People in Ketoland like to point out that ‘there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate‘.
However, while this is technically true, it’s irrelevant when you understand that the amount of essential dietary fats that you require is tiny (i.e. 1.6 g of omega-3 and 4.6 g of omega 6 PUFAs or less than 50 calories per day in total). You only require about 10 g of fat per day to maintain gallbladder function (i.e. less than 50 calories or 4.5% of your daily energy intake). We also find that you can create a diet with reasonable nutrient density with as little as 10% of calories from fat.
Stabilising blood sugars to healthy non-diabetic levels is a great starting point for your journey towards Nutritional Optimisation.
The satiety improvement that comes from stabilising blood sugars to healthy levels is a key reason why a keto or low-carb diet works so well for many people, especially when they are coming from a starting point of a hyperpalatable, modern, processed diet that is a mixture of refined carbs and processed fats.
- Moving away from the fat+carb danger zone tends to improve satiety and reduce our appetite.
- Foods with less refined carbohydrates tend to contain more bioavailable protein which makes us feel fuller with fewer calories (i.e. greater satiety).
- If your blood sugars are going through large swings across the day, we are likely to feel more compelled to eat again as your blood sugars come crashing back down.
So, if you see your blood sugar rise by more than 1.6 mmol/L (or 30 mg/dL) after you eat, then it’s a great idea to reduce the amount of refined carbohydrates in your diet until your blood sugars stabilise to healthy non-diabetic levels. However, beyond that, rather than worrying so much about the balance of carbs and fat in your diet, it’s ideal to think in terms of the cost-benefit analysis. You simply need to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need without too much energy. We like to call this nutrient density.
Nutrient density is simply the number of essential nutrients per calorie in a food or meal. While calories are not a perfect measure, they are the best one we have and allows us to compare the nutrients contained in a food, recipe or a group of foods that someone might eat in a day.
Thinking in terms of nutrients per serving can be useful if you don’t have fat loss goals. However, nutrients per calorie is much more helpful if you just need to get enough nutrients with less energy so you can use your body fat for fuel.
Essential micronutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids) are critical to the biochemical processes that power your mitochondria and drive all the functions in your body to ensure you use energy efficiently. Prioritising foods with a higher nutrient density will ensure you get the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids without having to consume excess energy.
In times gone by, there was no need to worry about nutrient density. The available foods contained plenty of the nutrients we needed, in the right ratios. Our highly developed appetite (which works with our other senses such as smell, taste, sight/colour, touch/mouthfeel, hearing/crunch), ensured we got the nutrients and energy we needed. However, these days, due to changes in the way we produce food via large-scale agricultural practice, the number of essential nutrients in our food has declined. Separation of animals from our plant crops and replacing manure with synthetic fertiliser has also led to a decrease in the microbial diversity and nutrient density of the plants we grow and the animals that eat them.
While we all need enough nutrients, prioritising nutrient density is even more critical when you are trying to lose weight. Even though you are eating fewer calories, you still require enough nutrients.
Simply trying to eat less of the nutrient-poor food that made you fat will leave you with cravings that typically lead to increased hunger/appetite and cravings for the nutrients you need. Before too long, this leads to rebound binges and fat gain.
The best-kept weight-loss secret is simple. If you want to lose fat, you need to control your appetite by finding a way to get more nutrients per calorie from the food you consume!
The charts below created from the USDA Economic Research Service Nutrient Database shows how the nutrients in our food systems have changed over the past century as we have increased our use of chemical fertilisers and grown more reliant on large-scale farming and food manufacturing.
The amount of sodium in the US food system has decreased significantly since the mid-1960s. While we are often encouraged to consume less sodium, it’s the decrease in sodium that has the highest correlation with the increase in obesity in the US over the past 50 years.
Magnesium has also decreased substantially in parallel with the increase in the use of fertilisers and large-scale agriculture.
Potassium has also dropped by around 25% as our farmlands become more depleted. More recently, we’re learning that we’re not necessarily eating too much sodium, but rather too little potassium to achieve the optimal potassium sodium ratio to prevent high blood pressure.
Vitamin A levels have dropped about 30% since the introduction of the Dietary Goals for Americans in 1977, which, rather than focusing on the nutrients we require from food, encouraged people to reduce their saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. It just so happens that the foods that contain more saturated fat and cholesterol also contain more vitamin A. Avoidance of saturated fat in favour of refined grains, sugar and seed oils has had a devastating impact on the nutrient density of our food system.
Vitamin B12 (which is mainly found in animal-based foods) has also decreased since the 1977 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were introduced.
The table below shows the number of calories of the typically available foods you now need to consume to get your recommended minimum intake level of these nutrients each day (i.e. Dietary Reference Intake).
|Micronutrient||calories required to meet DRI|
Today, more and more of the foods we consume are an engineered formulation of cheap vegetable oils and refined starch with added sugars, flavours and colours to make them look and taste nutritious.
Based on the latest published data from the USDA in 2010, 62% of the energy consumed by Americans came from added fats and oils (23%), flours and cereals (23%) and added sugars (15%). Based on the trend over the past half-century, it’s likely that this now even greater in 2020. While cheap to produce, these foods are an inferior source of micronutrients.
You’d think that nutrition would be primarily about nutrients, but sadly, they are usually an afterthought. Most nutritional advice today is focused on what you should avoid (e.g. too much fat, carbs, protein, saturated fat, sugar, etc.).
By focusing on nutrient-dense foods, you ensure you get what you need from the food you eat. Once you learn to fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods, especially at your first meal of the day, you will be much less likely to be craving the less than optimal foods that are nutrient-poor and easy to overeat.
The balance of carbs vs fat depends on your context and goals.
- Carbs are useful for explosive activity, but your body can make enough glucose from the protein you eat (although at a slower rate than if they were ingested) to refill your liver and muscles with glycogen if you don’t eat a lot of carbohydrates.
- Fat is a great slow-burning fuel for everyday use. It’s great for storage and typically comes packaged with the protein we eat.
Your choice of fuel needs to consider your goals. You need to ask yourself a couple of simple questions.
- Do you need to fuel a lot of activity, or are you trying to lose fat from your body?
- What foods will give you the nutrients you require, while you remain within your energy budget?
If you are lean and super active, with lots of short bursts of power, then you may crave some more carbohydrates to keep your glycogen stores full. While your body can make the glucose it needs from protein, if you are burning a lot of glucose with explosive activity, then you may benefit from having a little more in your diet because this process is rate limited. But if you are only doing a long, slow activity, then a higher fat diet will be great to supply the energy you need in a steady manner.
If your goal is to lose fat from your body, then the most important consideration is to ensure you get the nutrients you need without having to consume excessive amounts of energy.
When it comes to carbohydrates, refined grains and starches tend to be nutrient-poor and hence a less than optimal choice. However, leafy green veggies (which contain some carbs) tend to pack a lot of the harder to find nutrients with minimal calories and are a good investment for your limited energy budget.
The fat that comes with protein is typically an excellent source of energy. But if you’re trying to lose fat from your body, then you probably need to ease up on the added fats and oils. Once you get leaner and want to continue to lose body fat, you may need to look for leaner cuts of meat and fish to ensure you continue to burn your body fat. Once you have reached your goal weight, you can bring back more energy from fat and/or carbs.
In the absence of processed fake foods with flavourings and colourings that trick your body into thinking foods contain nutrients, your appetite does a pretty good job of seeking out the nutrients you need to thrive without consuming excess energy.
We often crave different foods at different times to give us the nutrients we need depending on the circumstances, for example:
- more protein after a workout,
- chocolate around ‘that time of the month’ for women, or
- a pregnant woman who has all sorts of weird and wonderful cravings to nourish a growing baby.
While the Protein Leverage Hypothesis suggests that we keep eating food until we get the protein we need to maintain our muscles, it seems that a similar thing occurs, to varying extents, with the micronutrients (as you will see below).
Prioritising nutrient-dense foods will help you reduce your cravings and switch off your appetite once you get enough (but not too much) energy.
People who focus on maximising their nutrient density find that they are full with fewer calories. As a general rule, nutrient-dense foods tend to contain plenty of protein and fibre and have less fat and carbs, so they are typically much harder to overeat.
As shown in the chart below of nutrient density vs satiety, nutrient-dense foods tend to be more satiating.
Foods toward the top right of this chart will provide you with plenty of nutrients with fewer calories and help you manage your appetite without less conscious effort. In contrast, the foods toward the bottom left (mostly refined grains and fats) tend to increase our appetite, and we have to overeat them to obtain adequate nutrients.
If you look closely (or check out the interactive Tableau version of the chart here), you will notice that the top right is dominated by non-starchy vegetables. Non-starchy vegetables are bulky because they are full of water and fibre and hard to overeat. They are both nutrient-dense (in terms of nutrients per calorie) and highly satiating on a calorie for calorie basis. You can think of non-starchy vegetables as nature’s vitamin pill.
Although they can struggle to get adequate protein to prevent loss of lean mass, people who follow a strict Whole Foods Plant-Based diet approach are typically not overweight. It’s difficult to get a lot of energy from plant-based foods in their unrefined form.
However, the problem with thinking simply in terms of plant-based vs animal-based foods is that the most nutrient-poor and hyperpalatable foods (in the bottom left corner) also come from plants. When the nutrient-poor refined fats, starches and sugars are combined, we get the hyper-palatable combination that drives us into an uncontrollable feeding frenzy (e.g. doughnuts, croissants, cookies, milk chocolate, etc.).
But there is a practical limit to how much non-starchy veggies you can eat. You might feel like you’re going to explode if you tried to get your daily energy requirements from watercress or spinach. Once you’ve got your fill of greens, you need to make wise choices of where you get your energy from by moving down from the top right to more energy-dense foods. We tend to find that people get the best micronutrient profile get their nutrients from a blend of plant-based foods, meat and seafood.
The nutrient density vs satiety chart below shows the same data with the vegetables, fruit and spices removed. In the top right of this chart, we have seafood, dairy and animal-based foods. You can use these to get adequate energy while sill obtaining plenty of nutrients.
If you need more energy to support your activity and don’t have weight to lose, you can keep moving towards the bottom left corner to find more energy-dense foods. However, the sad reality is that most of us are primarily eating low satiety nutrient-poor foods towards the bottom left corner and would benefit by choosing foods more towards the top right.
Nutrient-dense foods and meals tend to provide greater satiety and allow us to consume less food without fighting against hunger.
The chart below shows our analysis of the Optimal Nutrient Intake Score (our measure for diet quality) from 40,000 days of food logging data. As people level up their nutrient density, they tend to eat less. Once we dial in food quality, food quantity tends to look after itself!
The good news is that nutrient-dense foods and meals tend to not contain a lot of refined carbs or refined seed oils. So, if you maximise nutrient density, you won’t be getting excessive amounts of refined carbohydrates or processed seed oils either. Once you learn to focus on nutrient density and satiety, the balance of carbs and fat becomes irrelevant.
Through our analysis of data from people using Nutrient Optimiser (i.e. Optimisers), we have gained a fascinating insight into how the different macronutrients and micronutrients influence our appetite and intake of total calories across the day.
In line with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, it seems we tend to eat less overall when protein makes up more of our overall energy intake. The vertical axis is the calorie intake per day vs calculated basal metabolic rate based on the Optimisers’ weight and body fat. Each dot on the chart represents a range of data-based on protein percentage.
Conversely, the more energy that we get from the combination of non-fibre carbohydrates and fat, the more we tend to eat.
But similarly, we tend to reduce our energy intake when consuming foods that contain more of each of the micronutrients per calorie, as shown in the charts below. Each chart shows the population average, ‘adequate dietary intake’ (AI), dietary reference intake (DRI) and our stretch target.
While some micronutrients seem to keep on providing greater satiety, with no upper limit in terms of nutrients per calorie, some nutrients (especially vitamins) have a limit to their impact on satiety. It seems that once we get enough, our appetite for these foods settles down, and we no longer crave foods that contain more of this nutrient, and we go in search of other nutrients. You will see a ‘stretch target’ (or the Optimal Nutrient Intake) on the charts based on either:
- the amount of this nutrient where more of the nutrient doesn’t continue to provide further benefit, or
- the amount that is achievable for most people with food (i.e. the 85th percentile intake based on the data from Optimisers.
While the functions and interactions of the numerous micronutrients in our body are complex and we are only just coming to understand them, a few highlights are noted below.
- Vitamin C protects from cardiovascular diseases, cancers, joint diseases, cataracts, and the common cold, aids in collagen and elastin synthesis, both necessary elements in the bone matrix, skin, tooth dentin, blood vessels, and tendons. Protects against oxygen-based damage to cells (free radicals); is required for fat synthesis; has antiviral and detoxifying properties.
- Calcium is needed for bone and tooth formation, muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve transmission; also reduces the risk of colon cancer; prevents hypertension.
- Chromium assists with insulin function, increases fertility, is required for carbohydrate/fat metabolism, is essential for foetal growth and development, helps lower elevated serum cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Copper is necessary for bone formation, energy production, hair and skin colouring, and taste sensitivity; it is involved in the healing process; aids in iron transport; helps metabolise several fatty acids.
- Magnesium is involved in 300 essential metabolic reactions; necessary for muscle activity and nerve impulses; regulates temperature and blood pressure; essential for detoxification; aids in creating strong bones and teeth.
- Choline is vital for lipid and cholesterol transport and metabolism of methyl groups. Choline may improve cognitive function and memory.
- Potassium is the major cation of intracellular fluid and an almost constant component of lean body tissues. The movement of potassium out of cells and sodium into cells changes the electrical potential during depolarisation and repolarisation of nerve and muscle cells.
- Selenium is an antioxidant and important in redox reactions and thyroid metabolism.
- Phosphorus is the second-most abundant inorganic element in the body. Phosphorus as phosphate is a significant buffer and helps to protect blood systemic acid/base balance and is critical to energy transfer in your body, including the generation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
- Vitamin B12 is required for the synthesis of fatty acids in myelin and, in conjunction with folate, for DNA synthesis. Adequate intake of vitamin B12 is essential for healthy blood function and neurological function.
- Sodium is the primary cation in human extracellular fluid. It has an essential role in the maintenance of critical physiological activities such as extracellular fluid volume and cellular membrane potential.
People tend to like to buy expensive supplements and pills, hoping for an easy fix for their otherwise nutrient-poor diet. There is not a lot of money in nutrient-dense whole foods, so there isn’t a lot of advertising budget put behind the #foodfirst message. But when was the last time you saw someone get healthy by taking a ‘magic pill’ without changing their diet or activity?
While there may be some benefit from vitamin pills and food fortification, supplements are often not in the form the body needs or in the synergistic ratios that are found in whole foods. It’s also likely that you’re not just missing one nutrient but rather a suite of beneficial compounds that we get from the foods we eat, many of which we don’t fully understand yet.
While most studies find limited value when supplementing with a synthetic nutrient, there are many studies that show benefits from eating food that naturally contains plenty of nutrients. While supplements seem like an attractive option, they often don’t provide the same benefit when separated from the whole food and can also drive nutrient imbalances.
You may have heard of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), which are set to prevent diseases of deficiency, or the Adequate Intake (AI), which is set based on the typical population intake when there are not enough studies to demonstrate a minimum level. The Upper Limits (UL) are set based on the intake of nutrients in their refined supplemental form that can produce adverse symptoms in some people. Excess or overdose of nutrients is rarely a concern from whole food.
However, similar to the protein targets, these intake levels should be seen as a minimum. They are not designed to ensure an optimal outcome. They are set in the context of the current food system, which has been optimised to feed a growing population cost-effectively and often aligns with the food products that are most easily produced rather than considering optimal health.
In engineering, we work to find the balance between safety and cost by applying a factor of safety.
You probably wouldn’t feel safe driving a truck across a bridge designed for the absolute minimum cost. Even though we undertake a lot of tests and have been using materials like steel and concrete for a long time, there are still many unknowns. In geotechnical design, where things are hard to test because they are under the ground and hard to see and understand clearly, we apply a higher, more conservative, factor of safety.
Designing a road or bridge a little bit stronger than the absolute minimum ensures that it is resilient and ensures it will not collapse catastrophically and be destroyed by out of the ordinary events (e.g. an overloaded truck, an earthquake or a major flood).
A similar way, we can allow a greater safety factor to our nutrient intake targets. There are still many unknowns and things we don’t understand when it comes to how your body uses nutrients in different circumstances. By ensuring we are getting more than the absolute minimum nutrient intake we are effectively increasing our nutritional safety factor. We are providing our body with higher quality building blocks that will allow it to be more resilient and able to cope with more stress and unforeseen extreme events.
We designed the stretch targets (i.e. Optimal Nutrient Intakes or ONIs) based on the intakes that tend to provide the greatest satiety. Aiming for the ONIs will hence help you reverse (or avoid) energy toxicity while still obtaining getting plenty of all the essential nutrients that you need to optimise mitochondrial function and metabolic health. To develop these targets, we analysed eighty thousand days of food logging data collected in Nutrient Optimiser.
While these are definitely stretch targets and a challenge to achieve for most people, we have seen a number of people manage to achieve all of them at once (and achieve an ONI score of 100%) in our Nutritional Optimisation Masterclass using the Nutrient Optimiser, which guides people to obtain more of the nutrients that they are struggling to get enough of in their current diet.
The chart below shows a comparison of the satiety impact of each of the macronutrients based on our analysis of 40,000 days of data from people using Nutrient Optimiser.
While fibre has a positive effect on satiety, most people don’t consume enough fibre to have a significant effect. Protein has the largest positive impact on satiety, while carbs and fat have a negative impact on satiety. Fibre has a positive effect on satiety. However, most people don’t consume enough fibre for it to have a significant impact.
The table below shows the macronutrient stretch targets (in percentage terms) that align with improved highest satiety. We don’t recommend that you try to jump to these stretch targets immediately. However, progressively moving towards these stretch targets will give you the best chance of losing body fat without excessive hunger.
|protein (%)||> 40%|
|protein + fibre (%)||> 45%|
|fat + carb (%)||< 60%|
|fat + net carb (%)||< 50%|
|fat (%)||< 35%|
Adequate mineral intake is critical. But minerals are bulky (compared with vitamins), so they are rarely provided in adequate quantities in supplements or food fortification. You need to get your minerals from nutrient-dense food!
The comparison chart below shows that all minerals have a positive impact on satiety, with calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and zinc having the greatest impact (i.e. the longest lines).
The table below shows the ONIs for minerals. For males, this is based on 2000 calories per day and 1600 calories per day for females. The ONIs are around 2.5 times the Dietary Reference Intake and 3.5 times the average population intake.
|nutrient||ONI (male)||ONI (female)||% DRI||% pop average|
Foods that contain more vitamins tend to be more satiating, but only up to a point. There appears to be a level for many of the vitamins (beyond what can be provided by nutrient-dense whole foods) where they do not provide additional benefit, at least in terms of satiety.
While the ONI for vitamins is typically around six times the minimum Recommended Dietary Allowance, higher levels (that can only be achieved with supplementation) don’t provide additional benefits. Adding more vitamins into the system beyond the ONIs (unless you have a measured clinical deficiency of a particular nutrient) means you’re likely just creating expensive, brightly coloured pee!
The table below shows our ONI stretch targets for men and women.
|nutrient||ONI (male)||ONI (female)||% DRI||% pop average|
|thiamine (B1) (mg)||5.5||4.4||545%||429%|
|riboflavin (B2) (mg)||6.0||4.8||462%||400%|
|niacin (B3) (mg)||70||56||438%||412%|
|pantothenic acid (B5) (mg)||12||9.6||240%|
|vitamin B6 (mg)||5.0||4.0||500%||417%|
|vitamin B12 (mcg)||30||24||1250%||625%|
|folate (B9) (mg)||800||640||200%||184%|
|vitamin A (IU)||10000||8000||333%||1429%|
|vitamin C (mg)||300||240||1111%||980%|
|vitamin D (IU)||3500||2800||583%|
|vitamin E (mg)||35||28||233%||318%|
|vitamin K (mcg)||1000||800||1667%|
Fat is a controversial macronutrient. Generally, higher intakes of fat do not tend to be satiating. However, our analysis also identified that:
- your ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 is important, and most people should work to increase their intake of seafood and avoid foods that have refined seed oils as an ingredient;
- if you want to lose weight, focusing on reducing your intake of monounsaturated fat from added oils or as ingredients to processed foods will give you the biggest bang for your buck; and
- you don’t need to worry as much about nutritious foods that naturally contain cholesterol, saturated fat or even trans fats.
The table below shows the ONI stretch targets for men (2000 calories) and women (1600 calories).
|nutrient||ONI (men)||ONI (women)|
|monounsaturated||< 16 g||< 12g|
|polyunsaturated||< 7.0 g||< 5.5 g|
|fat||< 76 g||< 60 g|
|omega 3||> 6.0 g||> 4.8 g|
|omega 6||< 7.6 g||< 6.0 g|
|trans fat||< 2.2 g||< 1.8 g|
|saturated||< 30 g||< 24 g|
Each of the amino acids has a unique biological function. Different protein sources (e.g. fish, eggs, meat, offal, beans, legumes, etc.) have their own amino acid profile.
While you’ll probably be doing fine if you hit your protein target with whole protein sources, the table below shows recommended stretch targets for each amino acid.
|amino acid||ONI (male) (g)||ONI (female) (g)|
People often ask what the most nutrient-dense diet, meals or foods are. Unfortunately, the answer depends on your goals and your current diet. While we have created nutrient-dense foods and recipes that contain more of the nutrients that most people struggle to get enough of, nutrient density should ideally be tailored to the individual’s diet and goals. To demonstrate, the following sections look at the nutrient profile of several different dietary approaches.
The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile of all of the foods in the USDA Food Composition Database, which contains nutrient data for 9,000 commonly available foods.
As a general rule, we will struggle to get enough omega-3, vitamin A, vitamin E, thiamine and the other nutrients towards the top of this chart.
The micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile we would get if we just went ‘plant-based’ without consideration of nutrient density. The good news is that we can focus on foods that contain more of the harder to find nutrients towards the top of the nutrient fingerprint chart to boost the nutrients in a purely plant-based diet.
The micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutrient-dense plant-based foods. So, someone following a strictly plant-based diet may struggle to get enough vitamin B12, omega-3, selenium, vitamin A and some amino acids.
However, sadly, as shown in the nutrient fingerprint chart below, if a ‘plant-based diet’ merely involves eliminating animal products without prioritising the nutrients in vegetables, nuts and seeds, the nutrient profile will potentially be much worse. There is plenty of ‘plant-based’ or vegan junk food that is mostly a combination of low satiety and nutrient-poor processed oil, sugar and refined grains.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the dietary spectrum, someone on a carnivore diet may struggle to get enough vitamin K1, vitamin C, folate, etc. towards the top of this chart.
It’s difficult to get too much of any of the micronutrients from whole foods. Your kidneys filter out excess nutrients.
As you can see from the satiety response curves above, we seem to get benefits from consuming nutrients from whole food well above the recommended minimum intake levels.
There are some anecdotal cases of arctic explorers consuming too much polar bear liver and feeling ill from hypervitaminosis A. But most people aren’t eating excessive amounts of liver.
It is possible, however, to overdo your supplements. In the first instance, excess supplements can give you diarrhoea as your body sheds them from your system. However, there are many instances where excessive levels of one nutrient can affect the absorption of other nutrients and can lead to severe issues.
While a multivitamin probably won’t hurt you, you should ideally understand why you are taking it and use it as a supplement to make up for the nutrients you know (by tracking your diet) that you cannot yet get from whole food.
You should also be aware that nutrients in whole foods come in the forms and ratios that your body needs and recognises. Nutrients don’t act alone. Each nutrient works synergistically with a number of other nutrients.
The good news is that, as you start to dial in your nutrient density in the food you eat, you will quickly find that you no longer need to rely on supplements and you can save your money to invest in quality food.
While plant-based foods often contain more of some nutrients per calorie, the nutrients in animal foods tend to be more ‘bioavailable’, which means they are in a form that can easily be used in the body.
Animal-based forms of vitamin A, iron and omega-3 fatty acids are already in the form used by the body without needing to be converted, whereas plant-based foods contain nutrient precursors, meaning that the nutrients need to be converted before being used by the body.
There are some losses in the conversion of nutrients, and some people are better than others at the conversion, so the number of nutrients in plant-based foods don’t equate to nutrients in the body.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of reliable data to quantify how much of the nutrients are converted. At the same time, the nutrients that are less bioavailable (e.g. vitamin A) are generally relatively easy to get in adequate quantities. So, uncertainty around bioavailability doesn’t stop us from using the data we do have to optimise your diet.
While it would be great to have accurate data to quantify losses due to bioavailability from plant-based foods vs animal-based foods, it doesn’t have a significant consequence if you are focusing on a range of nutrient-dense foods.
Your metabolism is highly complex, and there is still a LOT we don’t understand about how it works. But if you give your body all the nutrients, it needs in the form it recognises there is a pretty good chance that it will know what to do with them.
We recommend you prioritise foods that contain more nutrients that align with your goals. Whether you eat non-starchy vegetables, more organ meats or more seafood and meat doesn’t matter, because you will be making a significant improvement compared to a diet of mainly refined grains and oils.
Down the track, if you are still concerned about bioavailability, you can look at the micronutrient fingerprint of the foods you eat most often. If there are nutrients that you are finding harder to get enough of at the top of your micronutrient fingerprint that are not bioavailable from the sources you are using, you can prioritise more bioavailable sources of those nutrients. But this is really getting into the weeds, and most people don’t need to be concerned about this level of minutiae.
Plant-based foods like grains and legumes contain ‘anti-nutrients’ (e.g. lectins, phytic acids, goitrogens, oxalates and tannins) that can affect the absorption of nutrients such as iron, magnesium and potassium.
Lectins can be an issue, particularly for people who have a history of digestive problems. Grain-based foods are not only relatively nutrient-poor, but they also inhibit the absorption of other essential nutrients.
If your digestion isn’t great, you may benefit from an autoimmune elimination diet or even a carnivorous diet to see your symptoms improve. You can then progressively add back in the most nutrient-dense foods and see if your symptoms return.
There are some anti-nutrients in vegetables (e.g. sulforaphane). However, many people see these as beneficial because they provide beneficial hormetic stress that makes your system strong (like the way resistance training builds strength).
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods eliminates because it eliminates refined grains which contain the majority of the antinutrients in our food system. and the remaining ones in vegetables don’t appear to be a significant issue for most people. If you have specific symptoms or digestive problems when you eat certain foods, it may pay to reduce them.
There’s no point in eating foods that give you digestive upset. But eliminating all plant foods because they are ‘out to get you’ may leave you with a super fragile digestive system. Over time, you want to build resilience in all areas of your body.
Many people following a ketogenic or low carb diet think in terms of prioritising their food for low carb or high fat. So, let’s look at the nutritional implications of thinking in terms of these extremes.
The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrients in the lowest carb foods in the USDA database. The horizontal axis is the percentage of the Optimal Nutrient Intake per 2000 calories. The nutrient score is based on the area to the left of the 100% Optimal Nutrient Intake (ONI, red dotted line) that is filled.
On the upside, these very low carb foods contain heaps of bioavailable protein, which is likely a big reason why many people do so well when they start out on a low-carb diet. However, the downside is that these foods don’t contain a lot of some of the essential nutrients such as vitamin K1, vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium and omega-3 fatty acids shown towards the top.
For comparison with the low-fat scenario, check out the micronutrient fingerprint of the highest fat foods (shown below). While carbs are low, protein is also low, and we get a very poor overall nutrient profile (much worse than the lowest carbohydrate foods). It seems prioritising low carb will be better than high fat in terms of getting enough nutrients from the food you eat.
Finally, we have the nutrient fingerprint of the foods with the highest nutrient density. If you ate only these foods, you would quickly get all the nutrients you need. They would also be extraordinarily satiating and hard to overeat, so your body would likely be producing endogenous ketones from your stored fat.
The downside of these foods is also that they are hard to get enough energy from, so it can be wise to progressively ‘level up’ your diet based on your current situation and goals. If you want to gain weight, you will need to add in some less nutrient-dense foods with more energy from fat and/or carbs.
After trying to promote the benefits of focusing on nutrient density for years, we realised that to show people what we meant, we needed to create some easy-to-make recipes that would enable people to bring the theory to life in their own kitchens.
Allow me to give you a tour through the nutrient profile of a few of our recipe books to show you what this looks like in practice as we apply nutritional optimisation for different contexts and goals.
Our book of recipes for therapeutic ketosis is designed to help people achieve therapeutic ketone levels for the management of epilepsy, dementia, or Parkinson’s.
As you can see from the nutrient profile, these recipes have plenty of fat and lower protein and a nutrient score of 48%.
Let’s use a hypothetical example of someone who weighs 70 kg with 20% body fat (i.e. lean body mass = 56 kg) who has a maintenance calorie intake of 2000 calories per day, who needed to gain weight (e.g. someone who needed to gain weight after cancer treatment or a child who has epilepsy who needed to grow).
The table below shows their intake in terms of calories, protein and net carbs if they ate these meals to different degrees of energy surplus.
|surplus||diet (cals)||protein (g)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
They would be getting a moderate amount of protein without excess carbs, which would allow endogenous ketosis. The fact that these foods are not particularly nutrient-dense wouldn’t be a major concern because they are eating a lot more calories and hence getting a reasonable amount of nutrients.
While the nutrient content is not optimal, this is not as big of a concern because exogenous ketosis is the highest priority. When eating these foods in a surplus, they would be getting adequate amounts of protein to support lean muscle mass while still allowing ketosis.
The nutritional keto recipe book is designed for someone who enjoys a ketogenic way of eating (without therapeutic ketone levels) and who doesn’t necessarily have fat loss goals. These recipes would be ideal for someone who is active and needs some extra energy to prevent weight loss.
Let’s say the person eating these meals is lean and already active and needs to eat in an energy surplus to support their activity. They would be getting adequate protein without excessive levels of carbohydrates. These meals also have a lower satiety value which would allow them to consume more energy to support their activity.
|deficit||diet (cals)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
Low Carb & Blood Sugar
Our book of low-carb and blood sugar recipes is designed for people who want stable blood sugars and weight maintenance on a nutritious low-carb diet, who may not be as active, and are not necessarily wanting to lose weight in a hurry.
The recipes contain a substantial amount of protein and have a higher nutrient density score while still being low in carbohydrates.
If they ate these recipes for most of their meals and added some higher fat snacks, they would still be getting plenty of protein while keeping daily carbohydrate intake low to maintain stable blood sugar while also getting plenty of nutrients.
|deficit||diet (cals)||body fat (cals)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
The blood sugar and fat loss recipes are ideal for anyone with elevated blood sugars and body fat to lose, as many people who find themselves diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes tend to be.
These recipes have a higher protein percentage for satiety and a greater nutrient density while still being lower in carbohydrates. They contain a moderate amount of fat, but if you are losing fat from your body, it probably still ‘ketogenic’.
In this scenario, let’s assume we have someone who has Type 2 Diabetes. They have started their low carb or keto journey to stabilise their blood sugars, but they still have a lot of body fat to lose.
As we can see in the table below, it would be quite hard to eat enough of these meals due to the high-satiety effect of protein. Most people struggle to consume more than around 2.8 g/kg LBM of protein, so they would likely end up in a 30% energy deficit without having to watch their calories.
|deficit||diet (cals)||body fat (cals)||total fat (cals)||total fat (%)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
While the added dietary fat is not exceptionally high, they would be using 600 calories per day of fat from their body, so they would effectively be living on a 60% fat diet and would likely see endogenous ketones coming from their body.
The fat loss recipes have a better nutrient density score and even more protein. They are still low carb (with only 12% net carbs) but are also lower in dietary fat to allow the fat to come from your body.
These fat loss recipes are ideal for anyone who is eager to lose body fat. As we can see from the table below, with half the energy coming from protein, it would be difficult to overeat. However, even with a 40% energy deficit, you would be getting plenty of protein to support retention of lean mass in a deficit, while dietary carbohydrates would be low. When we combine the fat in the diet and the fat from your body, the total percentage of energy coming from fat would still be high.
|deficit||diet (cals)||dietary fat (cals)||body fat (cals)||total fat (%)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
High protein:energy ratio
These recipes have an extremely high-protein percentage (58%) while being quite low in both fat and carbohydrates. These will be ideal for aggressive fat loss over a short period (e.g. a bodybuilder trying to lean out for a show or someone who has a lot of body fat to lose in a hurry).
The table below shows the energy breakdown if you only ate these recipes. The extremely high-protein content would make it very hard to eat enough of these meals to maintain your weight. You could maintain a 50% energy deficit or more and still get more than enough protein to maintain lean muscle mass. Even with such high intakes of dietary protein, this may still result in endogenous ketosis (i.e. with high levels of fat coming from your body).
|deficit||diet (cals)||dietary fat (cals)||body fat (cals)||total fat (%)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
To be clear, the high P:E recipes are not going to be the ideal starting place for everyone. These recipes will be the most satiating on a calorie-for-calorie basis. However, if you ate only these foods, your body would be craving easily accessible energy from fat and carbs.
So, rather than jumping from a high-fat keto diet or a modern processed diet (which both tend to provide less protein), the ideal approach is to progressively increase the protein percentage from where you are now. You only need to dial it up further once you stall and want to continue your fat loss journey.
So, what are the implications for micronutrients if we simply focus on nutrient density and satiety tailored to your goal? To help us understand this, I have included some charts from the analysis of our series of 22 nutrient-dense recipe books tailored for different goals.
The chart below shows the relationship between non-fibre carbohydrates and nutrient density. While none of the nutrient-dense approaches are high in refined carbohydrates (so the correlation between nutrient density and carbohydrates is not high), there seems to be a sweet spot between 15 and 20% non-fibre carbohydrates that aligns with higher nutrient density scores.
Because nutrient-dense food has minimal amounts of processed carbs, we tend to get a fairly low-carbohydrate outcome when we prioritise nutrients. While it’s smart to reduce carbs to stabilise your blood sugars, pushing carbohydrates super-low can limit foods that can provide us with harder to find nutrients.
The chart below shows protein vs optimal nutrient score. The trend line shows that we tend to get a maximum nutrient density at around 50% protein. This is a common theme of all our analysis. A higher protein percentage (up to about 50%) aligns with greater nutrient density and satiety.
This next chart shows the percentage of fat for each recipe book vs nutrient density. While fat is a great source of energy, and there is no need to fear nutrient-dense foods that contain more fat, higher fat intake does not typically align with higher nutrient density.
While the therapeutic keto and nutritional keto recipes may help you produce (exogenous) ketosis from the fat you are eating, they are unlikely to help you achieve endogenous ketosis as you burn your body fat. If you want to lose fat from your body, you should look to progressively dial back both the fat and carbs in your diet, while prioritising nutrient density.
Thinking simply in terms of fat or carbs being ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ is short-sighted and overly simplistic. Our modern food system is full of nutrient-processed foods that contain a mixture of fat and carbs. Once we avoid these, we get a massive improvement in nutrient density and satiety.
If you want to level up from there, you should prioritise nutrient density while tailoring the dietary fat and carbs based on whether you:
- require more energy or exogenous ketosis from the fat in your diet, or
- want to lose body fat and achieve endogenous ketosis and the many health benefits that accompany it.
Get your copy of Big Fat Keto Lies
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Sample the other chapters of Big Fat Keto Lies
- Big Fat Keto Lies: Introduction
- A brief history of low carb and keto movement
- Keto Lie #1: ‘Optimal ketosis’ is a goal. More ketones are better. The lie that started the keto movement.
- Keto Lie #2: You have to be ‘in ketosis’ to burn fat
- Keto Lie #3: You should eat more fat to burn more body fat
- Keto Lie #4: Protein should be avoided due to gluconeogenesis
- Keto Lie #5: Fat is a ‘free food’ because it doesn’t elicit an insulin response
- Keto Lie #6: Food quality is not important. It’s all about reducing insulin and avoiding carbs
- Keto Lie #7: Fasting for longer is better
- Keto Lie #8: Insulin toxicity is enemy #1
- Keto Lie #9: Calories don’t count
- Keto Lie #10: Stable blood sugars will lead to fat loss
- Keto Lie #11: You should ‘eat fat to satiety’ to lose body fat
- Keto Lie #12: If in doubt, keep calm and keto on