Tag Archives: athletes

high nutrient density, high energy density foods for athletes

If you’re an athlete, the “problem” with nutrient dense foods like non starchy vegetables and organ meats is that it can be hard to get enough fuel to support your activity.

Foods designed for athletes are energy dense but are not nutrient dense but rather are fast burning foods that don’t contain a lot of essential nutrients.  These foods may provide fuel for the short term, but they can lead to gut distress in the short term and as well as inflammation and insulin resistance in the long term.

To overcome these problems, this list of foods has been designed to be both nutrient dense and energy dense to ensure someone who is very active can get enough fuel while maximising nutrient density as much as possible.

energy density

The energy density of the foods listed below comes out at 367 calories per 100g compared to 231 calories per 100g for all foods in the USDA foods database.  They will contain enough energy to fuel an active life without spending all day chewing or overfilling your stomach.


From a macronutrient perspective these foods will provide you with:

  • more protein for muscle recovery,
  • more fat to provide energy,
  • more fibre due to the lower level of processing, and
  • less non-fibre carbohydrates which will normalise blood blood glucose levels while still providing some glucose for explosive power.


The chart below shows that these foods are quite nutrient dense, with all of the nutrients achieving greater than the daily recommended intake.

nutrient dense, energy dense foods for athletes

Listed below are the top 10% of the foods using this ranking including:

  • nutrient density score (ND)
  • energy density (calories/100g) and
  • their multi criteria analysis score (MCA).


While the vegetables and spices in this list aren’t particularly energy dense they will ensure that you get the vitamins and minerals you need to perform at your best.  The lower energy density vegetables have been removed because they won’t be that helpful fueling for race day.

food ND calories/100g MCA
spinach 17 23 1.6
yeast extract spread 11 185 1.4
seaweed (wakame) 13 45 1.3
portabella mushrooms 13 29 1.2
shiitake mushrooms 7 296 1.1
broccoli 11 35 1.0
shiitake mushroom 11 39 1.0
seaweed (kelp) 10 43 0.8
cauliflower 9 25 0.7


Seafood packs some nutrient density and energy density at the same time.

food ND calories/100g MCA
cod 13 290 1.9
crab 14 83 1.4
anchovy 10 210 1.3
salmon 11 156 1.3
lobster 13 89 1.3
fish roe 11 143 1.3
caviar 8 264 1.2
halibut 11 111 1.2
trout 10 168 1.2
sturgeon 10 135 1.1
crayfish 11 82 1.1
pollock 10 111 1.0
oyster 10 102 1.0
shrimp 10 119 1.0
haddock 9 116 0.9
rockfish 9 109 0.9
sardine 7 208 0.9
octopus 8 164 0.9
flounder 9 86 0.8
white fish 9 108 0.8
perch 8 96 0.8
mackerel 4 305 0.7
whiting 7 116 0.7
herring 5 217 0.7
tuna 6 184 0.7
clam 6 142 0.6
scallop 7 111 0.6

eggs and dairy

Eggs are nutritionally excellent.  Butter has plenty of energy.

food ND calories/100g MCA
egg yolk 6 275 0.9
butter -5 718 0.7
whole egg 5 143 0.5

fats and oils

Fats and oils don’t contain a broad range of micronutrients, but they’re a great way to fuel without excessively raising your blood glucose or insulin too.  From an inflammatory perspective they’re going to be better than process grains and glucose for fueling as well as keeping insulin levels low to enable you to access your fat stores during endurance activities.

food ND calories/100g MCA
grapeseed oil -4 884 1.3
peanut oil -5 884 1.1
olive oil -6 884 1.1
soybean oil -6 884 1.1
beef tallow -6 902 1.1
duck fat -6 882 1.1
soy oil -6 884 1.1
lard -6 902 1.1
coconut oil -7 892 1.0
walnut oil -7 884 1.0
palm kernel oil -6 862 1.0
mayonnaise -4 717 0.8

grains and cereals

The more nutrient dense bran component of wheat makes the cut, however the more processed and more popular grains don’t make the list. Many people find use the “train low, race high” approach to be useful to ensure you are fat adapted through fasted or low glycogen training but have some glucose in the system for explosive bursts on race day.

food ND calories/100g MCA
wheat bran 10 216 1.3
baker’s yeast 12 105 1.2
oat bran 5 246 0.8


Legumes are moderately nutrient dense and have a higher energy density than most vegetables.  Properly prepared legumes can be a cost effective way of getting energy and nutrients, though not everyone’s gut handles them well.

food ND calories/100g MCA
peanut butter 1 593 1.1
soybeans 2 446 0.9
peanuts -1 599 0.9
cowpeas 2 336 0.6
black beans 1 341 0.5
broad beans 1 341 0.5

nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds are a great way to get some energy in, though they’re not as high in the harder to find nutrients.

food ND calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 4 546 1.4
pumpkin seeds 1 559 1.1
almond butter 0 614 1.1
almonds 0 607 1.0
pine nuts -2 673 1.0
walnuts -1 619 1.0
brazil nuts -2 659 1.0
flax seed 1 534 1.0
sesame seeds -2 631 0.9
sesame butter -1 586 0.9
hazelnuts -2 629 0.9
macadamia nuts -4 718 0.8
pecans -4 691 0.8
cashews -2 580 0.7
pistachio nuts -2 569 0.7

animal products

Organ meats also do well in terms of nutrient density.  Fattier cuts of meat will pack some more energy.

food ND calories/100g MCA
lamb liver 12 168 1.4
veal liver 10 192 1.2
ham (lean only) 11 113 1.2
lamb kidney 11 112 1.2
beef liver 9 175 1.1
chicken liver 9 172 1.1
turkey liver 9 189 1.0
pork chop 8 172 0.9
chicken breast 8 148 0.9
pork liver 7 165 0.8
beef kidney 7 157 0.8
pork shoulder 7 162 0.7
veal 7 151 0.7
leg ham 6 165 0.7
ground pork 6 185 0.7
lean beef 7 149 0.7
sirloin steak 5 177 0.6

breakfast of champions

My Facebook feed has been flooded lately with stories about Tour de France cyclists going low carb.[1]


Or is it high protein?[2]


Whatever is going on, it seems helps them run well too![3]


While I’m not sure you can say that these elite cyclists have eschewed all carbohydrate-containing foods,  the trend away from processed carbs to whole foods is intriguing.

So if they’re going low carb does it mean they’re now butter, cream, MCT oil after starting the day with BPC?

Dr. James Morton, head of nutrition at Team Sky and an associate professor in the Faculty of Science at Liverpool John Moores University explains:[4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

We promote a natural approach to food.  Our riders eat food that grows in the ground or on a tree and protein from natural sources.

They need energy, but they also have to stay lean and healthy with a strong immune system. A natural diet is the best way to achieve this.

Fat is important for everything from energy release and muscle health to immunity, but by eating the right food the fat takes care of itself.  The riders eat eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, nuts, olive oil, avocados and some red meat for a natural mix of saturated and unsaturated fats.”

To achieve optimal weight Dr Morton asks the riders to “periodise” their carb intake by eating more when they train hard and cutting back when they’re less active.

They routinely train in the morning after eating a protein-rich omelette, instead of carbohydrate-dense bread, to encourage their bodies to burn fat for fuel.[9]


So how does low carb real food thing work?

According to Dr Terry Wahls it seems that nutrient density is a key part of maximising energy output.

To produce ATP efficiently, the mitochondria need particular things.  Glucose or ketone bodies from fat and oxygen are primary.  

Your mitochondria can limp along, producing a few ATP on only these three things, but to really do the job right and produce the most ATP, your mitochondria also need thiamine (vitamin B1), riboflavin (vitamin B2), niacinamide (vitamin B3), pantothenic acid (vitamin B5), minerals (especially sulfur, zinc, magnesium, iron and manganese) and antioxidants.  Mitochondria also need plenty of L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine, and ubiquinone (also called coenzyme Q) for peak efficiency.  

If you don’t get all these nutrients or if you are exposed to too many toxins, your ATP production will become less efficient, which leads to two problems:

Your body will produce less energy so they may not be able to do everything they need to do.

Your cells will generate more waste than necessary in the form of free radicals.

Without the right nutrient sources to fuel the ATP production in the mitochondria – which in turn produce energy for the cellular processes required to sustain life – your mitochondria can become starved.  The cells then can’t do their job as effectively.[10] 

So let’s look at the macro and micronutrient analysis of Chris Froome’s “rest day breakfast” (pictured above).   The analysis indicates that it does very well in both the vitamins and minerals score as well as the amino acids score.


If we throw in some spinach Froomey would improve the vitamin and mineral score of his breakfast even further.  The addition of spinach increases the nutrient balance score from 57 to 77 while the amino acid score stays high.


Froome’s wife says eating more protein has been one of the keys to losing weight and building muscle leading up to the tour.[11]  Getting a quarter of your calories from protein is more than the 16% most people consume, however with 65% of the energy coming from fat you could also call this meal low carb, high fat, or even “ketogenic” depending on which camp you’re in.


This simple but effective meal would be a pretty good option for just about anyone.  Froome’s breakfast ranks well regardless of your goals.  Based on the ranking system of meals for different goals it comes in at:

  • #10 (with spinach) and #31 (without spinach) out of 245 meals analysed for the low carb diabetes ranking,
  • #18 and 52 on the therapeutic ketosis ranking, and
  • #26 and 64 on the overall nutrient density ranking.


It seems it’s not just the low carbers, “ketonians”[12] and people battling diabetes who are training their bodies to burn fat more efficiently.  Maximising your ability to burn fat is critical even if you are extremely metabolically healthy.

The chart below shows comparison of the fat oxidation rate of well trained athletes (WT) versus recreationally (RT) athletes (who are not necessarily following a low carb diet).[13]  The well trained athletes are clearly oxidising more fat, which enables them to put out a lot more power (measured in terms of their VO2max).   It seems that you ability to efficiently burn fat for fuel it a key component of what sets the elite apart from the amateurs whether you call yourself vegan, ketogenic or a fruitarian.[14]


While carbohydrates help to produce maximal explosive power, it seems that the glucose turbocharger works best when it sits on a big power fat fueled motor.  According to Peter Defty (who spent the last couple of years helping 2016 Tour de France second place getter Romain Bardet refine his ability as a fat adapted athlete using his Optimised Fat Metabolism protocol), fat can yield more energy more efficiently with less oxidative stress which requires less recovery time.[15]

Dr Morton also understand the importance of keeping carbohydrates low to maximise mitochondrial biogenesis and to access fat stores.  If you want to learn more about his thinking on the use of diet to drive mitochondrial biogenesis you might be interested in checking out his array of published papers on the topic.[16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]   On the topic of carbohydrate intake Morton says:

Amateur riders are taught the importance of carbohydrates for training and racing, perhaps too much actually.

From our research at Liverpool John Moores University, we now know that deliberately restricting carbs around carefully chosen training sessions can actually enhance training adaptations.

But then of course we must ensure higher carbohydrate intakes for key training sessions and hard stages in racing.

I believe this concept of periodising daily carbohydrate intake is the most exciting part of sports nutrition in the last decade and our challenge now is to address how best we do this practically.

Essentially, exercising your mitochondria in a low insulin and low glucose state forces your body to adapt to using fat for fuel and to use glucose and oxygen efficiently and effectively.[23] [24]


Not only is this useful for endurance athletes and people battling diabetes, training your body to use fat and oxygen more effectively is also claimed to be important to minimise anaerobic fermentation which is said to increase your risk of cancer.[25] [26] [27]

Many of us struggle trying to cope in an environment of excess energy from low nutrient density highly insulinogenic food.  If we can’t obtain the necessary nutrients from our food to efficiently produce energy our bodies seek out more and more food in the hope of finding the required nutrients and enough energy to feel OK.


Our bodies do their best to use the energy that we give them, but they are working overtime to pump out insulin to store the excess energy that is not used.  Over time our bodies adapt by becoming resistant to insulin in order to stop the excess energy being stored in our liver, pancreas and eyes when our fat stores on our muscles and belly can’t take any more.[28]  Then to overcome the insulin resistance the body has to pump out more insulin which makes even less of the energy we eat available for use.


When we call on our mitochondria to produce intensive bursts of energy with minimal fuel (i.e. fasting) or glucose (i.e. low carb) we force our bodies to more efficiently the limited carbohydrate.  Suddenly our bodies become insulin sensitive.

Recent studies indicate that people who are fat adapted are able to mobilise higher rates of fat at higher excercise intensities.[29]


With a higher reliance on fat they are able to conserve the precious glucose for explosive efforts.


Then, when they really need the power they have both fuel tanks available to cross the  line first… and second!




[1] http://realmealrevolution.com/real-thinking/great-news-for-lchf-first-and-second-place-riders-of-the-tour-de-france-are

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com.au/chris-froome-weight-loss-tour-de-france-2016-7?r=US&IR=T

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPqxUA70ulo

[4] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/recreational-cycling/how-to-eat-like-a-tour-de-france-cyclist/

[5] http://www.teamsky.com/teamsky/home/article/68342#CpWWiwr2TyE0EA2P.97

[6] https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/staff-profiles/faculty-of-science/sport-and-exercise-sciences/james-morton

[7] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23364526

[8] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23263742

[9] http://realmealrevolution.com/real-thinking/great-news-for-lchf-first-and-second-place-riders-of-the-tour-de-france-are

[10] https://www.amazon.com/Wahls-Protocol-Autoimmune-Conditions-Principles/dp/1583335544


[12] http://ketotalk.com/2016/04/19-inflammatory-keto-foods-build-muscle-on-moderate-protein-baby-boomer-ketonians/

[13] http://m.bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/1/1/e000047.full

[14] http://www.30bananasaday.com/profile/durianrider

[15] http://www.vespapower.com/mighty-mitochondria/

[16] https://www.ljmu.ac.uk/about-us/staff-profiles/faculty-of-science/sport-and-exercise-sciences/james-morton

[17] http://ajpregu.physiology.org/content/304/6/R450

[18] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23263742

[19] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19265068

[20] http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/pages/articleviewer.aspx?year=9000&issue=00000&article=97464&type=abstract

[21] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0891584916000307

[22] http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17461391.2014.920926

[23] https://www.fightaging.org/archives/2011/04/calorie-restriction-increases-mitochondrial-biogenesis/

[24] http://www.marksdailyapple.com/managing-your-mitochondria/#axzz4G2D39DgB

[25] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4493566/

[26] https://www.amazon.com/Tripping-Over-Truth-Metabolic-Illuminates/dp/1500600318

[27] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PuG5XZSR4vs

[28] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25515001

[29] http://www.vespapower.com/the-emerging-science-on-fat-adaptation/

nutrient dense insulinogenic foods for bodybuilding

As well as identifying nutrient dense diabetic friendly foods, we can use the food insulin index to highlight more insulinogenic nutrient dense higher energy density foods for use by athletes or people wanting gain weight.

This article highlights more insulinogenic nutrient dense foods that could be used by metabolically healthy people to strategically “carb up” before events, to intentionally trigger insulin spikes (e.g. Carb Back-Loading, Alt Shift Diet or the targeted ketogenic diet) or to maximise growth for people who are underweight while still maintaining high levels of nutrition.

insulin load, a refresher

Many people with diabetes will try to reduce the insulin load of their diet to normalise blood glucose levels.  It’s the non-fibre carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent protein, that drive insulin and blood glucose, particularly for someone who is insulin resistant.


Managing the insulin load of your diet is an effective way to get off the blood glucose roller coaster and stabilise blood glucose levels.  We can calculate the insulin load of our diet based on the carbohydrates, fibre and protein using the formula shown below.


We can also calculate the percentage of insulinogenic calories to identify the foods that will affect our blood glucose levels the least, or the most.


but why would you want to spike your glucose levels?

Much of the nutrition and diabetes world is focused on helping people who are struggling with insulin resistance and trying to normalise blood glucose.  However, there are others who are blessed to be metabolically healthy who may want to strategically refill their glycogen tanks or raise their insulin levels.

  • Some follow a targeted ketogenic diet and strategically replenish glucose around workouts by eating higher carbohydrate foods.
  • Some bodybuilders use a cyclical ketogenic diet where they deplete glucose and then replenish glucose periodically.
  • Some fat adapted endurance athletes will look to ‘carb up’ before an event so that they have both glucose and fat based fuel sources (a.k.a. train low, race high).

  • Others find success with dietary approaches such as the AltShift Diet, Carb Back-Loading which alternating periods of extreme high and low carb dietary approaches (not always with the most nutritious high carb foods).

the mission…

Dr Tommy Wood approached me to design a high insulin load and a low insulin load diet regimen that he could try for a month of each to see how his body responded. The constraint was that both the high and low insulin load foods would have to be nutrient dense whole foods so as to be a fair comparison of the effect of insulin load.


The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database prioritised for higher insulin load, higher nutrient density and higher energy density.  In terms of macronutrients they come out at 36% protein, 15% fat and 44% net carbohydrates.

While these foods might not be ideal for someone with diabetes they actually look like a pretty healthy list of foods compared to the “food like products” that you’d find in the isles of the supermarket.

This chart shows the nutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods using this ranking compared to the average of all foods in the USDA foods database.

2017-02-19 (7).png

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



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 19 2 11 1.2
seaweed (wakame) 13 11 45 1.0
shiitake mushrooms 5 72 296 0.9
spinach 17 4 23 0.9
brown mushrooms 11 5 22 0.7
asparagus 15 3 22 0.7
chard 14 3 19 0.7
seaweed (kelp) 9 10 43 0.7
yeast extract spread 8 27 185 0.6
white mushroom 11 5 22 0.6
spirulina 10 6 26 0.6
mung beans 9 4 19 0.6
Chinese cabbage 12 2 12 0.5
celery flakes 4 42 319 0.5
portabella mushrooms 11 5 29 0.5
broccoli 11 5 35 0.4
parsley 12 5 36 0.4
lettuce 12 2 15 0.4
radicchio 8 4 23 0.4
shiitake mushroom 9 7 39 0.4
peas 7 7 42 0.4
dandelion greens 9 7 45 0.3
endive 15 1 17 0.3
okra 10 3 22 0.3
pumpkin 6 4 20 0.3
bamboo shoots 8 5 27 0.3
beet greens 12 2 22 0.3
snap beans 8 3 15 0.3
zucchini 11 2 17 0.3

animal products


food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
ham (lean only) 11 17 113 0.7
veal liver 9 26 192 0.7
beef liver 9 25 175 0.7
lamb liver 11 20 168 0.7
lamb kidney 11 15 112 0.6
chicken breast 8 22 148 0.5
pork liver 7 23 165 0.5
chicken liver 9 20 172 0.5
pork chop 7 23 172 0.5
veal 6 24 151 0.5
beef kidney 8 20 157 0.5
lean beef 7 23 149 0.5
leg ham 7 22 165 0.5
turkey liver 8 21 189 0.5
pork shoulder 6 22 162 0.4
ground beef 6 20 144 0.4
sirloin steak 6 24 177 0.4
ground pork 6 25 185 0.4


food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cod 14 48 290 1.5
crab 15 14 83 1.1
lobster 14 15 89 1.1
crayfish 12 13 82 0.9
shrimp 11 19 119 0.9
pollock 11 18 111 0.8
octopus 9 28 164 0.8
halibut 11 17 111 0.8
fish roe 13 18 143 0.8
haddock 10 19 116 0.8
white fish 10 18 108 0.8
clam 9 25 142 0.8
scallop 8 22 111 0.7
rockfish 10 17 109 0.7
salmon 11 20 156 0.7
whiting 9 18 116 0.7
perch 10 14 96 0.7
oyster 11 14 102 0.7
flounder 11 12 86 0.6
anchovy 9 22 210 0.6
trout 10 18 168 0.6
caviar 10 23 264 0.6
sturgeon 10 16 135 0.5
tuna 6 23 184 0.3
orange roughy 4 17 105 0.3
sardine 7 19 208 0.3



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cowpeas 2 68 336 0.8
black beans 2 63 341 0.6
soybeans 3 49 446 0.6
pinto beans 1 64 347 0.6
kidney beans 1 63 337 0.6
broad beans 2 54 341 0.5
peas 0 57 352 0.4



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
oat bran 6 65 246 0.7
baker’s yeast 10 16 105 0.5
baking powder 2 45 97 0.4
wheat bran 8 34 216 0.4
rye flour 0 58 325 0.4
quinoa 1 22 120 0.1



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
whey powder 10 82 339 1.6
cream cheese (low fat) 12 19 105 1.0
cottage cheese (low fat) 6 14 72 0.5
parmesan cheese 3 35 420 0.4
cottage cheese (low fat) 7 13 81 0.4
cheddar (non-fat) 6 20 173 0.3
mozzarella 4 26 304 0.3
kefir 6 7 41 0.3
gruyere cheese 3 23 413 0.3
low fat milk 6 8 56 0.2
Greek yogurt (low fat) 5 11 73 0.2
Swiss cheese 3 22 393 0.2
gouda cheese 3 21 356 0.2
cheddar cheese 3 20 410 0.2
egg yolk 6 12 275 0.2
edam cheese 3 21 357 0.1

other dietary approaches

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

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

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