People in Ketoland like to point out ‘there is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate‘. However, the reality is that many nutrient-dense foods that happen to contain some carbohydrates are also loaded with essential nutrients that are harder to find when carbs are reduced.
You can create a diet of reasonable nutrient density with as little as 10% of the calories coming from fat.
- Why Should You Reduce Your Carbs?
- What is Nutrient Density?
- Why is Nutrient Density Critical?
- How Has Our Food System Changed?
- Should I Eat More or Less Fats and Carbs?
- Satiety vs Nutrient Density
- Will Nutrient-Dense Foods Help Me Lose Weight?
- Which Nutrients Do I Need More of to Help Me Eat Less?
- What Does Each Nutrient Do for Us?
- Can I Just Take a Pill?
- The Optimal Nutrient Intakes
- What Are the Optimal Nutrient Intakes?
- How Can I Level Up from the DRIs to ONIs?
- Which Nutrients Do YOU Need More of?
- Can I Get Too Much of a Good Thing?
- What About Anti-Nutrients?
- Nutrients in Low-Carb Foods vs High-Fat Foods
- Our Nutrient-Dense Recipe Books
- Macros vs Nutrient Density
- Get your copy of Big Fat Keto Lies
- What the experts are saying
Why Should You Reduce Your Carbs?
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 crucial reason why a keto or low-carb diet works so well for many people, especially when starting from a hyperpalatable, modern, processed diet that mixes refined carbs and processed fats.
- Moving away from the fat and carb danger zone tends to improve satiety and reduce appetite.
- Foods with less refined carbohydrates tend to contain more bioavailable protein, making us feel fuller with fewer calories (i.e. greater satiety).
- If your blood sugars swing wildly across the day, you will feel compelled to eat again when your blood sugars come crashing down.
If you see your blood glucose levels rise by more than 1.6 mmol/L (30 mg/dL) after you eat, you’re simply overfilling your glucose fuel tank in your body. So 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.
But beyond worrying about the balance of carbs and fat in your diet, it’s ideal to think in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. You simply need to ensure you are getting the nutrients you need without overconsuming energy. We like to call this nutrient density.
What is Nutrient Density?
While calories are not a perfect measure, they are the best litmus we have to compare the nutrients contained in a food, recipe, or a group of foods contains that someone might eat in a day.
Thinking in terms of nutrients per serving or per meal can be helpful if you don’t have fat-loss goals. However, nutrients per calorie is highly effective to get enough nutrients for less energy, so you can get on with using body fat for fuel.
Why is Nutrient Density Critical?
Essential micronutrients, or vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fatty acids, are critical to the biochemical processes that power your mitochondria and drive every bodily function 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. Readily available foods contained plenty of the nutrients we needed in the proper ratios. In addition, our highly developed appetite, which works with our other senses like smell, taste, sight/colour, touch/mouthfeel, and hearing/crunch, ensures we get the nutrients and energy we need.
But these days, the essential nutrients in our food have declined because of our reliance on large-scale agricultural practices. Separating animals from plant crops and replacing manure with synthetic fertiliser has also decreased the microbial diversity and nutrient density of the plants we grow and the animals that eat them.
While we all need adequate nutrients, prioritising nutrient density becomes even more critical when trying to lose weight. Even though you’re eating fewer calories, you still require enough nutrients.
Simply trying to eat smaller quantities of the nutrient-poor foods that made you fat will leave you with cravings that often lead to increased hunger, appetite, and cravings for the nutrients you need. Unfortunately, before too long, this leads to rebound bingeing and fat gain.
The best-kept weight-loss secret is simple: if you want to lose fat, you must control your appetite by finding a way to get more nutrients per calorie from the food you consume!
How Has Our Food System Changed?
The charts below (created from data from the USDA Economic Research Service Nutrient Database) show how the nutrients in our food system have changed over the past century with the increase of chemical fertilisers and reliance on large-scale farming and food manufacturing.
Since the mid-1960s, sodium in the US food system has decreased significantly. While we are often encouraged to consume less sodium, it’s the decrease in sodium over the past 50 years that is most highly correlated with the increase in obesity.
Magnesium has also substantially decreased in parallel with the increase in the use of fertilisers and large-scale agriculture.
As our farmlands have become more depleted, potassium has dropped by around 25%. More recently, we’re learning that we’re not necessarily overeating sodium, but we’re likely consuming too little potassium in pursuit of achieving the optimal potassium: sodium ratio and preventing high blood pressure.
Vitamin A levels have dropped about 30% since the introduction of the Dietary Goals for Americans in 1977. Rather than simply focusing on the nutrients we require from food; the guidelines encouraged people to avoid their saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.
Ironically, the foods that naturally contain more saturated fat and cholesterol also contain more vitamin A. Avoiding saturated fat in favour of refined grains, sugar, and seed oils has had a devastating impact on our food system’s nutrient density.
Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient almost exclusively found in animal-based foods that has decreased since the introduction of the 1977 Dietary Guidelines.
You Need to Eat More to Get the Minimum Nutrient Intake
The table below shows the number of calories you must consume from foods readily available to get the recommended Dietary Reference Intakes for each nutrient listed on a daily basis.
Today, more and more of the foods we consume are precisely engineered formulations of cheap vegetable oils, refined starches, added sugars, flavours, and colours that are designed to look and taste nutritious.
Based on the USDA’s latest published data from 2010, 61% 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 is now even higher. Although these foods are cheap to produce, they are inferior sources of micronutrients.
You’d think nutrition would be primarily about nutrients. But sadly, they are usually an afterthought. Most nutritional advice today focuses on what you should avoid, whether it be too much fat, carbs, protein, saturated fat, sugar, plant-based foods, or animal-based foods.
By focusing on nutrient-dense foods, you ensure you get what you need from the foods you eat. Once you learn to fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods, especially at your first meal of the day, you’re much less likely to crave less-than-optimal, nutrient-poor foods that are easy to overeat.
Should I Eat More or Less Fats and Carbs?
The balance of carbs vs fat largely depends on your context and goals.
- Carbs are useful for explosive activity as the body uses them to refill your liver and muscles with glycogen if you don’t eat a lot of carbohydrates. Although your body can make enough glucose from the protein you eat, it occurs at a slower rate than if carbs were directly ingested.
- Fat is an excellent slow-burning fuel for everyday use. It’s great for storage and typically comes packaged with the protein we eat.
Your choice of fuel must consider your goals. To figure out which fuel is best for you, you can ask yourself a few simple questions:
- Do you need to fuel a lot of activity, or are you trying to lose body fat?
- What foods supply the nutrients you require while staying within your energy budget?
If you are lean, super active, and your exercise requires short bursts of power, you may crave more carbohydrates to keep your glycogen stores full. While your body can make the glucose it needs from protein, you may benefit from having more dietary carbohydrates if you burn a lot of glucose with explosive activity because this process is rate limited. However, if you are only doing less intense activities, you won’t need as many carbohydrates, and fat will steadily supply the energy you need.
If your goal is to lose body fat, your most crucial focus is to ensure you get the nutrients you need without overconsuming energy.
When it comes to carbohydrates, refined grains and starches tend to be nutrient-poor. Hence, they are less-than-optimal food choices. However, although leafy green veggies contain some carbs, they tend to contain many harder-to-find nutrients at the expense of very few calories. Thus, they are a good investment for your limited energy budget.
The fat that comes with protein is typically an excellent source of energy. But you probably should ease up on added fats and oils if you’re trying to lose fat from your body.
Once you get leaner and want to continue losing body fat, you may need to look for less fatty cuts of meat and fish to ensure you continue burning body fat. Once you have reached your goal weight, you can incorporate more energy from fat or carbs.
In the absence of processed fake foods that contain additives to trick your body into thinking the foods you’re eating contain nutrients, your appetite does a pretty good job of seeking out the nutrients you need to thrive without pushing you to overconsume energy.
Depending on the circumstances, we often crave different foods at different times to give us the nutrients we need. For example, we may crave:
- more protein after a workout,
- chocolate around ‘that time of the month’ for women, or
- all sorts of weird and wonderful things if a woman is pregnant to nourish a growing baby.
The Protein Leverage Hypothesis suggests that we keep eating food until we get the protein we require to maintain our muscles. However, it seems that a similar thing occurs with micronutrients to varying extents (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.
In our Micros Masterclass, people who focus on maximising their nutrient density find they are satiated with fewer calories. Generally, nutrient-dense foods supply plenty of protein and fibre and contain less fat and carbs. Thus, they are highly satiating and typically hard to overeat.
Satiety vs Nutrient Density
As shown in the nutrient density vs satiety chart below, nutrient-dense foods tend to be more satiating.
Foods toward the top right of this chart provide plenty of nutrients in exchange for fewer calories and therefore help you manage your appetite with less conscious effort. In contrast, foods like refined grains and fats toward the bottom left tend to increase our appetite, and we must 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 non-starchy vegetables dominate the top right. Non-starchy vegetables are hard to overeat because they are bulky from water and fibre. They are 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 someone following a strict Whole Foods Plant-Based (WFPB) diet may struggle to get adequate protein that prevents loss of lean mass, people following this diet are typically not overweight. It’s challenging to get a lot of energy from plant-based foods in their unrefined forms.
However, the problem with simply thinking in terms of plant-based vs animal-based foods is that most nutrient-poor, hyperpalatable foods found in the bottom-left corner of the satiety vs nutrient density chart also come from plants.
When we combine nutrient-poor refined fats, starches, and sugars, we get foods like doughnuts, croissants, cookies, and milk chocolate that use the hyperpalatable fat and carb combination to drive us into an uncontrollable feeding frenzy.
There is a practical limit to how many non-starchy veggies you can eat. You might feel like you’re going to explode if you try to get your daily energy requirements from watercress or spinach. So, once you’ve got your fill of greens, you need to choose where to get your energy from by moving down the top right of the chart to more nutritious energy-dense foods. We tend to find that people with the best micronutrient profiles get their nutrients from a combination of plant-based foods, meat, and seafood.
The nutrient density vs satiety chart below shows the same data after removing vegetables, fruit, and spices. In the top right of this chart, we have seafood, dairy, and other animal-based foods. You can use these to simultaneously get adequate energy and nutrients.
If you need more energy to support your activity and don’t have weight to lose, you can include more energy-dense foods towards the bottom left corner. However, the sad reality is that most of us primarily eat low-satiety nutrient-poor foods found in the bottom left corner and would benefit from adding more foods located towards the top right.
The key thing to remember about Nutritional Optimisation is that it’s a progressive process. Most people don’t have lasting success when they change everything overnight.
In our Micros Masterclass, we initially guide people to review their current diet. Once they understand their baseline diet, they progressively add in more nutrient-dense foods and meals to plug their micronutrient gaps and drop the less optimal options that no longer fit.
Will Nutrient-Dense Foods Help Me Lose Weight?
Nutrient-dense foods and meals often provide greater satiety and allow us to consume less food without actively fighting our hunger.
The chart below shows our measure for diet quality, the Optimal Nutrient Intake Score (ONI), vs calorie intake that has been quantified from 125,761 days of macronutrient and micronutrient data from 34,519 people who have used Nutrient Optimiser to fine-tune their nutrition. As people level up their nutrient density, their cravings are satisfied, and they tend to eat less. So once we dial in food quality, food quantity tends to look after itself!
The good news is that nutrient-dense foods and meals do not tend to contain refined carbs or seed oils. If you’re focusing on maximising 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, balancing between carbs and fat becomes irrelevant.
Which Nutrients Do I Need More of to Help Me Eat Less?
Through our analysis of data from Optimisers, we have gained a fascinating insight into how different macronutrients and micronutrients influence our appetite and total caloric intake throughout the day.
In line with the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, our data shows that we eat less when a greater proportion of our diet comes from protein rather than fat and/or carbohydrates.
As shown in the chart below, people who consume a higher protein % tend to eat 55% fewer calories.
Conversely, the more energy we get from non-fibre carbohydrates and fat, the more we eat.
However, our data indicate that, rather than merely protein leverage, there is also a micronutrient leverage effect for each micronutrient. As a result, we tend to eat less when we consume foods that contain more of each micronutrient per calorie, as shown in the charts below.
After protein, potassium has the strongest satiety impact of all the micronutrients. People who consume foods with more potassium per calorie tend to eat 50% less!
While some micronutrients continue to provide greater satiety with no upper limit in terms of nutrients per calorie, some nutrients, like vitamins, have a limited impact on satiety.
The data indicate that once we get enough of one particular nutrient, our appetite for these foods settles down, and we no longer crave foods that contain more of this nutrient. We then seek out foods rich in other nutrients.
You will see a ‘stretch target’, or the Optimal Nutrient Intake, on the charts. These are based on either:
- the amount of the nutrient where more doesn’t provide further benefit, or;
- the amount that most people can obtain with food alone, or the 85th percentile intake based on Optimiser data.
The charts below show the satiety response curves with the Optimal Nutrient Intake for each essential micronutrient.
What Does Each Nutrient Do for Us?
The functions and interactions of the micronutrients in our body are complex, and we are only just coming to understand them.
A few highlights are noted below.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that protects the body from cardiovascular diseases, cancers, joint diseases, cataracts, and the common cold. It is necessary for collagen and elastin synthesis, which are necessary elements in the bone matrix, skin, tooth dentin, blood vessels, and tendons. It protects against oxygen-based damage to cells (free radicals or reactive oxygen species), is required for fat synthesis, and has antiviral and detoxifying properties.
- Calcium is needed for bone and tooth formation, muscle contraction, blood clotting, and nerve transmission. It also reduces the risk of colon cancer and prevents hypertension.
- Chromium assists with insulin function and helps lower elevated serum cholesterol and triglycerides and is required for carbohydrate and fat metabolism. It also increases fertility and is essential for foetal growth and development.
- Copper is necessary for bone formation, energy production, the colouring of the hair and skin, and taste sensitivity. It is involved in collagen synthesis and the wound healing process. Copper also aids in iron transport and helps metabolise several fatty acids.
- Magnesium is involved in over 300 essential metabolic reactions. It is necessary for muscle activity and nerve impulses, regulating temperature and blood pressure, and it is essential for detoxification. Working with calcium, magnesium also helps to build strong bones and teeth.
- Choline is vital for lipid and cholesterol transport and metabolising of methyl groups. It also improves cognitive function and memory.
- Potassium is the major cation of intracellular fluid. It is an almost constant component of lean body tissues. The flux of potassium out of cells and sodium into cells changes the electrical potential during depolarisation and nerve and muscle cells’ repolarisation. This process is helpful for nerve signalling and ATP production.
- Selenium is an antioxidant and is essential in redox reactions. It also is an important nutrient for the immune system and thyroid metabolism.
- Phosphorus is the second most abundant inorganic element in the body. Phosphorus as phosphate works as a significant buffer and helps to protect and balance blood pH. Phosphorus is critical to energy transfer in your body, including the generation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
- Vitamin B12 is required to synthesise fatty acids in myelin and works in conjunction with folate to synthesise DNA and neurotransmitters. Adequate vitamin B12 intake is essential for healthy blood cells and neurological function. B12 is one of the main nutrients that drive the process known as methylation.
- Sodium is the primary cation in human extracellular fluid. It is essential for maintaining critical physiological activities like extracellular fluid volume and cellular membrane potential.
For more details, check out our detailed articles on each of the micronutrients:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Thiamine (B1)
- Riboflavin (B2)
- Niacin (B3)
- Pantothenic acid (B5)
- Vitamin B6
- Folate (B9)
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K1
- Omega 3
Can I Just Take a Pill?
People buy expensive supplements and pills in hopes of 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 much advertising budget behind the #foodfirst message.
But if you stop and think for a second, 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 benefits from vitamin pills and food fortification, supplements are often not in the form the body needs, nor are they found in the synergistic ratios found in whole foods.
It’s also likely you’re not just missing one nutrient but rather a suite of beneficial compounds working in tandem that come from eating whole foods. In all honesty, we don’t fully understand many of these nutrients quite yet.
Most studies have shown limited value in supplementing synthetic nutrient isolates unless there is a clear-cut clinical deficiency. However, countless studies have shown the innumerable benefits that come from eating nutrient-dense whole foods.
While supplements seem like an attractive option, they often don’t provide the same benefit when separated from whole foods. Because nutrients work alongside one another, they can also drive nutrient imbalances.
The Optimal Nutrient Intakes
You may have heard of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI), which are set to prevent diseases of deficiency, or the Adequate Intakes (AI), which are calculated from typical population intakes when not enough studies are available to demonstrate a minimum level.
The Upper Limits (UL) are found based on the quantities of nutrients in their refined supplemental forms that are known to produce adverse symptoms in some people. Excess or overdose of nutrients is rarely a concern from whole foods.
But similar to protein targets, these recommended intake levels should be seen as a minimum as they are designed to avoid deficiency and not 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 in a cost-effective manner that focuses on food products that are produced most easily and not most healthily.
Your Nutritional Factor of Safety
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 if you knew it had been designed for the absolute minimum cost. Even though engineers have undertaken many tests and have been using materials like steel and concrete for a long time, there are still many unknowns.
In geotechnical design, things are hard to test because they are under the ground and hard to see and clearly understand. Thus, we must apply a higher and more conservative factor of safety.
Designing a road or bridge slightly stronger than the absolute minimum ensures that it is resilient and won’t be destroyed by extraordinary events and collapse catastrophically (e.g. an overloaded truck, an earthquake or a significant flood).
In a similar way, we can apply a larger factor of safety to our nutrient intake targets as we have for our Optimal Nutrient Intakes (ONIs). There are still many unknowns and things we don’t understand when it comes to how your body uses the various nutrients in different circumstances.
We increase our nutritional safety factor by ensuring we are getting more than the absolute minimum nutrient intake. Rather than the bare minimum to prevent disease and death, we provide our body with higher quality building blocks that increase its resiliency and ability to cope with more stress and unforeseen extreme events.
We designed our Optimal Nutrient Intakes (ONIs) stretch targets based on the intakes that provide the greatest satiety. Aiming for the ONIs will help you reverse (or avoid) energy toxicity while still getting plenty of the essential nutrients you need to optimise mitochondrial function and metabolic health.
These are definitely stretch targets that are a challenge to achieve for most! However, we have seen numerous participants in our Micros Masterclass achieve all of them at once and reach an ONI score of 100% using Nutrient Optimiser, which guides people to obtain more of the nutrients their current diet lacks.
To get a taste for what nutrient density looks like in practice, see What Do Top Optimisers Eat Across the Globe?
The chart below compares the satiety impact of each macronutrient based on our data analysis.
While fibre has a positive effect on satiety, most people don’t consume enough of it to see a significant effect. Protein has the largest positive impact on satiety, while carbs and fat negatively impact satiety.
The table below shows macronutrient ranges that align with greater satiety and nutrient density. Notice how there is plenty of room for movement within these ranges to find the macro split that suits your goals and preferences.
|Net carbs||10 – 45%|
We don’t recommend immediately jumping straight to these stretch targets. In our Macros Masterclass, we guide people to assess their current typical macronutrient profile and make progressive tweaks to move towards their goals in a sustainable manner.
Adequate mineral intake is critical! But in comparison to vitamins, minerals are bulky. Thus, they are rarely provided in adequate quantities through supplements or food fortification. Instead, you must get your minerals from nutrient-dense food!
The comparison chart below shows that all minerals positively impact satiety. However, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and zinc have the most significant impacts (i.e. the longer the line, the greater the impact).
Foods that contain more vitamins tend to be more satiating, but only up to a point. There appears to be a level beyond what nutrient-dense whole foods can provide for most vitamins where there is no additional benefit, at least in terms of satiety.
While the ONIs for vitamins are typically around six times the minimum Recommended Dietary Allowances, higher levels only achievable through supplementation don’t provide additional benefits.
Unless you have a measured clinical deficiency of a particular nutrient, adding more vitamins into your system above the ONIs likely just creates expensive, brightly coloured pee!
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 fatty acids is important, and most people should increase their intake of seafood and avoid foods that contain refined seed oils;
- if you want to lose weight, focusing on reducing your monounsaturated fat intake from added oils or as processed food ingredients will give you the biggest bang for your buck; and
- you needn’t worry about nutritious foods that naturally contain cholesterol, saturated fat, or even trans fats.
Each amino acid has a unique biological function. Different protein sources like fish, eggs, meat, offal, beans, and legumes each have their own unique amino acid profiles.
While you’ll probably hit your protein and amino acid targets with whole protein sources, the table below shows recommended stretch targets for each amino acid.
The Optimal Nutrient Intakes (ONIs), shown in the table below, are the quantities of each nutrient our data has shown to align with consistently greater satiety and optimised health.
|nutrient||ONI||DRI or AI||units|
|pantothenic acid (B5)||12||5||mg|
Also shown for comparison are the DRIs and Ais, which are calculated based on the average intake of a 70 kg man who theoretically consumes 2000 calories per day. The ONIs shown in this table are based on 2000 calories per day for ease of comparison.
On average, the ONIs are around four times the DRI or AI required to prevent diseases of deficiency. If you’re aiming for the ONI targets and are eating in a calorie deficit to lose weight, you will still be getting plenty of these nutrients.
How Can I Level Up from the DRIs to ONIs?
Because the minimum nutrient intakes are low, many people find it reasonably easy to reach them in Cronometer and see lots of green straight away. However, they get discouraged when they start by putting the ONI stretch targets shown in the table above into Cronometer, and all their pretty green bars turn yellow and shrink.
If you want to work your way up to the ONI targets in ‘digestible’ phases, you can start by changing your settings in Cronometer to the ONIs per 1000 calories (i.e. Level 1). This will highlight the nutrients you need to focus on more effectively.
Meanwhile, anything that is still green and full in Cronometer is good to go – you are already getting plenty of these nutrients. These Level 1 targets are handy for people consuming fewer calories in a weight loss phase or older females who require fewer calories than active young men.
|nutrient||Beginner DRI/AI||Level 1 ONI (1000 cals)||Level 2 ONI (1500 cals)||Level 3 ONI (2000 cals)|
Then, once you are getting full green bars for most of the nutrients with the Level 1 targets, you can enter the ONIs per 1500 calories (Level 2) and continue focusing on nutrients that are harder to find. Finally, if you eat around 2000 calories and mainly see green bars, you can level up to the ONI per 2000 calorie targets.
Updating your nutrient targets in Cronometer won’t change anything in Nutrient Optimiser. It simply makes the display in Cronometer a little more helpful and motivational as you continue on your quest toward Nutritional Optimisation.
For more details on this process, see The Nutrient Bucket-Filling Game.
Which Nutrients Do YOU Need More of?
People often ask what the most nutrient-dense diet, meals, and foods are. Unfortunately, the answer depends on your goals and your current diet. While we have created nutrient-dense foods and recipes to contain more of the nutrients that most people struggle to get enough of, nutrient density should ideally be tailored to an individual’s diet and goals.
To demonstrate, the following sections look at the nutrient profiles of several different dietary approaches.
The Hardest Nutrients to Find in our Food System
The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profiles for over 9,000 commonly available foods that are listed on the USDA Food Composition Database.
As a general rule, we will struggle to get enough omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E, thiamine (B1), and other nutrients listed towards the top of this chart.
The micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile if we just went ‘plant-based’ without considering nutrient density.
The good news is we can boost the nutrients in a purely plant-based diet by focusing on foods containing more of the harder-to-find nutrients towards the top of the nutrient fingerprint chart.
The micronutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutrient-dense plant-based foods. As you can see, someone strictly following a plant-based diet may still struggle to get enough vitamin B12, omega-3, selenium, vitamin A, and certain amino acids.
But as the chart shows below, the nutrient profile could sadly be much worse if a ‘plant-based diet’ merely means eliminating animal products without prioritising the required nutrients through vegetables, nuts, and seeds. There is plenty of ‘plant-based’ vegan junk food that mostly combines low-satiety, nutrient-poor processed oils, sugar, and refined grains.
So, if you choose to follow a plant-based diet, you should make a special effort to prioritise minimally processed foods like vegetables and seeds while minimising refined oils and processed grains.
Meanwhile, someone on a carnivore diet at the other end of the dietary spectrum may struggle to get enough vitamin K1, vitamin C, folate, or other nutrients found towards the top of this chart.
Can I Get Too Much of a Good Thing?
It’s difficult to get too much of any of the micronutrients from whole foods alone. Your kidneys do an excellent job of filtering out excess nutrients that you don’t require.
As you can see from the satiety response curves above, we benefit from consuming nutrients well above the recommended minimum intake levels when they come from whole foods.
There are some anecdotal cases of Arctic explorers consuming too much polar bear liver and feeling ill from hypervitaminosis A. But in practice, most people don’t eat excessive amounts of liver, let alone from polar bears when they are dehydrated.
It is possible, however, to overdo your supplements. In the first instance, excessive supplementation can give you diarrhoea as your body sheds them from your system. There are also many instances where excessive levels of one nutrient can affect the absorption of other nutrients because of the synergistic and antagonistic relationships to one another, which can create 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 you’re not getting from whole food because you’re tracking your diet.
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, and each nutrient works synergistically with 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.
For more details, see Micronutrient Balance Ratios: Do They Matter and How Can I Manage Them?
Plant-based foods often contain more concentrated quantities of certain nutrients per calorie. However, the nutrients in animal foods tend to be more ‘bioavailable’, meaning they’re in forms that are easily used in the body.
For example, the forms of vitamin A, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids found in animal foods are already in the most active forms for the body and do not require any conversion. In contrast, plant-based foods contain nutrient precursors, meaning the nutrients need to be converted before the body can use them.
There are some losses in the conversion of nutrients, and some people are better than others at converting for various reasons like stress and genetics. As a result, the number of nutrients in plant-based foods doesn’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, less bioavailable nutrients like beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A found in fruits and vegetables, are generally relatively easy to get in adequate quantities. Although there is uncertainty around bioavailability, it 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 the losses that occur during the conversion of precursors from plant-based foods vs the bioavailable nutrients found in 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 a LOT we still don’t understand about how it works. But, if you give your body all the nutrients it needs in the forms it recognises, there is a pretty good chance 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 more non-starchy vegetables, more organ meats, more seafood, or more meat, it doesn’t matter because you will be making significant improvements compared to a diet of refined grains and oils.
If you are still concerned about bioavailability down the track, you can look at the micronutrient fingerprint of the foods you eat most often. If there are nutrients you find harder to get enough of at the top of your micronutrient fingerprint that are not bioavailable from the foods you’re eating, you can prioritise more bioavailable sources of those nutrients. But this is getting into the weeds, and most people don’t need to be concerned about this level of minutiae.
What About Anti-Nutrients?
Plant-based foods like grains and legumes contain ‘anti-nutrients’ like lectins, phytic acid, goitrogens, oxalates, and tannins that can hinder the absorption of nutrients such as calcium, zinc, iron, magnesium, and potassium.
For people who have a history of digestive problems, lectins are often an issue. These compounds are found readily in vegetables, beans, legumes, and grains and can activate the immune system and contribute to intestinal permeability (‘leaky gut’).
Grain-based foods are not only relatively nutrient-poor, but they also contain some of the most concentrated amounts of antinutrients like phytic acid, lectins, and oxalate. All of these compounds inhibit the absorption of other essential nutrients.
There are some substances in vegetables like sulforaphane that are considered to be antinutrients. However, some people see these as positive because they provide beneficial hormetic stress that strengthens your system, similar to the way resistance training builds strength.
If your digestion isn’t great, you may benefit from an autoimmune elimination diet (AIP) or even a carnivorous diet for a time to see your symptoms improve. When you are symptom-free, you can progressively reintroduce the most nutrient-dense foods and see how your body responds.
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods and meals means you automatically minimise anti-nutrients because they are free from refined grains that contain most of the antinutrients in our food system.
The remaining ones in vegetables don’t appear to be a significant issue for most people without pre-existing conditions. If you have specific symptoms or digestive problems when you eat certain foods, it may pay to listen to your body and 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.
Nutrients in Low-Carb Foods vs High-Fat Foods
Many people following a ketogenic or low-carb diet think in terms of their food as either ‘low-carb’ or ‘high-fat’. Let’s look at the nutritional implications of thinking in terms of these extremes.
Nutrients in Low-Carb Foods
The nutrient fingerprint chart below shows the nutrient content of the lowest-carb foods in the USDA database.
The horizontal axis represents 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) and is represented as the red dotted line.
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 starting a low-carb diet. However, the downside is that these foods lack essential nutrients shown at the top, like vitamin K1, vitamin C, folate, calcium, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids.
In comparison, the micronutrient fingerprint shown below represents the highest-fat foods.
When both carbs and protein are minimised, we get a poor overall nutrient profile that is much worse than the lowest carbohydrate foods. So when it comes to getting enough nutrients from the food you eat, it seems low-carb prevails over high-fat.
Finally, we have the nutrient fingerprint of the foods with the highest nutrient density. If you only ate these foods, you would quickly get all the nutrients you need. They are also extraordinarily satiating and hard to overeat, meaning your body would likely produce endogenous ketones from your stored fat if you stayed below your calorie parameter.
The downside of these foods is that they are hard to get enough energy from. Thus, it can be wise to progressively ‘level up’ your diet based on your current situation and goals. For weight loss, you can progressively add in some more nutrient-dense foods and meals while dropping less optimal options. Conversely, to gain weight, while you should still prioritise nutrient density, you will also need some less nutrient-dense foods that contain energy from fat and/or carbs.
Our Nutrient-Dense Recipe Books
After trying to promote the benefits of focusing on nutrient density for years, we realised that we had 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 to manage epilepsy, dementia, or Parkinson’s.
As you can see from the nutrient profile shown below, these recipes have plenty of fat and lower protein and a nutrient score of 48%. These charts for the recipe books are shown in terms of the Dietary Reference Intake per 2000 calories. With a high-fat therapeutic ketogenic diet, we can meet the minimum nutrient intake to prevent diseases of deficiency, although calcium and niacin (shown towards the top of the nutrient fingerprint chart) are still a challenge.
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 needs 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 these foods are not exceptionally nutrient-dense wouldn’t be a significant 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 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.
These nutritional keto recipes have a higher nutrient density than the therapeutic keto approach, with more protein and less fat (although we still struggle to get the minimum intake of calcium and vitamin B1).
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.
|surplus||diet (cals)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
Our Low Carb & Blood Sugar recipes are 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 low in carbohydrates. We can meet the minimum nutrient intake with a low-carbohydrate diet optimised for healthy blood sugar levels.
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)|
Blood sugar & fat loss
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, you will likely still be in (endogenous) ketosis, with some of the ketones coming from your body (rather than your diet).
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.
|energy 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 will enable you to get plenty of the nutrients you require to thrive, even if you are eating fewer calories overall. 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 eager to lose body fat. As we can see from the table below, it would be challenging to overeat with half the energy coming from protein. However, even with a 40% energy deficit, you would be getting plenty of protein to support lean mass retention 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.
|energy deficit||diet (cals)||dietary fat (cals)||body fat (cals)||total fat (%)||net carb (g)||protein (g/kg LBM)|
These recipes have an extremely high-protein percentage (58%) while being relatively 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).
|energy 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 will not 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, the ideal approach is to progressively increase the protein percentage from where you are now rather than jumping from a high-fat keto diet or a modern processed diet (which both tend to provide less protein). Then, you only need to dial it up further once you stall and want to continue your fat loss journey.
Macros vs Nutrient Density
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 NutriBooster Recipe Books.
The following chart shows the relationship between non-fibre carbohydrates and nutrient density based on our analysis of the Optimiser data. There seems to be a sweet spot between 10 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 reasonably low-carbohydrate outcome when we prioritise nutrients. So while reducing carbs to stabilise your blood sugars is wise, 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 get a maximum nutrient density at around 50% protein. This is a common finding from all our analysis. A higher protein percentage (up to 50%) aligns with greater nutrient density and satiety.
The following chart shows the percentage of fat vs nutrient density. While fat is an excellent source of energy that often comes packaged with protein, 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 overly simplistic. Our modern food system is full of nutrient-poor 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
What the experts are saying
- Big Fat Keto Lies: Now On Kindle
- Big Fat Keto Lies: Introduction
- A Brief History of the 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 #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.