low nutrient density mean that it may not yield optimal weight loss or health in the long term for everyone.
diabetes and nutritional ketosis People with an average blood sugar of greater than 108 mg/dL or 6.0mmol/L. Choline, vitamin D, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B5, niacin, calcium and zinc. Helps optimise blood sugar control and eliminate the swings that can drive appetite. Higher energy density means that not everyone will achieve optimal weight without also focussing on energy density.
weight loss (insulin resistant) People who are slightly insulin resistant but want to lose weight. Vitamin D, choline, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, zinc, niacin. Lower energy density will help ensure a reduction in energy intake.  Higher nutrient density will reduce cravings. Lower satiety due to lower energy intake.
protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) Someone targeting aggressive short term weight loss while maintaining muscle mass. Vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc. Very nutrient dense and very low energy density will drive weight loss.  Very hard to overeat these foods. Significant discipline, racking and planning required.
nutrient dense maintenance Someone looking to maintain their current weight. Choline, vitamin D, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc. Higher energy density while still being nutrient dense.
bodybuilder Someone looking to repair and build muscle. Vitamin D, choline, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, sodium, vitamin B5, zinc, folate and branched chain amino acids Support muscle growth. Not ideal for someone not working out.
endurance athlete Someone who is active Choline, vitamin D, potassium, calcium vitamin E, magnesium, vitamin B5 and leucine. Higher energy density foods to support activity.

This table summarises the assumptions used in developing the lists based on religious, ethical or philosophical considerations and provides some brief commentary for each nutritional approach.  I encourage you to look in more detail at the data to better understand your preferred approaches.

approach score Assumptions & constraints Comment 
the most nutrient dense foods 100% Prioritises the harder to find nutrients. Maximises nutrients per calorie.
nutrient dense Paleo 99% Excludes dairy, grains and processed foods as well as prioritising nutrient density. Very similar outcome to most nutrient dense approach, though with a reduced range of foods.
low carb Paleo foods 97% Reduced insulin load to stabilise blood sugars while also maximising nutrient density. Will stabilise blood sugars more than straight Paleo which can involve more high carb veggies.
pescetarian 95% Plant based plus fish prioritised for nutrient density. Some vegans or vegetarians are comfortable eating fish.
bivalve vegan 92% Plant based plus molluscs prioritised for nutrient density. Provides some nutrients that are harder to find on a purely plant based approach (omega 3, vitamin B12).  Some vegans are comfortable eating molluscs which are not considered by some to be sentient beings.
low carb pescetarian 95% Vegetarian plus fish with a focus on nutrient density and a lower insulin load. Provides a solid nutritional outcome without eating animals or dairy.
whole food plant based 80% Excludes processed foods and oils.  Prioritises nutrient density without focussing on amino acids It is hard to obtain adequate omega 3 or vitamin B12 on a WFPB approach and hence they may need to supplement.

Weight loss is likely due to the low energy density if you are able to stick to unprocessed foods only.

plant based (diabetes friendly) 76% Plant based only, with the focus on nutrient density and lower insulin load. It can be quite hard to achieve a low carb diet, at least in terms of percentages without using a lot of oils or nuts.
zero carb 76% Animal only foods prioritised for nutrient density. A zero carb dietary approach struggles to meet DRI for vitamins K, C and E, folate, potassium and calcium.

Although some argue that nutrient requirements are different in the absence of glucose, though there is limited research to date.

Paleo (without ND) 64% All Paleo foods without consideration of nutrient density. Limiting yourself to unprocessed “Paleo food” is no guarantee that you will achieve exceptional nutrient density.
zero carb (no offal) 58% Animal based foods excluding organ meats. Organ meats provide a lot of the nutrients in a ZC approach.  Not everyone enjoys and eats a lot of organ meats.
plant based (without ND) 57% All whole food plant based foods without consideration of nutrient density. A plant based nutritional approach is no guarantee that you will achieve high levels of nutrients.
zero carb (without ND) 42% Zero carb without nutrient density. A zero carb approach without consideration of nutrient density can provide a poor nutritional outcome.

Summary

Congratulations, you’ve nearly reached the end of this data-heavy article!!

My hope is that all this data will be useful for people seeking clear guidance on optimal food choices for them.  I hope it will help you cut through the confusion and conflicts of interest that so often plague our food system.

Nutrient density is the centre piece of the algorithm for optimising nutrition to suit people with different goals and to suit different circumstances.  When we focus on foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients we tend to boost all nutrients across the board.

A range of optimal food lists have been prepared to suit different states of metabolic health by also considering:

  • insulin load and energy density,
  • pre-existing health conditions using targeted nutrients, and
  • optimal short list of foods that still fit within a person’s ethical or religious system.

Simply focusing on trying to consume more of the foods on these lists will go a long way to helping you achieve optimal nutrition, health and happiness.  If you’re still looking for further guidance to help you refine your food choices, then I invite you check out the Nutrient Optimiser which has been designed to identify areas where you could improve your nutrition and help you fine tune your food choices to help you move towards your chosen goal and dreams, whatever they may be.

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references

[1] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/diabetes-102/

[2] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/05/16/building-a-better-nutrient-density-index/

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/towards-a-personalised-food-ranking-system/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_fortification

[5] https://freetheanimal.com/2015/06/enrichment-theory-everything.html

[6] https://freetheanimal.com/2016/05/enrichment-promotes-everything.html

[7] https://freetheanimal.com/2015/10/fortification-obesity-refinements.html

[8] http://perfecthealthdiet.com/

[9] https://suppversity.blogspot.com.au/2017/08/vitamin-b6-b12-c-e-folate-iron.html

[10] http://suppversity.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/studies-confirm-natural-and-synthetic.html

[11] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/03/21/wanna-live-forever/

[12] https://ketogains.com/2017/06/energy-balance-macros-nutrient-density/