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 or other symptoms when they avoid plant-based foods and even dairy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 make 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.
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.
 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.
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.
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.
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.
snap green beans
nuts and seeds
dairy and egg
insulin load (g/100g)
insulin load (g/100g)
insulin load (g/100g)
duck (with skin)
Depending on your goals, the following lists may also be of interest:
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.
We can quantify the insulin load using the following formula:
insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 x protein
The chart below shows the nutrition provided by this high fat approach. The therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach does not provide the DRI levels of:
alpha linolenic acid,
Hence this style of therapeutic approach is idea for a shorter term intervention with a higher nutrient density approach being adopted when possible.
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.
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.
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)
If your blood sugars or weight deviate from optimum consider reverting to the optimal foods for weight loss or diabetes.
5 – 30% carbohydrates
15 – 30% protein
40 – 80% fat
Nutrient density, high fibre, and cost with less focus on choosing low insulinogenic foods.
People with diabetes or insulin resistance may do better, at least initially, with a low carbohydrate diet to help them normalise their insulin and blood glucose levels. Managing your appetite is easier once you stabilise your blood glucose levels.
However, once your glucose and insulin levels stable, you will likely benefit from reducing the energy density of your diet while also increasing the nutrient density of the foods you eat.
Foods with a lower energy density are more filling and more difficult to overeat which is a useful hack if you want to use the fat on your body for fuel.
The researchers educated all participants to improve their diet quality with nutrient dense whole foods. However, they told half the participants to eat as low fat as they possibly could while the other half ate as little carbohydrates as they practically could.
After six months they found that the people who were insulin resistant generally did better with a lower carbohydrate approach. However, the people who were insulin sensitive did slightly better on a low-fat, low energy density approach.
“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.”
The chart below shows the nutrients in these foods compared to the average of all the foods in the USDA food database. Eating more of these will ensure you get the nutrients you need with less energy while also avoiding nutrient cravings or deficiencies.
The foods are ranked using a multi-criteria analyses based on their nutrient density (i.e. they provide you with more of the nutrients that are generally harder to find) and their energy density.
yeast extract spread
dairy and eggs
whey protein powder
the Nutrient Optimiser
As we roll out the Nutrient Optimiser, it’s been exciting to see how many people have been able to reduce their energy intake without cravings. When we get the nutrients we need, our cravings decrease and the body can go use our stored body fat for fuel.
If you’d like a free report a nutrient dense food list tailored to your goals, preferences and allergies just go to NutrientOptimiser.com. Tell us some details about yourself and this exciting new free tool will give you target macronutrient ranges, optimal food choices and suggested meals that will help you reach your goals.
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.
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.
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, 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 foodsmay 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.
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.
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.). 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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Over at KetoGains, they talk about using ‘fat as a lever’. 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.
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.
harder to find nutrients
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.)
Higher energy density while still being nutrient dense.
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.
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.
Assumptions & constraints
the most nutrient dense foods
Prioritises the harder to find nutrients.
Maximises nutrients per calorie.
nutrient dense Paleo
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
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.
Plant based plus fish prioritised for nutrient density.
Some vegans or vegetarians are comfortable eating fish.
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
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
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
Zero carb without nutrient density.
A zero carb approach without consideration of nutrient density can provide a poor nutritional outcome.
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.