Low Nutrient Density Foods to Avoid: A Comprehensive Guide to Eating Healthy

What are the most insulinogenic, low nutrient density and energy-dense processed foods that everyone should avoid for health and weight loss?

Generally, I think it can be more useful to tell people what they should focus on rather than what they shouldn’t do.  It’s like the proverbial hot plate or ‘wet paint’ sign.  You can’t unsee it, and you just want to touch it!

If you are busy focusing on the good stuff then you just won’t have any space left for the low-nutrient-density foods, especially once you start feeling the benefits.

Many people are coming to see sugar as universally bad news.  But why sugar?  Are there other foods that we should avoid for the same reasons?

What’s so bad about sugar anyway?

For the past four decades, mainstream food recommendations have been dominated by a fear of fat, particularly saturated fat and cholesterol, which, if taken to the extreme, can lead us towards more processed, insulinogenic, nutrient-poor, low-fat foods.

More recently, a growing number of people are advising that we should eat less sugar… from Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar to Robert Lustig’s Sugar: The Bitter Truth and Damon Gameau’s That Sugar Film.  Even Gary Taubes seems to be softening his stance against carbohydrates and turning his attention to sugar as the bad guy in his new book The Case against Sugar.

The World Health Organisation is imploring people to reduce their sugar intake to less than 10% of energy, and ideally less than 5%.[1]

Investment bank Credit Suisse is predicting a turn away from sugar and back towards fat, effectively advising people to ‘short sugar’.[2]

But what is it about sugar that makes it uniquely bad?  Is it just the ‘evaporated cane juice’ that we should avoid?

What about whole foods that contain some sugar?  Should we avoid them too?

While added sugars are not good, they’re also an easy target that everyone can get behind.  It’s easy to swing from demonising one thing to another, from fat to carbs to sugar.

But perhaps this paradigm is overly simplistic.

I think we need to avoid are foods that quickly boost insulin and blood glucose levels without providing any substantial nutrition in return.

Foods that should be considered universally bad are foods that are:

If you want to maximise the nutritional value of your food, give your pancreas a break so it can keep up, you should AVOID THESE FOODS.  Most diet recommendations succeed largely because they eliminate these foods, which are typically processed foods.

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the weightings used in the multi-criteria analysis for the various dietary approaches.  The avoid list turns the system on its head to identify foods that have a poor nutrient density as well as also being energy-dense and insulinogenic.


The charts below show that, compared to the other approaches, the foods on the avoid list are energy-dense…


…highly insulinogenic…


…as well as being nutrient-poor, all at the same time!


Considering any of these factors by themselves can be problematic.  But when we combine all these parameters they can be much more useful to identify the foods we should avoid, as well as the ones we should prioritise.

As you can see from this chart, the difference between the nutrients provided by the most nutrient-dense foods and the avoid list is vast!  You can see how you would be much more satiated with the more nutrient-dense food and your cravings turned off.


Also included in the table are the nutrient density score, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load, energy density and the multicriteria analysis score (MCA) that combines all these factors.

So without further ado, here is the avoid list.


Soft drinks provide very little nutritional value, are very insulinogenic and have no fibre so will raise your blood sugar and insulin levels quickly.

foodND% insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g)calories/100gMCA
cream soda-20100%13511.02
root beer-20100%11411.00
grape soda-19100%11431.00
cranberry-apple juice-1998%16630.98
orange and apricot juice-1797%13510.86


Sweets provide minimal nutrition while being very energy-dense and highly insulinogenic.  Sugar tops the list of badness. However, there are a bunch of other sweets not far behind.

foodND% insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g)calories/100gMCA
brown sugar-1999%973801.29
fruit syrup-20100%853411.28
high fructose corn syrup-20100%762811.23
maple sugar-1899%913541.21
jams and preserves-1998%682781.17
orange marmalade-1999%662461.17
chocolate frosting.-1886%913891.16
chocolate pudding-1891%863781.16
Candies, butterscotch-1792%903911.15
Tootsie roll-1791%893871.13
Milky Way-2061%704631.13
chocolate syrup-18100%672691.12
butterscotch topping-1899%582161.08
Kit Kat-1949%655201.08
tapioca pudding (fat-free)-1894%22940.91
chocolate frosting-1661%633970.90

fruits and fruit juices

Fruit in its natural state provides fibre, and nutrients with a lower energy density.  However, fruit juice and dried fruit have a much lower nutritional value and are much more insulinogenic.

foodND% insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g)calories/100gMCA
candied fruit-2098%813221.25
dried apples-1785%823461.04
dried pears-1687%642620.96
dried currants-1688%702830.95
apple juice-1797%12470.88
dried pears-1783%321400.86

cereals and baked products

Processed grains are cheap and have a long shelf life. However, the processing removes most of the fibre and most of the nutrients, which means they are highly insulinogenic and energy-dense.

foodND% insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g)calories/100gMCA
rice puffs-1793%903831.13
instant oatmeal-1970%683531.06
fudge filled cookies-1947%635331.06
girl scout cookies-1951%665201.06
Graham Crackers-1773%774241.05
choc chip cookies-1855%694981.04
white flour-1592%823671.04
white rice-1595%843651.02
water biscuits-1773%703841.01
rice flour-1592%823661.00
wheat flour-1491%813630.96
ice cream cones-1388%894020.94
pound cake (fat-free)-1493%642830.90
white flour-1292%823660.88
English muffins-1683%512450.87



[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/

[2] https://www.credit-suisse.com/us/en/articles/articles/news-and-expertise/2013/09/en/is-sugar-turning-the-economy-sour.html

32 thoughts on “Low Nutrient Density Foods to Avoid: A Comprehensive Guide to Eating Healthy”

  1. Thank you so much for your blog. Excellent!

    The link to the new post on “the most insulinogenic . . .” Does not work. Nor can I find the post on your website.



    • Fair point. I really enjoy your blog by the way. Your explanation of the metabolic theory of cancer helped me understand a complex topic a little more.
      I think it’s interesting to see what the extremes look like. If we can agree that the system identifies bad foods then we can agree that the opposite extreme is good foods.
      3000 views so far in six hours since publishing it seems that there is a bit of interest.

  2. Hi Marty mainly to say thanks for the great info over the years and only one question regarding a nut native to Northern Australia and all the island up to the Philippines as far as I know called Pilli Nut

    It is sold in some areas outside Philippines the only exporter and producer than I know

    Our friend Google mention it is composed of approximately 8% carbohydrate, 11.5 to 13.9% protein, and 70% fat.

    I have been searching in very good nut markets here in Melbourne but without any luck, do you know if they can be purchase here in OZ?
    Here it is a good summary

    Are you coming to Melb 11 of Set, Low Carb Down Under reunion?

    Thanks you Camilo

  3. Marty, what can I say, this page is wonderful mate. It will become a long term resource for me. I really enjoyed your presentation at the LCHF seminar in Brisbane and I took a lot away from your discussion and the answers you provided me afterwards. I have applied similar statistical analyses to nutritional data over the past 12 months, but not to this extent, this is exceptional. Thanks again and keep up the inspiring work.

  4. Pingback: Nutrient Optimiser
  5. This is the first thing I’ve read on your site and I noticed something: your chart lists sucralose as 100% insulinogenic with 336Kcal/100g. Do you know that sucralose is the non-caloric sweetener that Splenda is based on? I think you need to correct your chart and change sucralose to “sucrose” which is what I think you intended. You might confuse people who don’t know, and lose credibility of people who do. What I mean is, if something like this simple mistake is repeated with other information that is not known to me, how would I know? That makes me cautious of other claims you might make. I was routed here by Diet Doctor so the trust starts there, but I don’t want to waste time hunting down inaccuracies and operating on incorrect info, nor do I want to pass along to others who ask. Thanks for understanding.

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