Category Archives: nutrient density

high nutrient density, high energy density foods for athletes

If you’re an athlete, the “problem” with nutrient dense foods like non starchy vegetables and organ meats is that it can be hard to get enough fuel to support your activity.

Foods designed for athletes are energy dense but are not nutrient dense but rather are fast burning foods that don’t contain a lot of essential nutrients.  These foods may provide fuel for the short term, but they can lead to gut distress in the short term and as well as inflammation and insulin resistance in the long term.

To overcome these problems, this list of foods has been designed to be both nutrient dense and energy dense to ensure someone who is very active can get enough fuel while maximising nutrient density as much as possible.

energy density

The energy density of the foods listed below comes out at 367 calories per 100g compared to 231 calories per 100g for all foods in the USDA foods database.  They will contain enough energy to fuel an active life without spending all day chewing or overfilling your stomach.

macronutrients

From a macronutrient perspective these foods will provide you with:

  • more protein for muscle recovery,
  • more fat to provide energy,
  • more fibre due to the lower level of processing, and
  • less non-fibre carbohydrates which will normalise blood blood glucose levels while still providing some glucose for explosive power.

micronutrients

The chart below shows that these foods are quite nutrient dense, with all of the nutrients achieving greater than the daily recommended intake.

nutrient dense, energy dense foods for athletes

Listed below are the top 10% of the foods using this ranking including:

  • nutrient density score (ND)
  • energy density (calories/100g) and
  • their multi criteria analysis score (MCA).

vegetables

While the vegetables and spices in this list aren’t particularly energy dense they will ensure that you get the vitamins and minerals you need to perform at your best.  The lower energy density vegetables have been removed because they won’t be that helpful fueling for race day.

food ND calories/100g MCA
spinach 17 23 1.6
yeast extract spread 11 185 1.4
seaweed (wakame) 13 45 1.3
portabella mushrooms 13 29 1.2
shiitake mushrooms 7 296 1.1
broccoli 11 35 1.0
shiitake mushroom 11 39 1.0
seaweed (kelp) 10 43 0.8
cauliflower 9 25 0.7

seafood

Seafood packs some nutrient density and energy density at the same time.

food ND calories/100g MCA
cod 13 290 1.9
crab 14 83 1.4
anchovy 10 210 1.3
salmon 11 156 1.3
lobster 13 89 1.3
fish roe 11 143 1.3
caviar 8 264 1.2
halibut 11 111 1.2
trout 10 168 1.2
sturgeon 10 135 1.1
crayfish 11 82 1.1
pollock 10 111 1.0
oyster 10 102 1.0
shrimp 10 119 1.0
haddock 9 116 0.9
rockfish 9 109 0.9
sardine 7 208 0.9
octopus 8 164 0.9
flounder 9 86 0.8
white fish 9 108 0.8
perch 8 96 0.8
mackerel 4 305 0.7
whiting 7 116 0.7
herring 5 217 0.7
tuna 6 184 0.7
clam 6 142 0.6
scallop 7 111 0.6

eggs and dairy

Eggs are nutritionally excellent.  Butter has plenty of energy.

food ND calories/100g MCA
egg yolk 6 275 0.9
butter -5 718 0.7
whole egg 5 143 0.5

fats and oils

Fats and oils don’t contain a broad range of micronutrients, but they’re a great way to fuel without excessively raising your blood glucose or insulin too.  From an inflammatory perspective they’re going to be better than process grains and glucose for fueling as well as keeping insulin levels low to enable you to access your fat stores during endurance activities.

food ND calories/100g MCA
grapeseed oil -4 884 1.3
peanut oil -5 884 1.1
olive oil -6 884 1.1
soybean oil -6 884 1.1
beef tallow -6 902 1.1
duck fat -6 882 1.1
soy oil -6 884 1.1
lard -6 902 1.1
coconut oil -7 892 1.0
walnut oil -7 884 1.0
palm kernel oil -6 862 1.0
mayonnaise -4 717 0.8

grains and cereals

The more nutrient dense bran component of wheat makes the cut, however the more processed and more popular grains don’t make the list. Many people find use the “train low, race high” approach to be useful to ensure you are fat adapted through fasted or low glycogen training but have some glucose in the system for explosive bursts on race day.

food ND calories/100g MCA
wheat bran 10 216 1.3
baker’s yeast 12 105 1.2
oat bran 5 246 0.8

legumes

Legumes are moderately nutrient dense and have a higher energy density than most vegetables.  Properly prepared legumes can be a cost effective way of getting energy and nutrients, though not everyone’s gut handles them well.

food ND calories/100g MCA
peanut butter 1 593 1.1
soybeans 2 446 0.9
peanuts -1 599 0.9
cowpeas 2 336 0.6
black beans 1 341 0.5
broad beans 1 341 0.5

nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are a great way to get some energy in, though they’re not as high in the harder to find nutrients.

food ND calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 4 546 1.4
pumpkin seeds 1 559 1.1
almond butter 0 614 1.1
almonds 0 607 1.0
pine nuts -2 673 1.0
walnuts -1 619 1.0
brazil nuts -2 659 1.0
flax seed 1 534 1.0
sesame seeds -2 631 0.9
sesame butter -1 586 0.9
hazelnuts -2 629 0.9
macadamia nuts -4 718 0.8
pecans -4 691 0.8
cashews -2 580 0.7
pistachio nuts -2 569 0.7

animal products

Organ meats also do well in terms of nutrient density.  Fattier cuts of meat will pack some more energy.

food ND calories/100g MCA
lamb liver 12 168 1.4
veal liver 10 192 1.2
ham (lean only) 11 113 1.2
lamb kidney 11 112 1.2
beef liver 9 175 1.1
chicken liver 9 172 1.1
turkey liver 9 189 1.0
pork chop 8 172 0.9
chicken breast 8 148 0.9
pork liver 7 165 0.8
beef kidney 7 157 0.8
pork shoulder 7 162 0.7
veal 7 151 0.7
leg ham 6 165 0.7
ground pork 6 185 0.7
lean beef 7 149 0.7
sirloin steak 5 177 0.6

micronutrients at macronutrient extremes

In the previous article, Which Nutrients is YOUR Diet Missing?, we looked at the micronutrients that you might be lacking when following popular dietary strategies such as vegan, Paleo, keto, or zero carb.

As a follow-up, I thought it would be interesting to look at the effect on essential micronutrients if we define our dietary approach in terms of macronutrient extremes such as low carb, high fat, high protein, high carb, or low protein.

Humans tend to think in extreme terms.  It’s easy to follow a binary approach to nutrition, but which, if any, of these are the most useful in terms of maximising the nutrition provided by our diet?

For most of my life, best practice nutrition has been defined by a fear of fat which spawned the low-fat processed food era.

And because protein is necessary for muscle growth, more must be better?

But protein is also insulinogenic, so less protein must be good.  Right?

And then of course there is low carb, which has been popular since the appearance of the Atkins diet appeared in the early 1970s.

atkins.jpg

But then there are a good number of people who still define their diet as being high carb.

Banana-girl-.jpg

All of them seem to be similarly zealous about their all-or-nothing approach.

But are any of these macronutrient extreme approaches beneficial?  And if so, which one leads us to the optimal selection of nutritious foods that will lead to health, happiness, optimal weight, and longevity?

why bother with nutrient density?

The premise of nutrient density is that we want to maximise the quantity of essential micronutrients that we need to support our bodily functions while not overdoing energy intake.

Micronutrient dense foods allow us to obtain adequate nutrition with fewer calories.  Then, with our nutrients accounted for, higher micronutrient density might just lead to higher satiety levels, reduced appetite, reduced food intake and optimal body fat levels.

At the other extreme, if we consume fewer foods with a lower nutrient density, we will likely end up needing to consume more food to obtain the nutrients we need to survive and thrive.  If our appetite drives us to keep on eating until we obtain the nutrients we need, we may end up having to consume too much energy and and end up storing unwanted energy as fat.

macronutrient comparison

In this post, we’ll look at the micronutrients provided by the highest-ranking foods when we sort the eight thousand foods in the USDA database by the most and least fat, protein, and carbs.

Approach % protein % fat % net carbs % fibre
high fat 14% 82% 3% 1%
low net carbs 33% 67% 0% 0%
most nutrient dense 49% 19% 20% 12%
high protein 77% 22% 1% 0%
least nutrient dense 7% 32% 59% 2%
low protein 1% 27% 68% 3%
low fat 8% 1% 84% 7%
high net carbs 3% 2% 92% 2%

This chart shows the macronutrient split for these extreme approaches.

fat

While low carb is still in the lead in terms of internet searches (as shown in the Google Trends data below), the ketogenic diet is becoming pretty popular these days.

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by 2000 calories of the fattiest foods.  Nutrients are expressed in terms of the percentage of the daily recommended intake (DRI), for each nutrient, per 2000 calories (i.e. a typical daily intake).

While we achieve adequate amounts of about half of the essential micronutrients with a therapeutic ketogenic diet, we may need to consider supplementing some of the harder to obtain nutrients such as vitamin C[1], vitamin D, potassium, choline, vitamin K, and magnesium.

Looking at things from the other extreme, a low-fat diet will give you a ton of vitamin C, sodium, manganese, and iron.  However, it will be harder to obtain adequate quantities of the twenty-one essential nutrients, particularly essential fatty acids.

saturated fat

These days, the US Dietary Guidelines have lifted their limit on fat and cholesterol but retained their limitation on saturated fat.  Saturated fat and trans fats remain the two nutrients that we are advised to avoid.

The chart below shows the outcome when we avoid saturated fat.  The top 10% of foods with the lowest saturated fat are lacking (i.e. < 100% DRI) in nineteen essential nutrients.

At the other extreme, foods with the most saturated fat are slightly better with seventeen essential micronutrients lacking.

As discussed in the ‘What about Saturated Fat?’ article, I think saturated fat is neither a concern nor a priority.  Saturated fat a great clean-burning fuel, but there’s no need for us to make up for the last four decades of avoidance by suddenly binging on it.

The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of the quartiles of saturated fat in terms of percentage of energy.  It seems that the foods with moderate levels of saturated fat that are the most nutrient dense.

protein

Once you move past the fear of fat, the next hot topic is optimal protein levels.

The ‘high protein bros’ recommend more protein for muscle growth and satiety, while many in the low carb/keto community target lower protein levels for longevity and ketosis through minimising insulin and mTOR signalling.[2]

As shown in the chart below, when rank foods to minimise protein, we end up with only four essential nutrients meeting the recommended daily guidelines to prevent malnutrition.

At the other extreme, if we prioritise protein we end up with ten nutrients that we fall short of.  The other twenty-six essential nutrients meet the minimum recommended levels.

Not only does protein contain essential amino acids, this analysis indicates that higher protein foods generally come bundled with high amounts of vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B-12, selenium, vitamin B-6, riboflavin and copper.

It’s one thing to talk about targeting the minimum daily protein that you can get away with if you are looking to preserve muscle in fasting or extreme calorie deprivation during long term weight loss.  It’s a whole different discussion if you’re looking to minimise protein while making up the rest of your daily energy intake with fats or carbs!

carbohydrates

The chart below shows the nutrients we obtain if we maximise energy from non-fibre digestible carbohydrates (i.e. net carbs).  This high carb approach provides adequate amounts of twelve of the essential nutrients, while still being inadequate in twenty-four essential nutrients.

The chart below shows that low carb performs better than high carb, only falling short in sixteen essential micronutrients.

One of the benefits of a low carb approach, is that it often forces the elimination of many processed foods that fill the supermarket shelves to satisfy the demand for low fat foods driven by the admonition by the for the last four decades by the ruling dietary establishment to minimise fat.

A nutrient dense diet contains less non-fibre carb than the typical diet, but some people will do better, at least for a while, on a carb restricted diet.  Another major benefit of low carb is for insulin resistant people when they can lower their blood glucose and insulin levels on a carb restricted diet.  Many people find it easier to lose excess body fat once they have restored their insulin sensitivity.

nutrient density

You’re probably wondering where all these analyses are headed.

With all of these extreme approaches being so deficient in many micronutrients, you must be thinking “I hope there is a happy ending to this story, and soon.”

The good news is that we can manipulate our food selection to maximise micronutrients.  But first, here’s something to scare you even more.

The chart below shows the outcome when we minimise the harder-to-find nutrients.  This low nutrient density approach ends up being adequate in only three essential nutrients: sodium, vitamin C and iron.

The good news is shown in the chart below, which quantifies the nutrients provided by the most nutrient dense foods when we prioritise for the harder to find nutrients.  Alpha linolenic acid (found mainly in nuts and seeds) is hard to come by in adequate quantities, however we can obtain the daily recommended intake of all the other nutrients when we prioritise the harder to find micronutrients.

comparison of nutrients adequate

It’s a little hard to present and digest this analysis clearly.  There is no agreed protocol to compare the nutrient density foods.  So I’ve tried to summarise it in a number of different ways to allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Firstly, the chart below shows the number of nutrients that each macronutrient extreme is adequate in, from the most nutrient dense at the top to the least nutrient dense at the bottom.

The chart below shows a stacked bar chart of the various nutrients in terms of % DRI.  It’s like we have added up all the above charts for each nutrient and stacked them on top of each other.  This chart demonstrates that there is a is a massive difference between the most nutrient dense and least nutrient dense approaches.  If you’re foods that have a lower nutrient density you might just be hungrier compared to if you are eating the same number of calorie of the most nutrient dense foods which will much more effectively provide you with your essential micronutrients.

But  we needn’t be too concerned about the micronutrients that are easy to obtain.  What we really care about is the nutrients that are harder to obtain.  The chart below shows the sum of the eighteen nutrients that are harder to obtain for each extreme approach.

application

It seems that thinking in terms of macronutrient extremes has some usefulness.  However, focusing on micronutrient density seems to provide an order of magnitude improvement in the level of actual nutrients provided by our food.

Maybe it’s time for a new trend?

The ‘problem’ with nutrient dense foods is that that they are so lean and contain so much fibre that it can be hard to consume enough calories to maintain weight.  You’ll just be too full!

If you are insulin sensitive and not looking to lose weight, then you could consider adding some more ‘Paleo friendly’ carbs such as beets, squash, yams, and sweet potatoes, and/or some fattier cuts of meat to fuel your activity.  If you are insulin resistant, you may need to add some fattier (but still relatively nutrient dense) foods to maintain your weight while also keeping your blood glucose and insulin levels in check.

Perhaps micronutrient density is the most important parameter to pursue in our diet.  Then with that cornerstone in place we can personalise our nutritional approach to suit our goals (e.g. weight loss, ketosis, athletic performance or healthy maintenance).

The various food lists in the table below are designed with micronutrient density as the main priority, but also consider insulin load and energy density to suit different goals.

approach average glucose waist : height
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
therapeutic ketosis > 140 > 7.8
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 > 0.5
weight loss (insulin sensitive) < 97 < 5.4 > 0.5
bulking < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5

personalisation

In the end, no one sticks to an optimal list of foods that perfectly balances their diet 100% of the time.

I’ve been working on a system that will give you feedback on YOUR current diet, identify which nutrients you are currently lacking, and which supplements or real whole foods you may need to add or subtract to optimise your nutrition.  Most people don’t eat perfectly all the time, but we could all use some help moving forward towards optimal.

Check out the Nutrient Optimiser page for more details.

 

notes

[1] There is a strong case for the idea that the DRI for vitamin C could be relaxed for a diet with lower glucose.  See http://breaknutrition.com/ketogenic-diet-vitamin-c-101/ and http://orthomolecular.org/library/jom/2005/pdf/2005-v20n03-p179.pdf

[2] Check out this video by Ron Rosedale for an overview of the topic of protein, mTOR signalling and longevity.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtZ0LqUBySQ

which nutrients is YOUR diet missing?  

I recently took a look at which nutrients might be missing from various popular dietary approaches in preparation for a recent on nutrient density.  At a population level, the chart below shows the proportion of the US population that are deficient in various micronutrients.  Many people are not getting enough vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, etc.

While your body hasn’t read the World Health Organisation’s reports on the Daily Recommended Intake of the various essential nutrients,[1] it’s likely that your appetite will drive you to seek out the nutrients that are lacking.  If we are deficient in something that is required the body kicks in “nutrient hunger” and cravings that will make sure it gets what it needs.[2] [3] [4]

If you work hard to restrict your food intake to a certain dietary approach, but the body doesn’t receive the nutrients it needs, it may slow down and not function at full capacity.   By contrast, adequate nutrition, without too much energy, slows many of the modern diseases of aging such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cancer and improves your chance of living healthfully to a ripe old age.[5]

USDA foods database

The chart below shows the nutrients that are both easiest and hardest to obtain from the eight thousand foods in the USDA foods database.  At the bottom of this plot we have iron, various amino acids, and vitamin C, all of which are easy to obtain in adequate quantities.

However, at the top of the chart, we can see that it is much harder to obtain adequate quantities of six essential nutrients (omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, and potassium).  We would obtain sufficient quantities of all the other essential nutrients if we ate just a little of each of the foods in the USDA food database.

If we want to maximise nutrient density, it makes sense to prioritise foods that contain more of the harder-to-obtain nutrients.  The chart below shows the nutrients for the top 10% of the 8000 foods in the USDA database (blue bars) when we prioritise for those.  Not only do we get an increase in the more difficult to obtain nutrients, we also get a massive boost in all nutrients.  Rather than being inadequate in six nutrients, we are now lacking only one (alpha-Linolenic acid, an Omega 3 fatty acid).

Limiting our food selection to the most nutrient dense foods makes it easier for us to consume the required nutrients without excessive energy, which is ideal if we are trying to lose fat or reduce calorie intake to slow the diseases of ageing.[6] [7]  Nutrient density becomes even more important if you’re fasting or restricting calories to achieve long term weight loss.

Optimising nutrient density

If you’re reading this, then you’re likely aware that there is a wide variety of dietary approaches that people follow to optimise their health depending on their preferences and beliefs.

I’ve tried to turn many of these beliefs about nutrition into a quantitative algorithm that we can use to evaluate and compare these approaches, and make sure we’re getting the outcome we want (e.g. low insulin, blood glucose control, nutrient density, or low/high energy density).

After testing a number of options, the three quantitative parameters that I have found the three parameters that are most useful are:

  • insulin load,
  • nutrient density, and
  • energy density.

My aim in this post is to show how considering nutrient density can improve various dietary approaches, from therapeutic ketogenic, vegan, paleo, and low fat.   This post highlights which nutrients you will most likely be lacking with each of the different nutritional approaches, which foods you can use to fill these nutritional gaps, and perhaps which supplements you may need if you are still looking for some added nutritional insurance.

There’s been a lot of talk lately by Taubes[8] and Lustig[9] about how bad sugar and fructose are, but I think these nutritive sweeteners are just extreme examples of nutrient poor foods that are highly insulinogenic and energy dense.  At the other end of the spectrum, we have foods like liver, broccoli, and spinach.  Everything else is somewhere in the middle and will support or work against your goals, whatever they may be, to different degrees.

My aim here is to help you see where each of these foods sits on that continuum and use this information to help you refine your food choices to reach your personal goals.

Therapeutic ketogenic diet

Let’s start with the therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach.   I have previously noted that a number of the issues and concerns with the ketogenic diet seem to relate to being able to obtain essential nutrients rather than consuming excessive levels of fat.[10] [11] [12]  On one hand, I’m excited that the concepts of insulin load and percentage of insulinogenic calories have been helpful for people with chronic conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, dementia, Alzheimer’s etc.  However, I think there is a risk their ultra-high fat diet will not contain the nutrients which are critically important for mitochondrial function and energy production.

The chart below shows the vitamins and minerals provided by a therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach if we simply prioritise for low insulin load (red bars)[13] in comparison to the average of all foods in the USDA database (orange bars).  If you don’t pay attention to nutrient density a therapeutic ketogenic diet can provide lower levels of nutrition.

As shown in the chart below if we ate a little of all the foods in the USDA database, we would be deficient in six essential nutrients, whereas if we follow a therapeutic ketogenic diet, we will likely be lacking in ten essential nutrients.

The chart below shows the effect of how thinking in terms of nutrient density can improve the therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach (blue bars) compared to prioritising for insulin load only (red bars).  All nutrients are boosted, particularly the harder to obtain ones.

While lots of people find that higher fat whole foods are hard to overeat, there are still some hyper palatable high fat foods that go down easily.  We talk about eating “fat to satiety”, but what happens when nutrient hunger kicks in and your body is craving more potassium, magnesium, calcium, or one of the other nutrients that are harder to obtain in a very high fat dietary approach?  If you keep on consuming large amounts of processed fats that don’t contain the nutrients you require, your appetite may not automatically turn off before you’ve consumed a lot of excess energy!

Low carb

The chart below shows the boost in nutrients when we consider nutrient density combined with a low carbohydrate approach.  It appears that, based on this analysis, that without a focus on nutrient density, a low carbohydrate diet is likely to be deficient in folate, vitamin D, choline, potassium, magnesium, pantothenic acid, calcium, vitamin E and manganese.  With a focus on nutrient dense foods, a low carb diet provides adequate amounts of the majority of nutrients.

Weight loss (insulin sensitive)

The weight loss approach is intended for people who are insulin sensitive but still have excess body fat to lose.  Foods with a lower energy density (e.g. spinach, broccoli cucumber, celery, lettuce etc) typically are harder to overeat because they are bulky.

This approach doesn’t pay any attention to insulin load because it is assumed that people using this approach are not insulin resistant and are able to maintain good blood glucose levels.  Practically, it’s also difficult to achieve a really high insulin load with these foods because they do not contain a large amount of processed carbs and are hard to overeat.

Without consideration of nutrient density, the essential fatty acids tend to be low along with vitamin B-12, choline, and tyrosine.  However, once we factor in nutrient density all these nutrients dramatically improve.

This approach may not be viable for long term maintenance due to the extremely low energy density which would make it hard to get in enough energy.  However, in the short term, it may be appropriate for a period of substantial energy restriction, and will provide maximum nutrition with a minimum amount of energy.

Zero carb

Getting adequate protein on a zero-carb approach is not a problem.  However, unless there is a major focus on organ meats, there are a large number of vitamins and minerals, such as   vitamin K, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, potassium, magnesium and calcium that may be worth supplementing.

Vegan

At the other extreme, the chart shows the nutritional analysis of the vegan diet.  The main deficiencies in a vegan approach are omega 3s and vitamin B-12, which are hard to obtain without animal products.  It may be prudent for vegans to consider fish oil supplementation and B-12 injections, or alternatively adding some seafood occasionally.

While it appears possible to obtain the recommended levels of protein, it’s hard to get very high levels of it.    If you are insulin resistant, the fat levels can be increased using added coconut products and nuts.

Higher insulin load foods for bulking

The bulking approach is designed for people who are looking to gain strength and size by combining nutrient density with more calories and insulin load.  Without consideration of nutrient density, a high insulin load means very low nutrient density foods.  However, once we factor in nutrient density, we get a range of highly nutritious foods that may be helpful if you want to gain size and strength, while still maximising health and nutrition.

Paleo

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the Paleo approach (i.e. no processed foods, dairy or grains) both with and without consideration of nutrient density.  While ‘going Paleo’ eliminates many of the nutrient-poor processed food, it appears to be beneficial to also consider nutrient density as well in addition.

What does this all mean?

So, how do we decide which approach is best?  Unfortunately, it’s not straightforward so I’ll look at this a number of ways.

What we ideally want is to identify the foods that will provide us with high amounts of all of the nutrients.   The blue bars in the chart below represents the average of the % daily recommended intake of all the nutrients in the various approaches evaluated above, without considering nutrient density.  The orange bars represent the average minus 0.5 x the standard deviation which is a measure of reliability.  The higher the reliability the more consistent and high are the nutrients over all.

This chart shows that, in comparison to the other approaches, Paleo foods have a high and consistent level of nutrients; while the vegan and low energy density weight loss foods have high levels of some individual nutrients, but low levels of some others.  Without consideration of nutrient density, the high insulin, low carb and zero carb approaches are a bit lacking in nutrients.

Things become a little more interesting once we factor in nutrient density.  The vegan, therapeutic keto, low carb and zero carb approaches do poorly against the paleo, higher insulin load, most nutrient dense of all foods, and the lower energy density weight loss foods.

Many people will benefit on a high fat therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach, at least until their blood glucose and insulin levels normalise.  However, in time, it may be beneficial to transition to more nutrient dense foods to continue their journey towards optimal health.

As detailed in the ‘how to optimise your diet for insulin resistance’ article, I think you should eat the most nutrient dense foods your pancreas can keep up with while maintaining good blood glucose levels.  In time, someone who is highly insulin resistant may be able to progress to a more nutrient dense and more moderate fat approach if your ultimate goal is to normalise blood glucose levels and lose weight.

Food lists

If you identify with any of these goals, you may be interested in following these food lists.   If blood glucose levels are sky high or you are managing a chronic condition such as epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s or dementia, you may benefit from a higher fat therapeutic keto dietary approach, for a period.  As your glucose levels come under control, you can transition to more nutrient dense foods that will also help you to achieve your weight goals.

approach average glucose waist : height

(mg/dL)

(mmol/L)
therapeutic ketosis

> 140

> 7.8
diabetes and nutritional ketosis

108 to 140

6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant)

100 to 108

5.4 to 6.0

> 0.5

weight loss (insulin sensitive)

< 97

< 5.4

> 0.5

bulking

< 97

< 5.4

< 0.5

nutrient dense maintenance

< 97

< 5.4

< 0.5

Getting even more personal

As you can see, nutrients are provided at different levels depending on the approach.  However, most people don’t follow any dietary approach strictly, so the nutrients in your diet will be different depending on your personal habits and preferences.

Rather than trying to pick up someone else’s nutrition plan, or live by a strict list, I think it’s better to refine your current habits, emphasising the good foods, minimising the bad, and progressively trying new foods that may be beneficial.

To this end, I’ve been developing a Nutrient Optimizer algorithm that can help you refine your food choices to suit your goals.  By identifying the foods you are currently eating that align most with your current goals, which ones don’t, and which new foods perhaps you should consider.

Most current nutritional advice is driven by the avoidance of fat, particularly saturated fat, and therefore ends up being next to useless.  Calorie counting apps like MyFitnessPal does nothing but count calories, which is also of limited use.  Cron-o-meter tracks your micronutrients and can recommend foods to boost a single nutrient.  However, there doesn’t seem to be anything available that will tell you which foods will help you actually correct multiple deficiencies and  achieve a diet that is truly balanced in micronutrients.

The Nutrient Optimiser also allows you to tailor the approach to your goals, such as:  therapeutic ketosis, diabetes management, weight loss or just nutrient dense maintenance.  Food preferences like vegan, pescetarian, autoimmune, or paleo can be factored in to the recommended food lists.

At the moment, the process involves manually exporting food intake data from Cron-o-meter, then analysing it in a spreadsheet to manually generate a personalised report.  I am eager to do this as a proof-of-concept for a range of people with various goals (particularly therapeutic ketosis, vegetarian, zero carb, fruitarian) to demonstrate how it works.  So, if you’re happy to have your report shared publicly, and have a couple of weeks of Cron-o-meter data, feel free to send it to me and  have your data analysed.

In time, the plan is to automate the process via an online interface and then ideally an independent mobile app.    To keep up-to-date with progress, watch this space and check out the various analysed examples on the Marty Kendall’s Nutrient Optimiser Facebook page.

Epilogue…  limitations

For completeness, I thought it would be worth mentioning a few limitations relating to calculating nutrient density…

  1. Measuring foods in terms of calories has its own limitations as different macronutrients provide different amounts of energy (ATP) in different people. Some smart friends of mine are working on calculating ATP yield for different foods based on their macronutrient content.  I’ll happily update this analysis in terms of nutrients per ATP as soon as that data is available.  Initial indications are that people who are fat-adapted are able to use fat more efficiently (i.e. less entropy/losses in metabolism) and hence require less calories to yield the same amount of energy in the body (i.e. ATP).  Hence, it appears that it is even more important for someone following a low carb or ketogenic approach to maximise nutrient density in terms of nutrients per calorie.
  2. The official dietary reference values are based on limited research.[14] Typically, they relate to the minimum amount of a nutrient to avoid disease rather than the amount required for optimal function.  They may also vary by person (e.g. someone who is more active may need more protein) and by their diet type (e.g. someone who is on a low carb diet may need less vitamin C to process the limited amount of glucose).  Hence, I think the DRI values should be seen as a minimum.  Ideally, we want to get more than the minimum while not having to ingest too much energy.  I also don’t think nutrients are meant to come as individual vitamins and minerals in a bottle.  The nutrients required to metabolise a certain food typically come packaged in whole foods, and often work synergistically.  Taking supplements or fortifying foods will always be inferior to obtaining nutrients from whole foods.
  3. Species-specific bioavailability and anti-nutrients are contentious topics. Zero carbers will tell you that nutrients in animal based foods are more bioavailable than plant based foods, while the vegans will tell you the opposite.  To date, I haven’t been able to find useful data that would enable me to quantitatively refine the nutrient data in the USDA database regarding bioavailability.  All we currently have is a measure of the nutrients contained in the food– rather than the nutrients that make it into your body after digestion.  Again, if this data ever comes to hand, I’ll eagerly update the analysis.

Overall, I don’t think these limitations make a difference in the outcomes of the analysis.  This is not an exact science and the body doesn’t operation like a rigid machine.  Calculation of nutrient density is just a way to identify the foods that contain the most raw materials with the least amount of calories that your body can work with.

referecnes

[1] http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrient/en/

[2] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=gtQyAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA185&lpg=PA185&dq=%22nutrient+hunger%22&source=bl&ots=VMRQ8EbvHx&sig=l_xJEksBS538UX3QwQNxVJBXTLw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjRj6mSs5DSAhWKyLwKHXBQAjEQ6AEIKDAC#v=onepage&q=%22nutrient%20hunger%22&f=false

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Health-Diet-Regain-Weight/dp/1451699158

[4] https://www.amazon.com/Dorito-Effect-Surprising-Truth-Flavor/dp/1476724237

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

[6] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/361.full

[7] http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms14063

[8] https://www.amazon.com/Case-Against-Sugar-Gary-Taubes/dp/0307701646

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBnniua6-oM

[10] https://www.thepaleomom.com/adverse-reactions-to-ketogenic-diets-caution-advised/

[11] http://ketotalk.com/2016/06/23-responding-to-the-paleo-mom-dr-sarah-ballantynes-claims-against-the-ketogenic-diet/

[12] http://www.thelivinlowcarbshow.com/shownotes/10888/868-dr-sarah-ballantyne-challenges-the-wisdom-of-low-carb-diets-for-women-2/

[13] In terms of macronutrients this high fat dietary approach comes out at 80% fat, 15% protein, 2% fibre and 3% net carbs.

[14] http://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/nutrient/en/

analysis of what a nutritionist eats and hospital food

An article in Business Insider, A Nutritionist Shares Pictures of Everything She Eats in a Day, caught my eye recently.  I thought it would be interesting to run the numbers to see how the food diary logged by this nutritionist compared to the four hundred or so meals that I’ve analysed.

Check out the original article if you want to see the daily food log chronicled in photos by the popular and published “Registered Dietician”, who claims to specialise in diabetes and is “passionate about being a good role model.”[1]

The quantities and foods that I analysed in the recipe builder at SELFNutritionData are shown below.  Besides the fact that the only green things she ate during the day were M&M’s, the food log is not particularly divergent from mainstream dietary advice (i.e. no full-strength Coke or McDonald’s).  The nutritional analysis would be much worse if it was a diet full of junk food, which is pretty common for a lot of people these days in this fast-paced convenience-loving world.

image10

This dietician is a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  She has published books and written for several magazines.[2]  Like most nutritionists, she argues for less fat and more whole grains.[3]

image00

So, let’s see how her daily diet stacks up.  The analysis below shows that, when we compare this daily diet against mainstream dietary advice that nutritionists prescribe, it ticks the following boxes:

  1. avoids trans fats,
  2. is low in fat, and
  3. is low in cholesterol.

image05

However, even though the diet is fairly low in fat, it has 29g of saturated fat which is greater than the Heart Association’s recommendation for a maximum of 16g of saturated fat per day.[4]   Unfortunately, the recommended limit of saturated fat is actually quite hard to achieve without relying on low fat highly processed foods.

Ironically, due to the focus on avoiding fat and trying to incorporate more “heart healthy whole grains”, the food recommended by nutritionists ironically tends to be lacking in nutrients.  It makes no sense!

The registered nutritionist’s daily food log also contains more than 400 grams of carbohydrates which will be a massive challenge to someone who is insulin resistant, would likely generate insulin resistance and eventually diabetes in someone who isn’t there yet.

For comparison, check out the analysis shown below of one of my regular meals (stir-fry veggies with some butter and sardines) which has a much higher vitamin and mineral score (94 compared to 55) and better protein score (139 compared to 66).

image03

image18

When it comes to nutrient density and being diabetic friendly, this nutritionist’s daily food log ends up at the bottom of the pile of the four hundred meals that I’ve analysed!

It’s sad that this myopic one-size-fits-all dietary advice is forced on anyone who asks what they should be eating, or anyone whose food is influenced by government nutritional guidelines (e.g. hospitals, schools, jails, nursing homes etc).

Then we are told that dieticians are the only ones that are qualified to give dietary advice, even though the dietary advice that they give revolves around avoidance of saturated fat and more “heart healthy whole grains” and does not actually lead to high levels of micronutrition.

image12

Where it gets even sadder is that this sort of short sighted advice is also given to the people who are the most vulnerable.  The photo below is of Lucy Smith in hospital after being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  The diet given to her, as a newly diagnosed Type 1 Diabetic, is Weet-Bix, low fat milk, bananas, low fat toast, orange juice, and peaches.

image26

The analysis for Lucy’s hospital-provided breakfast is shown below.

image17

This single meal contains more than 200 grams of carbohydrates (82% of calories).  This breakfast would require a ton of insulin to be injected into her little body, and she would be on a blood glucose / insulin rollercoaster for days to come.

image16

When it comes to nutrient density, this meal has an even lower score than the day in the life of the nutritionist’s own diet discussed above!  Ironically, this hospital prescribed meal ranks at the very bottom of the list of four hundred meals when ranked to identify the best recipes for people with diabetes!

image14

Unfortunately, things don’t seem to have changed much from thirty years ago when my wife Monica was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  In hospital, after diagnosis, she was given so many carbs that she hid the food in pot plants in her hospital ward room because she just couldn’t eat anymore!  Twenty-five years later, she learned about the low carb dietary approach and she was finally able to reduce the high levels of insulin required to cover her food.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the massive improvements in quality of life (body composition, inflammation, energy levels, dental health etc) when someone comes off the blood glucose/insulin roller coaster!

Monica has been able to halve her daily insulin dose since no longer ascribing to the dietary advice she has been given by the dieticians and diabetes educators.  Her blood glucose levels are now better than ever and when she goes to the dentist, podiatrist and optometrist they tell her she’s doing great and they wouldn’t even know she’s diabetic.  And I get to have my wife around for an extra decade or two!

image04

By the way, Lucy is doing well now too.  Her parents are some of the most knowledgeable people I know when it comes to optimal foods for diabetics and monitoring blood glucose (as shown in this video from her father Paul).

My friend, Troy Stapleton, is another example of someone living with Type 1 Diabetes who has benefited immensely from a low carbohydrate dietary approach that aligns with his metabolic health.  His story and approach has been an inspiration to me.  You can also check out the Standing on the Shoulders of Giants article for a few more encouraging stories of people with Type 1 who got their life back after going against nutritionists orders.

As detailed in the article How to optimise your diet for your insulin resistance, if you have the luxury of being more metabolically healthy (i.e. not diabetic) you can focus on more nutrient dense foods or lower energy density if you’re looking to lose some weight.

image24

It amazes me that dieticians can be so militant and belligerent when they are largely passing on the recommendations of the US Department of AGRICULTURE (i.e. the USDA, also known as “Big Ag”), whose mission it is to promote the economic opportunity and production of AGRICULTURE[5] (i.e. grains and seed oils).  Talk about putting the fox in charge of the hen house!

image09

Speaking of conflicts of interest, it’s worth noting that major nutritionist organisations funding ‘partners’ are big food manufacturers.[6]  Does this influence the recommendations they give?  They claim not.

It’s hard to believe their published research or dietary recommendations could be impartial when so heavily sponsored by the food industry.

image06

Despite these conflicts of interest and a poor track record of success over the past four decades, I don’t think we should be gagging the Accredited Dietitians from publishing poor nutritional advice.  Everyone should be entitled to their freedom of speech and freedom to choose what they eat.

image23

What I do find ironic is that dieticians can bring spurious cases of malpractice against doctors to their governing bodies when they are acting in line with latest research and their personal, professional and clinical observations (e.g. Tim Noakes in South Africa and Gary Fettke in Australia).  At the same time, the Registered Dieticians have no governing body to report to, only their board of directors[7] and their ‘partners’.

image13

image07

While they purport to be protecting the public interest, one could be excused for thinking that the dieticians’ associations are another marketing arm for big food companies and are protecting commercial interest rather than acting on behalf of public health.

16864248_10158266373295383_2174911756581917873_n

Is it just a coincidence that Nestle’s Milo, which is half sugar, is prescribed by hospital dieticians for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers with diabetes?

image30

Unfortunately, the situation isn’t that much different with the diabetes associations.[8]  Why would these institutions ever make recommendations to their members that reduced the amount of medications they needed or reduce the amount of processed food when their financial partners are pharmaceutical companies who manufacture insulin and drugs for diabetes?

image01

What would happen to this financial structure if a significant amount of people started eating whole unprocessed food without a bar code?  The share price of these massive medical and pharmaceutical companies would tank!

image22

After battling cancer himself and studying the role of nutrition in metabolic and mitochondrial disease in depth, Gary Fettke now spends his days as an orthopaedic surgeon amputating limbs mainly due to the complications of diabetes.

No, it’s not pretty, but unfortunately it’s very very real.

image19

Each year Gary volunteers as an orthopaedic surgeon in Vanuatu.[9] [10]  The contrast between the native people living in their natural environment, eating their native foods, and their relatives in town, eating processed foods, is stark.

I took this photo in a traditional village during our holiday in Vanuatu a couple of years ago.  These people eat lots of coconuts (which contains plenty of saturated fat, one of the remaining nutrients that Registered Dieticians still say we should avoid) and fish. These Vanuatu natives are some of the most beautiful, healthiest and happiest people I have ever seen!

image11

Unfortunately, in the capital Port Vila, it’s not so pretty.  The diabetes rates are the third highest in the world.  One in fifty Vanuatu natives have had an amputation!

It is such a big problem. Their diet has changed quite rapidly over the years, so instead of eating their island’s food, they now eat very large quantities of white rice and of course all the liquid sugar, like Coca-Cola and Fanta, and it’s literally killing them.[11]

After seeing the impact of diet, Gary has been outspoken in Australia, bringing attention to the quality of food that people are eating, especially in hospitals.[12]

image27

Gary and his Nutrition for Life Centre also worked with Chef Pete Evans on the “Saving Australia Diet” on national TV with great results achieved.[13]

image20

Then, in return for his efforts, Gary has been reported by the certified dieticians to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency; and he has been told he can no longer tell his patients to limit sugar even if they have just had their leg amputated due to the complications of diabetes.

Similarly, Tim Noakes has developed a massive following after realising that he needed to go against his own previous publications and advice, when he found he was developing diabetes. The recipe book that he helped write, The Real Meal Revolution, is filled with nutrient dense low carb meals that help people with diabetes achieve normal blood glucose levels, has been massively popular.

image21

Despite his impressive track record of real results, which goes against the general trend of the explosion of diabetes and obesity in western society, Professor Noakes has been reported to the Health Professionals Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and charged with unprofessional conduct, after suggesting that a mother wean her baby on to whole foods rather than processed “baby food”.

image15

This has led to a long and expensive court case which really appears to be more about maintaining the status quo on the supermarket shelves rather than public health.[14]

I think most nutritionists believe that they are doing the right thing by advising their clients to prioritise the avoidance of fat, cholesterol and saturated fat, and eat “heart healthy whole grains”.  However, the foundation of this advice seems to be crumbling from underneath them with the most recent updates to the US Dietary Guidelines that now remove the upper limit on fat and removing cholesterol a nutrient of concern.[15] [16]

However, if we have to rely on Big Food to provide processed food products to achieve the reduced saturated fat aspirations of the dietary guidelines (and in so doing produce very otherwise nutrient poor foods), then perhaps we need to declare them broken and look for new ones?

image02

Makes you wonder how we survived (let alone thrived) with the food that were available to us before the highly-processed foods and the low fat dietary guidelines that came to dominate our food choices in the 1970s.

Unfortunately though, fear of saturated fat still dominates the majority of mainstream dietary recommendations out there and leads to nonsensical food rankings that only suit the grain based food industry.[17] [18]

For example, the simplistic Australian Health Star Rating is based on the energy, saturated fat, sodium, sugar content along with the amount of fruits and vegetables in a product.[19]  This avoidance-based process gives little consideration for the amount of essential nutrients in a product, regardless of where they came from, and hence often returns nonsensical results.

image29

It’s hard to tell whether the attacks on people like Fettke and Noakes are motivated by:

  1. Well-meaning nutritionists who earnestly believe that higher levels of fat and a lack of “heart healthy whole grains” is going to harm people,
  2. Nutritional institutions sensing that they are becoming irrelevant and making a last-ditch attack at their adversaries in an effort to hold onto their jobs,
  3. Processed food manufacturers (i.e. big food) using their “partner organisations” to attack these outspoken thought leaders so they can maintain their strangle hold on nutritional advice that suits them and sells more of their product (i.e. it’s not a conspiracy, it’s just business), or
  4. Some combination of each of these options.

To cut through the confusion and conflicts of interest, wouldn’t it be great if there was an unbiased quantitative way to judge whether a particular food or meal was optimal based its nutrient density?  Perhaps we could even tailor food choices based on blood glucose and metabolic health (i.e. using insulin load), or by manipulating energy density of someone who is insulin sensitive but just needs to lose weight.

If you’ve been following this blog, you may have seen the optimal food lists tailored to specific goals.  To this end, I have devised a system to identify foods for different goals and situations. The table below will help you choose your ideal dietary approach and optimal foods based on your blood glucose levels and waist to height ratio.

approach average glucose waist : height
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
therapeutic ketosis > 140 > 7.8
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 > 0.5
weight loss (insulin sensitive) < 97 < 5.4 > 0.5
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5

The first step in improving your nutrition is to minimize processed food that is laced with sugar.  These food lists can help you further optimise your food choices to suit your goals whether they be blood glucose management, weight loss or just maintaining optimal health.

Once you normalise your blood glucose levels, you can then start to focus more on nutrient density.  If you still have weight to lose, then you can focus on foods with a lower energy density to force more energy to come from your body while still maximising nutrition.   You can also find the highest ranking of the four hundred meals that I have analysed listed here.

Several people recently have suggested that I turn the nutrient density ranking system into a mobile app for easy implementation of the ideas and theories outlined on the blog in the real word.

So, my current project is to develop a Nutrient Optimiser that would rank the foods you have eaten based on your current goals (e.g. therapeutic ketosis, diabetes management, weight loss or maximising nutrient density) and recommend new foods to try.  The Nutrient Optimiser would progressively retrain your eating patterns towards ideal by helping you to maximise the more optimal foods, and progressively eliminate the foods that don’t align with your goals.   Whether you are trying to eat less Maccas, or you are practicing Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition (CRON) and trying to live to 120, the Nutrient Optimiser would push you forward to truly optimise your nutrition.

The idea is not to simply create another calorie counting app.  There are plenty of those out there already.  Rather, the Nutrient Optimiser will help you to maximise nutrient density as much as you can, while catering to your other goals.

Rather than being centred on outdated “science” and avoiding boogeymen such as cholesterol, fat and saturated fat, or serving the interest of “financial partners” (e.g. BigFood and BigPharma), the Nutrient Optimiser uses a quantitative algorithm that will help you maximise the nutritional value of the food you eat.

The Nutrient Optimiser, based on the foods logged in the past few weeks, helps you to identify foods that would provide the nutrients that you haven’t been getting as much of.  Rather than just tracking calories, the app will continually adapt to what you eat, ensure that you are getting a broad range of foods that contain the nutrients you need, and ensure you don’t get stuck in a nutritional rut.

For people just starting out, it will help them gently move forward, without the judgement of someone looking over their shoulder.  It will suggest foods they should buy more of, new foods to try, and maybe which foods they should bin and never buy again.

For people who are truly wanting optimal nutrition, it will hopefully be the ultimate tool to continue to refine their food choices to maximise nutrient density while optimising blood glucose, insulin and body fat levels.

As you continue to log your weight, blood glucose levels and whatever other metrics you want to track, the app will progressively prompt you to “level up” to a more optimal nutritional approach.  Then, with your nutritional deficiencies filled, the cravings will dissipate and you will naturally be satisfied with less food.[20] [21]

If something like this is of interest to you and you want to be an early adopter or just check it out the nutritional analysis of other people food logs that have been done so far then then take a look at the Nutrient Optimiser Facebook page and to stay posted as things develop.

references

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Ruth-Frechman/e/B007HDN5IW

[2] http://www.ruthfrechman.com/Meet_Ruth.html

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LAugDpr16Jg

[4] http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/PreventionTreatmentofHighCholesterol/Know-Your-Fats_UCM_305628_Article.jsp#

[5] https://www.usda.gov/documents/usda-strategic-plan-fy-2014-2018.pdf

[6] http://daa.asn.au/advertising-corporate-partners/program-partners/

[7] http://daa.asn.au/?page_id=136

[8] https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/corporate-partners

[9] http://www.hopeforhealthvanuatu.com/volunteers/

[10] https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=857965770964542&id=393958287365295

[11] http://www.radionz.co.nz/international/programmes/datelinepacific/audio/201818486/hope-given-to-amputees-in-vanuatu

[12] http://www.nofructose.com/2014/12/19/hospital-food-is-crap-and-its-killing-my-patients-and-what-to-do-about-it/

[13] https://au.news.yahoo.com/sunday-night/features/a/31538041/the-saving-australia-diet/#page1

[14] http://foodmed.net/tag/tim-noakes/

[15] http://time.com/3705734/cholesterol-dietary-guidelines/

[16] https://therussells.crossfit.com/2017/01/05/big-food-vs-tim-noakes-the-final-crusade/

[17] http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/Content/How-to-use-health-stars

[18] http://www.nuval.com/

[19] http://healthstarrating.gov.au/internet/healthstarrating/publishing.nsf/Content/excel-calculator

[20] http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=12632

[21] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2988700/

how to get more of the harder to find micronutrients per calorie

There’s a lot of talk about “nutrient density” and “superfoods”, but what do these terms really mean?  Which foods actually give the most nutritional bang for your calorie buck?  That is, which foods provide the most nutrients for the least number of calories?

Some approaches to quantifying nutrient density (e.g. Joel Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) have looked at vitamins and minerals (along with other parameters that are only available for fruits and vegetables) per calorie, but do not consider essential fatty acids and amino acids.

Meanwhile, Registered Dietitians’ recommendations and mainstream food ranking approaches revolve around avoiding nutrients such as saturated fat, cholesterol and salt.  Unfortunately, this avoidance based approach to ranking foods does nothing to increase beneficial nutrients.

Avoidance of these demonised food elements typically ends up ignoring the whole unprocessed foods that contain the most nutrients.  Instead, current ranking systems encourage prioritisation of processed foods that have been manufactured to be low in fat, saturated fat, salt or cholesterol.

2017-02-14.png

The resultant fat-free manufactured products are so nutrient poor that they must be fortified with a smattering of synthetic vitamins to prevent the malnutrition that would otherwise occur.  Food manufacturers also add sugar and synthetic flavours to make them palatable.  After a few decades, food scientists have now learned to optimise sweetness to target “bliss point”[1] which continues to drive upwards in sweetness.[2]

sugargraph_custom-9b4b159cf8de858ae0b5715776a3981c57a91989-s900-c85

With synthetic flavourings, we can make hyperpalatable food stuffs that taste so much more intense than real foods that are found in nature.  After a generation or two of fake food we have forgotten what real food, in its natural form, tastes or even looks like.  Unfortunately, at the same time our food production is becoming more reliant on fertilisers to grow crops bigger and faster but the end result is food that doesn’t naturally taste as good as they used to because they don’t contain the same number of nutrients.  Our senses of taste and smell don’t have a chance of being able to find real nutrients amongst the plethora of super sweet and unnaturally flavoured foods.   This industrialized chemical storm also taxes your liver, kidneys, and digestive system and encourages disease instead of leading to health.

image08

So, if we can’t trust our senses anymore to find the nutrients we need what can we do?

As much as food technology has got us into this mess, the good news is that by quantifying nutrient density we can identify the foods that contain the most nutrients.  Then after a period without the distraction of sweeteners and artificial flavours and we can re-learn trust our tongue, nose, appetite and cravings to find the real nutrients that our body need.

The chart below shows the nutrients contained in the eight thousand foods in the USDA database per 2000 calories.  While it’s easy to get the minimum levels of iron, vitamin C and several the amino acids (at the bottom of the chart), it’s harder to obtain adequate quantities of omega 3 fatty acids, vitamin D, choline, vitamin E and potassium (shown at the top of the list).

image12

Rather than trying to get more of all the essential micronutrients, we can prioritise the following nutrients that are harder to find:

  • alpha-Linolenic acid (Omega 3 fatty acids)
  • Vitamin D
  • Choline
  • Vitamin E
  • EPA + DHA (Omega 3 fatty acids)
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Tyrosine
  • Thiamin
  • Zinc

The chart below lists the nutrients provided by the average of all food in the USDA database (orange bars) compared to the nutrients provided by the most nutrient dense foods (blue bars).  But focusing on the most nutrient dense foods, not only do we get more of the harder-to-find nutrients, we also improve the quantity of all the essential nutrients!

image13

Macronutrient split

The chart below shows a comparison of the macronutrients in the most nutrient dense foods compared to the average of all foods in the USDA database.  Although we have prioritised for only one amino acid (Tyrosine), it appears that the food that contain the most essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals are also higher in protein.

image05

The quantity of fibre also increases substantially.  Nutrient dense vegetables come with large amounts of fibre which makes these foods more filling and harder to overeat.

The most nutrient dense foods also have a much lower energy density.  This makes these nutrient dense foods harder to overeat.  As well as feeling physically full, your body is likely to feel satiated once it has obtained the nutrients it needs.[3] [4]

Notice the proportion of fat and non-fibre carbohydrates are lower in the most nutrient dense foods.  In a way, I think we need to consider foods as nutrients and fuel separately.  The initial goal is to eat the foods that contain the nutrients to live an awesome life and support your bodily functions.  The secondary goal is to get enough fuel from higher energy density foods to support your activity and maintain ideal body fat.  Too often we sacrifice essential nutrients and nutrient density and instead choose irresistibly tasty and high calorie food products for a “quick rush”.

The most nutrient dense foods

The most nutrient dense foods (i.e. the top 10% of the eight thousand foods in the USDA database) are listed below along with their nutrient density scores (ND) which is based on the harder to find nutrients.

If you’re interested in all the gory details of the nutrient density score is calculated you can check out the Building a Better Nutrient Density Index article.  But in short the system compared the nutrients per calorie across all the foods in the USDA database.  A score is given based on the standard deviation from the mean.  If a certain food contains a lot of a certain nutrient it gets a large score.  If it contains an average amount of a certain nutrient it gets a zero score.  If it contains a little bit or none it gets a negative score.  We then sum all these individual nutrients scores for the nutrients that are harder to find that we want to emphasise.

If you want to check whether a particular food is nutrient dense I recommend Googling “nutrient data self [insert your favourite food here]” to see how it ranks.  For example, the image below shows that spinach does exceptionally well in both the nutrient balance (vitamins and minerals) and protein quality score.

image11

 

Vegetables

image01

Fibrous green vegetables are the highest-ranking nutrient dense foods.  Few people argue with the idea that veggies are good for you.  The nutrient density analysis confirms this.

food ND
watercress 16
endive 16
spinach 16
broccoli 13
escarole 13
asparagus 13
chicory greens 13
coriander 13
parsley 13
okra 12
lettuce 12
arugula 12
zucchini 12
brown mushrooms 12
Chinese cabbage 12
beet greens 11
seaweed 11
chard 11
chives 10
dandelion greens 10
cauliflower 10
turnip greens 10
celery 10
summer squash 10
yeast extract spread 10
alfalfa 9
radicchio 9
spirulina 9
white mushroom 9
pickles 8
cucumber 8
cabbage 8
mung beans 8
portabella mushrooms 8
mustard greens 8
collards 8
edamame 8
shiitake mushroom 8
snap beans 8
peas 8
artichokes 7
banana pepper 7
onions 7
soybeans (sprouted) 7
radishes 7
sauerkraut 7
pumpkin 7
kale 6
red peppers 6
butternut squash 6
Brussel sprouts 6
shiitake mushrooms 6
chayote 6
eggplant 6
jalapeno peppers 6
bamboo shoots 6
winter squash 5
turnips 5
rhubarb 5

Herbs and spices

image04

Spices add flavour and nutrients and plenty of vitamins and minerals.

food ND
basil 14
dill 9
paprika 7
cloves 6
thyme 6
sage 6
curry powder 5
marjoram 5
tarragon 4
pepper 3

Seafood

image03

Seafood provides amino acids as well as Omega 3 fatty acids which are harder to get from other foods.

food ND
crab 12
lobster 11
fish roe 10
oyster 9
crayfish 9
caviar 8
salmon 8
cod 8
trout 8
halibut 8
pollock 8
rockfish 7
sturgeon 7
shrimp 7
white fish 7
flounder 7
octopus 7
haddock 6
perch 6
whiting 6
anchovy 6
clam 6
sardine 5
scallop 5
tuna 5

Dairy and eggs

image14

Only low fat cream cheese makes the list in terms of nutrients per calorie as other dairy products typically have more fat and not as many essential nutrients per calorie.

It’s true that eggs are a nutritional powerhouse of vitamins, minerals and protein.  However, when it comes to the harder to find nutrients per calorie non-starchy veggies still win out.

It’s a similar story for nuts which don’t make the list.  Full fat dairy and nuts can be a great source of energy and nutrition, particularly if you are insulin resistant or have diabetes, but if you’re just looking to maximise the harder to find nutrients per calorie the list of dairy and nuts isn’t that long.

food ND
cream cheese (fat free) 8
whole egg 6
egg yolk 5
cottage cheese (low fat) 4
egg white 2

Animal products

image06

Organ meats do well as well.

food ND
turkey liver 9
veal liver 9
chicken liver 8
lamb liver 8
lamb kidney 7
ham (lean only) 6
pork liver 6
chicken breast 5
pork chop 5
turkey drumstick 4
turkey meat 4
lamb heart 4
leg ham 4
chicken liver pate 4
pork shoulder 4
veal 4

Pros and cons of nutrient density

The most obvious benefits of eating the most nutrient dense foods are that they:

  • provide the most essential nutrients with the fewest calories,
  • assist to normalize body weight (both lean tissue and body fat),
  • minimise cravings and the binge eating relating to nutrient hunger[5],
  • provide the nutrients your body needs to thrive and optimise mitochondrial health, and
  • help achieve and maintain overall good health.

Maintaining a healthy weight with adequate protein and while avoiding excess energy intake will help you to avoid a lot of the diseases of aging.  These foods will also be quite filling and hard to overeat due to the low energy density and high fibre content.

At the same time, it will be hard to get enough energy if you just ate from the foods in this list.   If you are very active you will also find it hard to in down enough energy for a lot of intense activity.   If you are insulin resistant you may want to start out with higher fat foods that will still provide plenty of energy without raising causing blood sugar swings.

Nutrient density plus…

Eating exclusively from the list of the most nutrient dense foods may not be appropriate for everyone, particularly if you are just starting out on your health food journey.  The table below lists several nutritional approaches that are suitable for different people depending on their blood glucose levels / insulin resistance and weight goals.

approach average glucose waist : height
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
therapeutic ketosis > 140 > 7.8
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 > 0.5
weight loss (insulin sensitive) < 97 < 5.4 > 0.5
bulking < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5

Getting even more personal

If you’re interested in optimising your diet for nutrient density as well as tailoring it to your blood glucose and weight loss goals I would love you to check out an a new tool I’ve been developing, the Nutrient Optimiser.  It will review your food log and, rather than just tracking calories it will identify your biggest nutrient deficiencies and the most nutrient dense foods to fix them.  You can also tailor the insulin load of the food recommendations to help normalize blood sugars and then energy density if you still have weight to lose.  It’s still early days, but the future looks very exciting!

references

[1] https://www.amazon.com/Dorito-Effect-Surprising-Truth-Flavor/dp/1476724237

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html

[3] http://sydney.edu.au/science/outreach/inspiring/news/cpc.shtml

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2988700/

[5] https://books.google.com.au/books?id=gtQyAgAAQBAJ&pg=PA185&lpg=PA185&dq=%22nutrient+hunger%22&source=bl&ots=VMRPgGgALA&sig=bCs4K5AKbQdQadtSfIniBizMsQA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjL7d2eqYvSAhWRq5QKHaAjA9AQ6AEIJjAC#v=onepage&q=%22nutrient%20hunger%22&f=false

sardines, spinach, eggs and avocado

My dad has been working hard to craft nutrient dense moderate protein meals.  For a while he was pursuing ketosis with a higher amount of dietary fat and his Bulletproof teas with extra butter after I introduced him to Dave Asprey’s version of “intermittent fasting” .

After an initial period of success  he found he was putting on weight, becoming inflamed and his blood glucose levels were starting to drift back up.

He then started to go for a slightly higher amount of protein in line with the concepts described in Volek and Phinney’s four phases of a ketogenic diet chart.  That is, during weight loss some of the fat being burned each day should come from body fat.  Hence his meals needed to focus on getting adequate protein to support muscle maintenance and obtain other necessary nutrients, while significantly reducing dietary fat.

Once he did this he started losing weight and his ketones actually increased due to the body fat being burned.  With adequate protein in place he then dialed down the dietary fat to the place that still comfortably satisfied hunger.  From there he had some great results in terms of weight loss.

p1090716

This meal of sardines, eggs, spinach, garlic, broccoli sprouts, avocado, goat cheese and a few walnuts is an example of one of those meals.  The details are shown in the analysis below.  As you can see it does well in terms of both the vitamins and minerals and the protein score.  While there is not a lot of added fat in this meal (butter used for cooking) there is still 65% fat from whole foods.

2016-11-19-12

The table below shows the nutritional data per 500 calorie serving.

net carbs Insulin load carb insulin fat protein fibre
4g 23g 16% 65% 35g 5g

stir fry veggies with sardines

This is a simple  breakfast we’ve been doing at our place lately.

For an speedy pre-work breakfast we buy the veggies pre-chopped from Coles (in a bag) and throw them in the fry pan with some butter.

img_7331-1

For some extra protein and nutrients open a can of sardines when the veggies are done.

2016-11-14-07-05-19

As you can see below, the vitamin and mineral score very well and the protein score is great too!

2016-11-19-7

The veggies contain some carbs, but not a lot of net carbs once you account for the fibre.  This meal has a nice gentle response on Moni’s (my wife who has Type 1 diabetes) blood glucose levels too.

If you were looking for a more ketogenic approach you could add some more butter in the cooking.  If you were looking to lose weight you could add a bit less.

This recipe comes in at:

The table below shows the nutritional data per 500 calorie serving.

net carbs insulin load carb insulin fat protein fibre
8g 29g 26% 54% 39g 11g

Some other variations on the theme include, veggies with canned salmon and cottage cheese.

img_7431

2016-11-19-9

Or just straight with the almonds, no fish.

 

Moni enjoys this if she’s sick of diary and eggs.

2016-11-19-10

The table below shows the nutritional data per 500 calorie serving.

net carbs insulin load carb insulin fat protein fibre
12g 22g 55% 65% 18g 14g

how optimize your diet for your insulin resistance

Lately I’ve seen a number of common themes come up at low carb conferences and online.  The contentious questions tend to run along the lines of:

  1. I did really well on a low carb diet initially, but my fat loss seems to have stalled. What gives?  What should I do now?
  2. If protein is insulinogenic should I actively avoid protein as well as carbs if my goal is to reduce insulin because low insulin = weight loss?
  3. If eating more fat helped kick start my weight loss journey, then why does eating more fat seem to make me gain weight now?

This article outlines some quantitative parameters around these contentious questions and helps you chose the most appropriate nutritional approach.

The importance of monitoring blood glucose levels

Coming from a diabetes headspace, I’ve seen firsthand the power of a low carb diet in reducing blood glucose and insulin levels.  As a Type 1 Diabetic, my wife Moni has been above to halve her insulin dose with a massive improvement in energy levels, body composition and mood.

If your blood glucose levels are high, then chances are your insulin levels are also high.  Insulin is the hormonal “switch” that causes us to store excess energy as body fat in times of plenty.[1]  Lower levels of insulin in times of food scarcity then enable us to access to the stored energy on our body.[2]

image13

You can actively manage the fat storing potential of your diet by managing the insulin load of the food you eat.

The chart below shows that our glucose response is fairly well predicted by the carbohydrates we eat.  (note: The “glucose score” is the area under the curve of glucose response to various foods tested over the three hours relative to glucose which gets a score of 100%.) [3] [4]

image19

Having high blood glucose levels is bad news.[5]  The chart below shows the correlation between HbA1c (a measure of your average glucose levels over three months) and the diseases that will kill most of us, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke.[6]  It makes a lot of sense to do whatever it takes to reduce our blood glucose to the levels of a metabolically healthy person to postpone the major diseases of aging.

image03

Optimal ketone levels

Ketones in our blood rise when our insulin levels are low.[7]  As shown in the chart below, even better than carbohydrates, insulin levels are better predicted by the net carbohydrates plus about half the protein we eat.[8] [9]

image21

You may have seen this ‘optimal ketone zone’ chart from Volek and Phinney’s ‘Art and Science of Low Carb Living’.

image18

The problem however with this chart is that it is difficult for most people to achieve “optimal ketone levels” (i.e. 1.5 to 3.0mmol/L) without fasting for a number of days or making a special effort to eat a lot of additional dietary fat (which may be counterproductive in the long run if you’re trying to lose weight).

image26

Recently I had the privilege of having Steve Phinney stay at our house when he spoke at a Low Carb Down Under event in Brisbane (btw, he’s also a passionate cook if you let him lose in the kitchen).  I quizzed Steve about the background to his optimal ketosis chart.  He said it was based on two studies, one with cyclists who the adapted to ketosis over a period of six weeks and another ketogenic weight loss study.  In both cases these ‘optimal ketone levels’ (i.e. between 1.5 to 3.0mmol/L) were observed in people who were transitioning into a state of nutritional ketosis.

2016-11-15-10-58-17

Since the publication of this chart in the Art and Science books, Phinney has noted that well trained athletes who are long term fat adapted (e.g. the low carb athletes in the FASTER study[10]) actually show lower levels of ketones than might be expected.  It appears that over time many people, particularly athletes, move beyond simple keto adaption and are able to utilise fat as fuel even more efficiently and their ketone levels reduce further.

Metabolically flexible people are able to access and burn fat efficiently and hence only release free fatty acids or ketones into the bloodstream when they need the energy.  If you’re metabolically healthy and can call on your fat stores as required there’s no need to be walking around with super high levels of glucose or ketones.

image06

If you’ve been following a ketogenic diet for a while and / or are metabolically healthy then your ketone levels may not be as high as you might expect from looking at Volek and Phinney’s “optimal ketone zone” chart.

And as discussed in my Alkaline Diet vs Acidic Ketones article, higher ketone levels could even be an indication that you have some level of metabolic acidosis.  People with untreated Type 1 Diabetes have very high ketone as well as blood glucose levels at the same time (i.e. ketoacidosis).

Phinney says he does not condone the “adolescent behaviour” of competing to see how high you can get your ketone levels and warns that you can risk loss of lean body mass by chasing high ketone levels with an inappropriately low insulin load approach (i.e. very low carb and very low protein).[11]

People with higher NAD+ levels (an important coenzyme which declines with aging[12]) and lower NADH levels are more likely to produce more breath acetone (which can be measured with the Ketonix) and less BHB ketones in the blood.   Hence, higher consistent levels of breath acetone may be a more useful indication than blood ketones that you are burning fat rather than just eating fat.[13]

image27

“The ratio of β-OHB to AcAc depends on the NADH/NAD+ ratio inside mitochondria; if NADH concentration is high, the liver releases a higher proportion of β-OHB.”[14]

While I think it’s good to have some ketones in the blood as an indication that your insulin levels aren’t too high, it can be hard to interpret what high or low level of blood ketones mean.

As noted in Peter Attia’s Fat Flux article, the BHB ketones you measure in your blood is a function of:

  • the dietary fat that you’re eating,
  • plus the fat being liberated from your body fat (lipolysis),
  • minus the BHB being used by your muscles, heart and brain.

High blood ketones could mean that your insulin levels are low and your level of lipolysis is high (i.e. lots of fat is being released from your body).  In this case, high ketones are an indicator of metabolic health and may facilitate healthy appetite regulation and enable you to burn your stored body fat.

However, high blood ketone levels could also mean that you are eating a lot of dietary fat (or consuming a lot exogenous ketones) and your body isn’t well adapted to using ketones for fuel and hence unused ketones are building up in your blood stream.  If this is the case, then loading up with more dietary fat in the pursuit of higher ketone levels may cause you to become more insulin resistant and inflamed as your ketone levels rise but the fat is not yet able to be efficiently oxidised for fuel.

The plot below shows a compilation of glucose and ketone values from a range of people following a low carb or “ketogenic” diet.  It seems that the most metabolically healthy people have low blood glucose levels and moderate ketones at rest, however they can easily access plenty of glucose and fat from the body when required.

image28

It makes sense to me from an evolutionary perspective that someone who is healthy would be able to conserve energy when not active (i.e. hiding in a cave) but then be able to quickly access stored energy when required (i.e. when being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger).  The body doesn’t always need super high blood ketone levels and hence we secrete insulin to remove both glucose and ketones back into storage.

image16

The exception to this seems to be in periods of extended fasting when the body is on high alert and we are in a super-fuelled state ready to chase down some food at a moment’s notice.

So, unless you’re fasting or exercising intensely, it seems that having a lower total energy (i.e. blood glucose plus blood ketones) might be a better place to be rather than having super high ketone levels.

There is also interesting emerging research suggesting that as we become more fat adapted we can obtain more fuel from fat and hence do not need to rely on ketones which are more of an emergency fuel source during starvation.  It’s as if, just like in time we no longer measure high ketones in the urine as we utilise them better, we also start to show less ketones in the blood.  Quoting my friend Mike Julian:

I think we become less ketogenic with further adaptation simply because as we improve our ability to utilize the fat we create spin off glucose from both glycerol and acetone that goes to restore beta oxidation of fatty acids.

The spin of glucose provides oxaloacetate and restores Krebs function in the liver and reduces ketogenesis in favour of complete oxidation of acetyl-CoA. In short, ketogenesis is a transitional state, not the end goal.

Ketones will be lower if you’re fit.  Even Phinney has said that very adapted individuals are in ketosis starting at 0.3mmol.  Look at how robust the GNG is in the low carb guys in the FASTER study. It is a direct result of the nearly doubled rate of fat oxidation.

All of the glycerol when fat is oxidised has to go somewhere and it is used to make glucose. This glucose is then used to restore the Krebs cycle which means that the can make even better use of fat etc, but reduces GNG via traditional means and in turn reduces ketogenesis.

It’s a system that feeds into itself.  The better fat burner you are, the more glucose you make from fat, the better you are at fat burning and so on.

As we get better at fat utilisation we also get better at deriving glucose from fat metabolism. This source of glucose reduces the need for ketogenesis.[15] [16]

So overall, measuring blood ketones is intriguing, but not always the most reliable measure of where your metabolic health status.  Moreover, eating more dietary fat in an effort to raise your blood ketone levels is no guarantee that you’re going to lose body fat.[17]

image24

You may be “ketogenic” in that you are able to generate ketones, though they may not necessarily show up in high levels in the blood if you are also athletic and able to use your blood glucose and ketones effectively for energy.

The relationship between ketones and glucose

The chart below shows the generalised relationship between blood glucose and blood ketones for different people with:

  • Type 2 Diabetes,
  • Pre-diabetes,
  • Mild insulin resistance, and
  • someone who is metabolically healthy.

(note: Someone with uncontrolled Type 1 Diabetes would be literally ‘off the chart’ with high blood glucose and high blood ketones.)

image02

The table below shows the HbA1c incident rates for cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart disease from the chart above to average blood glucose levels and the corresponding ketone levels and glucose : ketone index values.   This gives us a useful understanding of what different HbA1c risk levels look like in terms of average blood glucose levels, ketones and the glucose : ketone index.

metabolic health level HbA1c average blood glucose ketones GKI
 (%)  (mmol/L)  (mg/dL)  (mmol/L)
low normal 4.1 3.9 70 2.1 1.9
optimal 4.5 4.6 83 1.3 3.5
excellent < 5.0 < 5.4 < 97 > 0.5 11
good < 5.4 < 6 < 108 < 0.3 30
danger zone > 6.5 7.8 > 140 < 0.3 39

While it can be interesting to measure ketones, as a general rule, if you have consistently high blood glucose levels you are likely to be insulin resistant and hence will benefit from a higher fat dietary approach.

If you have high insulin and glucose levels, when transitioning to a high fat diet your glucose and insulin levels will likely plummet to be closer to the levels of a metabolically healthy person and suddenly you will be able to access your body fat stores for fuel.  You might quickly find yourself losing weight like it was magic and you’ll think the keto diet is the best thing ever!  Amazingly, lots of people find that they can “eat fat to satiety” and still lose weight (at least during this initial stage).

For the last four decades we’ve been told to avoid fat, particularly saturated fat.  Imagine the excitement, enthusiasm, and maybe even anger, when someone who has been avoiding fat finds that they suddenly start losing weight when the do the opposite to what they’ve been told to do!

But it works until it doesn’t

The problem with adding more dietary fat is that it works until it doesn’t.

Let’s say (based on the levels of metabolic health in the table above) you are able to successfully “level up” from the “danger zone” though “good” blood glucose control to “excellent” blood glucose levels with a high fat dietary approach, but then your weight loss slows and then stops well short of your optimal body fat levels.

What gives?

What do you do now?

Do you listen to the people who say you should eat more fat or the people who say you should eat less fat?

It can be confusing on the interwebs!

I think the answer depends largely on whether you are insulin resistant or insulin sensitive.  You should ‘level up’ to the most nutrient dense nutritional approach that your current level of insulin sensitivity allows.

It’s worth noting that while many people can achieve ‘excellent’ blood glucose levels through dietary manipulation, the people that I’ve seen get to truly optimal blood glucose control tend to be working hard with both their nutrition and training to maximise their lean body mass.

What is insulin resistance anyway?

In order to understand what we need to do when we stop losing weight on keto I think it’s important to understand what causes insulin resistance.

Many people think that people who are fat are simply insulin resistant.  This is partly true.   However, while insulin resistance and obesity are related, it’s not quite that simple.  It’s useful to understand the difference.

image00

A metabolically flexible insulin sensitive person stores excess energy eaten for later use in the fat stores on the body (i.e. adipose tissue).  When they stop eating, someone who is insulin sensitive will experience a drop in blood glucose and insulin levels and stored body fat will be released.   For the lucky people who are insulin sensitive, calories in calories out (CICO) largely works as advertised.  They find it difficult to depart far from a healthy set point weight without a change in diet quality or insulin load.

image22

However, as we keep eating more and more low nutrient density foods to obtain the micronutrients we need, we get to a point where the adipose tissue can no longer hold all that excess energy and starts to channel it into the organs because the fat stores are full.

The body knows that this isn’t such a great idea though because our vital organs are, well, vital, so the body becomes insulin resistant as a defence mechanism to avoid damage to vital organs, and hence the levels of sugar in our blood rise to avoid storing the extra energy in the organs.   The body even starts dumping the excess sugar into the urine to avoid having to pump it into the liver, pancreas, eyes and brain.

image29

The a of the major problems with insulin resistance is appetite dysregulation.  That is, when you are insulin resistant your insulin levels stay higher for longer which then makes it harder for you to access your body fat for fuel between meals.   As shown in this chart, if your blood glucose levels are high the release of fat from your body (ketones) will be low, ghrelin will kick in[18], and it will be hard to go very long without food.  Your appetite will be more likely to win out over your willpower and thus make it hard to lose weight if your insulin levels are high.

image02

Eating “low carb” or “keto” enables us to lower insulin levels to the point that our appetite works more in line with the way it’s meant to when we were metabolically healthy / insulin sensitive / metabolically flexible.  Our appetite drives us to seek out nutrients and energy when required and stop when we have had enough.   (note: keep in mind though that lower insulin levels are due to eating a lower dietary insulin load, not necessarily due to more dietary fat.)

Once our appetite is restored and we can more easily access our own body fat I think we need to change focus, especially if adding more fat isn’t moving you toward your weight loss goals.

Be a nutrient chaser

Once your blood glucose levels are normalised but you’re stuck on a plateau and not sure where to turn I think it’s a good idea to turn your focus to chasing nutrients rather than ketones or even worrying about blood glucose levels quite so much.

image30

As your blood glucose and insulin levels decrease, you should be able to release more body fat stores and hence have less need for dietary fat.  When we focus on balancing micronutrients macronutrients largely look after themselves.

image01

As well as adequate energy, the body works hard to make sure it gets the nutrients it needs to thrive.  The vitamins and minerals that come with whole foods are like the spark that ignites the fuel they contain.[19]  We always get ourselves into trouble when we separate nutrients from energy.  While refined sugars and grains are particularly problematic because they spike insulin, neither refined sugars or purified fats contain the same level of nutrients necessary to power our mitochondria that whole foods do.

The problem comes when we eat nutrient poor foods.  We are left with a residual need for nutrients that are required to convert our food into energy (ATP).  Our appetite will drive us to seek out more food to obtain the required nutrients.

“Added sugars displace nutritionally superior foods from the diet and at the same time increase nutritional requirements. Specifically, vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin and niacin are necessary for the oxidation of glucose, and phosphates are stripped from ATP in order to metabolise fructose, which leads to cellular ATP depletion. The metabolism of fructose also leads to oxidative stress, inflammation and damage to the mitochondria, causing a state of ATP depletion. Hence, the liberation of calories from added sugars requires nutrients, and increases nutritional demands, but these sugars provide no additional nutrients. Thus, the more added sugars one consumes, the more nutritionally depleted one may become. This may be particularly extreme in individuals whose habitual diet is already lacking in key micronutrients.”[20]

“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.”[21]

“To produce ATP efficiently, the mitochondria need particular things.  Glucose or ketone bodies from fat and oxygen are primary.   Your mitochondria can limp along, producing a few ATP on only these three things, but to really do the job right and produce the most ATP, your mitochondria also need thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, minerals (especially sulfur, zinc, magnesium, iron and manganese) and antioxidants.   Mitochondria also need plenty of L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine, and ubiquinone (also called coenzyme Q) for peak efficiency.”[22]

If we don’t get enough amino acids to prevent loss of lean muscle mass the body will also up-regulate appetite (i.e. protein leverage hypothesis).[23] [24]   While we can track our food intake to try to actively manage our energy intake, in the end, appetite, driven by the body’s need for nutrients, tends to win out.

Even if we are successful in limiting our intake, our body senses an energy crisis and slows down to make sure it has enough energy and stored fat to run our inefficient metabolism.  However, when we consume whole foods with a higher nutrient density our appetite tends to be satisfied with less energy because it can run more efficiently with an optimal balance of the nutrients it needs.[25]

image04

If we want to lose weight we need to find a way to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to function optimally with the minimum amount of energy intake while still maintaining low enough blood glucose and insulin levels to allow energy to flow out of our fat stores. 

Ask the experts

There was an interesting panel discussion in Episode 1161 of Jimmy Moore’s Livin La Vida Low Carb Show “Q&A Medical Panel – 2016 Low Carb Cruise” where someone asked:

LCHF says calories don’t matter.  But I still gain weight even when in ketosis.  What’s up with that?

There was a range of responses from the panel of medical doctors, not all in agreement, but my favourite answer was from Dr Ted Naiman (pictured below on the cruise) who said:

I have tons of patients who absolutely plateau out on this diet.   Everyone who goes on LCHF loses a ton of weight, and then hits a plateau.  This is extremely common.  Almost universal.  

If you eat enough fat, the flow of fat into your adipose sites will equal the flow of fat out of your adipose sites and you’re just going to plateau. 

My number one priority is nutrient density.  Eat less fat bombs and instead eat the highest nutrient density foods you possibly can and then more of the fat that you’re burning comes from your internal body stores. 

I recommend really high fat diets for people who are really glucose dependent to help them get fat adapted.  Then, once you have reached your ideal body weight you have to eat a high fat diet then as well because you’re burning fat.  But there is a period in the middle when you’re plateaued when you do want to eat less fat because you want your fat to come off stored body fat.  

image12

Are you really insulin resistant?

I think the critical question here is whether you are really insulin resistant.  The most useful measure is simply to test your blood glucose levels.

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, then you will have a glucose meter and you’ll be able to easily test your blood glucose levels to know where you’re at.  Glucometers are fairly cheap to purchase and often come with a rebate.

image25

There are many people who are fatter than they want to be but still have reasonable insulin sensitivity and normal blood glucose.  For these people, eating more fat doesn’t always get them where they want to be.[26] [27]

At the same time, many skinny people are actually insulin resistant (TOFI).  It of depends on how much energy your belly is willing to store before it starts pumping the excess fat into your vital organs.

The irony here is that you may look healthier if you are skinny, but it may mean that your adipose tissue is able to store less energy before it transitions to start storing excess energy in your vital organs.

image23

For those of you that don’t like testing your blood glucose level I have outlined a number of other ways to determine whether you are actually insulin resistant.  This understanding can then be used to understand whether you may need more or less dietary fat.

Oral glucose tolerance test

An Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT) is the generally accepted medical test for insulin resistance and diabetes.  An OGTT measures someone’s rise in blood glucose in response to a large amount of ingested glucose.   If it goes up too much after a standard amount of glucose then you are deemed to be insulin resistant.

image10

The problem is most people following a low carb approach will likely fail an OGTT because of physiological insulin resistance.  Someone following a low carb diet won’t have a lot of insulin circulating in their body, so when they ingest a large amount of fast acting glucose their pancreas will respond from a “standing start” and has to pump out a lot of insulin to respond to the glucose.  The glucose levels of someone following a low carb dietary approach may rise quite a lot before the pancreas can catch up.

By comparison, someone eating more carbohydrates would have higher levels of insulin circulating that will act on the glucose as soon as it was ingested with only a little bit of extra insulin needing to be secreted in response to the food and hence the glucose response would be lower.

Kraft test

A Kraft Insulin Assay, which measures insulin response over time to a certain amount of glucose, will give you an accurate idea of whether you’re insulin resistant, however these tests are expensive and fairly hard to obtain.  A Kraft Test might be a useful way to see if your are becoming insulin resistant even if your glucose levels are keeping up, for now.

image17

Oral protein tolerance test

Whether or not your blood glucose levels rise or decrease in response to a high protein meal with no carbohydrate is also a useful way to understand if you are insulin resistant.

image15

Someone who is metabolically healthy will release glucagon and insulin in response to protein as it is metabolised to maintain a stable glucose level.[28]  Someone who is insulin resistant may not produce adequate insulin to counteract the glucagon released by the liver and hence they may see their blood glucose levels rise.

If you find your glucose levels do rise significantly response to protein, it may be a sign that you need to slow down a little on the protein (or at least limit processed protein powders and opt for whole food sources of protein which are harder to overeat).

Realistically though, unless you’re severely insulin resistant, have Type 1 Diabetes or are using therapeutic ketosis to manage a chronic health condition such as cancer, epilepsy, alzheimers or dementia, most people don’t need to micromanage their protein intake if they are eating a range of unprocessed whole foods.

Your ability to handle protein may improve with time as your insulin resistance improves or you build a bit more muscle mass.  Actively avoiding protein to minimise insulin may be counterproductive in the long term if it leads to loss of lean body mass.

Optimal dietary approach survey

While testing blood glucose is a pretty good indicator of your insulin resistance status, there are a number of reasons that you may not want to test, including:

  • you don’t yet own a blood glucose meter,
  • you don’t like the sight of your own blood, or
  • test strips can be expensive, especially if not covered by insurance.

Beyond testing your blood glucose and / or ketone levels, there are a wide range of other indicators that you may be insulin resistant and may need a higher fat dietary approach.   I have prepared this multiple choice survey to help people better understand which dietary approach might be ideal for them based on their situation and goals.

image20

You may be insulin resistant and / or benefit from a higher fat diet if you answer yes to most of these of these questions.[29]   If you answer no to most of these questions then you may do better if you focus on nutrient dense foods rather than more fat.

  1. Do you have a chronic health condition such as cancer, epilepsy, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, severe insulin resistance or traumatic brain injury?
  2. Have you been diagnosed with diabetes?
  3. Is your HbA1c greater than 6.4%?
  4. Is your fasting glucose greater than 7.0 mmol/L?
  5. Is your post meal glucose level greater than 11.0mmol/L or 200 mg/dL?
  6. Is your triglyceride : HDL ratio greater than 3.0?
  7. Are your triglycerides greater than 1.1mmol/L or 100mg/dL?
  8. Are your blood ketone levels less than 0.3mmol/L?
  9. Is your fasting insulin greater than 20 uIU/mL or 120 pmol/L?
  10. Is your C-reactive protein greater than 1.0 mg/dL?
  11. Does your blood glucose level rise significant after eating a large protein only meal?
  12. Do you have a big hard belly (fat stored around the organs not on the surface)?

Can I take my insulin levels to zero?

You cannot eliminate your need for insulin by eating a 100% fat diet, or even not eating at all.

Back in the 70s Dr Richard Bernstein worked out by self experimentation that people with Type 1 Diabetes require both basal and bolus insulin.  Basal insulin is required, regardless of food intake, to stop the body from breaking down its own lean body mass.  Bolus insulin is required to metabolise the food eaten.[30]

Someone on a typical western diet has about a 50:50 ratio of basal to bolus insulin.  Someone on a low carb diet will require less insulin, however 80% of their insulin dose required as basal insulin and the remaining 20% for their food.  While the body typically doesn’t secrete insulin in response to fat, and appetite is often reduced on a high fat diet, if we force an energy excess with high levels of processed fats there will always be enough basal insulin circulating in the blood to remove the excess energy to our fat stores.

Someone with Type 1 will modify their insulin sensitivity factor in their insulin pump to match their insulin sensitivity to optimise their blood glucose control.  People without Type 1 Diabetes can change their insulin sensitivity (and hence require less insulin) by, amongst other things, being exposed to less insulin[31] and improving our level of lean body mass (muscle) and mitochondrial function.  It is important to ensure your diet has adequate protein to build muscle as well as exercising that muscle to make sure our body is well trained and efficient at using that energy.

image14

Having well trained lean muscle mass is critical to glucose disposal and insulin action and thus reducing overall insulin levels.[32]  In addition to avoiding foods that quickly raise our blood glucose levels, we need to train our body to dispose of the glucose effectively and efficiently with less reliance on large amounts of insulin through building lean body mass.  This is achieved by (amongst other things like sleep, sunlight, reduced stress etc) eating nutrient dense foods that power up the mitochondria to enable us to burn the energy efficiently.

So just tell me what to eat!

I have prepared the table below to guide people to the most optimal foods based on their blood glucose levels and current level of insulin resistance and whether you need to lose weight (based on your waist to height ratio[33]).

approach average glucose waist : height
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
therapeutic ketosis > 140 > 7.8
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 > 0.5
weight loss (insulin sensitive) < 97 < 5.4 > 0.5
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5

There’s no nutrient poor processed grains or added sugars in any of these lists.

image08

The therapeutic ketosis foods have higher levels of added fat.  The nutrient dense weight loss foods contain more lean proteins and non-starchy veggies and less added fat.

image07

Someone with poorly controlled Type 2 Diabetes may start out on a high fat ketogenic approach (say 2:1 fat to protein by weight), in time they should be able to progressively ‘level up’ to more nutrient dense foods as their insulin sensitivity improves and they find their blood glucose levels can tolerate it.

image11

Someone who has long standing diabetes or who has Type 1 Diabetes may settle on a 1:1 for maintenance.  Someone who becomes more insulin sensitive may be able to cut their dietary fat down even more as they are more easily able to release fat from their body fat stores.  Even if someone wanting to lose weight got down to a 1:0.5 protein to fat ratio by weight the majority of their energy is still coming from fat, they’re just given their body a better chance of needing to use dietary fat.

I hope this helps you find the optimal approach for you.  I would love to hear how it goes.

references

[1] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/22/why-we-get-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it-v2/

[2] http://bja.oxfordjournals.org/content/85/1/69.long

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/29/trends-outliers-insulin-and-protein/

[4] https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/11945

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

[6] http://cardiab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2840-12-164

[7] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/23/most-ketogenic-diet-foods/

[8] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/29/trends-outliers-insulin-and-protein/

[9] https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/11945

[10] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0026049515003340

[11] https://youtu.be/r8uSv6OgHJE?t=2080

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicotinamide_adenine_dinucleotide

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4737348/pdf/OBY-23-2327.pdf

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4102118/

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140964/

[16] https://www.facebook.com/groups/198981013851366/permalink/261051057644361/?comment_id=261276760955124&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R4%22%7D

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8uSv6OgHJE&feature=youtu.be

[18] http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v67/n7/abs/ejcn201390a.html

[19] https://www.amazon.com/Nutritional-Approach-Revised-Model-Medicine-ebook/dp/B00CXECDI8/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4975866/

[21] http://perfecthealthdiet.com/

[22] http://terrywahls.com/about-the-wahls-protocol/

[23] http://sydney.edu.au/science/outreach/inspiring/news/cpc.shtml

[24] http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ejcn2016256a.html

[25] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2988700/

[26] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/06/13/low-energy-density-high-nutrient-density-foods-for-weight-loss/

[27] https://www.dropbox.com/s/n8tzuiixb1n1cxi/Weight%20Loss%20on%20Low-Fat%20vs.%20Low-Carbohydrate%20Diets%20by%20Insulin%20Resistance%20Status%20Among%20Overweight%20Adults%20and%20Adults%20With%20Obesity-%20A%20Randomized%20Pilot%20Trial%20(1).pdf?dl=0

[28] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/15/the-blood-glucose-glucagon-and-insulin-response-to-protein/

[29] http://www.thebloodcode.com/

[30] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lrbxITXAVA

[31] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21241239

[32] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2343294/

[33] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waist-to-height_ratio

optimising protein and insulin load

  • “Low carb”, “ketogenic” or “nutrient dense” mean different things to different people. Defining these terms numerically can help us to choose the right tool for the right application.
  • Decreasing the insulin load of your diet can help normalise blood glucose levels and enable your pancreas to keep up. However, at the same time a high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach is not necessarily the most nutrient dense option, and may not be optimal in the long term, particularly if your goal is weight loss.
  • Balancing insulin load and nutrient density will enable you to identify the right approach for you at any given point in time.
  • This article suggests ideal macro nutrient, protein and insulin load, and carbohydrate levels for different people with different goals to use as a starting point as they work to optimise their weight and / or blood glucose levels.

context matters

Since I started blogging about the concepts of insulin load and proportion of insulinogenic calories many people have asked:

“What insulin load should I be aiming for?” 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to give a simple answer without some context.

The answer to this question depends on a person’s current metabolic health, age, activity level, weight, height and goals etc.

This post is my attempt to provide an answer with some context.

image16

disclaimers

Full disclosure…  I don’t like to measure the food I eat.  I have developed the optimal foods lists to highlight what I think are the best foods to suit different goals and levels of metabolic health.

I think food should be nutritious and satiating.  If you goal is to lose weight it will be hard to overeat if you limit your food choices to things like broccoli, celery, salmon and tuna.

At the same time, some people like to track their food.  Tracking food with apps like MyFitnessPal or Cron-O-Meter can be useful for a time to reflect and use as a tool to help you refine your food choices.  If you’re preparing for a bodybuilding competition you’re probably going to need to track your food to temporarily override your body’s survival to force it to shed additional weight.

Ideal macronutrient balance is a contentious issue and a lot has already been said on the topic.  I’ll try to focus on what I think I have to add to the discussion around the topics of insulin load and nutrient density.

If you want to and skip the detail in the rest of this article, this graphic from Dr Ted Naiman does a good job of summarising optimal foods and ideal macronutrient ranges.   If you’re interested in more detail on the topic, then read on.

image17

insulin is not the bad guy

The insulin load formula was designed to help us more accurately understand the insulin response to the food we eat, including protein and fibre.

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein

The first thing to understand is that insulin per se is not bad.  Insulin is required for energy metabolism and growth.  People who can’t produce enough insulin are called Type 1 Diabetics and typically don’t last long without insulin injections after they catabolise their muscle and body fat.

Insulin only really becomes problematic when we have too much of it (i.e. hyperinsulinemia[1]) due to excess processed carbohydrates (i.e. processed grains, added sugar and soft drinks) and/or a lack of activity which leads to insulin resistance.

The concepts of insulin load and proportion of insulinogenic calories can provide us with a better understanding of how different foods trigger an insulin response and how to quantitatively optimise the insulin load of our diet to suit our unique situation and goals.

image20

different degrees of the ketogenic diet

Words like “ketogenic”, “low carb” or “nutrient dense” mean different things to different people.   This is where using numbers can be useful to better define what we’re talking about and tailor a dietary approach.  For clarity, I have numerically defined a number of terms that you might hear.

image18

ketogenic ratio

The therapeutic ketosis community talk about a “ketogenic ratio” such as 3:1 or 4:1 which means that there are three or four parts fat (by weight) for every part protein plus carbohydrate.[2]

For example, a 3:1 ketogenic diet may contain 300g of fat plus 95g of protein with 5g of carbs.  This ends up being 87% fat.  A 4:1 ketogenic ratio is an even more aggressive ketogenic approach that is used in the treatment of epilepsy,[3] cancer or dementia and ends up being 90% fat.

These levels of ketosis is hard to achieve with real food and is hard to sustain in the long term.  Hence, it is typically used as a short term therapeutic treatment.

ratio of fat to protein

People in the ketogenic bodybuilding scene (e.g. Keto Gains) or weight loss might talk about a 1:1 ratio of fat to protein (by weight) for weight loss.    A diet with a 1:1 ratio of fat to protein could be 120g of fat plus 120g of protein.  If we threw in 20g of carbs this would come out at 66% fat (which is still pretty high by mainstream standards).   A 1:2 protein:fat ratio would end up being around 80% fat.

protein grams per kilogram of lean body weight

Some people prefer to talk in terms of terms of percentages or grams of protein per kilo of lean body mass.  For example:

  • The generally accepted minimum level of protein is 0.8g/kg/day of lean body mass to prevent malnutrition.[4] This is based on a minimum requirement of 0.6kg to maintain nitrogen balance and prevent diseases of malnutrition plus a 25% or two standard deviations safety factor.[5]
  • In the Art and Science of Low Carb Performance Volek and Phinney talk recommend consuming between 1.5 and 2.0g/kg of reference body weight (i.e. RW). Reference weight is basically your ideal body weight say at a BMI of 25kg/m2.  So, 1.5 to 2.0kg RW equates to around 1.7 to 2.2g/kg lean body mass (LBM).
  • There is also a practical maximum level where people just can’t eat more lean protein (i.e. rabbit starvation[6]) which kicks in at around 35% of energy from protein.

The table below shows a list of rule of thumb protein quantities for different goals in terms of grams per kilogram of lean body mass and as a percentage of calories assuming weight maintenance.[7]

scenario % calories g/kg LBM
minimum (starvation) 6% 0.4
RDI/sedentary 11% 0.8
typical 16% 1.2
strength athlete 24% 1.8
maximum 35% 2.7

gluconeogenesis

You may have heard that body will convert ‘excess protein’ to glucose via gluconeogenesis, particularly if there is minimal carbohydrates in the diet and/or we can’t yet use fat for fuel.

For some people this is a concern due to elevated blood glucose levels, but it may also mean that more protein is required because so much is being converted to glucose that you need more to maintain muscles growing your muscles.  As we become more insulin sensitive we may be able to get away with less protein because we are using it better (i.e. we are growing muscles rather than making glucose).

Most people eat more than the minimum level of protein to prevent malnutrition.  People looking to gain muscle mass will require higher levels.  Although keep in mind you do need to be exercising to gain muscle, not just eating protein.

Ensuring adequate protein and exercise is especially important as people age.  Sarcopenia is the process of age related muscle decline which is exacerbated in people with diabetes.

Sadly, many old people fall and break their bones and never get up again.   When it comes to longevity there is a balance between being too big (high IGF-1) and too frail (too little IGF-1).

image03

carbohydrate counting

Then there is carb counting.

  • People on a ketogenic approach tend to limit themselves to around 20g (net?) carbohydrates.
  • Low carbers might limit themselves to 50g carbs per day.
  • A metabolically healthy low carb athlete might try to stay under 100g of carbs per day.

Limiting non-fibre carbohydrates typically eradicates most processed foods (e.g. sugar, processed grains, sodas etc).   Nutrient density increases as we decrease the amount of non-fibre carbohydrates in our diet.

image01

protein, insulin load and nutrient density

In the milieu of discussion about protein I think it’s important to keep in mind that minimum protein levels to prevent the diseases of malnutrition may not necessarily optimal for health and vitality.

Protein is the one macronutrient that correlates well with nutrient density.  Foods with a higher percentage of protein are typically more nutrient dense overall.

image22

Considering minimum protein levels may be useful if you are looking to drop your energy intake to the bare minimum and while still providing enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass (e.g. a protein sparing modified fast).   However, if you are looking to fill up the rest of your energy intake with fat for weight maintenance then you should be aware that simply eating foods with a higher proportion of fat will not help you maximise nutrient density.

Practically though very high levels of protein will be difficult to achieve because they are very filling, thus it is practically difficult to eat more than around 35% of your energy from protein.  Protein is also an inefficient fuel source meaning that you will lose around 25% of the calories just digesting and converting it to glucose via digestion and gluconeogenesis.

If you are incorporating fasting then I think you will need to make sure you are getting at least the minimum as an average across the week, not just on feasting days to maintain nitrogen balance.  That is,  you might need to try to eat more protein on days you are eating.

what is ketosis?

“Ketogenic” simply means “generates ketones”.

An increase in ketosis occurs when there is a lack of glucogenic substrates (i.e. non-fibre carbohydrates and glucogenic protein).  It’s not primarily about eating an abundance of dietary fat

I think reducing insulin load (i.e. the amount of food that we eat that requires insulin to metabolise), rather than adding dietary fat, is really where it’s at if you’re trying to ‘get into ketosis’.   We can simply wind down the insulin load of our diet to the point that out blood glucose and insulin levels decrease and we can more easily access our stored body fat.

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein

Whether a particular approach is ketogenic (i.e. generates ketones) will depend on your metabolic health, activity levels and insulin resistance etc.

Whether you want to be generating ketones from the fat on your excess belly fat rather than your plate (or coffee cup) is also an important consideration if weight loss is one of your goals.

While people aiming for therapeutic ketosis might want to achieve elevated ketone levels by consuming more dietary fat, most people out there are just looking to lose weight for heath and aesthetic reasons.  For most people, I think the first step is to reduce dietary insulin load until they achieve normalised blood glucose levels (i.e.  average BG less than 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL, blood ketones greater than 0.2 mmol/L).   People with diabetes often call this “eating to your meter”.

Once you’ve achieved normal blood glucose levels and some ketones the next step towards weight loss is to increase nutrient density while still maintaining ketosis.  Deeper levels of ketosis do not necessarily mean more fat loss, particularly if if you have to eat gobs of eating processed fat to get there.

Ray Cronise and David Sinclair recently published an article “Oxidative Priority, Meal Frequency, and the Energy Economy of Food and ACtivity:  Implications for Longevity, Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease”  which does an interesting job of looking at the ‘oxidative priority’ of various nutrient and demonstrate that the body will burn through nutrients in the following order:

  1. alcohol,
  2. protein (not used for muscle protein synthesis),
  3. non fibre carbohydrate, and then
  4. fat.

What this suggests to me is that if you want to burn your own body fat you need to minimise the alcohol, protein and carbohydrate which will burn first.  To me this is another angle on the idea that insulin levels are the signal that stops our body from using our own body fat in times of plenty.   And if we want to access our own body fat we need to reduce the insulin load of our diet to the point we can release our own body fat.

insulin load versus nutrient density

The risk however with the insulin load concept is that people can take things to extremes.  If our only objective is to minimise insulin load we’ll end up just eating bacon, lard, MCT, olive oil… and not much else.

image05

In his “Perfect Health Diet” book Paul Jaminet talks about “nutrient hunger”, meaning that we are more likely to have an increased appetite if we are missing out on a particular nutrients.  He says

“A nourishing, balanced diet that provides all the nutrients in the right proportions is the key to eliminating hunger and minimising appetite.“

In the chart below shows nutrient density versus proportion of insulinogenic calories.  The first thing to note is that there is a lot of scatter!  However, on the right-hand side of the chart there are high carb soft drinks, breakfast cereals and processed grains that are nutrient poor.  But if we plot a trendline we see that nutrient density peaks somewhere around 40% insulinogenic calories.

image14

If you are metabolically challenged, you will want to reduce the insulin load of your diet to normalise blood glucose levels.  But if you reduce your insulin load too much you end up living on purified fats that aren’t necessarily nutrient dense.

If we are trying to avoid both carbohydrates and protein we end up limiting our food choices to macadamia nuts, pine nuts and a bunch of isolated fats that aren’t found in nature in that form.  Rather than living on copious amounts of refined oils I think we’re in much safer territory if we maximise nutrient density with whole foods while still maintaining optimal blood glucose levels.

The chart below shows the proportion of insulinogenic calories for the highest-ranking basket of foods (i.e. top 10% of the foods in the USDA foods database) for a range of approaches, from the low insulin therapeutic ketosis, through to the weight loss foods for someone who is insulin sensitive and a lot of fat is coming from their body.  At one end of the scale a therapeutic ketogenic may only contain 14% insulinogenic calories while a more nutrient dense approach might have more than half of the food requires insulin to metabolise.

image11

macronutrient splits

It’s one thing to set theoretical macronutrient targets, but real foods don’t come in neat little packages of protein, fat and carbohydrates.  The chart below shows the macronutrient split of the most nutrient dense 10% of foods for each of the four nutritional approaches.  The protein level for the weight loss approach might seem high but then once we factor in an energy deficit from our body fat it comes back down.

image06

In reality you’re probably not going to be able to achieve weight maintenance if you just stick to the nutrient dense weight loss foods.  You’ll either become full and will end up using your stored body fat to meet the energy deficit or you will reach for some more energy dense foods to make up the calorie deficit.  If you look at the macronutrient split of the most nutrient dense meals for the different approach you find they are lower in protein and higher in fat as shown in the chart below.

2016-12-03-3

nutrient density

The chart below shows the percentage of the daily recommended intake of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids you can get from 2000 calories for each of the approaches.

image04

You can meet most of your nutritional requirements with a therapeutic ketogenic diet, however you’ll have to eat enough calories to maintain your weight to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

As you progress to the more nutrient dense approaches you can meet your nutrient requirements with less energy intake.   The beauty of limiting yourself to nutrient dense whole foods is that you can obtain the required nutrition with less energy and you’ll likely be too full to overeat.

As far as I can see the holy grail of nutrition,  health and longevity is adequate energy without malnutrition.

If we look in more detail we can see that the weight loss (blue) and nutrient dense approaches (green) provide more of the essential micronutrients across the board, not just amino acids.

image02

While the protein levels in the “weight loss” and “most nutrient dense” approaches are quite high, keep in mind that the food ranking system only prioritises the nutrients that are harder to obtain.

The table below shows the various nutrients that are switched on in the food ranking system for each approach.

image07

This table shows the number of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids counted for each approach.

image00

In the weight loss and nutrient dense approach, of the twelve essential amino acids, only Tyrosine and Phenylalanine has been counted in the density ranking system.

It just so happens that protein levels are high in whole foods that contain essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. 

It appears that if you set out to actively avoid protein it may be harder to get other essential nutrients.  The risk here is that you may be setting yourself up for nutrient hunger, and rebound/stall inducing cravings in the long term as your body becomes depleted of the harder to obtain nutrients.

choosing the right approach for you

I believe one of the key factors in determining which nutritional approach is right for you is your blood glucose levels which gives you an insight into your insulin levels and insulin sensitivity.

As shown in the chart below, if your blood glucose levels are high then it’s likely your insulin levels are also high which means you will not be able to easily to access your fat stores.  I have also created this survey which may help you identify whether you are insulin resistant and which foods might be ideal for you right now.

image19

While you may need to start out with a higher fat approach, as your glucose levels decrease and ketone levels rise a little you will be able to transition to more nutrient dense foods.

The table below shows the relationship between HbA1c, glucose, ketones and GKI.   Once you are getting good blood glucose levels you can start to focus more on nutrient density and weight loss.

 Risk level HbA1c average blood glucose ketones GKI
 (%)  (mmol/L)  (mg/dL)  (mmol/L)
low normal 4.1 4.0 70 5.5 0.7
optimal 4.5 4.6 83 2.5 1.8
excellent < 5.0 < 5.3 < 95 > 0.2 < 30
good < 5.4 < 6.0 < 108 < 0.2
danger > 6.5 7.8 > 140 < 0.2

more numbers

The table below shows what the different nutritional approaches look like in terms of:

  • ketogenic ratio
  • ratio of fat to protein
  • protein (g)/kg LBM
  • insulin load (g/kg LBM)
approach keto ratio fat : protein protein g/LBM insulin load (g/LBM)
therapeutic ketosis 1.8 2.2 1.0 0.9
diabetes 0.9 1.0 1.8 1.5
weight loss (incl. body fat) 0.5 0.6 2.5 2.4
nutrient dense 0.3 0.3 3.0 2.8

The 1.0g/kg LBM for therapeutic ketosis is greater than the RDA minimum of 0.8g/kg LBM so will still provide the minimum amount while still being ketogenic.  It’s hard to find a lot of foods that have less than 1.0g/kg LBM protein in weight maintenance without focussing on processed fats.

At the other extreme most nutrient dense foods are very high in protein but this might also be self-limiting meaning that people won’t be able to eat that much food.  As mentioned earlier, it will be hard to eat enough of the nutrient dense foods to maintain your current weight.  Either you will end up losing weight because you can’t fit as much of these foods in or reaching more energy dense lower nutrient density foods.  Also, if you found you were not achieving great blood glucose levels and some low-level ketones with mean and non-starchy veggies you might want to retreat to a higher fat approach.

The table below lists optimal foods for different goals from most nutrient dense to most ketogenic.    Hopefully over time you should be able to work towards the more nutrient dense foods as your metabolism heals.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
therapeutic ketosis download

what about mTOR?

Many people are concerned about excess protein causing cancer or inhibiting mTOR (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin).[8]  [9]

From what I can see though, the story with mTOR is similar to insulin.  That is, constantly elevated insulin or constantly stimulated mTOR are problematic and cause excess growth without being interspersed with periods of breakdown and repair.

Our ancestors would have had times when insulin and mTOR were low during winter or between successful hunts.  But during summer (when fruits were plentiful) or after a successful hunt, insulin would be elevated and mTOR suppressed as they gorged on the nutrient dense bounty.

These days we’re more like the futuristic humans from Wall-E than our hunter gather ancestors.   We live in a temperature controlled environment with artificial lighting and tend to put food in our mouths from the moment we wake up to the time we fall asleep.[10]

image15

Rather than chronic monotony (e.g. eating five or six small meals per day every day), it seems that periods of growth (anabolism) and breakdown and cleaning (catabolism) are optimal to thrive in the long term.  We need periods of both.  One or the other chronically are bad news.

image00

As my wise friend Raymund Edwards from Optimal Ketogenic Living says

“FAST WELL, FEED WELL.” 

image21

how much protein?

Optimal protein levels are a contentious topic.  There is research out there that says that excess protein can be problematic from a longevity perspective.  Protein promotes growth, IGF-1, insulin and cell turnover which can theoretically compromise longevity.  At the same time, there are plenty of studies that indicate that we need much more protein than the minimum RDI levels.[11]

image09

In the end, you need to eat enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle and maintain strength.  If you’re trying to build lean muscle and working out, then higher levels of protein may be helpful to support muscle growth.  If you are trying to lose weight, then higher levels of protein can be useful to increase satiety and prevent loss of lean muscle mass.  Maintaining muscle mass is critical to keeping your metabolic rate high and avoiding the reduction that can come with chronic restriction.[12] [13]

In addition to building our muscles, protein is critical for building our bones, heart, organs and providing many of the neurotransmitters required for mental health.  So protein from real whole foods is generally nothing to be afraid of.  It’s typically the processed high carb foods that make the detrimental impact on  insulin and blood glucose levels.

The table below shows a starting point for protein in grams depending on your height.  This assumes that someone with a lean body mass (LBM) of 80 kg is burning 2000 calories per day and your lean body mass equates to a BMI of 20 kg/m2.  LBM is current weight minus fat mass minus skeletal mass which again is hard to estimate without a DEXA.

There are a lot of assumptions here so you will need to take as a rule of thumb starting point and track your weight and blood glucose levels and refine accordingly.  It’s unlikely that you will get to the high protein levels of the most nutrient dense approach because either you would feel too full or your glucose levels may rise and ketones disappear, so most people, unless your name is Duane Johnson, will need to moderate back from that level.

image10

Example:  Let’s say for example you were 180cm and were managing diabetes and elevated blood glucose levels.  You would start with around 117g of protein per day as an initial target and test how that worked with your blood glucose levels.  If your blood glucose levels on average were less than say 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL and your ketones were above 0.2mmol/L you could consider increasing transitioning to more nutrient dense foods. 

If you want to see what this looks like in terms of real foods and real meal meals check out the optimal food list and the optimal meals for the different approaches.

insulin load

Using a similar approach, we can calculate the daily insulin load (in grams) depending on your height and goals.  The values in this table can be used as a rule of thumb for the insulin load of your diet.

If you are not achieving your blood glucose or weight loss goals, then you can consider winding the insulin load back down.  If you are achieving great blood glucose levels, then you might consider choosing more nutrient dense food which might involve more whole protein and more nutrient dense green leafy veggies.

image08

Example:  Let’s say for example you are a 180cm person with good glucose control but still wanting to lose weight, your initial target insulin load would be 156g from the superfoods from fat lost list.  If you were not losing weight at this level, you could look to wind it back a little until you started losing weight.  If you are consistently achieving blood glucose levels less than 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL and ketones greater than 0.2mmol/L you could consider transitioning to more nutrient dense foods. 

summary

In summary, reducing the insulin load of your diet is an important initial step.  However, as your blood glucose and insulin levels normalise there are a number of other steps that you can take towards optimising nutrient density on your journey towards optimal health and body fat.

  1. Reduce the insulin load of your diet (i.e. eliminate processed carbage and maybe consider moderating protein if still necessary) to normalise blood glucose levels and reduce insulin levels to facilitate access to stored body fat.
  2. If your blood glucose levels are less than say 5.6 mmol/L or 100mg/dL and your ketone levels are greater than say 0.2 mmol/L then you could consider transitioning to more nutrient dense foods.
  3. If further weight loss is required, maximise nutrient density and reduce added fats to continue weight loss.
  4. Consider also adding an intermittent fasting routine with periods of nutrient dense feasting. Modify the feasting/fasting cycles to make sure you are getting the results you are after over the long term.
  5. Once optimal/goal weight is achieved, enjoy nutrient dense fattier foods as long as optimal weight and blood glucose levels are maintained.
  6. If blood glucose levels are greater than optimal blood glucose levels, return to step 1.
  7. If current weight is greater goal weight return to step 3.

references

[1] http://diabesity.ejournals.ca/index.php/diabesity/article/view/19

[2] http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/dietary-therapies/ketogenic-diet

[3] http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/dietary-therapies/ketogenic-diet

[4] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096

[5] https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/how-much-protein-is-excessive/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_poisoning

[7] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/08/31/optimal-protein-intake/

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv-M-5-s9B0

[9] http://nutritionfacts.org/video/prevent-cancer-from-going-on-tor/

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPpAvvPG0nc

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27109436

[12] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/5/1558S.long

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein-sparing_modified_fast

curried egg with cows brain

Considering how very nutrient dense offal is, it’s been surprisingly hard to find organ meat recipes that do really well in the nutrition ranking because so many of the recipes are ‘diluted’ with lots of sweet stuff to mask the taste.

That is, until Tristan Haggard sent me their long awaited ‘ketogenic edge cookbook‘.

2016-11-18-1

Tristan and Jessica Haggard from Primal Edge Health moved from California to Ecuador to seek a healthier place to live and raise their family.

Clean water.  More sunshine.  Closer to the equator.

These guys are the real deal.

The recipes in their new cookbook document’s how Jessica lovingly makes sure they ensure they ensure they thrive with their food.  It’s not all offal, but it’s clean, nutrient dense and simple, even when it comes to the deserts.

2016-11-18

This recipe for curried eggs with cows brains does spectacularly  well with the vitamins and minerals as well as the amino acids while still being 68% fat.

2016-11-18-3

The table below shows the nutritional data per 500 calorie serving.

net carbs Insulin load carb insulin fat protein fibre
4g 16g 27% 68% 21g 14g

Combining the brains  with the egg, spinach and avocado makes for a pretty unbeatable combination when it comes to nutrient density.  In fact it ranks at:

The only thing really missing from the book is a family photo to show how health these nutrient dense whole foods are making them.  So here you go.

I  also recommend you check out their YouTube Channel, blog and podcast for some pragmatic nutrition and lifestyle advice.