Category Archives: vegan

vegan vs keto for diabetes… which is one optimal?

I recently watched the Mastering Diabetes teleseminar on ketogenic diets with high hopes of picking up some gems of wisdom from the rising stars of the plant-based diabetes community.

Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed with what I heard.

I shared my frustration on Facebook.

Robb Wolf suggested I put together a response to some of the misinformation in the teleseminar.  Hence this post.  [Robb did an excellent breakdown on the claims in the What the Health Netflix doco, What the Health: A Wolf’s Eye View, which I highly recommend checking out if you haven’t already.]

What’s actually wrong with the keto diet for diabetes?

Cyrus Khambatta (aka Mangoman) and Robby Barbaro (The Mindful Diabetic) should be uniquely qualified, both academically and experientially having themselves lived with type 1 diabetes for decades.

If I were was going to attack keto for diabetes management, then there would have been a couple of ‘free kicks’ I think they could have taken.  So, in fairness to both sides, I’ll touch on a few of what I see as legitimate issues with ‘popular keto’ before I dissect the Mastering Diabetes presentation.

Giving fat a free pass

Humans like things to be straightforward and binary.

Yes or No.

Black or white.

High fat or low fat.

Low carb or high fat.

High protein or low protein.

Plants only or animals only.

For the last four decades, we have been told that fat, particularly saturated fat, is bad because it causes heart diseases and should be avoided.

The tide is now turning.  However, there will always be people who take things to the extreme.

Now fat is healthy.  But is more is better?

Ketones are good.  So more is better?

For many people, a higher fat diet will be more satiating, particularly compared to processed grains and sugars.  However, not everyone can ‘eat fat to satiety’ without some level of restraint and self-discipline.  We can’t all trust our appetite to kick in to effortlessly provide the lean and chiselled body that they dream of.

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My personal experience is that you can overdo the fat and drive insulin resistance by pushing fat too hard.  If you exceed your ‘personal fat threshold’[1], your adipose tissues will become insulin resistant, and the body will start pushing excess energy to the vital organs.

While there is no need to fear fat, there is no reason to go hog wild to compensate for the butter and bacon deficiencies that we all developed over the past four decades.

When it comes to nutrition, you need to get your big rocks in place first (i.e. the nutrient dense foods).  You can then fill up with fuel such as fattier foods if you do not want to burn any body fat.  You could even add some starchy carbs if your blood sugars all.

Having some level ketones is an indication that your insulin levels aren’t too high and your metabolism is working.  However, if you are not yet metabolically healthy, chasing ‘fauxtosis’ by loading up on butter, coconut oil, cream and exogenous ketones to achieve high blood ketone levels can be a recipe for hypercaloric metabolic disaster that will drive insulin resistance.

People with type 1 diabetes (such as the Mastering Diabetes guys and my wife Monica) have a unique insight into the various factors that affect their insulin sensitivity.  They can monitor their daily insulin dose.

I know some people with type 1 diabetes who have made an effort to chase higher ketones with more refined fat and less protein but found that they ended up needing more insulin.  Retreating to a moderate to high protein approach with less added fat (as per Dr Bernstein’s recommended approach for Type 1 diabetes) enabled them to improve their insulin sensitivity (e.g. check out Allison’s Nutrient Optimiser analysis here).

This phenomenon is not unique to people with type 1 diabetes.  There seem to be more and more people start out believing calories don’t count, only hormones.  They then put their faith in the ‘magic ketone fairy’ and end up driving insulin resistance and obesity chasing ‘optimal ketone levels’ with more and more added fat.[2]

I have a dream

Before we get into the nutritional analysis, permit me this indulgence to share my vision (with a hat tip to Martin Luther King) from Martin Laurence Kendall.

I have a dream that one-day nutrition will be defined by the nutrients that a food contains and the health benefits that it confers rather than religious and ethical beliefs or commercial interests.

I have a dream that all people, mothers and children, fathers and brothers, would be able to clearly understand the foods that are truly optimal for them.

I have a dream that one day all people afflicted with diabetes will be able to choose foods that will enable them to achieve normal blood sugars and restore the health and vitality that they deserve. 

Further, that they will be able to choose optimal foods, with engineering precision, without being affiliated with the needless ridicule that they will needlessly die of a heart attack due to unnecessary fears about ‘artery clogging saturated fat’ or ‘harmful animal proteins’. 

I have a dream that one day people will have, freely in their grasp, quality nutritional information that enables them to make informed choices that will, in turn, bring about a new day in the commercial food environment. 

I dream that one day all people, obese, diabetic, children and athletes alike,  will be free from the corruption of Big Food and Big Pharma working through diabetes educators, diabetes associations, heart associations, medical institutions and animal welfare advocates.   

Free at least.  Free at last. 

I hope that one day we will be free at last. 

Indulgence over.  On with the data.

On with the data.

Nutrient deficiencies in a high-fat diet

Another fact that I thought Cyrus and Robby would mention was that very high-fat foods tend to have a weak nutrient profile, especially compared to non-starchy vegetables.

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the 800 highest fat foods out of the 8000 foods in the USDA database.   If we prioritise fat, we will likely be lacking in around half of the essential nutrients.

A summary of some of the highest fat foods is shown below.

[For some real life examples of the poor nutrient profiles achieved by people chasing high ketone levels in the misguided pursuit of weight loss check out the Nutrient Optimiser reports here, here, here here and here.]

Vitamins and minerals,  in particularly electrolytes such as potassium, magnesium and calcium are critical to support our mitochondria, enabling them to produce energy and maximise insulin sensitivity.

People in the keto community are conscious that electrolytes are essential and go out of their way to supplement with magnesium, calcium, sodium and potassium as well as taking bone broth.

The kidneys let go of water and electrolytes when insulin levels drop.  A ketogenic diet without attention to green leafy veggies is at risk of being very low in electrolytes.  This will cause the pancreas to secrete more insulin to hold onto the scarce electrolytes.  This increase in insulin levels may[3] ironically drive insulin resistance.

Whether you call them electrolytes or alkaline foods[5], our bodies need enough substrate to allow our kidneys to maintain a good acid/base balance without having to work too hard.  Focussing on minerals can helps us maximise insulin sensitivity and ensure oxygen is efficiently be carried around our bloodstream.

There are plenty of foods available to provide the micronutrients that you need if you actually require therapeutic ketosis as an adjunct to cancer, epilepsy or dementia.  We can achieve the Daily Recommended Intake (DRI) for most of the nutrients while still maintaining a low dietary insulin load.

The short list of foods that comprise a ‘well formulated ketogenic diet’ are shown below.

However, if you just need to manage diabetes with a low carb diet (rather than therapeutic ketosis), you can achieve even higher levels of nutrition while maintaining stable blood sugars.

Given my family history of Type 2 and my wife Monica’s Type 1 diabetes, we generally focus on the foods listed below.  Lots of people have found these lists useful.  You can pin them to the fridge as a reminder of what you should focus on or print it out to take shopping next time when you need some inspiration.   (There is a complete list of nutrient dense foods to suit different goals at the end of this article.)

Now my blood glucose levels are more stable, I’ve been trying to back off on the higher fat foods and focus on more nutrient dense foods to build muscle and lose fat.

The ‘problem’ with the most nutrient dense foods (as shown below) is that they typically have a very low energy density, so it will be nearly impossible to get enough energy to prevent rapid weight loss.

Prioritising nutrient dense foods is the secret to obtaining the nutrients you need with the lowest energy intake.  If you don’t want to keep losing weight or want to run a marathon then adding some higher energy density foods will be useful.

High carbohydrate foods are not  nutritious

After watching the Mastering Diabetes teleseminar, you will get the feeling that the Mastering Diabetes guys believe carbohydrate can do no wrong and we should only fear fat.

The reality, however, is that the foods with the least fat are generally even more nutritionally corrupt than the highest fat foods.

Not all of the low-fat foods are going to be beneficial.

Defining your nutritional approach as ‘high carbohydrate’ is not wise, especially if you are trying to manage diabetes.  The foods with the most carbohydrates in our food system are typically very nutritionally deficient as well as highly insulinogenic.

If a ‘low carb diet’ leads you to avoid processed foods you may be better off.  However, I don’t think defining nutrition in terms of macronutrient extremes is particularly useful. [6]

Plant based versus animal based

One area where vegans potentially have it over carnivores is vitamins and minerals.  As shown in the chart below, a zero carb diet does not provide really high levels of many nutrients.

2017-06-26-5[1]

At the same time, there are plenty of people who appear to be thriving on a zero carb dietary approach.  Many people with severe autoimmune related digestive issues succeed when they switch to a zero carb approach.   Zero carb advocates will also tell you that they don’t need the recommended daily intake levels of the various micro nutrients that are based on limited data or deficiency studies in people eating a standard high carb western diet.

2017-06-26-4[1]

A plant based diet can provide a reasonably nutrient dense outcome.  However, it will be hard to get adequate levels of omega 3, vitamin D and vitamin B-12.  People following a strictly plant based approach may need to supplement with these nutrients.

Achieving the minimum protein intake levels is possible.  However, many people have concerns about reduced bioavailability of plant based proteins and whether or not the minimum protein intake levels are actually optimal, particularly if you are active or older.

It’s also worth noting that other nutrients such as iron, vitamin A and omega 3 will be more bioavailable from animal based sources.  So it’s not as simple as comparing the nutrients in the food, what gets into your body is what really matters.

If you are going to follow a plant based diet then prioritising the food listed below will give you the best chance of success.  Most people are going to do best somewhere on the spectrum between exclusively plant based and solely animal based foods.

The real problem comes when we start to heavily process our food.  Rather than prioritising the most nutrient dense and minimally processed vegetables, fruits and legumes, many vegans end up living on processed grains, cereal, sugar and soy products that have been treated with a host of fertilisers and pesticides.  Meanwhile, many zero carbers or keto peeps end up living on nothing but bacon or processed meats from animals that were fed nutrient poor corn and grains with added antibiotics to make them grow quicker.

The vegan echo chamber

I have spent a good chunk of time hanging out in many vegan or plant based groups trying to understand their position and gain insights about nutrient density.  I have learned a lot from people like Professor Christopher Gardner, Ray Cronise and Dr Joel Fuhrman.  Much of the analysis in this is based on the integration of my learnings their work with Dr Richard Bernstein and Dr Matt Lalonde.

Unfortunately, it seems that the vast majority of vegan/plant based education comes from Dr Michael Greger through his sanitised, highly processed and hyper palatable “Nutrition Facts” videos.

While Greger covers a lot of relevant research and raises some valid points, a lot of the time he seems to twist the science to ensure that the moral of the story is always ‘eat plants, not animals’.  Plant based is better.  Eating animals will be bad for your health.

Without evolutionary context, we are asked again and again to believe that fat (particularly saturated fat) and ‘animal protein’ (whatever the hell that is!) is the primary cause of heart disease, the complications of diabetes and practically every other modern health ill.

There is no demonstrated biochemical mechanism provided as to how we suddenly became allergic to animal products.  Meanwhile, vegans advocates generally give a free pass to sugar and processed grains.

With more than six million views and an estimated earnings of more than $100k per year from YouTube[7] (not to mention donations[8]), there appear to be a LOT of people eager to lap up the nutritional and medical justification of their ethical position.

Greger’s unique ‘interpretation’ of the scientific data all starts to make sense once you understand that he is the Director for Public Health and Human Agriculture for the Humane Society International.[9]

The mission of the Humane Society is to celebrate animals, confront cruelty and shape public opinion.

I wonder if Greger does his researching, writing, filming and editing the Nutrition Facts videos as a hobby after he gets home after working 50 hours a week and commuting?   Or perhaps he creates these videos as an employee of the Humane Society as part of their stated goal to shape public opinion on animal cruelty?

It seems Mangoman and Robby are pretty tight with Greger.[10]  Makes me wonder if Mastering Diabetes is a coordinated and strategic assault by the Humane Society on the low carb/keto/diabetes community who have become immune to Dr Greger.

I am by no means advocating animal cruelty.  However, as a human,  if you are looking for the best advice on human nutrition, is it wise to put your blind faith and unswerving trust in someone whose explicitly stated primary goal is animal welfare?

Do you really want to save the planet?

Worrying about whether we eat plants or animals exclusively is a modern luxury, an intellectual indulgence of sorts.

For the majority of human history, we have been opportunistic omnivores.  When plants were the only thing that was available, we would eat them.  When we could, we would chase down an animal to get the protein we need to thrive.  We never had to worry about nutrient density because the foods we ate grew in fertile soil without pesticides.  The animals we ate were eating their natural foods which were also nutritious for them.

Humans thrived and were able to populate the world because we learned to hunt, store, cook and process food.  We became very good at getting the nutrients we needed with the minimum amount of effort.[11][12] [13]

Unfortunately, we have now become too good at processing food.

Many of us are now fantasising nostalgically about Paleo times.

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It’s one thing to worry about saving animals, but ultimately we need to save the planet and our human race from accelerated extinction.

Our newfound ability to harvest fossil fuels enables us to move around in cars and grow a massive amount of food with chemical fertilisers.  These foods grow quickly and give us plenty of energy, but few nutrients that we then process and feed to animals or humans.[14]

Take a moment to think about how your life would be different if we had never discovered fossil fuels (e.g. coal or oil).  For as long as it lasts we are gorging ourselves on stored energy that is making us lazy and obese and driving not just us, but life as we know it to an early grave. If you want to care about something it should be the sustainability of the global environment (including animals and humans).

If you want to care about something it should be the sustainability of the global environment (including animals and humans).

While humans are probably the biggest threat to the long term sustainability of earth as we know it, most of us aren’t willing to volunteer ourselves or our family as the first ones to check out to save the planet.

[If you want some challenging thoughts on this topic you should check out Daniel Vitalis’ Why I Hunt podcast.]

The plural of anecdote is not data

So, finally, onto the Mastering Diabetes video.

Cyrus and Robbie look like genuinely nice guys.

They are both living with type 1 diabetes.

They look like they’re happy and thriving on a plant based diet full of fruits and vegetables.

To be honest, they look a lot healthier than many recovering diabetics in the low carb scene.

But at the same time, the zero carbers will hold up anecdotes of people who have not eaten a plant for decades and look as great as the Johnson Family.

Or Dr Shawn Baker who is setting world records as a masters athlete since cutting plants out of his diet.

Then the keto folks will point to Dr Dominic D’Agostino who thrives on high fat and exogenous ketones and is exceptionally smart and can lift very heavy stuff at the same time.

 [15]

While it’s useful to look at populations of people following a particular diet to look for trends, anecdote does not equal data.

It is more useful to look at underlying metrics (such as nutrient density and insulin load) that we can use to identify the optimal diet for humans.

I thought they would know better

Cyrus Khambatta is a smart guy.  He was studying mechanical engineering at Stanford before he got type 1 and changed course to study nutritional biochemistry.

However, for all his ability in nutrition, engineering and mathematics (I took those classes, and I know how hard they are!), I thought he would have more to offer than what was presented!

People with diabetes get screwed around by the mainstream medical system and ‘diabetes education’ system.  The system doesn’t really understand how it works, so they give them bad advice (e.g. “just eat like we tell everyone else to and cover it with insulin”)!

I remember clearly the anxiety and confusion we experienced after going to an appointment with the hospital endocrinologist when my wife Monica was pregnant with our daughter.

At her visits, she would routinely be told that she needed to reduce her blood sugars to avoid the many serious risks and complications and risks for her and the baby.  Monica asked what else she could do to get the blood sugars down, but they had no advice.  They just wanted to see them lower.

We now have two healthy and wonderful kids, but I if I can I would love to see other people spared the anxiety as well as minimise the genuine health risks related to diabetes.  Hence my quest to understand how we can make intelligent food choices to optimise blood sugar and insulin levels.

What is the actual relationship between insulin and the food we eat?

The food insulin index data is a highly valuable resource that helps us to understand what causes us to secrete insulin and our blood sugars to rise.   The chart below shows the results of the food insulin index testing on more than 100 different foods (click to enlarge).

The food insulin index testing demonstrates clearly that we have the lowest insulin response to fats and oils while we have the highest insulin response to high carbohydrate foods like jelly beans and rice bubbles.   However, when we plot this data, we see that carbohydrate does not fully explain our insulin response.

We get a much better prediction of our insulin response when we account for protein (which requires insulin to metabolise) and non-digestible fibre.

Eating more fat will decrease the amount of insulin required to keep our blood sugars stable.

Eating more protein will reduce the amount of insulin your pancreas has to produce because it will push the more insulinogenic processed carbohydrates and sugar out of your diet.

How to improve your insulin sensitivity

If you reduce your intake of processed carbs and sugars, your insulin requirements will come down.  Once your organs and muscles are no longer swimming in insulin, you will become more insulin sensitive (just like you become more sensitive to coffee or alcohol if you cut back your intake).

If you are injecting insulin, reducing the insulin load of your diet will enable you to significantly reduce your insulin dosage which will, in turn, allow you to more easily access your own body fat stores for fuel.[16]

This data is an inconvenient truth for both high carb vegans or the nutritional recommendations such Food Pyramid / My Plate generated by the US Dept of Agriculture.  But I think it could be beneficial for people who want to effectively manage their diabetes.

Granted, if you switch your processed grains and sugar for fruits and vegetables, you will do better.  But is it really optimal?

If you can’t win, move the goalposts!!!!

So what do you do if you can’t win with science?

You change the rules!  You move the goalposts.

It was Cyrus and Robby’s unique definition of insulin resistance that really frustrated me.

So you can understand my frustration, I need to explain the difference between basal and bolus insulin which is a daily reality for someone with type 1 diabetes.

  • Bolus insulin is taken with food and is proportional to the insulin load of the food they eat (i.e. carbs – fibre + half protein)[17].
  • Basal insulin is the insulin that your pancreas would produce through the day and night whether or not you eat anything.  It’s the basal insulin that keeps your fat in storage and your muscles from being used for fuel.

You need both, but their function is different.

For someone eating a standard western diet about one-third to a half of their insulin will be basal insulin with the majority being bolus insulin for the food you eat.

When you switch to a low carb or keto diet this ratio flips and the majority of your insulin is basal insulin.  You only need a little bit of bolus insulin to cover the small amount of carbohydrates and protein that you eat.   With less glucose to deal with, you don’t need as much insulin, and your blood sugars stabilise.[18]

A significant portion of the Mastering Diabetes video was devoted to explaining their new creative definition of insulin sensitivity.  The fundamental problem with this central piece of the Mastering Diabetes argument is that it conflates basal and bolus insulin.  Your basal insulin is irrelevant if you are trying to do this sort of insulin sensitivity calculation!

It’s just the bolus insulin (i.e. for food) that matters when it comes to insulin sensitivity.  The calculations in the table below demonstrate my point.   If you take the denominator to your insulin sensitivity calculations to be the basal + bolus insulin then the high carb approach has a better insulin sensitivity.  If you only consider the bolus insulin (the only sensible approach in my view), then you declare the low carb approach to be the winner.

  low carb high carb conclusion
ISF (g carb/unit insulin) 6 5
carbs (g) 50 500
bolus insulin (units) 8.3 100
basal insulin (units) 20 20
total daily insulin (per day) 28 120
24 carb / 24-hour insulin (basal + bolus) 1.8 4.2 High carb is better
24 carb / 24-hour insulin (bolus only) 6.0 5.0 Low carb is better

The chart below shows the difference in the daily blood sugar fluctuations of someone on a standard western diet and then after switching to a lower carb diet.  The difference in the blood sugar levels is night and day!  The difference in the quality of life between these two situations when it comes to energy levels, anxiety, depression, mood etc is also immensely different.

I pinged Mastering Diabetes on their Facebook page to clarify if the cornerstone of their whole argument includes basal and bolus insulin.  Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed (though they have since deleted their response and kicked me out of their Facebook Group).

Tight blood sugar control isn’t that important after all?

The next argument they try to run is that tight blood sugars really aren’t that necessary.

Cyrus (who is very active and practices intermittent fasting) has a Hba1c in the high 5s.

Robbie has a Hb1c in the low 6s.

Granted, this is good compared to the majority of the Type 1 population. They’ll have a better chance of thriving with good blood sugars if they are eating lots of vegetables and fruit compared to more processed grains and sugars that make up the typical diet.  But it’s still a far cry from the blood sugar control of people following the type of low carb approach advocated by Dr Richard Bernstein.

The problem I see with defining your diet as vegan or plant based is that most people don’t have the self-discipline to stick with eating only vegetables and fruit and end up filling up on more processed (but still technically vegan) processed junk food.

Cyrus and Robbie argue that normal blood glucose fluctuations are between 70mg/dL to 145 mg/dL or 3.8 to 8.0mmol/L.

The problem with this argument is that what currently passes for ‘normal’ is far from optimal.[19]  Complications from diabetes start to kick in well below what is widely considered “normal”.


Just because it’s normal for most people to do Facebook on their phone while they drive doesn’t mean it’s ideal or optimal.  Just because it’s normal to have poor blood sugar and most people are dying of metabolic diseases doesn’t sound like a persuasive argument for plant based diet being optimal to me!

If you’re happy to settle for less than optimal blood sugar control because you have a strong ethical position, then that’s fine, but don’t construe it as optimal for everyone when it’s not.

The reality is that many people over at Type 1 Grit following Dr Bernstein’s approach are doing fabulously!  Not everyone will achieve optimal, but it’s useful to know what to aim for and how to get there.

If you had a child or loved one with Type 1 diabetes would you want the opportunity to choose the approach that would yield the best results or would you prefer your advice to be tainted with ethical or commercial bias?

Check out the video the Type 1 Grit group put together for Dr B’s 83rd birthday to thank him for changing their lives.

Insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome are a big deal, so let’s not ruin more lives than we need to with bad advice that is based on bad math or putting ethical convictions or religious beliefs ahead of human health.

Understanding physiological insulin resistance

Cyrus and Robbie argue that someone on a low carb diet won’t deal with carbohydrate well when they are exposed to them.  This phenomenon is real, but is typically due to what is termed ‘physiological insulin resistance’.

Someone who eats a lot of carbohydrates will have high levels of insulin floating around in their bloodstream.  Then when they eat a carb bolus, their pancreas is primed to shoot out some more insulin to mop up the glucose and stop more glucose being released into the bloodstream via the liver.  By contrast, someone who doesn’t eat a lot of carbohydrates will have low levels of insulin in their bloodstream and need to wind up their pancreas to produce insulin to bring down the glucose.

This phenomenon is also referred to the first phase versus second insulin response.  Someone who is not eating a lot of carbs will have a slower first phase insulin response.

It’s like comparing someone’s time over 100m when they are starting from a standstill versus someone using a rolling start.  It’s not a relevant comparison.  This phenomenon will go away after a few days on a high carb diet.

At the same time though, micronutrients such as potassium, magnesium and calcium are critical to maintaining healthy insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake.   Metabolic acidosis (caused by a lack of dietary electrolytes) appears to cause an upregulation in insulin by the pancreas to hold onto precious electrolytes.  Over the long term, this could be another driver of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. [20]

Getting adequate dietary electrolytes from green leafy vegetables will make it easier for our body to maintain acid/base balance.  However, I don’t think we need to feed all diabetics a high carbohydrate exclusively plant based diet to achieve this.

Eating fat makes you fat?

The vegan community seems to confuse eating fat and storing fat.  The Ancel Keys / vegan story is that we store fat in our body because we overeat dietary fat.  However, the reality is that we get fat because we eat more than we burn.

As shown in the graphic from Ray Cronise’s Oxidative Priority paper, we will only burn fat (from our body or diet) once we’ve burned through the alcohol, ketones, protein and carbohydrate and fat that we eat (in that order).[21]

When we eat our body prioritises the refilling of our glucose and glycogen stores in our blood stream and liver (which can hold about 1200 to 2000 calories) before we start to store the excess energy in our adipose tissue.  Our body fat stores can hold a lot more energy, but not an unlimited amount.  Once our fat stores are full and can hold no more, they become insulin resistant.  We then start to store the excess energy in our vital organs such as our liver, kidney, brain, eyes, heart, etc.

The trick to weight loss is to keep your blood sugar levels low enough so that your liver glycogen is being replenished from your body fat rather than always having overfull glycogen stores, so we need to offload excess energy to our fat stores.[22]

One of the many roles of insulin is to shut off the flow of stored energy from the liver into the blood stream.  If energy is coming in the pancreas will upregulate insulin to stop the flow of glucose from the liver back into the blood stream (regardless of whether you’re eating carbs, fat or protein from animal or plant based sources).  The best way to reduce insulin is to stop eating and let your stored energy flow back into your blood stream.

In a way, you can think of your liver as your fuel tank and you your blood glucose meter as the fuel gauge.  If your blood sugars are high, you should think twice about whether you really need more fuel now.

If you are insulin sensitive, the bad news is that you can easily store excess energy as body fat very effectively.  Insulin is an anabolic hormone that will help you to grow.  However, when you are insulin sensitive, you can lose fat relatively easily when you reduce energy intake.  If you are insulin sensitive your circulating insulin levels will be low, and fuel will more easily flow from storage.  Hence you won’t be such a mindless slave to your uncontrollable appetite.

If you are insulin resistant and have high levels of circulating insulin, you may struggle to release your stored body fat.  Your appetite will drive you to seek out food because you can’t efficiently access it from your body stores.   You won’t be able to go very long between meals.

A low carb diet can be helpful for someone who is insulin resistant because it can help lower insulin which in turn help them to normalise their appetite.  Teaching that we get fat because we eat fat is just outdated science.

Even Dr Joel Fuhman will tell you that actively avoiding fat is stupid.  He will also tell you that there is some value in eating fish on a regular basis to ensure you get adequate amounts of omega 3s and vitamin B-12.

Complications on a ketogenic diet

There are plenty of studies that show the shortcomings of a ketogenic diet.  Sarah Ballantyne did a great job of summarising these on her Paleo Mom Blog here.

When you look in detail however you find that the adverse reactions the ketogenic diet are typically due to ‘keto in a can’ formula products.

While these food substitutes will help achieve therapeutic ketosis to help manage epilepsy or other chronic conditions, many of these keto formula products end up being very low in micronutrients.[23]

Obtaining a significant amount of your energy intake from processed food-like products that have been separated from nutrients is not a good idea (e.g. whether it be sugar, processed grains, refined oils or exogenous ketones).

Is a low carb diet actually good for diabetes?

Unfortunately, Cyrus and Robby didn’t mention the benefits of a low carb diet for people with diabetes which are fairly well documented.  The seminal paper that summarises much of the latest work in this area is documented in Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: Critical review and evidence base.

Anyone who is on the fence about using a low carb diet to manage diabetes should check out this paper which shows that a low carb diet is better for weight, HbA1c, glucose, HDL and triglycerides compared to low GI or a grain based diet.

Another well-known study is Christopher Gardener’s A to Z trial[24]  where they found that the Atkins diet did much better than the low fat, particularly if you were already insulin resistant.[25]

Image result for atkins at to z

What should you eat if you are a vegan with diabetes?

So, after all this, what should we eat to maintain optimal blood sugar levels?  Cyrus and Robby’s view is shown below.    Unfortunately, it appears that their recommendations are driven more by their philosophical and ethical views rather than the nutrient content of the food or their ability to stabilise blood sugars.

  • In the green column, most people with diabetes aren’t going to do too well with a lot of fruits, starchy veggies, and beans. Intact whole grains do contain substantial nutrients but are very hard to find in our modern food system.  Who actually eats wheat bran as a substantial part of their diet?  The vast majority of grains are processed with the nutrients discarded so they are tasty and shelf stable.
  • In the red column, dairy eggs, meat, fish and poultry can be nutrient dense and keep your blood sugars stable (as long as you’re not afraid of fat in whole foods or ‘animal protein’).
  • In the orange column, higher fat foods like nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut and olives can be useful to help stabilise your blood sugars, but it is possible to overconsume them if your goal is to lose weight.

We want to maximise nutrient density as much as possible while keeping the insulin load of our diet down to the point that we keep blood sugars stable.

This does not end up being super high fat or super low fat.  Fat just comes along with nutritious whole foods.

If you have diabetes, then a little more dietary fat initially may help to stabilise blood sugars.  Once your blood glucose levels have stabilised, you can start to decrease the dietary fat and increase nutrient density as much as you can while still maintaining excellent blood sugar levels.

A low insulin load diabetes-friendly plant based nutritional approach will be lacking omega 3 and vitamin B-12.

The shortlist of nutrient dense low insulin load plant based foods is shown below.  The foods at the top of each section should be reasonably safe for most people with diabetes.  You should test your blood sugars to see how you respond to some of the foods further down the list.

Many people who are conscious of animal welfare will eat fish (i.e. pescetarian).  Adding some fish will provide a much better nutritional profile than eating plants alone, with plenty of vitamin B12 and omega 3 available from the seafood.

I hope this is helpful for people who want to choose a plant based approach to maximise nutrient density and maintain excellent blood sugar control.

If you’re still confused, I have designed the Nutrient Optimiser to identify what foods you should add or remove from your diet to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need while maintaining excellent blood sugar levels.

So which approach is optimal?

It depends.

The optimal approach for you will depend on your situation and goals.

Going plant based may be an improvement if your diet is currently full of sugar and processed grains, but it is not the singular solution to every ill.  (For an excellent example of a very nutrient dense plant based dietary approach check out David’s Nutrient Optimiser analysis here.)

To help you make more informed food choices I have devised two different ways of measuring food quality:

  • Proportion of insulinogenic calories, and
  • Nutrient density.

The proportion of insulinogenic calories is the percentage of the food you eat that will require insulin to metabolise.  The table below lists a range of nutritional approaches ranked by the percentage of insulinogenic calories (right-hand column).

If you’re interested in any of these approaches you can download the list and save it to your phone or print it out to take shopping for some inspiration.

approach pdf foods nutrient profile % insulinogenic
well formulated ketogenic diet pdf foods profile 21
low carb pdf foods profile 34
plant based (diabetes friendly) pdf foods profile 56
weight loss and insulin resistance pdf foods profile 59
low carb pescitarian pdf foods profile 61
the most nutrient dense foods pdf foods profile 67
plant based pdf foods profile 68
plant based (without ND) profile 73

Simply switching to a plant based nutritional approach will leave you with 73% of your diet requiring insulin to metabolise.  The diabetes friendly plant based approach will be an improvement, but a low carb or ketogenic diet may be better if your goal is stable blood glucose levels.

Another way to look at things is nutrient density.  You may have noticed the nutrient profiles shown above have a red dotted box.  If a particular nutritional approach provides two times the Daily Recommended Intake for all essential nutrients then you would get a perfect score of 100%.  You can see below that the most nutritious foods below are pretty close to 100%.

By contrast, if we only focus on ‘plant based foods’ nutritional outcome is not so flash.  Thinking only in terms of plant based is not automatically nutrient dense.

I have sorted the various food lists in the table below based on their nutrient score.  My suggestion is to start at the top with the most nutrient dense foods and work your way down until you find an approach that suits your ethical framework or religious beliefs that will also enable you to stabilise your blood glucose levels (i.e. lower % insulinogenic calories).

approach score pdf foods nutrient profile % insulinogenic
the most nutrient dense foods 99.7% pdf foods profile 67
weight loss and insulin resistance 99.3% pdf foods profile 59
low carb pescitarian 94.5% pdf foods profile 61
low carbohydrate 81.0% pdf foods profile 34
plant based 78.0% pdf foods profile 68
plant based (diabetes friendly) 76.0% pdf foods profile 56
well formulated ketogenic diet 74.0% pdf foods profile 21
plant based (without ND) 57.0% profile 73

Summary

  • While many people chose exclusively plant based foods, they are not necessarily a better dietary choice compared to a more varied diet.
  • Someone following an exclusively plant based approach will require supplementation with vitamin B-12, vitamin D and omega 3s.
  • Fat is not necessarily good or bad. Swinging to macronutrient extremes will not lead to an optimal outcome.
  • Reducing the insulin load of your diet will help to normalise your blood sugar and insulin levels.
  • Ideally, you should aim to achieve the blood sugars of a metabolically healthy person while maximising nutrient density at the same time.

 

references

[1]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25515001

[2]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/07/20/the-glucose-ketone-relationship/

[3]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC301822/

[4]https://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/coral2.html

[5]https://authoritynutrition.com/the-alkaline-diet-myth/

[6]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2017/03/19/micronutrients-at-macronutrient-extremes/

[7]https://socialblade.com/youtube/user/nutritionfactsorg

[8]https://nutritionfacts.org/donate/

[9]http://www.hsi.org/about/who_we_are/leadership/subject_experts/michael_greger.html

[10]https://www.facebook.com/mangomannutrition/videos/656469947843978/

[11]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/10/23/energy-density-food-hyper-palatability-and-reverse-engineering-optimal-foraging-theory/

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

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

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

[15]https://fineartamerica.com/featured/8-muscleart-marius-poser-classic-jake-hartz.html

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

[17]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/08/10/insulin-dosing-options-for-type-1-diabetes/

[18]https://www.facebook.com/Type1Grit/

[19]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/07/20/the-glucose-ketone-relationship/

[20]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC301822/

[21]http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/met.2016.0108

[22]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/02/15/how-to-use-your-glucose-meter-as-a-fuel-gauge/

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

[24]http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/205916

[25]http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21331/full

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 operate 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/

comparison of nutrients by food group

There are lots of claims about different dietary approaches.

  • Fruitarians advocate living on 30 bananas a day say you don’t need much else for health and athletic performance.[1]
  • Vegans say that in addition to high levels of vitamins and minerals, you can get all the protein and essential fatty acids you need from plant based foods.[2]
  • Zero Carbers who look like they’re doing great on purely animal foods and no plants and say they don’t need fibre and perhaps vitamins and minerals.[3]
  • Ketonians believe that you can’t go wrong with fat.[4]
  • Meanwhile the registered dieticians tell us that we shouldn’t eliminate whole food groups (like grains) or risk missing out on essential nutrients.[5]

As detailed in the Building a Better Nutrient Density Index article, we can quantitatively rank individual foods based on their nutrient density.  Eating nutrient dense foods will enable us to maximise satiety and avoid malnutrition and reduce the energy intake while avoiding malnutrition.

The Most Nutrient Dense Superfoods  article lists a wide range of whole foods from various food groups.   But could you thrive on a single food group?  And if you had to live on a single food food group, is there one that would be better than the others?

This article compares the the nutrients provided by the following food groups:

  • vegetables
  • fruits
  • cereals and grains
  • legumes
  • nuts and seeds
  • grains and cereals
  • eggs
  • dairy
  • animal products
  • ketogenic[6]
  • must nutrient dense

All of the charts below show the vitamins, mineral, amino acids and essential fatty acids on the same scale for comparison.   I have also included a selection of the most nutrient foods as an example.

I’ve listed some pros and cons that came to mind for each category.  I’m sure you could come up with some of your own.

vegetables

image07

pros

  • It’s hard to eat too many vegetables as they typically have a low energy density and high nutrient density which will lead to increased satiety (adequate nutrients) and satiation (feeling full).
  • As well as vitamins and minerals, it appears that you could obtain adequate (but not excessive) protein from nutrient dense vegetables (i.e. you could get more than 100% of the DRI for the amino acids from vegetables only).
  • Vegans who consume exclusively plant foods tend to have a lower BMI and less diabetes. This makes sense as limiting yourself exclusively to low energy density plant based foods would help to prevent you overeating.

cons

  • A diet comprising of only vegetables may be lower in Vitamins E, D, choline, and pantothenic acid.
  • Vitamin V-12 is very low in plant based foods.  One of the common concerns when it comes to plant based diets is a lack of vitamin B-12 and vegans often require B-12 injections.[7]
  • There are negligible quantities for the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA in vegetables. If you were to eat only plant based foods it might be beneficial to supplement with essential fatty acids.[8]
  • Vegetables are not subsidised the way that grain based foods often are. They do not store and transport as well as more processed foods and hence can be more expensive.
  • Vegetables can require more preparation and cooking time than processed pre-packaged foods.

image19

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
celery 1.31 88% 1 17
Chinese cabbage 0.96 73% 1 17
rhubarb 0.83 91% 3 21
lettuce 0.73 83% 2 17
turnip greens 0.69 82% 2 37
asparagus 0.67 77% 2 27
broccoli 0.59 86% 4 42
winter squash 0.59 95% 6 39

fruit

image06

pros

  • Fruit provides solid levels of vitamins and minerals and has a lower energy density compared to grain based foods.
  • Fruits are can be more transportable compared to vegetables (e.g. easier to put in school lunches).

cons

  • Fruit tends to have the same nutritional gaps as vegetables (i.e. vitamin E, D, pantothenic acid, choline and essential fatty acids).
  • Some fruits have a higher energy density and amount of non-fibre carbohydrates compared to vegetables. This may be an issue if you are watching your blood glucose levels or your weight. Many fruits have a very high proportion of insulinogenic calories so may not be ideal for someone who is insulin resistant as it will raise their blood glucose levels.

image17

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
cherries 0.30 95% 10 54
orange 0.23 95% 10 55
grapes 0.18 97% 17 77
apples 0.18 97% 11 53
blueberries 0.14 98% 20 91
figs 0.12 96% 16 82
litchis 0.11 94% 15 73
mandarin oranges 0.10 94% 12 59
honeydew melon 0.08 96% 8 40
passion fruit 0.07 91% 13 109

grains and cereals

image10

pros

  • Grains are cheap compared to fruit and vegetables, largely due to production subsidies.[9]
  • Grain based foods can be processed (to remove the fibre and water) so they can be easily transported and stored for longer periods.
  • Grains provide some fibre, but less than vegetables.
  • Grains provide a provide a wide range of nutrients, but at much lower levels than the other food groups.

cons

  • The highest nutrient density grain based foods are typically unprocessed and rarely consumed.
  • The nutrient density of most breads and cereals are very poor, particularly after processing.
  • Grains have a high energy density, a high proportion of insulinogenic calories and a high amount of non-fibre carbohydrates. image04
food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
teff 0.31 91% 17 101
spelt 0.24 91% 23 135
quinoa 0.17 79% 19 120
millet 0.14 87% 22 118
brown rice 0.02 90% 22 111

legumes

image01

pros

  • Legumes provide a range of nutrients at a lower cost compared to vegetables.
  • The energy density of beans and legumes is moderate so they can provide more fuel if you can’t fit in any more veggies.
  • Legumes provide a solid level of protein, particularly for those not wanting to consume animal based foods.

cons

  • The nutrient density of legumes is low compared to other sources such as vegetables.
  • Legumes have higher levels of non-fibre carbohydrates and a higher proportion of insulinogenic calories which may be problematic if you are watching your blood glucose levels.
  • Some people can’t tolerate high levels of the lectin proteins in legumes.[10] [11]

image11

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
lima beans 0.22 92% 16 129
navy beans 0.16 86% 16 143
lentils 0.12 89% 12 118
hummus 0.08 46% 8 175
peanuts 0.03 24% 7 605
tofu 0.02 29% 2 112

nuts and seeds

image02

pros

  • Nuts are higher in what is typically considered to be ‘good fats’ (i.e. MUFA and PUFA).
  • Being higher in fat they are a good way for people with diabetes to get their calories without raising their blood glucose levels.

cons

  • Nuts and seeds provide a good range of vitamins and minerals but at lower levels per calorie than some of the other groups due to the higher energy density.
  • Nuts are calorie dense which may make weight loss more challenging.
  • Nuts have a relatively low nutrient density due to their high energy density.

image15

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
sunflower seeds 0.04 27% 20 491
tahini 0.03 22% 17 633
pistachio nuts 0.03 30% 19 602
pine nuts 0.03 14% 2 647
pecans 0.02 10% 5 762
pumpkin seeds 0.00 36% 48 777
macadamia nuts 0.00 9% 5 769
sesame seeds 0.00 26% 12 603
almonds 0.00 18% 7 652
cashew nuts 0.00 27% 30 609

eggs and dairy

image08

pros

  • Eggs have a solid protein profile, some EPA and DHA and a reasonable amount of vitamins and minerals.
  • Eggs and cheeses are typically lower in carbohydrates which is useful for people trying to normalise their blood glucose levels.
  • Dairy foods like cheese and cream are lower in non-fibre carbohydrates and have a low proportion of insulinogenic calories meaning that they won’t significantly raise your blood glucose levels.

cons

  • The energy density of cheese and some other dairy products is higher which makes it possible to overconsume. Lots of people do better with weight loss when they limit milk and cheese.
  • While the latest US dietary guidelines committee has stated that saturated fat is no longer a nutrient of concern,[12] many people are still concerned about their levels of saturated fat.
  • Milk, a commonly consumed dairy product, is not particularly nutrient dense and contains lactose which will raise blood glucose. Though full fat milk is better than low fat.
  • Many people find that they are allergic to eggs[13] or dairy[14].

image08

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs / 100g calories / 100g
egg yolk 0.19 19% 3.6 317
egg 0.20 29% 0.7 138
blue cheese 0.16 20% 2.3 354
parmesan cheese 0.16 30% 3.4 411
goat cheese 0.15 22% 2.2 451
edam cheese 0.15 22% 1.4 356
provolone 0.15 24% 2.1 350
gouda cheese 0.15 23% 2.2 356
mozzarella 0.15 51% 24 251

seafood

image14

pros

  • Seafood contains essential fatty acids EPA and DHA that are hard to obtain in the rest of the food system.
  • Seafood products have very high levels of protein and substantial levels of many vitamins and minerals.
  • Seafood has a low to moderate calorie density (i.e. lower than high fat cheese cheese but higher than vegetables).
  • Because seafood is so rich in essential fatty acids and amino acids we don’t actually need that much to cover our minimum requirements.

cons

  • Fish can be more expensive than other foods.
  • Many people are concerned about heavy metal toxicity and sustainability issues surrounding seafood.[15]

image21

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
oyster 0.12 57% 14 98
anchovy 0.11 42% 21 203
caviar 0.10 32% 22 276
swordfish 0.09 41% 17 165
tuna 0.09 50% 17 137
trout 0.08 43% 17 162
lobster 0.08 69% 14 84
salmon 0.08 50% 15 122
mackerel 0.08 45% 17 149

animal products

image11

pros

  • Animal products have an excellent amino acid profile as well as significant amounts of other vitamins and minerals.

cons

  • Animal products are lacking in a number of vitamins and minerals such as manganese, vitamin E, vitamin D, folate and vitamin K as well as essential fatty acids EPA and DHA.
  • Similar to fish, many people have concerns in the areas of sustainability and environmental impact.

image09

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories / 100g
beef liver 0.39 58% 24 169
chicken liver 0.32 48% 20 165
ham 0.25 55% 20 146
salami 0.22 29% 12 166
bacon 0.17 23% 30 522
turkey heart 0.22 39% 13 130
pork 0.21 54% 21 154

most ketogenic

The ‘most ketogenic foods’ are the 500 foods with the lowest percentage of insulinogenic calories of the 7000 foods in the USDA foods database.

image00

pros

  • If someone is insulin resistant, replacing processed non-fibre carbohydrates with fat will help to reduce insulin and blood glucose levels.
  • The ketogenic approach has relatively high levels of essential fatty acids. While the nutritional value of fat is a contentious issue, many fatty acids have substantial positive nutritional value.[16]
  • People who are insulin resistant will benefit by reducing the insulin load of their diet.

cons

  • The nutrient density of a therapeutic ketogenic approach is relatively poor. Someone looking to manage insulin resistance and diabetes should maximise nutrient density as much as possible while still maintaining excellent blood glucose levels.
  • A high fat / low insulin load diet is typically satiating,[17] however it is possible to overdo energy dense foods to the point that you won’t lose weight.
food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g / 100g) calories / 100g
sunflower seeds 0.21 20% 24 491
peanuts 0.20 18% 28 605
tahini 0.19 16% 26 633
pine nuts 0.18 11% 18 647
pecans 0.16 5% 9 762
egg yolk 0.19 19% 15 317
macadamia nuts 0.14 5% 9 769
chorizo 0.14 17% 19 448
olives 0.18 15% 3 90
pepperoni 0.14 14% 17 487
sesame seeds 0.13 18% 27 603
camembert cheese 0.14 20% 15 299

most nutrient dense

The chart below shows the comparison of all 7000 foods in the USDA database compared to the top 10% of the foods available prioritised by targeting the harder to obtain nutrients.

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macronutrients split of all food groups

Just for interest, the table below shows the comparison of the macronutrients of the various food groups as well as the fibre and energy density.

food group % insulinogenic protein (%) fat (%) net carbs (%) fibre (g/200cal) weight

 (g/2000 cal)

vegetables 60 18 11 48 107 2213
fruit 81 4 5 78 52 2142
cereals and grains 82 10 9 75 29 553
eggs and dairy 45 24 41 29 2 920
fish 55 70 26 4 0 155
animal products 46 62 37 1 0 1112
legumes 58 28 24 39 34 1141
nuts and seeds 36 11 58 28 16 382
most ketogenic 10 11 79 3 9 404
moderated nutrient density 54 22 20 39 64 928

comparison of the nutrient density by food groups

The chart below the average nutrient density of all the different food groups in terms of amount of nutrients provided versus the daily recommended intake.  If we just look in terms of average nutrient density (blue bars), fish does pretty well, followed by animal products and then vegetables.

However, what we really want is high levels of nutrient density across the board, not just a large amount of a few nutrients.  For example, fish and animal products have very high levels of protein but lower levels of vitamins and minerals.  By comparison, vegetables have higher levels of vitamins and minerals and do OK when it comes to amino acids.  What we want is for the quantity of nutrients to be high and the variability across the nutrients to be low.

The orange bars show the average nutrient density minus 0.8 times the standard deviation in the nutrient density.  When we look at it this way the vegetables do the best of the food groups because they provide a good range of vitamins, minerals and proteins.

image19

However, in the end though it’s the most nutrient dense foods that win out because they provide high levels of a broad selection of all the nutrients.  So, rather than focusing on a particular food group, if you’re interested in maximising nutrient density, the optimal approach appears to be to focus on the most nutrient dense foods across all of the food groups.

 

references

[1] http://www.30bananasaday.com/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n20uGGNoVdo

[3] https://zerocarbzen.com/

[4] http://ketotalk.com/2016/04/17-too-much-fat-higher-vs-lower-ketones-cortisol-testosterone-on-keto/

[5] http://daa.asn.au/for-the-public/smart-eating-for-you/nutrition-a-z/fad-diets/

[6] The most ketogenic foods are the top 500 foods with the lowest proportion of insulinogenic calories.

[7] http://chriskresser.com/why-you-should-think-twice-about-vegetarian-and-vegan-diets/

[8] http://nutritionfacts.org/video/plant-based-omega-3-supplements-2/

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

[10] https://authoritynutrition.com/dietary-lectins/

[11] http://www.marksdailyapple.com/lectins/

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3eu7DQa4bw

[13] http://acaai.org/allergies/types/food-allergies/types-food-allergy/egg-allergy

[14] http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/milk-allergy/basics/symptoms/con-20032147

[15] https://jasonprall.com/blog/mercury-myth-fish-tale-epic-proportion/

[16] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/10/11/good-fats-bad-fats/

[17] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18175736

nutrient dense diabetic friendly vegan foods

  • Eating plant-based foods can be a great way to improve nutrient density and reduce the amount of highly insulinogenic processed carbohydrates in your diet.
  • This article looks at how we can optimize a plant-based diet for nutrient density as well as diabetic friendly by reducing insulin load.
  • Finally, we will look at whether adding additional food groups such as seafood, dairy or eggs would diminish or improve the nutrient density of a plant based approach.

nutrient density

A nutrient dense diet is key to maximizing health and satiety with a minimum of calories.  Maximising nutrient density enables our mitochondria to do more with less.

If our world is full of beneficial nutrients our body realises that there is no longer an energy crisis and is more likely to stop searching for more nutrients and lets go of our stored body fat and decrease appetite.

As detailed in the ‘Building a Better Nutrient Density Index’ article, quantifying nutrient density enables us to prioritise foods that contain the highest amount of essential nutrients that are harder to obtain.[1]

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the percentage of the recommended daily intake of various essential nutrients provided by:

  • all 7000+ foods in the USDA foods database,
  • plant based foods, and
  • the most nutrient dense plant based foods.

2016-10-22

Restricting ourselves to ‘plant based’ foods will improve the vitamin and mineral content of the foods we eat.  However, focusing on the most nutrient dense plant based foods allows us to improve nutrient density even further

most nutrient dense plant based foods

Listed below is a summary of the most nutrient dense plant based foods sorted by their nutrient density score.  The nutrient density score (ND) is shown for each of the foods.

As you can see from the plot below from Nutrition Data, celery, which has a very high nutrient density score (ND), will provide you with a range of vitamins and minerals equivalent to 92% of your recommended daily intake with 1000 calories and 83% of your protein intake with 1000 calories.  Keep in mind though that you would need to eat five bunches of celery to get that 1000 calories though.

2016-10-22-1

The fact that broccoli has a low energy density may be a benefit if you are trying to lose weight, but perhaps would not be so helpful if you are fueling for an Ironman Triathlon.

Also shown in the tables below is the net carbohydrates and calories per 100g for each of the foods listed.

The great thing about most of these foods is that they will provide you with heaps of nutrients while having a low energy density which will make it hard to over consume them to a point that they will spike your blood glucose levels.

Listed below are the most nutrient dense plant based foods.  In the second half of this article we will look at how we can choose foods that will be more gentle on blood glucose levels for those of us that are more insulin resistant.

vegetables and spices 

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 13 2 11 2.2
white mushroom 10 5 22 1.8
spinach 10 4 23 1.7
portabella mushrooms 10 5 29 1.7
asparagus 10 3 22 1.7
spirulina 9 6 26 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
brown mushrooms 8 5 22 1.3
basil 8 3 23 1.3
chard 8 3 19 1.3
endive 7 1 17 1.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 1.2
seaweed (wakame) 7 11 45 1.1
zucchini 6 2 17 1.0
cauliflower 6 4 25 1.0
Chinese cabbage 6 2 12 1.0
turnip greens 5 4 29 0.9
chicory greens 5 2 23 0.9
escarole 5 1 19 0.9
mung beans 5 4 19 0.9
lettuce 5 2 15 0.9
parsley 5 5 36 0.8
radicchio 4 4 23 0.7
edamame 4 13 121 0.7
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 0.7
peas 4 7 42 0.7
soybeans (sprouted) 4 12 81 0.7
seaweed (kelp) 4 10 43 0.6
shiitake mushrooms 3 72 296 0.6
chives 3 4 30 0.6
paprika 3 26 282 0.6
coriander 3 2 23 0.6
collards 3 4 33 0.5
summer squash 3 2 19 0.5
beet greens 3 2 22 0.5
okra 3 3 22 0.5
mustard seed 3 37 508 0.5
celery 2 3 18 0.5
curry powder 2 14 325 0.4
arugula 2 3 25 0.4
Brussel sprouts 2 6 42 0.4
pumpkin 2 4 20 0.3
snap beans 1 3 15 0.3
carrots 1 4 23 0.2
chayote 1 3 24 0.2
cabbage 1 4 23 0.2
cloves 1 35 274 0.2
kale 1 5 28 0.2
radishes 0 2 16 0.1
jalapeno peppers 0 3 27 0.1
dandelion greens 0 7 45 0.1
pickles 0 1 12 0.1
cucumber 0 1 12 0.1
turnips 0 3 21 0.1
eggplant -0 3 25 0.1
red peppers -0 3 31 0.0
lima beans -0 20 113 0.0
yeast extract spread -0 27 185 0.0
sauerkraut -0 2 19 0.0

legumes

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 5 8 83 0.9
soybeans 2 49 446 0.3
lentils 1 19 116 0.2
natto 1 22 211 0.2
navy beans 1 22 140 0.2
cowpeas 0 68 336 0.1
broad beans -0 54 341 0.0
peas -0 57 352 0.0

nuts and seeds

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 0.6
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 0.0
brazil nuts -0 16 659 0.0
walnuts -1 22 619 -0.1
almond butter -2 26 614 -0.2
almonds -2 25 607 -0.2
flax seed -2 16 534 -0.3
pistachio nuts -2 34 569 -0.3
sesame seeds -3 17 631 -0.4
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4
hazelnuts -3 17 629 -0.4
cashews -3 40 580 -0.4
sesame butter -3 33 586 -0.4
pine nuts -3 21 673 -0.4
butternuts -3 28 612 -0.5

fruit

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
carambola -1 5 31 -0.1
blackberries -2 3 43 -0.3
cranberries -2 8 46 -0.3
avocado -2 3 160 -0.3
kiwifruit -2 9 61 -0.3
apricots -3 10 48 -0.4
raspberries -3 4 52 -0.4
peaches -3 8 39 -0.4
grapefruit -3 8 33 -0.4
mulberries -3 9 43 -0.5
boysenberries -3 8 50 -0.5
strawberries -3 4 32 -0.5
nectarines -3 9 44 -0.5

diabetic friendly nutrient dense vegan foods

While the foods listed above would represent a significant dietary improvement for most people, those who are insulin resistant may struggle to keep their blood glucose levels stable if they eat too much non-fibre carbohydrate that can be found in plant based foods (e.g. bread, sweet potato, quinoa, rice, beans or spaghetti).

It is hard to get too many calories and / or spike your glucose levels if you restrict yourself to vegetables like celery, broccoli and spinach.

The problem comes if you are still hungry after you have eaten your fill of non-starchy veggies and are not wanting to lose more weight.  People using a plant based approach may end up filling up on energy dense higher carbohydrate foods which are more likely to raise their blood glucose and insulin levels.

As shown in the chart below, our insulin response to food is only partially explained by the quantity of carbohydrates in our food.

image01

The analysis of the food insulin index data indicates that our insulin response is also influenced by the fibre and the protein in the foods we eat.

image02

We can use the formula below to estimate the amount of insulin that our food will require as shown by the formula below.  Foods with a lower insulin load will enable your pancreas to keep up with demand and maintain normal blood glucose levels without the ‘blood glucose roller coaster’.

insulin load (g)=carbohydrates (g)-fiber (g) + 0.56*protein (g)

The higher fat foods actually have a lower nutrient density than the most nutrient dense vegetarian foods listed above.  Ideally in time someone with insulin resistance would be able to restore their insulin sensitivity through eating nutrient dense, low insulin load foods along with perhaps intermittent fasting and exercise.  However, in the meantime the lower insulin load foods will enable you to maintain normal blood glucose levels.

The list of foods below is prioritised by both nutrient density and the proportion of insulinogenic calories.  These foods will provide high levels of nutrition while also being gentle on your blood glucose levels with lower levels of insulin required.

vegetables

The vegetables in this list have a lower percentage of insulinogenic calories, lower amounts of net carbohydrates and a low energy density and therefore will have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels.   While the percentage of insulinogenic calories is often high, the net carbohydrates is low so the effect on blood glucose will be minimal.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
curry powder 2 14 325 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
endive 8 1 17 1.3
poppy seeds -2 23 525 1.3
chicory greens 5 2 23 1.3
escarole 6 1 19 1.2
paprika 3 26 282 1.1
mustard seed 3 37 508 1.1
caraway seed -0 28 333 1.0
coriander 2 2 23 1.0
nutmeg -8 32 525 0.9
sage -5 26 315 0.9
mace -8 34 475 0.8
beet greens 3 2 22 0.8
marjoram -6 27 271 0.7
collards 3 4 33 0.7
eggplant -0 3 25 0.7
cloves -0 35 274 0.7
zucchini 6 2 17 0.7
thyme -2 31 276 0.7
banana pepper -2 3 27 0.6
edamame 5 13 121 0.6
jalapeno peppers -1 3 27 0.6
mustard greens -2 3 27 0.6
cinnamon -5 30 247 0.6
turnip greens 8 4 29 0.6
spinach 13 4 23 0.6
sauerkraut -1 2 19 0.6
pickles -1 1 12 0.6
cucumber -1 1 12 0.6
chayote 0 3 24 0.5
basil 9 3 23 0.5
red peppers -1 3 31 0.5
asparagus 11 3 22 0.5
radishes -1 2 16 0.4
cumin -6 44 375 0.4
summer squash 3 2 19 0.4
dill seed -3 43 305 0.4
parsley 5 5 36 0.4
chard 9 3 19 0.4
chives 5 4 30 0.4
arugula 0 3 25 0.4
lettuce 6 2 15 0.4
soybeans (sprouted) 5 12 81 0.4
cauliflower 6 4 25 0.3
portabella mushrooms 11 5 29 0.3
okra 4 3 22 0.3
Chinese cabbage 8 2 12 0.3
Brussel sprouts 1 6 42 0.2
carrots -1 5 37 0.2
celery 2 3 18 0.2
turnips -0 3 21 0.2
artichokes -2 7 47 0.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 0.1
watercress 17 2 11 0.1
dandelion greens -1 7 45 0.0
cabbage 0 4 23 0.0
celery flakes -4 42 319 -0.0
red cabbage -3 5 29 -0.0
white mushroom 11 5 22 -0.1
snap beans 1 3 15 -0.1
bay leaf -7 53 313 -0.1
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 -0.1
rhubarb -4 3 21 -0.1
pepper -2 47 251 -0.1
kale 1 5 28 -0.1
yeast extract spread -2 27 185 -0.2
carrots 1 4 23 -0.2
spirulina 13 6 26 -0.2
peas 5 7 42 -0.2
turnips -3 4 22 -0.3
turmeric -2 52 312 -0.3
radicchio 4 4 23 -0.3
onions -0 6 32 -0.3
carrots -1 7 41 -0.3
potatoes -4 26 158 -0.4

nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories as well as being lower in net carbs which makes them diabetic friendly.  They do have a considerably higher energy density and hence, unlike the veggies, it is possible to overeat nuts and seeds if you’re keeping an eye on your weight.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
brazil nuts -1 16 659 1.6
pecans -6 12 691 1.6
macadamia nuts -7 12 718 1.6
sesame seeds -3 17 631 1.5
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 1.5
hazelnuts -4 17 629 1.5
coconut milk -6 5 230 1.5
coconut cream -7 7 330 1.5
flax seed -3 16 534 1.5
coconut meat -7 9 354 1.5
walnuts -1 22 619 1.5
pine nuts -4 21 673 1.5
almonds -3 25 607 1.4
almond butter -2 26 614 1.3
butternuts -3 28 612 1.3
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 1.3
sesame butter -4 33 586 1.1
pistachio nuts -3 34 569 1.1
cashews -4 40 580 0.9
coconut -7 39 443 0.6
gingko nuts -6 15 111 -0.0
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4

fruits

The list of diabetic friendly fruits with a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories ends up being quite short.  Some of these fruits will raise your blood glucose levels if you eat enough of them.  So if you are particularly insulin resistant then you will want to limit your quantity of fruit or stick to the lower insulin load fruits (e.g. olives and avocados rather than mango).

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
olives -6 1 145 1.7
avocado -4 3 160 1.6
blackberries -4 3 43 0.9
raspberries -4 4 52 0.8
strawberries -4 4 32 0.1
apples -7 7 52 0.0
gooseberries -6 6 44 -0.0
carambola -1 5 31 -0.0
kiwifruit -3 9 61 -0.1
boysenberries -5 8 50 -0.1
passionfruit -7 14 97 -0.1
apples -7 7 48 -0.1
pears -7 7 50 -0.1
blueberries -6 9 57 -0.2
blueberries -7 14 88 -0.3
watermelon -5 5 30 -0.3
cherries -7 9 50 -0.4
mango -5 11 60 -0.4
cranberries -3 8 46 -0.4

legumes

These legumes have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories and lower carbohydrates, however there may still be some impact on blood glucose with the moderate levels of carbohydrates, so you may want to keep an eye on your blood glucose levels when you try these foods to see how you react to them.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 9 8 83 1.1
peanuts -3 29 599 0.5
natto 2 22 211 0.5
soybeans 3 49 446 0.5
peanut butter -4 27 593 0.4
lupin seeds 1 50 371 0.2
miso -1 25 198 0.1
lentils 1 19 116 -0.0
navy beans 0 22 140 -0.0
broad beans 0 54 341 -0.1
hummus -4 20 177 -0.1
peas -0 57 352 -0.1
chick peas -2 27 164 -0.2
kidney beans -0 63 337 -0.3
black beans -1 63 341 -0.3
cowpeas 1 68 336 -0.4
garbanzo beans -2 67 378 -0.4
pinto beans -1 64 347 -0.4

what about pescetarian, lacto, ovo options?

In the development of this article I spoke with Barry Erdman who runs the Vegetarian Low Carb Diabetic Healthy Diet Society Facebook group.

Barry has been a strict vegetarian since 1970 and was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes nine years ago.  Barry maintained a nutrient dense plant based diet after his diagnosis, however found that he needed to incorporate dairy, eggs and some oils (e.g. MCT, coconut) into his vegetarian diet in order to achieve acceptable blood glucose control.  Barry told me that when he lost 30 lbs when he switched from a vegetarian diet to a LCHF keto lacto ovo vegetarian diet eliminating all grains, bad oils and fruit (except berries).

Barry also came to the conclusion that he would need to incorporate some fish oil into his diet in order to provide adequate levels of essential fatty acids which are not available in significant quantities in plant based products.

Barry asked me to have a look at how a lacto, ovo, pescitarian diet would stack up against the straight vegan approach.  So listed below are the most nutrient dense lacto (dairy), ovo (eggs), and pescetarian (seafood) diabetic friendly foods.

image11

For those who are interested in adding eggs or seafood I have listed them based on their nutrient density and proportion of insulinogenic calories.

eggs and dairy

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
butter -6 3 718 1.7
cream -5 5 340 1.6
egg yolk 5 12 275 1.5
cream cheese -4 10 350 1.4
sour cream -4 6 198 1.4
limburger cheese -2 15 327 1.2
cheddar cheese -2 20 410 1.2
camembert -2 16 300 1.2
whole egg 5 10 143 1.2
blue cheese -2 19 353 1.1
Monterey cheese -2 19 373 1.1
muenster cheese -2 19 368 1.1
brie -3 16 334 1.1
Swiss cheese -1 22 393 1.1
gruyere cheese -1 23 413 1.1
feta cheese -1 15 264 1.1
Colby -3 20 394 1.1
edam cheese -2 21 357 1.1
goat cheese -3 14 264 1.1
gouda cheese -2 21 356 1.1
ricotta -3 12 174 0.9
sour cream (light) -4 9 136 0.9
mozzarella -0 26 304 0.8
parmesan cheese -2 35 420 0.7
Greek yogurt -2 9 97 0.6
milk (full fat) -1 7 64 0.4

seafood

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
mackerel 2 10 305 1.6
caviar 8 23 264 1.1
cisco 4 13 177 1.1
sardine 6 19 208 0.9
herring 5 19 217 0.9
fish roe 12 18 143 0.8
trout 10 18 168 0.8
anchovy 8 22 210 0.8
sturgeon 10 16 135 0.7
salmon 11 20 156 0.6
tuna 5 23 184 0.4
oyster 10 14 102 0.3
flounder 9 12 86 0.3
halibut 11 17 111 0.1
crayfish 12 13 82 0.1
perch 8 14 96 0.1
crab 14 14 83 0.1
rockfish 9 17 109 0.0

macronutrient comparison

The image below shows a comparison of the macronutrients of these different approaches compared to the average of all of the foods in the USDA foods database.

The nutrient dense vegan approach will provide a lot of of fibre which will make these foods very filling and hard to overeat, however perhaps not particularly diabetes friendly.

The diabetes friendly approach has more protein and only 30% net carbohydrates so it will have are more gentle effect on blood glucose levels.

With higher levels of fat from fish, dairy and eggs, the pescetarian approach is 40% fat which will be more gentle on the blood glucose levels of someone with diabetes.

2017-02-26 (10).png

comparison of essential micronutrients

This chart shows the nutrients provided by the vegan approach compared to the average of all the foods in the USDA database.  We get a lot of vitamin K, vitamin C and vitamin A but no omega 3 fatty acids and lower quantities of vitamin B-12.

2017-02-26 (12).png

This chart shows the nutrients contained in the diabetes friendly vegan approach.  While this approach has more fat and less carbohydrates the nutrient density is lower overall.

2017-02-26 (14).png

This chart shows the nutrient density of the pescetarian approach which is higher overall.

2017-02-26 (15).png

summary

So in summary, there are some great nutrient dense options for people with diabetes who choose to follow a plant based dietary approach.  Supplementing a plant based diet with some seafood will provide essential fatty acids and boost protein levels.

more information

If you’re interested in learning more about the nutrient density ranking system check out:

other approaches

The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs detailing optimal foods for a range of dietary approaches (sorted from most to least nutrient dense) that may be of interest depending on your situation and goals.   You can print them out to stick to your fridge or take on your next shopping expedition for some inspiration.

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

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

image02

Dr Rhonda Patrick’s Ultimate Micronutrient Smoothie versus Zero Carb Gregg

I recently ran the numbers on Dr Rhonda Patrick’s Ultimate Micronutrient Smoothie that Rhonda and her husband have for breakfast every day.   

I enjoy Rhonda’s podcasts as well as her mentor Bruce Ames’ pioneering work in the area of nutrient density.   I was pretty hopeful that Rhonda’s daily breakfast would knock it out of the park.  

So far I’ve run 235 meals through a system that ranks meals in terms of nutrient density, protein score, energy density and insulin load.  A score of 100 in the Nutrition Data analysis means that you would achieve all your daily requirements with 1000 calories (notwithstanding the limitations of bio-availability, anti-nutrients, fat soluble vitamins etc).  

In terms of vitamins and minerals, it did pretty well ranking at number 40 of 235 meals analysed to date. Liberal doses of kale and spinach always tend to boost the vitamin and mineral score.  These green leafies contain heaps of vitamins A, C, K, B and folate as well as solid amounts of the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese.

rhonda's smoothie

If you’re interested, the meal that ranks the highest in terms of vitamins and minerals score is Terry Wahls’ lamb skillet meal (shown below).  While you might think that a vegetarian meal might win in the vitamins and minerals category, Dr Wahls’ combination of broccoli, garlic, and spinach along with lamb and coconut oil actually does even better with a score of 94 compared to the green smoothie which has a score of 75.   

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The good thing about blending everything into a smoothie is that you will be able to get more green leafy veggies down the hatch.  The downside is that you might lose some of the beneficial effects of the fibre.  The same thing can be said for cooking.  

In terms of amino acids though, the smoothie was a bit disappointing coming in at 196 of 235. Some people will argue that low protein isn’t a big deal and that 9% protein is adequate.  Others think you would need more protein. 

The answer for you will depend on your activity levels and whether you want to be big and strong or whether you have some muscle mass that you don’t mind donating in the name of nutrition and weight loss.  

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The 57g of fibre was pretty good from all those leafy greens, ranking at 75 of 235 in terms of fibre.  Energy density was also pretty good, ranking at 100 of 235, which means that the smoothie will be quite filling and not easy to binge on.   

The insulin load was a bit disappointing.  At 50% carbs, the smoothie mixture came in just above the porridge with blueberries in terms of insulin load.  This may not be a problem if you’re insulin sensitive, but people struggling with diabetes might suffer from the apple and banana which don’t add much in terms of nutrient density (other than sweetness which would add to the palatability of the smoothie).  

minus the apple and banana

So for interest, I dropped out the apple and banana and the ranking improved in terms of vitamins and minerals, though it didn’t change the protein score.   The insulin load ranking improved marginally from 228 to 206.  

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Overall, this may not be a bad option for breakfast if you’re not diabetic and get some additional protein later in the day.  Living on Rhonda’s smoothe may also not be optimal if you’re looking to maintain/build lean muscle.

and now for something completely different… zero carb Gregg

After releasing the ketogenic fibre article in October 2015 I got into an interesting discussion with Gregg about zero carb and ended up running the numbers on his typical daily diet which largely consists of meat, butter and cream.

As shown below, the protein score of Gregg’s daily diet is solid, though the vitamin and mineral scores are not so great (214 of 235).   The insulin load of Gregg’s typical daily diet is pretty good coming in at #50. 

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[note: Just for interest Bulletproof Coffee comes in at #1 on the insulin load ranking but last in terms of vitamins and minerals and second last on the protein.]

Many people find that they do really well with a zero carb approach, particularly if they have major digestive issues.  People who are fans of zero carb often speak highly of Fibre Menace by Konstantin Monastrysky.  It seems that people with major digestive issues can get relief from their inability to digest FODMAPS using a zero carb approach.  

Overall I’m a fan of fibre and wonder if people might benefit from the slow reintroduction of some fibre for the sake of their gut microbiome and promoting well-rounded nutrition once their gut has settled.  

It’s also interesting to note that protein makes up only 22% of Gregg’s zero carb diet because of the solid amount of fat from the beef and the added fat from the butter and cream.  This sort of approach might work well for people who are insulin resistant.  

can you get enough vitamins and minerals from a zero carb diet?

Lots of people who use a zero carb approach say that they can get all the vitamins and minerals they could even need from animal products, so I threw in some sardines and liver to see how high we could get the vitamins and minerals score without any green stuff.  

As you can see below, the protein score improves with the fish and liver (I’m not vouching for the palatability though).  This meal now ranks at #1 for protein score with a massive score of 159 on the amino acid score!  The vitamins and minerals take a significant jump to #142 of 235 with the addition of the sardines and liver.

So it seems that there are some benefits of a zero carb dietary approach, but perhaps some limitations when it comes to the vitamin and mineral side of the equation.  

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joining forces

But then I thought, “what if Rhonda made Gregg breakfast and Gregg made dinner for Rhonda?”

As you can see from the analysis below, combining the green smoothie (without the fruit) with the zero carb approach (with sardines and liver) went really well in both the vitamins and minerals ranking (#20) and amino acid score (#41).  Not a bad balance overall!  

On the weight loss ranking, this meal combination would come in at #26 of 235, on the athlete ranking it comes in at #10, on the diabetes and nutritional ketosis ranking it comes in at #23, and for therapeutic ketosis ranking it comes in at #67.  

Overall, not a bad balance of the extremes?

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what to make of all this?

Lots of people get hung up on a particular magic nutrient and spend a lot of money to supplement just one missing ingredient.  However, perhaps it would be optimal (and cheaper?) to get a high quantity of a broad range of nutrients from whole food sources.

Real foods that were recently alive are going to be a better bet than relying on supplements.  

Should you eat more plant foods, more protein, or more fat?  The answer will depend on your situation, your goals and your preferences.  As always, optimal lies somewhere between the extremes.  

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enter…  Nutrient Optimiser

More recently, I have been working on a tool to help people optimise their micronutrient balance while also being tailored to their metabolic health and goals.

The Nutrient Optimiser reviews your food log diet and helps you to normalise your blood glucose and insulin levels by gradually retraining your eating habits by eliminating foods that boost your insulin level and blood glucose levels.

Once your glucose levels are normalised, the Nutrient Optimiser focuses on refining your micronutrient fingerprint to identify foods that will fill in your micronutrient deficiencies with real food.

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If you still have weight to lose, the Nutrient Optimiser will focus on the energy density of your diet until you have achieved your desired level of weight loss.  Alternatively, the Nutrient Optimiser can help you if you were looking to increase your insulin levels for bulking or identify higher energy density foods for athletes.

It’s early days for the Nutrient Optimiser, but the initial results are very promising!

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Post last updated July 2017