Nutrient Density on a Budget
A friend recently commented that many of the most nutritious foods are unaffordable for a lot of the people who need them the most to optimise their health and support healthy immune function.
Sadly, mainstream nutritional advice largely focuses on what we shouldn’t eat. For example, the “nutrition advice” for COVID-19 given by the World Health Organisation (which is very similar to the advice given by the United States Department of Agriculture) focuses on what not to eat.
Then, the foods that they do encourage you to eat are largely refined fats which, as you see below, tend to be very nutrient-poor.
So I thought it would be a good time to dust off some unpublished analysis of cost vs nutrient density. If you want to dive into the chart in more detail, you can click here to open an interactive version (best on a computer, not your phone).
A while back, I spent a few days trawling through the Costco website to tabulate the cost of many of the more popular foods. I then plotted their cost per 2000 calories vs nutrient density, as shown on this chart.
As you can see from the chart, there is definitely a relationship between the cost of food and nutrient density. In the top right of the chart, we have some of the most expensive foods like lobster and caviar, while in the bottom left we see that rice, sugar and oil are the cheapest, but also the least nutritious.
The rise of ultra-processed foods
Sadly, while these foods are cheap (primarily due to the way we produce them with large scale mono-crop agriculture with generous government subsidies instigated in the 1950s to help produce more food more cheaply), they also provide very little in the way of the nutrients we need to thrive.
Because they are shelf-stable and yield large profit margins, sugar, flour and oil provide the majority of the calories for so many of the foods you will find on your supermarket shelves!
Over the past half-century, food manufacturers have perfected the science of combining these cheap ingredients with flavours and colourings, to make them taste like just about anything you want! But unfortunately, this move towards ultra-refined and processed food has not been so good for our metabolic health or waistlines!
Which food will give you the worst bang for your buck?
The foods shown below the dotted red trend line represent the worst foods in terms of cost per nutrients. Some of examples of the poorest investments include:
- potato chips, and
Which food will give you the best bang for your buck?
Meanwhile, the foods above the trend line that will provide you with more nutrition without breaking the bank include:
- kidney/black beans,
- protein powder,
- frozen spinach
- broccoli, and
You can dive in to find your own selection of foods that you like using the Tableau link. If you are on a tight budget, you will want to stay with the cheaper foods shown towards the left of the chart.
If you have a little more money to invest, you can move further towards the right while still choosing from the more nutritious foods towards the top of the chart.
Nutrition is always a good investment
We believe good nutrition is a great investment. You should buy the best quality food you can afford.
Whether you believe COVID-19 is a ‘nothing burger’ or the pandemic that will end civilisation, there has never been a better time to have your nutrition dialled in.
While age seems to be the biggest risk factor of having a worse outcome to COVID-19, dialling in your food choices allows you to delay the diseases of ageing.
The data below from a recent analysis of people hospitalised in New York due to COVID-19 shows that these conditions are highly related to nutrition, metabolic syndrome and obesity.
Sadly, our modern diet has set us up to experience worse complications from COVID-19 as well as many of the other diseases that are burdening our healthcare systems.
But the good news is that most of these can be improved with good nutrition. For example:
- Hypertension (i.e. high blood pressure) appears to be closely related to your potassium:sodium ratio. Most people would benefit from consuming a diet that has more potassium, along with the nutrients that high potassium food tends to contain). (See How much salt do you need for more details ).
- Obesity is also closely related to our modern processed diet that provides low satiety (due to a combination of refined carbs and fat with minimal protein). Our data analysis demonstrates that diets with a low protein:energy ratio and a lack of micronutrients drive cravings and overeating. With a precise understanding of the most powerful that affect our cravings and satiety, we can optimise our nutritional choices to increase satiety by giving our bodies what it needs. (Check out Systemising satiety: How to optimise your diet to manage hunger for more details.)
- While the major symptom of type 2 diabetes (i.e. elevated blood sugars) is exacerbated by high levels of carbohydrate intake, at the fundamental level, diabetes is a condition of excess energy toxicity. Once your body fat becomes full, your energy can no longer be stored in the fat and backs up into the bloodstream, and we see elevated levels of glucose, free fatty acids and ketones in the bloodstream. (See How to Reverse Type 2 Diabetes for more info.)
- Heart disease is also closely related to diabetes and obesity.
- Cancer is also closely correlated with obesity and a growth-promoting environment nurtured by constant fueling.
I could go on, but the bottom line is that whether you are concerned about COVID-19 or any of the other modern diseases that will impact your quality life, a diet that promotes satiety while providing adequate nutrient density is critical.
If your innate immune system is unable to fight off the virus, you seem to be in a much more vulnerable position if you have high levels of inflamed body fat. Excess and body fat increases the levels of inflammatory cytokines which gives rise to an overactive immune response that affects your lungs.
So, whether you have a lot or a little money to invest in your nutrition, hopefully, this chart will help to guide your wise investments in your nutrition.
Note: Nutrient density is calculated based on the foods that contain more of the nutrients that are typically harder to find. While we prefer to personalise nutrient density to your goals and the nutrients you are lacking in your diet, this ranking is a good start for a general audience. Where the real magic happens is when you combine the more nutrient-dense foods to create a truly balanced diet at the micronutrient level.
What nutrients are you missing?
To help you understand what nutrients you need to focus on (and which foods and meals contain them) we have created a simple free 7 Day Food Discovery Challenge.
Maximum Nutrient Density Recipe Book
If you want to jump straight to optimising your nutrition now with the most nutrient dense recipes available, you might enjoy our new Maximum Nutrient Density recipe book.