There is a lot of discussion, confusion and misinformation around the interwebs around the topic of protein.
Will ‘too much protein’ raise my blood sugars?
Will ‘too much protein” ‘kick me out of ketosis’?
Won’t ‘too much protein’ hurt my kidneys?
Won’t protein raise mTOR and give me cancer?
Isn’t protein is a poor energy source?
But I don’t want to be a bodybuilder!
While these are all interesting concerns, most people digging into nutrition are interested in losing some body fat and being healthy. So, fundamentally, I think the most critical question is:
“How much protein do I need to and lose fat without excessive hunger?”
Show me the data!
We recently stumbled across a massive dataset on ResearchGate of more than half a million days or two million meals worth of anonymised MyFitnessPal Food Diary from nearly ten thousand people logging their food for more than two months.
I was intrigued to see what we can we learn about the protein intake of people who succeeded in eating less compared to the people who struggled to meet their goal.
The chart below shows % energy from protein vs how much they ate compared to their goal intake.
Greater than 100% means that they failed to meet their target.
Less than 100% means that they were able to consume even less than their goal.
While there is a lot of scatter, we can see that people who consume higher % protein tend to spontaneously eat less, while those who consumed less protein tended to eat more and were less likely to achieve their goal.
We can remove some of the noise in this plot by breaking the data into 20 groups and looking at the average. This next chart shows the % protein versus the % target intake on average for each of the 20 groups of people. Each of these dots represents the average of 25,000 days of food logging.
While there are some extremes, most people tend to get between 12% and 35% of their energy from protein.
What does this look like in terms of lean body mass?
Assuming most people are aiming for a calorie intake about 15% below their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), we can estimate their lean body mass using the Katch McArdle formula. From this, we can then estimate their lean body mass (LBM) and convert the chart into protein in terms of g/kg LBM as shown below.
A protein intake of around 0.7g/kg LBM (around the Daily Recommended Intake) appears to correspond with minimum satiety while a higher protein intake reduces hunger which will enable you to effortlessly consume less food and lose weight.
Increasing your protein intake from 0.7 to 2.4g/kg LBM appears to correspond to a spontaneous calorie reduction of approximately 15%. When we consider the fact that protein does not yield as much energy due to the thermic effect of food, we end up with a spontaneous energy deficit of more than 20% simply by prioritising protein!
Unfortunately, discussions on protein targets often get muddled in a mess of units. So I thought it would be useful to demonstrate what the minimum and maximum protein amounts look like using different units.
0.7g/kg LBM protein
The table below shows what 0.7g/kg LBM (which provides minimum levels of satiety) looks like in terms of a number of different units for a lean and an obese man (consuming 2000 calories) and woman (consuming 1600 calories).
g/kg lean body mass (LBM)
g/kg ideal body weight (IBW)
g/lb body weight
g/lb ideal body weight.
body weight (kg)
2.4 g/kg LBM protein
Meanwhile, the table below shows the protein intake that corresponds to the highest satiety protein intake of 2.4 g/kg LBM.
body weight (kg)
My preference is to talk about protein in terms of g/kg LBM because it relates to the amount of metabolically active muscle mass. However, body weight is simpler because you don’t need to think about how much body fat you have. Meanwhile, ideal body weight suits some because they have an idea of what weight they would like to be.
If your goal is increased satiety, fat loss and decreased hunger then you will want to move towards the higher levels of protein. In the first instance, you can just try to make sure you hit a minimum protein intake each day based on your weight and body fat. This will help kerb the cravings and manage your overall intake.
As you become leaner you may need to dial in your overall energy intake by focusing on leaner protein sources to ensure you get the protein you need without excess energy.
Protein intake levels assumed in the Nutrient Optimiser
If you require therapeutic ketosis to manage epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s then the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm will calculator your macros using a minimum of 0.8 g/kg LBM.
However, most people who are interested in nutrition are looking for fat loss and/or diabetes management (and not therapeutic ketosis), hence we set the minimum protein intake at 1.8 g/kg LBM. Dietary approaches with lower protein than this ‘minimum effective dose’ tend to have a poor nutrient density.
A protein intake of 1.8g/kg LBM corresponds to the level beyond which we don’t appear to get any further gains in muscle growth. However, we do appear to get additional benefit in satiety and nutrient density.
Many people get confused with the numbers and units, which is why we created the Nutrient Optimiser. to calculate your ideal macronutrient range as well as provide you with some suggested foods and meals that will help you reach your goals.
Responses to common concerns
If you are still concerned about ‘too much protein’ I have outlined some brief responses to the common concerns noted at the start of this article.
Too much protein will raise my blood sugars!
People that produce adequate insulin in their pancreas (i.e. not Type 1 diabetic) tend to see a fairly stable blood sugar response to protein. Some people even experience a drop in blood sugar, so start slowly and titrate up to a more ideal protein intake.
While a low carb high-fat diet will mask the symptoms of diabetes by stabilising blood sugar and reducing your HbA1c, it is the reduction of fat stored around your organs that will ultimately reverse your diabetes!
Too much protein will ‘kick me out of ketosis’!
Ketosis occurs when there is less carbohydrates and proteins to provide oxaloacetate in the Krebs cycle, so we revert to ketosis to burn fat for energy.
If you need to lose weight then more protein will likely drive an energy deficit, which will cause higher ketone levels as you consume your body fat for fuel. However, keep in mind that BHB ketones are mainly a transport or storage form of energy and do not correspond with effective use of fat for fuel.
While ketones have experienced a surge in popularity thanks in part to people who would like to sell you some, ketones are far from the most important health marker.
If you are more concerned about elevating your blood ketone levels than the fat that is being stored in your liver, pancreas, heart, eyes and brain and driving you towards the most common diseases of our western civilisation, then may I politely suggest that you should review your priorities?
This video, while very graphic (you have been warned!), demonstrates why fat loss is not just for bodybuilders, but critical for health and longevity.
Too much protein will hurt my kidneys!
Unless you have late-stage kidney failure and are on dialysis ‘too much protein’ is not a concern. If you are concerned about your protein intake you should talk to your nephrologist (kidney specialist) about the optimal protein level for your situation. (If you’re not already seeing a nephrologist there’s probably no need to be concerned about ‘too much protein’ hurting your kidneys.)
Will protein raise mTOR and give me cancer?
We need a balance between building up (mTOR and anabolism) and breaking down (fasting and autophagy). What we do know for sure in all this is that excess energy (regardless of the source) seems to be one of the biggest contributors to diabetes, cancer and other metabolic diseases that accelerate ageing.
Optimising your diet with adequate protein to improve satiety and reduce body fat levels to ensure you are physically robust and independent for as long as possible sound like a much safer bet than crossing your fingers hoping that protein restriction (which only seems to work on worms in a Petri dish) will extend your life.
Protein is a poor source of energy!
Yes, fat is an efficient fuel source compared to protein. But if you have excessive stored body fat then getting more fuel is not your highest priority. Your body is highly motivated to ensure you consume adequate protein to prevent loss of lean muscle. Getting adequate fuel is secondary.
Eating lower protein foods means that, in the pursuit of adequate protein, you will need to consume more fuel (i.e. carbs and/or fat) than your body can use. Conversely, eating higher protein foods reduces appetite. With adequate protein locked in to build and repair muscle (and enable other vital functions), your body will be happy to get the fuel it needs from your excess stored body fat.
The spontaneous reduction in appetite that we see from the analysis of the half a million days of MyfitnessPal data demonstrates that your body is much more willing to burn your unwanted body fat if it is getting the protein it needs.
Forcing your body to convert some protein to glucose for energy (a.k.a. gluconeogenesis) is not such a bad thing. If you always give your body some fat or carbs when you need energy it will never need to dip into your body fat stores.
But I don’t want to be a bodybuilder!
The ‘good news’ here is that it takes a lot of intentional effort (and often some extra chemical or hormonal assistance) to build massive muscles. Optimising your protein intake will only enable you to manage your hunger, lose body fat and reverse your diabetes.
So, in summary. the analysis of half a million days of MyFitnessPal data indicates that:
Our bodies seem to be happy with less energy when we provide it with adequate protein.
Low protein intakes correspond with the lowest levels of satiety and the highest energy intake.
Higher protein intakes tend to increase satiety and spontaneously reduce hunger.
Increasing protein from 0.7 g/kg LBM to 2.4 g/kg LBM corresponds to a to spontaneous calorie reduction of approximately 15%, even before we account for the higher thermic effect of protein.
Thanks so much for reading! In the next article in this series, we’ll look at what the data can tell us about the relative satiety provided by fat, carbs, sugar and fibre. You might be surprised by the findings! So make sure you subscribe to ensure you receive it!
This is simple, but unfortunately not optimal when it comes to ensuring optimal nutrition.
Nutrient-dense whole foods don’t come in prepackaged satchels of protein, carbs, fat, fibre and calories that you can mix together to meet specific macronutrient and calorie targets.
In real life, nutritious whole foods have a range of macronutrients and micronutrient profiles. Some days you might crave more energy or different nutrients based on your needs.
While calories and macros still play a role, chances are that you will do better if you initially focus on nutrient-dense whole foods rather than achieving specific macronutrient and calorie targets. Once you remove nutrient poor highly processed foods from your diet you will be able to better trust your food cravings and appetite.
Where to focus
The personalised foods and meals in your free Nutrient Optimiser report will help you re-balance your micronutrient profile, stabilise your blood sugars and provide the energy you need from your food (but not too much, particularly if your goal is fat loss).
To help you make the transition from just thinking in terms of macronutrients and calories, the Nutrient Optimiser provides you with personalised macro and calorie ranges.
The image below shows my macronutrient and energy ranges as someone who is currently 95kg with about 16% body fat and good blood sugars. My current goal, after building some strength in the gym last year, is to lose some body fat while holding onto as much hard earned muscle mass as I can.
Working within target ranges enables me to still listen to my appetite which may guide me to eat more on days that I am more active and when I tend to crave more protein and/or carbs. Conversely, there may be other days when I am less active and less hungry and hence don’t need to eat more than my body is craving.
For me, as someone who has become fairly insulin sensitive with good blood sugars, these macronutrient ranges are fairly wide. I could consume between 32 and 142 g of fat or up to 151g of non-fibre carbohydrates as long as I’m not overdoing my overall energy intake.
For contrast, I have shown below the macro and energy ranges that the Nutrient Optimiser would give for a woman who was also 95kg but had 50% body fat and type 2 diabetes and looking to lose weight.
Her overall energy requirement is lower because she has less metabolically active lean mass. Her target carbohydrate range is much lower to help her control her blood sugars.
At just over 500 calories per day, her lower limit of energy intake is also very low because she has a lot of body fat that can be mobilised. However, she still needs a minimum level of protein, essential fat intake and other vitamins and minerals.
These macronutrient and calorie ranges can act as a starting point. As you make progress with your weight loss or get your blood sugars under control, you can update your profile in the Nutrient Optimiser to update these numbers.
We’re also in the process of developing a Nutrient Optimiser Dashboard that will allow you to track your biometric data (e.g. blood sugars, waist, weight, blood ketones, breath ketones, body fat percentage etc.) help you fine-tune your macro and calorie targets to ensure you are moving towards your goal.
Lots of people are wannabe biohackers but end up getting caught up chasing markers that don’t help them reach their goals (e.g. chasing high ketones for weight loss). Alternatively, they don’t adapt their approach as they progress (e.g. they don’t transition to a more nutrient-dense lower energy density approach once their blood sugars have stabilised on a lower carb diet).
There is endless debate whether calories, hormones or nutrients matter more.
While most people agree that you need an energy deficit to lose weight and an energy surplus to gain weight, the way your body processes energy is complicated and hence impossible to calculate precisely.
Focusing on calories alone may be short-sighted. Without attention to food quality and macros, it may be harder to manage your energy intake.
If you are healthy, your metabolism will increase to burn off any excess energy. You will fidget more and naturally move around more (i.e. non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
However, most people can’t do this forever, particularly if their food is nutrient poor and causes inflammation. A chronic energy excess that drives body fat levels higher will most likely cause you to become overweight and insulin resistant once your fat stores cannot take in any more.
Conversely, if you restrict calories, your body will become more efficient. You will adapt to cope with less energy. Due to this ‘adaptive thermogenesis’ over time you will need to take in less energy if you want to keep losing weight.
This adaption is often seen as a bad thing. But for most people, other than not getting to enjoy as much yummy food, training your body to do more with less is highly beneficial.
If your car is running well, it uses less fuel and gets the job done efficiently.
But if your car is getting old and blowing heaps of fumes, it’s probably burning more fuel than it really needs.
We want fuel-efficient cars to minimise cost and the impact on the environment. But when it comes to choosing the fuel for our body, many of us want to know how much food we can get away with without looking too fat.
Energy is conserved
While our bodies are complex systems and we don’t understand everything that goes on inside them, energy is conserved.
We would love to be able to eat lots and lots of yummy stuff and stay lean, typically doesn’t work out in the long term.
If you are losing weight off your body, you are burning more than you are eating.
If you are gaining weight, you are taking in more energy than you are burning.
However, while energy intake still matters, your primary focus should ideally be on consuming nutrient-dense foods that don’t spike your blood sugars. Once we have food quality dialled in quantity will fall into place. Your appetite will start to work the way it is meant to. Food that contains the micronutrients you need tend to help to prevent nutrient cravings, are more satiating and help you to consume less energy.
Is intermittent fasting better than calorie counting?
The unfortunate reality is that it’s not easy to maintain an energy deficit over a long period of time.
In the low carb or keto world, many people find some version of intermittent fasting helpful.
Others find calorie cycling or a targeted ketogenic diet (i.e. more carbs and/or calories on workout days) to be useful.
Still, others find that refeeds or diet breaks can be helpful to reset your hormones and appetite after a number of days or weeks of conscious and careful restriction.
Personally, I’ve done my share of intermittent fasting but found that I would always manage to compensate for my deprivation and congratulate myself with enough food at the end to maintain my weight over the long term. And it was hard at the end of the fast to make sure I was eating the most nutrient-dense foods. Once I started eating I would always find myself reaching for the energy-dense cream and peanut because I had earned it.
After a period of gaining strength in the gym last year and gaining a bit more fat than I would have liked, this year I have been more diligent in tracking my intake and making sure I’m eating nutritiously with adequate protein to support my recovery while maintaining enough of a deficit to ensure ongoing weight loss.
This has also included a couple of “diet breaks” programmed around intense periods at work when I didn’t want to be thinking about food all the time. After the period of mental and physical relaxation, once I dialled things back in the water weight dropped off and the weight loss continued.
However, you want to structure it, allowing some room to listen to your body’s signals can be useful. In the long run, you will need to maintain a deficit if your goal is to lose weight or an overall surplus if your goal is to build muscle.
While not many people find tracking their food intake fun, many people find that they need to track to stay accountable and achieve their goals. Even a short period of tracking can be helpful to help re-train your eating habits.
Your calorie range for weight loss
Rather than a fixed energy target, if you are trying to lose weight, the Nutrient Optimiser gives you a starting calorie range.
The lower limit calorie intake level is based on the maximum rate of weight loss you can achieve without excessive loss of muscle mass (i.e. 21 calories per pound of body fat) while also getting a minimum amount of protein. The more fat you have to lose, the more aggressive your deficit can be without risking muscle loss.
If you aim is weight loss, your upper limit calorie intake level is based on your basal metabolic rate (BMR) minus 15%. This is a reasonably comfortable deficit for moderate fat loss that won’t generate excessive hunger for most people.
If you are feeling ambitious, you can aim for the lower calorie intake level. But then one day you may feel more hungry or be more active so you can allow yourself to eat up to the upper limit without feeling guilty.
Most people under-report their food intake, so targeting a lower intake will accommodate your optimism bias and crappy reporting.
Example calories and macronutrient ranges
The table below shows my recommended macro ranges from the Nutrient Optimiser in weight loss mode. My target calorie intake for weight loss is 1,606 to 1,962 calories per day. For me, this is a 15 to 30% deficit below my theoretical basal metabolic rate of 2,308 calories per day.
net carbs (g)
The image below shows how these lower limits look when entered into Cronometer.
If you click on the energy bar in the web interface or the app, we get this popup where you enter this calorie range.
While these values are calculated to four significant figures, they are only estimates of how much energy is in the food you are consuming. Theoretical calculations should only be used as a starting point and refined based on actual progress.
If you find after a week or two that you are not achieving the weight loss you were hoping for you should reduce the maximum allowable calorie intake to ensure that you are losing weight. A reasonable rate of weight loss is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.0% of your total body weight per week. If you’re aggressive and very disciplined, you might be able to achieve a 1.5% loss per week for a short time.
Many people have found that they can sustain a more aggressive rate of weight loss over the long term if they have adequate protein and micronutrients. You will also find it hard to overeat on the foods and meals recommended by the Nutrient Optimiser.
Similarly, if you find that your blood sugars are not trending down, you can reduce your carb target. Once your blood sugars are dialled in you can loosen your carb target a little to allow more nutrient-dense foods.
If you’re not looking for weight loss
If you’re a lean athlete not aiming for weight loss, you will be able to ‘eat to satiety’ to ensure you recover. If you’re looking to gain muscle without too much fat, you will want to target a slight energy excess.
Be careful eating back the calories from exercise if you are trying to lose weight. Your Fitbit or Strava may tell you that you just burned a lot of calories, but if you enter that into Cronometer and then have the extra ice cream that it says you are allowed, you may find you are not getting the results you hoped for.
Getting enough protein is important when losing weight to prevent loss of lean muscle mass. The minimum protein intake in the Nutrient Optimiser is based on 1.8 g/kg lean body mass (LBM).
Nutrient density starts to drop off once protein drops too. Getting adequate protein is as much about maintaining overall nutrient density as it is about getting protein for muscle growth and repair.
It can be helpful to target higher levels of protein if you are in an aggressive energy deficit. The upper limit provided by the Nutrient Optimiser is based on the optimum protein intake level or about 45% of your maintenance energy intake. Beyond this point, any extra protein starts to have a negative impact on nutrient density.
Similar to your calorie ranges, you can click on the protein bar in Cronometer and enter your minimum and maximum protein intake as per the example below.
If you find that you’re starting to lose too much muscle mass rather than body fat you can increase your minimum protein intake. It’s hard to track muscle loss vs fat loss accurately, but the chart below is my attempt using my bioimpedance scales. You can see during the first six weeks (during the Ketogains Bootcamp) I was losing twice as much fat compared to lean mass. Later in my journey when I’m not working out as much you can see the ratio of lean mass loss vs fat-free mass loss is drifting up.
Loss of hard-earned lean muscle mass in weight loss is real and you would be wise to do everything you can to avoid it. Other than taking testosterone, steroids or choosing different parents, resistance training and a higher protein intake are the only things I’m aware of that will help you lose more fat and retain more muscle.
As shown in the chart below, a very low-fat diet (less than 10% energy from fat) may leave you struggling to achieve a good micronutrient profile. Hence we recommend getting a minimum fat intake of 0.4 g/kg LBM. While this is less fat than most people eat you will easily be able to achieve the daily recommended minimum requirements.
My fat range is shown in the figure below. If you’re in fat loss mode, you will likely be closer to the lower limit. If you are trying to gain muscle or are very active, you will likely be eating more fat.
You don’t need a lot of carbs to get a reasonable level of vitamins and minerals. Non-starchy veggies like spinach and asparagus provide a range of vitamins and minerals that are typically harder to find in animal-based foods.
The image below shows how this looks when entered into Cronometer.
If you are managing diabetes?
If you are insulin resistant or have diabetes, the allowable upper limit of carbohydrates provided by the Nutrient Optimiser will be limited to help stabilise your blood sugars. As you can see from the chart below, there is a balance between nutrient density and a lower dietary insulin load.
Managing the insulin load of your diet will require a reduction in protein intake if you need a therapeutic ketogenic diet. Most people find that they get the outcome they need by reducing refined carbohydrates.
So, in summary:
You should use the Nutrient Optimiser to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods that align with your goals without worrying too much about macronutrients.
Logging your food in Cronometer enables the Nutrient Optimiser to fine tune your food and meal choices to rebalance your food choices and improve your micronutrient profile.
The calorie and macro ranges provided by the Nutrient Optimiser can be used to double check that you are on the right path.
In the next instalment, we’ll look at how the nutrient score is calculated and what it takes to get yourself to the top of the Nutrient Optimiser leaderboard.
Overwhelmingly, the most requested topic was nutrient density.
Given that nutrient density is the central component of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm, it’s the perfect place to start this educational series.
Managing nutrient density ensures you get all the micronutrients you need without too much energy.
This short article will give you an understanding of what “nutrient density” means, why it is important and how you can use the Nutrient Optimiser to improve your diet.
Most of the time people think in terms of the macronutrients:
While consideration of macronutrients can be useful, it doesn’t do much to ensure we are obtaining the micronutrients that we need.
Many get enthusiastic about specific macronutrient ratios (e.g. high fat, low carb, low protein, low fat etc.). Unfortunately, poorly defined macronutrient extremes can be detrimental to your micronutrient profile. But when you focus on micronutrients,, macronutrients largely look after themselves.
There is a wide range of compounds in our food that we are adapted to thrive on. But it’s the essential nutrients that we can’t make from other sources that we need to get from our food.
These essential micronutrients are listed below, divided into their categories of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids.
essential fatty acids
eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)
There are conditionally essential nutrients, beneficial nutrients and other compounds that we are aware of but don’t measure. There’s no need to worry too much about these other substances.
If you are eating minimally processed whole foods with plenty of the essential micronutrients, you’ll likely be getting more than enough of all the other beneficial nutrients.
Recommended daily intake levels
Recommended daily intake levels of the essential nutrients have been established for both sexes at various life stages (i.e. pregnant, young or old).
These recommended intake levels are typically based on the amount that is required to prevent nutrient deficiencies. It’s usually better to get more than the minimum amount of the essential nutrients where possible.
While supplements can be a useful stop-gap measure, we strongly recommend obtaining more of your nutrients from whole foods which contain all the other beneficial nutrients.
The Nutrient Optimiser will help you determine which nutrients you are currently not getting enough of and which foods and meals will help you fill your micronutrient gaps.
Emphasising the harder-to-find nutrients
Building on the previous work of the likes of Bruce Ames, Joel Fuhrman and Mat Lalonde, the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm focuses on boosting only the nutrients that you are not getting as much of.
If a particular group of nutrients is easy to find or you are already getting heaps of them, there’s no need to focus on trying to get more of them.
The Nutrient Optimiser helps you to rebalance your diet by focusing on the foods that contain the nutrients you are not getting enough of.
The purple bars in the chart below show the nutrients in all the foods in the USDA food database.
As you can see, some micronutrients are easier to find than others. Nutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin K and vitamin B12 are generally easy to get enough of while nutrients such as choline, calcium, magnesium and potassium are harder to find.
The light blue bars show the nutrients in the highest ranking 10% of foods in the USDA database when we focus on boosting the nutrients that are harder to find.
We get a massive boost in the nutrients that are harder to find while still getting plenty of the other nutrients.
The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm also looks at the balance between nutrients that operate synergistically.
While the quantity of nutrients is important, the ratio between key nutrients also needs to be considered. If the nutrient ratios fall outside the target range, they don’t get prioritised.
Zinc : Copper
8 – 12
Potassium : Sodium
Calcium : Magnesium
Iron : Copper
10 – 15
Calcium : Phosphorus
By doing this, the Nutrient Optimiser guides you to eat more of the foods that will help to improve your nutrient balance as well as getting more nutrients per calorie.
Your appetite is the original and ultimate Nutrient Optimiser
The human taste buds have evolved to be the ultimate Nutrient Optimiser, telling you which foods and nutrients you need at a particular point in time.
Wild animals seek out the foods they need at a particular point in time. Similarly, in the absence of processed hyper-palatable flavoured foods, our cravings guide us to the foods we need.
However, these days, in our modern food environment we have lost the ability to determine what we need. Our appetite has been tricked into eating foods that look and taste amazing. However, these manufactured foods often contain negligible nutrients.
The Nutrient Optimiser will help you to shortlist foods and meals that contain the nutrients. Once you’re eating real food that contains nutrients, you can learn to trust your appetite again.
Personalised for you
We have put a lot of effort into developing optimal food lists for different contexts.
We can prioritise the nutrients that are harder to find in the USDA foods database.
We can prioritise the nutrients that are associated with various health conditions.
We can prioritise nutrients that are harder to find in conventional dietary patterns (e.g. ketogenic, low carb, paleo, plant-based, standard western diet, vegan etc.).
We can even prioritise the nutrients that most people are missing out on.
But none of these approaches considers what YOU are eating now and what nutrients you personally need more of.
There is a lot of confusion about ‘excess protein’ and whether you can have too much protein on keto.
Insulin and protein are used to build and repair your muscles, organs and the other important parts of your body. This is an important and beneficial use of protein and insulin.
Foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. potassium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D) typically contain plenty of protein.
Actively avoiding protein and can lead to a less nutritious diet.
Unless you require therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers, Parkinson or dementia, you should be chasing vitality, health and nutrition along with stable blood sugar levels rather than some arbitrary ketone level.
There are a range of different ways to quantify protein intake. Thinking in terms of percentages can be more confusing than helpful.
It’s hard to over-consume protein because it is highly satiating. However, if you avoid protein your body may drive you to consume more calories until you get the protein it needs.
If you follow your appetite and focus on foods that contain the vitamins and minerals you need you will probably get enough protein.
Virta Facebook Live Q&A
I recently had the opportunity to pose some questions about protein intake to the Godfather of Keto, Dr Stephen Phinney in a recent Facebook live Q&A.
Dr Phinney’s response to my question is shown below, including his recommended protein intake levels of 1.2 to 1.75 g per kg reference body weight of protein.
While I largely agree with Dr Phinney’s response, I think it’s worth elaborating on some of the issues that are causing so much confusion at the moment.
The food insulin index data shows that our insulin response to food is more accurately predicted when we consider the fibre and protein content of our food, not just the carbohydrate.
However, I fear that many people have used the insulin load concept as a reason to avoid protein. I now understand that this is far from optimal within the broader context of good nutrition for health, weight loss and vitality.
If you are interested in learning more the implications of the insulin index data I recommend you check out the following articles:
While trading your calories from butter for steak will increase your requirement for insulin, the food insulin index data suggests that as a general rule, getting more of your energy from protein will reduce your insulin requirements as it forces out processed carbohydrates as shown in the chart below.
Getting more energy from protein tends to decrease our glucose response as it forces out nutrient-poor refined high carb foods. Your body can convert protein to glucose (i.e. gluconeogenesis) if it really needs to but it’s a lot of work, so it would much rather get energy from carbs or fat.
Protein is also very satiating. Once we have enough protein, our body tends to crave more fatty and carby foods for energy.
While it is both financially and metabolically expensive, protein is the most important component of your diet. Different people will need different amounts of protein depending on their life stage and activity levels.
While you probably don’t need to be going out of your way to binge on more protein than you can comfortably consume, actively avoiding protein containing foods is a recipe for nutritional disaster. If you are exercising or lifting heavy then you will naturally crave more protein.
If you actually need higher levels of blood ketones for therapeutic ketosis, it may be a good strategy to consciously restrict protein. However, I don’t’ think the vast majority of people chasing ketones are looking for therapeutic keto for the management of cancer, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s but rather fat loss or diabetes control.
Protein number crunching
The numbers around protein can be confusing due to the units used.
Dr Phinney uses ‘reference body weight’ (RW) (which he says is ‘the weight you were when you were in college’).
The mainstream nutrition world talks in terms of total body weight (BW).
Meanwhile, the sports nutrition community talk in terms of lean body mass (LBM).
In order to understand what this means in practice, let’s look at an example of a woman who is currently 40% body fat but was 25% in college (i.e. her reference weight). For argument’s sake let’s say she was 70 kg in college but she is currently 87 kg or 193 lb. The images below will give you an idea of what these level of body fat levels look like.
In the table below I have calculated what Dr Phinney’s recommended protein intake looks like for this person in terms of:
reference body weight (RW),
lean body mass (LBM), and
body weight (BW).
Based on Dr Phinney’s guidance, this person should be eating between 84 and 123 g of protein per day.
1.2 g/kg RW
1.75 g/kg RW
lean body mass
1.6 g/kg LBM
2.3 g/kg LBM
1.0 g/kg BW
1.4 g/kg BW
On a practical note, there is nothing low about 2.3 g/kg LBM protein. While I do track my intake I find it hard to get above 2.2 g/kg LBM even when trying to maximise protein. At the same time, the lower limit is well above the official Recommended Daily Intake of 0.84 g/kg for men and 0.75 g/kg for women which are set to maintain nitrogen balance and prevent disease (i.e. not achieve optimal health and vitality).
What about percentages?
Talking about protein in terms of percentages of energy intake can be confusing as it depends on your activity levels or whether you are dieting. Theoretical energy intake requirements are based on your lean body mass and activity levels.
The table below shows what Dr Phinney’s protein recommendation of 1.2 to 1.75 g/kg RW (or 1.6 to 2.3 g/kg LBM) look like for our hypothetical woman above in terms of percentage of energy intake for different energy intakes depending if she was trying to lose weight, maintain weight or was more active.
Protein intake in terms of percentage energy intake can vary widely to the point that it’s practically useless. It’s generally much more useful to talk in terms of protein intake in grams per weight lean body mass rather than percentages.
Protein and nutrient density
Since stumbling across the insulin index, one thing I have found consistently is that nutrient-dense foods are not low in protein.
If you are focusing on the foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. magnesium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D etc) you will be getting plenty of protein.
Conversely, the only way to really get the ultra-low protein intakes being recommended by many people without an energy deficit is to avoid most solid foods and prioritise macadamia nuts, butter and oils. It should not be a surprise that it will be hard to get a broad spectrum of essential nutrients with this sort of dietary approach.
As shown in the chart below, nutrient density tends to increase up to about 50% of energy intake. If you’re eating more than 50% protein you’re likely relying on processed foods and supplements.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutritious foods in the USDA database. If you could stick to these foods you would easily be getting a lot of the essential nutrients without having to consume too much energy.
The problem with these foods is that they can be very satiating which makes it hard to get enough energy in if you are active. However, if you are trying to lose weight these foods may help to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need with less energy without being hungry.
It’s interesting to see many people who have been experimenting with the Nutrient Optimiser have commented on how little food they can get away with while experiencing minimal levels of hunger. Nutrient dense foods tend to be hard to overeat and also provide you with the nutrients to prevent cravings and hence reduce appetite.
For comparison, the chart below shows the nutrient profile of the ketogenic diet foods. That is, the foods that have the lowest percentage insulinogenic calories. These foods are 80% fat, 15% protein and 3% net carbs). Ironically, an individual consuming these foods will be meeting the minimum levels of protein but they will be missing out on a large number of other vitamins and minerals.
I find that it’s often the people who are trying to actively avoid protein that find themselves at the bottom of the Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard with a very poor nutrient profile.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile that we get when we actively avoid protein. The only nturients that we get enough of in this scenarios is sodium and vitamin C!
Unless you are chasing therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers or dementia I think your focus should be on building health and maximising nutrition rather than higher ketone values.
If you are getting the micronutrients you need to thrive you will be getting plenty of protein and won’t need to worry too much about getting adequate protein intake. Conversely, if you are actively avoiding protein you will be unnecessarily sacrificing your other micronutrients (especially if you are replacing your calories from protein and carbs with refined fat).
But will too much protein kick me out of ketosis?
As I write this I have been experimenting with adequate protein with less fat and carbs and maximal nutrients on the Ketogains Bootcamp. A typical daily Cronometer summary is shown below.
My protein is sitting at about 2.2g/kg LBM for me given that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym lifting heavy during this time. I’ve also been able to hit many of the nutrients targets while maintaining a significant calorie deficit.
Leading up to this period my blood glucose levels were sitting in the mid 5s (approx 100 mg/dL). However, once I introduced the energy deficit my glucose levels plummet to the mid 4s (approx 80 mg/dL).
And although I don’t worry much about ketones, they seem to be sitting at around 0.7 mmol/L, which I’m pretty happy with.
I know if I keep my blood glucose around this level I will continue to lose weight and continue to improve my glucose control and HbA1c.
I also get plenty of breath acetone from endogenous ketones as shown on my Ketonix below.
Don’t forget the basal insulin!
While there has been a lot of focus on what we can do to not have too much insulin, we need to remember that insulin has a number of important roles including:
to help us get glucose into cells to be used by our mitochondria,
to help build and repair our muscles, and
to control the release of glucose from our liver while the energy in our bloodstream is used up.
People with type 1 diabetes demonstrate happens if we don’t have enough insulin. Not only would we not be able to store the energy we eat as fat and muscle, the brake comes off the liver and all the stored energy in our body comes flowing out in the form of excess glucose and ketones (i.e. diabetic ketoacidosis).
The image below is the same child, “J.L.”, in the 1920s before and after receiving insulin therapy. In a healthy person, insulin suppresses the fuel flow from the liver to healthy levels.
In someone on a standard western diet, basal insulin represents about 30% of the today daily dose. Basal insulin drops to about 50% for someone on a low carb or keto diet. But you can never drop your insulin requirements to zero. You always need this basal to stop the uncontrolled flow of fuel from your liver into your bloodstream.
We focus so much on the effect of the food we eat but we forget that it’s also the excess fuel on your body and floating around in our bloodstream that also plays a massive role in the insulin demand on our pancreas.
Whenever there are high levels of energy sitting in our bloodstream (from glucose, ketones or fat) the pancreas has to ramp up basal insulin production until the fuel in our bloodstream is used up. The more fat there is on our body the harder our pancreas has to work to hold back the pressure of excess fat on our body from being released into our bloodstream.
So, you may believe that your mug of Bulletproof coffee or the fat bomb may not be raising your insulin levels because it does not contain glucose or protein. However, your pancreas is still working overtime to produce more insulin to hold the fat on your bum and until the energy coming in via your mouth is used up.
You may be able to ramp up your energy expenditure for a while by shivering and fidgeting, more but after a time of overdriving energy you’ll likely end up fat and insulin resistant.
If you really want to reduce your insulin levels you need to work on reducing the excess level of energy floating around in your bloodstream (from any source, including fat, carbs, protein or exogenous ketones) so your pancreas will decrease its production of insulin to allow body fat to be used.
Focusing on obtaining the nutrients you need without too much energy seems like common sense to me.
Someone targeting therapeutic ketosis to assist with the management of chronic conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, dementia or Alzheimer’s may benefit from higher levels of ketosis and less reliance on glucose. But I don’t think the vast majority of people who are Googling “keto” at the moment are looking for a therapeutic treatment.
Understanding how to quantify the insulin load of our food enables us to accurately tailor or food choices to suit our goals. When it comes to insulin load we need to keep it low enough to get the results we need without compromising the nutritional value of the food we eat too much.
The chart below shows that nutrient density peaks at around 40% insulinogenic calories.
If you are insulin resistant it would be prudent to have less than 40% insulinogenic calories.
Someone on a low carb diet might have less than 25% insulinogenic calories.
Someone targeting therapeutic keto will likely need to have less than 15% insulinogenic calories to see therapeutic levels of ketones.
Unless you really require therapeutic keto then I don’t think there is a need to worry too much about the impact of protein on your blood ketone levels. Actively avoiding protein tends to lead to compromising nutrient density unnecessarily which may lead to nutrient cravings or deficiencies in the long term.
The glucose : ketone index
People who require therapeutic ketosis should also ensure that they are not driving the total energy in their system too high. To do this they can track their glucose as well as ketones. The glucose:ketone ratio (GKI) which was developed by Dr Thomas Seyfried to measure the degree of therapeutic ketosis.
If you’re interested, your GKI can be calculated by dividing your glucose (in mmol/L) by your ketone values. For example, if your blood glucose is 108 mg/dL and your blood ketones are 0.5mmol/L, GKI = blood glucose / ketone = (108 mg/dL / 18) / 0.5 mmol/L = 6 mmol/L / 0.5mmol/L = 12.
People who are chasing therapeutic ketosis typically do not need to worry about ingesting too much energy. Driving a hypercaloric state with refined fats is not a major concern for someone trying to keep weight on (e.g. cancer cachexia). However, ensuring that they are achieving lower glucose levels will ensure that they are not driving insulin resistance.
For reference, the table below shows the relationship between HbA1c, average glucose, ketones and GKI for different scenarios showing how your GKI and ketones correlate with HbA1c and blood glucose.
average blood glucose
Really low GKI values (i.e. very high ketones and very low glucose) are typically seen in extended fasting when glucose levels to drop and ketones from body fat increase in a low insulin state.
The chart below shows my blood ketone and glucose levels during a seven day fast. Amazingly, as my blood glucose levels dropped below 4.0 mmol/L my ketones drifted up to 8 mmol/L. During more recent, however, I haven’t been able to achieve such high ketone levels.
While we can get these high ketone levels during fasting, we typically don’t see them in the fed state. To give you an idea of what to expect, the chart below shows GKI values over time during fasting for RD Dikeman (from Type 1 Grit), Jimmy Moore, Simon Saunders (Keto Island) and myself. As a rule of thumb, you might expect to see a GKI value less than 2 after two or three days of water fasting.
If you’re interested, you can see the full report here and where these meals rank on the leaderboard here.
So what should you do with all this information?
So, to summarise:
If you have great blood sugars and just want to lose weight then you should focus on maximising nutrient density while reducing the energy levels in your bloodstream. There is no need to worry about “being in ketosis”. You will produce ketones if you are successfully achieving an energy deficit and burning your own body fat stores.
If you are insulin resistant then you will want to limit your insulin load to a maximum of 2.9 g/kg LBM. This will restrict carbohydrates in your diet so your blood sugars stabilise.
If you are trying to manage diabetes then you want to keep your insulin load under 1.8 g/kg LBM. This will restrict carbohydrates and may reduce your protein intake a little.
If you require therapeutic keto then you will want to keep your insulin load less than 1.1 g/kg LBM and may need to consider limiting protein.
The recommended values for protein and insulin load are shown in the table below.
max insulin load
diabetes / nutritional ketosis
weight loss (insulin resistant)
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
Can run the numbers for me?
I realise all this data can be confusing if nutrition is not your hobby.
Over the last few months, I’ve been working with a very talented programmer, Alex Zotov, to develop some handy software to help people navigate all this information and put it into practice.
The first instalment of the Nutrient Optmiser is a free calculator that will help you identify the ideal macronutrient ranges to suit your goals as well as a shortlist of optimal foods and meals. The table below shows how we can determine the optimal approach for you based on your metabolic health, waist to height ratio and goals.
We’d love you to check it out the Nutrient Optimiser. We’d love to hear what you think and how we can refine it to suit your goals.
We hope it will be really helpful for a LOT of people on their journey towards health through optimal nutrition
Most of the time, when it comes to nutrition, we like to think in terms of macronutrients.
But maybe too simple?
In the good old days, before your food was grown in nutrient depleted soil and the creation of nutrient-poor processed frankenfood, we just ate food. We didn’t have to worry about micronutrients. Pretty much everything we ate was full of them!
These days micronutrients are harder to come by. In a number of previous articles, I have suggested that maximising micronutrients as your first priority (before calories or macronutrients) will likely to be a more useful guide to help us genuinely optimise our nutrition.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to think in terms of micronutrients. With thirty-four essential nutrients and many more conditionally-essential and beneficial nutrients and compounds in the food we eat, there are just too many moving parts to keep in our working memory.
Before the creation of hyper-palatable flavoured and coloured foods, our appetite was a useful to help us seek out the nutrients we need. Over the years it had come to be the perfect nutrient optimiser, prioritising the foods we needed at any point in time. Unfortunately, in our modern food environment, our paleolithic instincts are no match for modern food chemistry.
Today, we need a little extra help to discern fake foods from the real foods that actually contain the nutrients we need to thrive.
This article outlines how we can utilise macronutrients to assist us, like training wheels, to help us get pretty close ot ideal nutrition. We can then focus on eating nutrient-dense foods that will help us thrive and to enable us to look, feel and perform at our best.
Many diet communities built around a specific macronutrient profile that they believe is optimal.
Different people believe in a wide range of macronutrient philosophies as the cornerstone of their nutritional approach. One of the many variations is IIFYM.
IIFYM blossomed as a response to the ‘clean eating’ trend that grew around the Paleo diet trend which emphasised food quality and was largely ‘macro agnostic’.
protein is set based on your lean body mass (LBM) and activity levels (typically 1.8g/kg LBM),
energy intake is calculated and then tweaked based on your desired rate of loss/gain,
fat is generally set at 25%, and
the remainder of your energy requirement is filled with carbs.
IIFYM… the good
There are some good things about IIFYM / flexible including:
It avoids macronutrient extremes which often drive micronutrient deficiencies.
A consistent energy deficit will work for most people, particularly the young fitness enthusiast who does not have diabetes.
IIFYM… the bad
However, there are a number of downsides to the IIFYM / Flexible Dieting approach, such as:
No consideration of micronutrients. Food quality becomes critical when restricting quantity over the long term to avoid deficiencies and cravings.
Little emphasis is placed on food quality. While they might fit your macros, low nutrient density foods can be hyper-palatable and lead to overeating. Foods with a higher nutrient density are more likely to be satiating, have a lower energy density and be harder to overeat. Someone can get all their food from processed packaged foods and still comply with the IIFYM approach.
Doesn’t cater well to people who are insulin resistant/diabetic.
Recent research does not support the minimisation of dietary fat. While too much refined fat is not optimal, the fat that comes with nutritious whole food should not be a concern for most people.
Tracking specific macros and calories replaces a neurosis about micromanaging food quality with an obsession with hitting particular macro targets.
It may be hard to hit exact macronutrient targets with whole foods.
The minimum effective dose of macros
In reality, there is a range of macronutrient that will give you a substantial level of essential micronutrients.
The vertical axis in the charts below shows the Nutrient Density Score which is a measure of the amount of micronutrients in a range of foods.
As shown in the example below, if we could get three times the recommended daily intake of all the thirty-four essential nutrients, we would get a perfect nutrient score of 100%. There is probably limited benefit in getting more than three times the recommended daily intake of a particular nutrient. At that point, you’ll likely benefit by focusing on foods that contain the nutrients you are not getting as much of.
I have calculated the nutrient density score for a range of dietary approaches to understand the relationship between micronutrient adequacy and macronutrients. Check out the detail in this post if you’re interested.
Of all the nutrients, protein has the highest correlation with nutrient density.
If we assume a nutrient density score of 70% as our minimum effective dose of nutrition (as denoted by the red line on the chart below), we can get a reasonable nutritional outcome when our protein intake is at least 19% of our energy intake.
Nutrient density seems to peak when we get around 45% of our energy from protein. .
If you have ever tried to more protein and track your intake, you will appreciate how hard it actually is to hit 45% of your energy intake from protein! As you increase protein intake to more than 45% of calories, you would need to depend more and more on processed foods, so the overall nutrient density decreases.
The minimum effective dose level of 19% of energy happens to align reasonably well with 1.8g/kg LBM protein which aligns IIFYM recommendation for protein. This is also aligns with the point at which strength gains start to plateau for strength athletes as shown in the chart from Lemon below.
Protein even more important when we are trying to lose weight. Recent research suggests that our need for protein increases if we want to prevent loss of lean muscle mass in a significant energy deficit.
If we are active and/or doing resistance training, then our requirement for protein is even higher. As shown in the chart below from a recent review paper by Stuart Phillips, lean muscle mass is best preserved when we have at least 2.6g/kg total body weight (BW) protein if we are targeting an aggressive deficit (e.g. 35%). If we are chasing a less aggressive energy deficit, then 1.5 g/kg BW protein seems to be adequate.
So, unless you require a therapeutic ketogenic diet (i.e. as an adjunct treatment for cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.), it appears prudent to think of 1.8g/kg LBM as a minimum protein intake. Higher intakes will likely be beneficial if your goal is to maximise nutrient density or lose fat without losing muscle.
As an aside, you needn’t worry about ‘too much protein kicking you out of ketosis’ The images below are from my recent Ketogains Bootcamp where I was eating plenty of protein, had low blood glucose levels and plenty of endogenous blood and breath ketones from my own body fat.
As detailed in the Optimal ketone and blood sugar levels for ketosis article, if you are trying to lose weight or manage diabetes you really want to drive a low energy state in your bloodstream If you are burning body fat and/or are decreasing your blood sugar levels then ketones will come along for the ride. You don’t need to active chase them or track them.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile we get when we minimise protein.
There is a concerning trend of people trying to minimise protein to minimise insulin and mTOR. While these things are not good in excess, neither is missing out on essential nutrients of having consumed excessive amounts of energy to get the nutrients you need.
Given that not consuming an excessive amount of energy is the only thing that has been proved to extend lifespan in human it makes a lot more sense to me to increase your nutrient : energy ratio so you don’t have to eat as much to get the nutrients you need.
While the optimum intake of non-fibre carbohydrate is about 30%, it seems that the minimum effective dose of non-fibre carbohydrates is effectively zero.
Although we can get lots of vitamins and minerals from non-starchy veggies, people who do not feel the need to consume plants in their diet can get a substantial amount of nutrition from organ meats, shellfish and the like with minimal carbs.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile you could acheive if you focused on the most nutrient dense animal based foods.
If you are metabolically healthy, there’s nothing wrong with consuming up to 65% carbohydrates, particularly if they are from unprocessed sources. However, nutrient density starts to fall off beyond 65% as processed grains and sugars begin to dominate your diet.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile that you could achieve if you focused on the most nutrient dense plant-based foods.
Regardless of your dietary preferences, ethical position or religious beliefs, quantifying nutrient density is an exciting tool to help you optimise your food choices and find optimal nutrition within the wide range of reasonable carbohydrate intake levels.
Although fat doesn’t correlate well with nutrient density, it seems we struggle to get a good nutritional profile with less than about 10% dietary fat (or about 0.4g/kg LBM dietary fat).
At the other extreme, we could consume up to around 65% of our energy from fat without having a detrimental impact on our nutritional profile. Similar to carbohydrates, it starts to get harder to get a broad range of essential micronutrients if we are getting more than 65% of our energy intake from fat.
The proportion of insulinogenic calories
The percentage of insulinogenic calories is a measure of the insulin we require to metabolise our food due to non-fibre carbohydrates and protein it contains. For someone who is metabolically healthy, insulin load does not need to be a major concern.
Optimal nutrient density seems to occur around 40% insulinogenic calories. Diets with more than 65% insulinogenic calories tend to be very low fat, very low in protein or very high in processed carbohydrates. Similarly, our nutritional profile with a very high fat very low insulin load diet is not so flash either.
I have drawn three windows on the chart of % insulinogenic vs nutrient density score to show suggested target ranges for:
someone who is insulin resistant has prediabetes or knows they have a family history of diabetes,
someone with diabetes who needs to follow a low carb or nutritional ketogenic approach to manage their blood sugar, and
If you are insulin resistant or have a family history of diabetes, then keeping your insulin load below 50% is likely a good idea.
If you already have diabetes, then lowering your insulin load to less than 25% of your energy requirement will help stabilise blood sugar and insulin levels. You also need to keep an eye on nutrient density so you can build health with the food you are eating. The chart below shows the nutrient profile you can acheive with a nutrient dense low carb approach.
Meanwhile, someone who requires therapeutic ketosis (for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc.) typically requires an insulin load less than 15% of their energy requirement to see therapeutic benefits. The chart below shows the nutrient profile that you can achieve with a high-fat ketogenic diet if you focus on maximising nutrient density.
However, keep in mind that driving your insulin load unnecessarily low can lead to a poor nutritional outcome. The chart below shows the nutrinet profile of the most ketogenic foods without consdieration of nutrient density.
Personally, I think you need to find the balance between insulin load and nutrient density that works for you. Ideally, a therapeutic ketogenic approach would only a short-term undertaking until the condition stabilises and you can transition to a nutrient dense low carb approach for maintenance.
Minimum effective dose + nutrient density for the win!
The table below shows the guidelines for the minimum effective dose of protein, fat and insulin load for different goals in terms of your lean body mass (LBM).
In all but the therapeutic ketosis scenario, we should aim to hit our 1.8g/kg LBM of protein.
We may need a lower protein intake to achieve therapeutic levels of ketosis.
In the therapeutic ketosis, diabetes and insulin resistant scenarios we limit insulin load to 1.1, 1.8 and 2.9g/kg LBM respectively to enable the pancreas to keep up and maintain healthy blood sugar levels. This will mean you need to reduce carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent protein.
max insulin load
diabetes / nutritional ketosis
weight loss (insulin resistant)
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
most nutrient dense
nutrient dense maintenance
Once we have the protein, fat and insulin load ranges set, we are free, unencumbered by concerns about meeting theoretical macronutrient targets, to fill the rest of our diet with foods and meals that are most suited to our goals.
These macronutrient windows function a bit like bumper rails for a child at a bowling alley. As long as you stick within those ranges, you have a good chance of getting a reasonable nutritional outcome.
Once you learn to focus on nutrient dense foods, you will no longer need the bumper rails.
The table below shows how the parameters of insulin load, energy density and nutrient density are used to optimise our food choices to suit our goals. In some cases (i.e. weight gain or loss) we may intentionally focus on managing energy intake. For most people, focusing on more nutrient-dense foods will get you most of the way.
diabetes / nutritional ketosis
weight loss (insulin resistant)
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
most nutrient dense
nutrient dense maintenance
How to set your target energy intake
If you are trying to lose weight and going to the effort of tracking, it is useful to have an upper limit energy intake that you make sure you don’t exceed.
While there are many inaccuracies involved in our energy in and energy out calculations, tracking your food in an app like Cronometer can be a useful self-education tool to understand the quantity and quality of your diet.
Most macro calculators calculate your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) based on your lean body mass (LBM) and activity levels. From this, you can estimate the amount of energy you might need to gain weight or the amount you will need to limit to lose weight.
These formulas, while a useful starting point, are only indicative, and should be used as a starting point. I’ve run the Nutrient Optimiser analysis for plenty of people who are lean but eating a lot more calories than you might expect. Conversely, many people who are obese seem to be eating much less than you might think they would be. This may be in part due to measurement error or optimism bias, but everybody’s metabolism seems to be unique due to a wide range of factors.
The best way to determine your actual energy requirement is to track your intake and reduce or increase from there to ensure you are gaining or losing as required. This is an iterative process based on your long-term trend.
Maximum rate of fat loss
The maximum rate of fat loss you can sustain without significant muscle loss is influenced by your current body fat levels. Someone with a lot more body fat might be able to maintain a larger energy deficit than someone who is already lean.
The paper A limit on the energy transfer rate from the human fat store in hypophagia (Alpert, 2005) proposed that this maximum rate of fat loss is 31 calories per pound of body fat. According to Alex Ritson, in a recent Sigma Nutrition podcasts, this was later revised down to a maximum rate of fat loss of 21 calories per pound of body fat without losing significant muscle mass.
While you may not want to target this maximum rate deficit every day, it is useful to be aware of this number. If you don’t feel hungry, there is no need to keep eating to hit some arbitrary energy intake above this.
The table below shows an example of what this might look like in practice.
max deficit (cals)
max deficit (%)
The obese person can nearly meet their entire maintenance energy intake from body fat while the lean person could only mobilise enough body fat to provide about a fifth their energy requirements.
While out might have enough body fat to survive an extended famine, I wouldn’t recommend fasting for extended periods without paying attention to periods of nutrient-dense refeeding.
Research into the Protein Sparing Modified Fast suggests that nitrogen balance is maintained with a minimum of 1.4g/kg of ideal body weight for men and 1.2g/kg of ideal body weight for women.
Once we account for body fat, 1.4 g/kg IBW ends up pretty close to the 1.8g/kg LBM minimum effective dose level discussed above).
So it seems reasonable to use 1.8g/kg LBM protein plus 0.4g/kg LBM fat as an absolute minimum energy intake to make sure you can get the nutrients you need.
Should I keep eating until I hit my calorie target if I’m not hungry?
Many people find their appetite stabilises once they take out refined carbohydrates from their diet and stabilise their blood sugar levels. Others find that focusing on nutrient-dense foods decrease their appetite and lead to spontaneous satiety. Meanwhile, others just find it tough to keep within their calorie limits. The bottom line here is, if you have obtained your minimum protein intake to preserve your lean muscle mass, there is no real need to keep eating if you don’t feel hungry.
Rather than some specific target, I think it is much more useful to think in terms of a range of energy intake that will enable you to reach your goals. If you’re hungry there is no harm eating up to your upper limit calorie intake. However, if you are trying to lose weight, then there is no point eating more than you need to to get the nutrients you need.
The daily thought process for someone following this process would be…
Have I met my minimum calorie target? If not, keep eating nutrient-dense foods.
Have I met my minimum protein intake? If not, keep eating nutrient-dense foods.
Do I feel hungry? If no, don’t eat. If yes, eat nutrient dense foods that align with your goals until you hit your absolute minimum energy target.
Do you still feel hungry? If yes, then eat nutrient dense foods until you hit your maximum calorie intake.
Have I exceeded my maximum energy intake? If yes, then stop eating.
So in summary:
Focusing on specific macronutrient targets takes the focus off food quality and micronutrients and can be counterproductive.
There is a range of macronutrients within which you can get a reasonable nutritional outcome that aligns with your goals. Within these limits, your focus should be on getting all the micronutrients you need.
If you are are insulin resistant or have diabetes then it’s prudent to focus on less insulinogenic foods. However, there is no point driving your insulin load to the point that you compromise nutrient density unnecessarily.
Simply enter your goals, preferences, weight and estimated body fat % and the Nutrient Optimiser will spit out a free report with your recommended macronutrient ranges as well as a shortlist of suggested foods and meals that will help you optimise your nutrition that will align with your goals.
To get your free report you go to NutrientOptimiser.com, tell us what you’re interested in and enter your email address.
As your situation changes (e.g. you lose weight or your blood sugars stabilise) you will be able to come back and update your details and get new macro targets as well as optimal meals and foods.
We think this is unique and exciting. We hope it will help a lot of people cut through the dietary confusion. We would love you to test it and give us some feedback.
I have included some worked examples of that the macronutrient ranges would look like in practice in the appendix below. But the best way to understand how it works is just to go have a play and see what the Nutrient Optimiser would recommend for you!
Example macronutrient ranges
So let’s look at how this will look in practice with some worked examples.
Let’s take the example of Paul, who currently weighs 90 kg and has 19% body fat. He’s done the Nutrient Optimiser analysis but wants to know what targets to put in Cronometer.
We will look at how he could use this approach to setting macronutrient ranges in the following scenarios:
low carb / nutritional ketosis,
insulin resistant weight loss, and
weight gain / athletic performance.
Paul is interested in the ketogenic diet and recommends it to many of his clients.
The table below shows the range of protein, fat, carbohydrates (in grams) if Paul was aiming for therapeutic ketosis along with the basis for the upper and lower limits.
Minimum protein based on 0.8g/kg LBM.
The upper limit is based on 15% insulinogenic calories assuming no carbs.
Minimum based on weight maintenance with minimum protein and carbs.
Maximum based on weight maintenance with minimum protein and carbs.
The upper limit corresponds to minimum protein and 15% insulinogenic calories.
Calories are not limited on a therapeutic ketogenic diet. Many people using chasing therapeutic ketosis are looking to keep weight on, so very high levels of dietary fat intake is not a concern.
The chart below shows the resultant macronutrient ranges for the therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach in terms of percentage of energy intake. As you can see, regardless of the scenario, Paul’s energy would largely come from fat.
The foods listed below would give Paul the best chance of achieving therapeutic levels of ketosis while maximising high micronutrients as much as possible.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the foods listed above. The nutrients coloured yellow typically harder to obtain on a therapeutic ketogenic diet and have been emphasised in the foods listed above.
If you’re following a therapeutic ketogenic diet as an adjunct therapy for cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or dementia, then you’ll likely also be tracking glucose and ketone levels.
If you are following a disciplined high fat ketogenic diet, you should expect to see lower blood sugars and higher ketone levels.
If you want to get serious, you can track your Glucose Ketone Index (GKI) which was developed by ketogenic cancer researcher Dr Thomas Seyfried. Through fasting, higher fat and a lower insulin load many people who require therapeutic ketosis aim for a GKI value of less than 1.0 which means your ketone values are higher than your glucose levels. If you are just looking to manage diabetes then having a GKI less than 10 is a healthy place to be on a day to day basis when not fasting.
Therapeutic ketosis takes a lot of dedication and discipline. Many people find that their condition resolves after a period and they can transition to a low carb / nutritional ketosis approach without triggering adverse symptoms.
Diabetes / low carb / nutritional ketosis
A diet for management of diabetes is not as restrictive as a therapeutic ketogenic diet and provides a higher level of nutrition. The table below shows the low carb style macronutrient range that would keep Paul in nutritional ketosis.
Minimum protein is based 1.8g/kg LBM.
Upper limit based on maximum insulin load of 1.8g/kg LBM with zero carbs.
Lower limit is based on weight maintenance with maximum protein and carbs.
The upper limit is based on weight maintenance with minimum protein and minimum carbs.
The upper limit corresponds to minimum protein (1.8g/kg LBM) and a maximum 1.8g/kg LBM insulin load.
Calories are not necessarily controlled on a low carbohydrate diet. The initial focus should be on stabilising blood sugars and appetite. From there we can force an energy deficit if necessary.
The figure below shows the range of macronutrients that will fit within the guidelines of a low carbohydrate diet to stabilise blood sugar or achieve nutritional ketosis.
This food list will enable you to maximise your micronutrients on a low carbohydrate diet.
Compared to a therapeutic ketogenic diet, the low carbohydrate diet provides a significantly high level of nutrient density. The nutrients shown in yellow that are harder to find on a low carbohydrate dietary approach that have been emphasised.
If you are following a low carbohydrate dietary approach, you will likely be tracking your blood sugars on a regular basis. Once you are able to stabilise your blood sugars to non-diabetic levels using a low carb diet, we can then start to focus on reducing energy to lose weight (i.e. if your waist : height ratio is greater than 0.5 or you have a higher than desirable level of body fat). From there you can start to focus on an energy deficit if you do not find you are achieving your desired level of weight loss with a low carb diet alone.
average blood sugar
108 – 140
6.0 – 7.8
5.4 – 6.5%
2.0 – 3.0
100 – 108
5.4 – 6.0
5.0 – 5.4%
1.0 – 2.0
Many people find that they actually need to drop their body fat levels further before they are able to achieve truly optimal blood glucose levels.
Aggressive weight loss
Paul actually wants to lose weight fairly aggressively, but without compromising his hard-earned lean muscle mass.
If we take 21 calories per pound of fat as the maximum rate of fat loss without significant loss of muscle, then Paul could theoretically cut up to 790 calories from his typical energy intake without significantly compromising his lean muscle mass. This deficit would leave him with 1349 calories. He will still be able to get his minimum protein and fat intake levels at this energy level.
Paul is eager to lose fat fast, so he wants to target an aggressive deficit of at least 20%. However, if he’s not hungry, there’s no real point in consuming beyond 1349 calories per day (i.e. a 37% deficit). Paul is also still mindful of his blood sugars and insulin resistance, so we will also ensure his insulin load remains under 2.9 g/kg LBM.
Minimum protein is based on 1.8g/kg LBM which is fine if he is only targeting a 20% deficit.
The upper limit is based on 2.9g/kg LBM insulin load.
Maximum fat is based on 20% energy deficit with min protein and carbs.
Maximum carbs is based on target energy deficit with minimum protein and fat.
Lower energy intake is based on BMR -21 cal/lb fat mass. The maximum is based on 20% deficit against BMR.
The screenshot below from Paul’s Cronometer showing how he can enter his target protein range. Simply click on the bar for energy, protein, carbs and fat to enter the target range.
The figure below shows the macro split including the energy from body fat (shown in yellow).
This figure shows the food proportion of protein, fat and carbs when we only look at the food intake. When we consider the food intake alone, between 30 and 55% of energy is intake will be from.
The foods below will maximise nutrition to align with this aggressive fat loss approach.
The chart below shows the high level of nutrients provided by the foods listed above. These foods also have a very low energy density meaning that they will be hard to overeat.
If your goal is aggressive fat loss, then you will likely be tracking your energy intake and body weight and fat on a regular basis to make sure you are achieving your desired results.
There is little value in regularly tracking blood sugars or ketones with this style of approach as they will likely be excellent if you are maintaining a significant energy deficit.
Paul’s focus with should be on making sure he gets adequate protein and nutrient dense foods while keeping under his energy target.
The table below shows the macronutrient ranges if Paul was to target maximum energy restriction while minimising the risk of muscle loss. This is based on the maximum energy deficit of 21 calories per pound of body fat.
Minimum protein is based on 2.6g/kg BW in view of the aggressive deficit.
The upper limit is based on maximum 2.9g/kg LBM insulin load.
Max fat is based on 37% energy deficit with min protein and carbs.
Max carbs is based on target energy deficit with minimum protein and fat.
We also want to limit Paul’s insulin load to less than 40% of his maintenance energy intake
A maximum deficit of 21 calories per pound of body fat (i.e. 37% deficit)
Even though the protein levels are very high and he has some history of insulin resistance, I do not think Paul is likely to see elevated blood sugar levels with such a massive deficit.
Some protein may be converted to glucose via GNG, however, there will already be such a dramatic energy deficit that he would likely be seeing very low blood sugar levels.
The chart below shows the macronutrient split, including body fat.
This chart shows the macronutrient split of this approach when we consider the food only. These foods contain between 56 and 72% protein which starts to make this style of approach difficult without significant reliance on protein powders. Achieving a strict Protein Sparing Modified Fast is actually quite difficult in practice because attaining such a high level of protein intake with such an aggressive deficit is quite hard.
The foods below will give you the best chance of minimising energy intake while getting adequate protein and nutrients.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of these foods with the harder to find nutrients emphasised.
If Paul was wanting to gain weight, he could target a 20% energy surplus and choose nutrient dense and energy dense foods so he could achieve this.
Minimum protein is based on 1.8g/kg LBM.
The upper limit is based on 50% of energy from protein.
Maximum fat is based on 20% energy surplus with minimum protein and carbs.
Maximum carbohydrates is based on target energy surplus with min protein and fat.
The maximum is based on a 20% energy surplus against BMR.
The list of nutrient dense and energy dense foods below would help Paul to maximise nutrient density in an energy surplus.
The chart below shows the nutrients provided by these energy-dense foods.
In a sea of nutritional gurus, theories and conflicting opinions, have you ever wondered,
“What should I eat to optimise my blood sugars, weight and health to feel great and thrive?”
If your answer is “yes,” you’re in luck!
This article sets out a bold proposal and methodology to redesign nutrition from the ground up using first principles.
It also gives you a peek under the hood of the Nutrient Optimiser, an exciting new tool to help you identify optimal foods to incorporate into your diet to achieve your goals.
But before you dive in, let me give you an overview of where we’re going.
Humans require food that contains:
energy (but not too much), and
the ability to maintain healthy hormone levels.
The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm considers insulin load, nutrient density and energy density to identify optimal foods to suit different people with different goals.
People with diabetes or some degree of metabolic syndrome are on a blood sugar/insulin rollercoaster which drives appetite and fat storage.
Stabilising blood sugars and insulin levels using a lower insulin load dietary approach can help to normalise appetite and improve energy levels and often leads to a degree of spontaneous weight loss.
Being able to accurately quantify the insulin load of our food enables us to ensure we invest it wisely on protein and other nutrient-dense foods while still maintaining excellent blood sugar levels.
The foods that require the least insulin are typically high-fat foods which may not contain adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals. We need to find the balance between a lower insulin load and adequate nutrient density.
Some nutrients are easier to obtain than others. The nutrient density index embedded in the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm prioritises foods that contain more of the harder to find nutrients.
People on a low carb or ketogenic diet often miss out on a number of nutrients, particularly electrolytes (e.g. potassium, magnesium, calcium and sodium) and our pancreas will increase insulin levels to enable our kidneys to hold on to these nutrients if we are not getting enough of them from our diet, and thus drive insulin resistance.
We can use energy density to manage how filling our food is to suit our goals. For example, someone wanting to lose weight by eating less by decreasing their energy density or someone wanting to eat more by increasing energy density.
The Nutrient Optimiser considers what you are currently eating and identifies nutrient-dense whole foods that will provide the nutrients that you are not getting enough of while also managing your blood sugars and weight goals.
The Nutrient Optimiser can help retrain people to make progressively better food choices and reduce nutrient-poor processed foods using a quantitative algorithm that eliminates the emotion, belief and conflicts of interest that often derail our best nutritional ntentions.
My name is Marty Kendall, and my journey into nutrition started fifteen years ago when this happened…
…and we started thinking about having these.
My wife Monica has Type 1 Diabetes. Not too long after we got married we started researching how we could optimise her blood glucose control to minimise the risks associated with a diabetic pregnancy.
And personally, I have a family history and my own struggles with prediabetes and obesity (as you can see from the “before and after” below).
By day I’m an engineer. I like to use data to optimise things quantitatively.
I even spent a period of time developing trading systems. In this environment, it is critical to eliminate emotion, belief and confirmation bias.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. I got frustrated with the lack of useful information for people with diabetes and decided to take matters into my own hands to create the optimal nutritional solution for my family.
The key components of optimal nutrition
You may have noticed that there is a lot of argument and conjecture about what is the best diet. Unfortunately, decades of expensive epidemiological studies don’t seem to have provided any clarity.
Paleo, vegan, low carb, fruitarian, pescetarian, Mediterranean, vegetarian, plant-based, ketogenic, the list of nutritional camps goes on and on.
But when you peel away the dogmatic belief and conflicts of interest I think what we really need from our food is:
enough energy (but not too much), and
the ability to maintain healthy hormone levels (e.g. insulin, ghrelin, leptin, mTOR etc.).
After experimenting with a range of parameters to optimise nutrition, the three that I have found to be most useful are:
While not as useful by themselves, we can combine these parameters using a multi-criteria analysis and apply different weightings to each parameter to optimise food choices to suit different people with different goals.
Given that the diabetes epidemic is exploding, let me start by discussing how we can quantify the insulin load of the food we eat to optimise our blood sugar control.
The blood sugar rollercoaster
Someone with diabetes is on a constant rollercoaster of treating blood sugars with insulin.
You eat, and your blood sugars go up. You dose with insulin, and eventually, your blood sugars start to come down. Then you find your blood sugars have dropped too low so you feel compelled to eat again. Maybe something sweet or a glucose tablet that you wouldn’t have otherwise eaten. This cycle continues night and day.
The blood sugar – insulin roller coaster leaves you feeling fatigued and hangry, often gaining weight due to fat storage effects of excess insulin.
When the inputs of food and insulin are both large, it’s impossible to match the right amount of insulin to the food you eat. There is always a massive error! And the blood sugar swings are like a bad theme park ride.
So logically, the goal for someone wanting to manage their blood sugars is to reduce the dietary inputs that need insulin. But then, the next question is:
“What exactly is it in our food that raises blood glucose and requires insulin, and then how can we accurately quantify it so we can more effectively manage it?”
The food insulin index data
A couple of years back, I stumbled across a motherload of Food Insulin Index data in a University of Sydney thesis that I thought might hold some clues about how we could more accurately manage insulin.
So I exported the data into a spreadsheet and started tinkering with it to better understand the relationship between the food we eat, our glucose response and the insulin we need.
Our blood sugar response to glucose
It’s not a great surprise for most people to see that our blood glucose response is correlated with the carbohydrate we eat.
However, things get more interesting when we look at the insulin response to the food we eat.
Measuring our insulin response to food relative to glucose
The Food Insulin Index quantifies the area ‘under the curve’ insulin response to a range of foods. Pure glucose is assigned a score of 100%, and everything else is measured relative to that.
The food insulin index is a little bit like the Glycemic Index. However, rather than just measuring the maximum rise in blood glucose, the food insulin index measures the insulin response to the food we eat over time.
Understanding our insulin response to the food we eat is much more useful for someone who cannot keep their blood sugars at normal levels due to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes) or not being able to produce enough insulin (type 1 diabetes).
Carbohydrates versus insulin response
When we plot carbohydrates against the Food Insulin Index, we find that, while high-fat foods such as bacon and avocado have a small insulin response, high protein foods (e.g. steak and fish) have a significant insulin response even though they don’t contain any carbs.
People with Type 1 diabetes find that they need insulin to cover the protein they eat. However, the details of why and how much are often not well understood which leads to poor blood sugar control.
Fats versus insulin response
Higher fat foods have a smaller insulin response, while low-fat foods (which are typically processed grain products) have a high insulin response.
[Note: There are a couple of situations where fat will require insulin. The glycerol backbone that holds fat molecules together can be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis which will need insulin to metabolise. Also, when we consume more energy than we require over the long term, regardless of macronutrient source, the pancreas secretes insulin to keep energy stored in the liver while the energy coming in from our diet is used up. However, the changes in insulin levels due to dietary fat are negligible in the short term compared to the carbohydrates and protein.]
The insulin response to dietary protein
Although protein needs some insulin to help us build and repair our muscles and organs, higher protein foods tend to have a lower insulin response because they force out refined carbohydrates from our diet.
Does protein turn into chocolate cake?
When I first started looking into this issue, I thought the reason that protein requires insulin was because the glucogenic amino acids in protein were being converted to glucose which needs insulin.
But I have since come to understand that it’s not quite that simple. Protein does not turn to chocolate cake in our bloodstream.
I feel partially responsible for propagating that misunderstanding with my early posts on the food insulin index. Many people are avoiding protein to minimise insulin, and I’ve been trying to set the record straight.
Insulin has many critical roles in our body.
Most people are aware that insulin helps the body take glucose into the cells to be used for energy.
Bodybuilders are well aware that insulin is an anabolic hormone that helps us use the protein we eat to build and repair muscle and organs.
The third, lesser-known function of insulin, is that it works to hold glucose in the liver (i.e. glycogen) for later use when we’re not eating.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when we become resistant to the effects of insulin, and stored glucose leaches out into our bloodstream. Similarly, Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas can’t produce enough insulin to keep glycogen stored in the liver, and we see our blood sugars rise. Effective and efficient use of insulin in our body is critical to our metabolic health.
Most of the amino acids that make up protein can be converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis, but converting protein to ATP it’s really difficult compared to just using fat and/or carbs. for energy It takes a lot of energy to convert protein to glucose (we use 6 ATP to yield only 2 ATP of energy!). So the body tends to look for other energy sources once you’ve consumed enough protein.
That’s why you can quickly become full-on lean protein, but we always have a “dessert stomach” with enough room for carbs and fat which are much easier for the body to use for energy.
Let me clarify this with a real-life example that is close to home.
Pictured above is my wife Monica’s blood glucose response measured with a continuous glucose meter) to this meal of steak and veggies shown below.
Over the first few hours after finishing the meal the carbohydrates in the veggies digest and raise her blood sugars. Then the insulin that she injected with the meal kicks in and brings the blood sugars down.
But then over a period of about ten hours, we can see that she is slowly metabolising the steak which requires insulin for the anabolic process of muscle repair. While the insulin is going to work on the protein, Monica doesn’t have enough insulin to stop the glucose being released into the bloodstream.
You could be forgiven for thinking that protein is being converted to sugar. But it’s actually the glycogen in the liver leaching into the blood due to a lack of insulin. Monica actually needs more insulin here to enable her to build and repair her muscles as well as keep glucose in storage in the liver at the same time!
Most people see their blood sugar decrease after a high protein meal due to the effect of insulin (the insulin released to metabolise the protein also brings the blood sugars down and keeps the glycogen shut in the liver). If you find that your blood sugars rise significantly after a high protein meal, it might be a sign that you actually need more insulin to ensure you are effectively using the protein you are eating.
According to the Protein Leverage Hypothesis, (Simpson, 2005) rather than minimising protein, someone with diabetes eating less carbohydrate may actually require more protein.
“One source of protein loss is hepatic gluconeogenesis, whereby amino acids are used to produce glucose. This is inhibited by insulin, as is the breakdown of muscle proteins to release amino acids, and therefore occurs mainly during periods of fasting.
“However, inhibition of gluconeogenesis and protein catabolism is impaired when insulin release is abnormal, insulin resistance occurs, or when circulating levels of free fatty acids in the blood are high.
“These are interdependent conditions that are associated with overweight and obesity and are especially pronounced in type 2 diabetes. It might be predicted that the result of higher rates of hepatic gluconeogenesis will be an increased requirement for protein in the diet.” 
Type 1 Diabetes guru Richard Bernstein says he found it hard to build and maintain muscle before he understood the importance of matching insulin with protein.
However, after matching adequate protein with the right amount of insulin this is no longer a problem, even after more than seven decades of living with Type 1 Diabetes.
At the same time though, there’s no point choking down more protein beyond what you have an appetite for. Regardless of the macronutrient source, there’s no use consuming more energy than you need, particularly as the errors in matching food with insulin can exacerbate the glucose/insulin rollercoaster.
Anyone who is somewhere on the spectrum of metabolic disease needs to invest their limited supply of insulin wisely (e.g. to metabolise protein to build and maintain muscle and metabolise limited glucose from nutrient dense green leafy veggies) rather than squander it (on refined grains and sugars).
I hope this interlude into protein metabolism gives you an insight into why a good understanding of our insulin response to protein is important. While there are a wide range of other hormones that drive our metabolism (e.g. mTOR, leptin, ghrelin and PPK) most of these fall in line if we optimise insulin and blood glucose levels.
As a general rule, indigestible fibre does not require insulin and does not raise blood sugar levels. High fibre foods such as All Bran and navy beans tend to have a lower insulin response due to their high indigestible fibre content. Hence, it appears that a ‘net carbs’ approach makes sense, at least for whole foods.
[Note: Many people with Type 1 find that they do require insulin or have a blood sugar response to sugar alcohols and other fibres used in manufactured foods so it may be prudent to adopt a total carbs approach when dealing with foods that come in a packet and claims to have low ‘net carbs’.]
Fructose (a.k.a. fruit sugar) is processed in the liver without requiring insulin. However, some of it is converted to glucose via gluconeogenesis. Analysis of the food insulin index data suggests that 25% of the fructose we eat requires insulin. However, this is typically such a small component and difficult to calculate, so it’s generally not worth worrying about.
After playing around with the Food Insulin Index data for a while, I found we can more accurately predict our insulin response to the food we eat when, in addition to carbohydrate, we also consider the effect of indigestible fibre and protein.
[If you want to dig into this data a little more you can check out these charts in an interactive Tableau format here.]
With this improved understanding, we can then develop these formulas to calculate the insulin load and the percentage of insulinogenic calories.
Understanding the insulin load of our food helps us to more accurately calculate the insulin people with diabetes would need to inject, including for protein. Or conversely, it can help them make better food choices so their pancreas can keep up and maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Being able to calculate the proportion of insulinogenic calories allows us to identify the most ketogenic foods that will elicit the smallest insulin response in our pancreas. Understanding the percentage of insulinogenic calories can be beneficial for people who require therapeutic ketosis to help with the management of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s or dementia.
With better food choices that require smaller inputs of insulin, we are able to smooth out the blood sugar-insulin roller coaster.
This is a big deal for someone with Type 1 diabetes. However, the same principles apply to anyone on the spectrum of metabolic disease (which is a growing portion of the population).
I believe our first priority should be to normalise blood sugar and insulin swings. Often satiety and weight loss will naturally follow as we are able to access our own body fat more efficiently and are not driven to eat by fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin.
Lack of nutrients in fattiest foods
However, after looking at the foods that elicit the smallest insulin response, I realised we may have another problem. The least insulinogenic foods tend to be mainly fat!
While an unnecessary fear of fat has driven the unfortunate low-fat processed food saga that has been in place for most of my lifetime, I think we also need to acknowledge that the highest fat foods typically do not contain a lot of the essential vitamins and minerals.
This chart shows the nutrients contained in the fattiest foods as a percentage of the recommended daily intake for each of the essential nutrients. The nutrients are then sorted to identify which nutrients these foods fail to provide in adequate quantities.
So if you ate a little bit of the eight hundred fattiest foods of the eight thousand foods in the USDA database you would not be getting the DRI for the following micronutrients:
Nutrients lacking in the most ketogenic foods
Rather than sorting by percentage fat, this chart shows the nutrients contained in the most ketogenic foods using the percentage insulinogenic calories formula shown above.
While these foods (refer summary below) are an improvement on the nutritional profile of the fattiest foods, they still do not provide the recommended daily intake for about a third of the essential nutrients.
So the next question is, what can we do to maintain low insulin levels and while still getting the micronutrients we need?
Enter nutrient density.
Building on the work of the likes of Dr Mat Lalonde and Dr Joel Fuhrman I developed a nutrient density index to identify foods that contain more of the nutrients that are harder to find.
Dr Lalonde’s nutrient density system considered all the essential nutrients in terms of nutrients per weight of foods and ended up with a very protein heavy (e.g. 60 to 70% of energy) array of foods.
Dr Fuhrman’s Aggregate Nutrient Density Index considered vitamins and minerals (but not amino acids or essential fatty acids) along with a range of other factors as noted below.
The following nutrients were included in the evaluation: fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, vitamin A, beta carotene, alpha carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, choline, vitamin K, phytosterols, glucosinolates, angiogenesis inhibitors, organosulfides, aromatase inhibitors, resistant starch, resveratrol plus ORAC score.
Rather than prioritising all nutrients, I think we only need to worry about boosting the nutrients that we are currently not getting enough of. To reduce any percieved bias or conflict of interest, my version of the nutrient density index only considers the essential nutrients that have established targets.
While there are many other nutritional parameters that are nice to have (e.g. phytonutrients, lycopene, lutein, zeaxanthin, phytosterols, glucosinolates, organosulfides, resistant starch etc.), they tend to come along for the ride if we focus on getting the essential nutrients from whole foods.
Unfortunately, we currently only have data for the nutrients that are actually in a food. Hopefully one day we will also be able to account for your digestion, the effect of anti-nutrients and the bioavailability of nutrients from different food sources.
Most of the time these are not a problem as focusing on nutrient-dense foods eliminates most anti-nutrients. Most people get plenty of amino acids, iron, zinc and vitamin A which are less bioavailability in plant-based sources. However, if you are consuming a 100% plant-based diet, you may need to pay extra attention to getting adequate of these nutrients.
A well-formulated ketogenic diet
So, going back to the ketogenic foods, once we emphasise the harder-to-find nutrients, we get a massive boost in the micronutrient content of our diet, while still maintaining a ketogenic macronutrient ratio.
The image below shows the ketogenic foods with and without consideration of nutrient density. When we boost the harder to find nutrients all of the nutrients get a significant boost.
The nutrient score that you see on each of these charts enables us to compare the nutrient density of each these dietary approaches quantitatively. While the recommended daily intake levels are not set in stone, and your body doesn’t flip an on/off switch once the minimum levels are achieved, I think we ideally want to meet the recommended intake levels for as many nutrients as we can. However, there’s probably not much use chasing more than twice the recommended daily intake levels. So, if we filled the whole red rectangle, we would get a perfect score of 100%.
As you’ll see below, we can create a theoretical list of foods that get us pretty close to a perfect nutrient density score of 100%. However, in real-life, it’s hard to achieve such a high nutrient density score. Dr Rhonda Patrick currently holds the top position on the Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard with a score of 82%.
Low carb is more nutritious than keto
If we tweak the weightings in the multi-criteria analysis and put less emphasis on insulin load and more on nutrient density we get a more nutritious group of low carbohydrate foods and the nutrient score increases from 64% to 97%.
A summary of these foods is shown below.
While I could go on about the importance of the various vitamins, minerals and fatty acids, the thing I see most regularly with low carb diets is a lack of alkalising minerals such as potassium, magnesium and calcium.
The chart below shows a typical nutrient profile for someone following a ketogenic diet. Notice the cluster of lower levels of potassium, magnesium and calcium at the top of the chart. There has been a lot of talk about sodium lately. However, it seems that these other minerals are actually harder to get in sufficient quantities.
Dr James Dinicolantonio references this study in his recent book, The Salt Fix, that shows that low sodium diets tend to lead to insulin resistance.
The kidneys call on the pancreas to secrete more insulin to help them hold onto sodium when there isn’t much coming in from our diet.
Volek and Phinney point out that the fundamental problem with low salt diets is that they cause a loss of potassium which is critical for building and maintaining muscle.
“Salt depletion causes a compensatory loss of potassium, which has a negative impact on muscle mass since potassium is a necessary cofactor for building muscle.”
Managing sodium and potassium is a massive deal for our body, with 40% of the body’s energy and 70% of the brain’s energy used just to manage the sodium-potassium pump that is fundamental to our energy production.
As well as for sodium, the body upregulates our basal insulin to hold on to other electrolytes such as potassium and calcium.
Ironically, a low carb or ketogenic diet that minimises total carbohydrates in an effort to reduce the bolus insulin required for our food, may actually lead to a reduction in electrolytes that drives insulin resistance through an upregulation of basal insulin to enable our kidneys to hold onto precious electrolytes if we’re not getting sufficient quantities from our diet!
Paul Jaminet points out that Palaeolithic diets were naturally high in potassium and low in sodium. Salt was rare and highly valued, so we evolved mechanisms for protecting against the threat of low sodium levels. However, because potassium was plentiful back then, we have not developed similar evolutionary mechanisms to protect us against low potassium levels, even though they are every bit as devastating to our health.
Today, potassium tends to be hard to obtain from our diet or even from supplements (which are limited to 99mg when the RDI is 4800mg or nearly 50 capsules), so we need to pay particular attention to make sure we get enough of it.
While I don’t think it’s ideal to focus on just one nutrient, we get a respectable amount of nutrients if we just chase high potassium foods.
And while there are a number of fruits (like bananas) in the high potassium foods list, there are still a ton of non-starchy veggies if you need to manage your blood sugar levels.
Once you have normalised your insulin and blood sugar levels to that of a metabolically healthy person, there may not be any use in doubling down on more dietary fat if your goal is to lose body fat.
If your goal is further weight loss, I believe the ideal approach is to maximise the nutritional content of your diet so you can minimise energy intake without risking nutrient cravings. The image below shows how the weight loss phase of a ketogenic diet includes a substantial amount of fat coming from the body with a more modest dietary intake of fat and lower overall calories.
Foods with a lower energy density (in terms of calories per weight of food) tend to be more filling and allow you to reduce energy intake naturally which will, in turn, allow your body fat to be used for fuel.
Optimal foods for weight loss if you’re still insulin resistant
These weight loss foods prioritise low energy density while also prioritising nutrient density and a low insulin load to help you lose weight if your blood sugars are still a little elevated.
And they contain a very respectable amount of nutrients.
Maximum nutrients with minimum energy
Meanwhile, the foods in this list just prioritise a low energy density and high nutrient density and hence provide a lot of nutrition without too much energy.
And the nutrient profile is spectacular!
A Protein Sparing Modified Fast is often used in weight loss clinics to maximise the rate of fat loss while ensuring you get adequate protein to maintain your lean muscle mass.
Adding nutrient density to this protocol will further improve your chances of success by avoiding cravings and nutrient deficiencies while maintaining an aggressive energy deficit.
What I find really interesting here is that, even though we are not prioritising any of the amino acids, we are getting tons of protein! It seems that when we focus on the harder-to-find nutrients, protein becomes a non-issue.
It’s also interesting to note that the macronutrient split of these the most nutrient dense foods is similar to the macronutrients that generate the lowest ad lib energy intake.
Conversely, actively avoiding protein tends to have a diabolical impact on the essential vitamin and mineral content of our diet as shown in the chart of the lowest protein foods below.
As you can see from the food list below, it’s hard to minimise protein without going very high carb or relying on a lot of refined fats.
Optimal foods for bodybuilders
If you’re a bodybuilder trying to build muscle you can focus on boosting the more anabolic branched chain amino acids (i.e. valine, leucine and isoleucine).
The foods listed below will help you recover and build muscle if you are working out.
Optimal foods for endurance athletes
If you are an endurance athlete who doesn’t want to rely on pasta and energy gels to get enough energy you can focus on high energy density foods while still keeping nutrient density high.
Foods with a higher energy density are not as nutrient dense. However, these foods are still pretty good.
Micros > macros?
You may have noticed that the macronutrient splits of the various dietary approaches vary significantly. However, what is consistently missing from these optimal food lists are sugars and processed grains which contain a pitiful amount of nutrition. The contrast between the cereals, baked goods, snacks and fast foods…
… and the most nutrient dense foods is dramatic!
A low carb diet will ensure that you avoid the majority of these dangerous Franken foods along with the sugars, seed oils, anti-nutrients and chemicals that are often associated with processed grains.
However, what I’ve found, after playing around with all these food lists for a few years, is that everything seems to work out pretty well when we start by prioritising the harder-to-find micronutrients and tweak from there to suit our goals.
A further problem that I identified with these lists is that they do not consider what YOU are currently eating.
Each person’s interpretation of a low carb, ketogenic or paleo diet will vary depending on preferences, finances, culture, appetite and activity levels.
I think what you really want to know is:
which foods will provide you with more of the nutrients you are not getting from your diet right now?
which new foods you should look for next time you go shopping.
Rather than adopting the Pete Evans diet or the Tom Brady diet for a period and then falling off the wagon once the meal plans run out, the Nutrient Optimiser will help you help you make continual incremental improvements in your journey towards optimal nutrition.
The algorithm takes your food log, entered in Cronometer, and analyses it to see which nutrients you are currently not getting enough of.
We also look at the critical ratios to make sure we’re not prioritising nutrients that are going to exacerbate any current imbalances. The chart below shows an example of how we can use these ratios to refine the nutrients we want to prioritise.
Omega 6 : Omega 3
omega 6 : Omega 3 ratio is good.
Zinc : Copper
8 – 12
zinc : copper ratio is outside limits.
Potassium : Sodium
potassium : sodium ratio is low.
Calcium : Magnesium
calcium : magnesium ratio is high.
Iron : Copper
10 – 15
iron : copper ratio is within range.
Calcium : Phosphorus
calcium : phosphorus ratio is low.
Tailoring nutrition to suit blood sugar and weight loss goals
The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm also helps you choose your ideal dietary approach based on your blood sugars as well as our performance and weight loss goals.
average glucose (mg/dL)
average glucose (mmol/L)
well formulated ketogenic diet
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
108 to 140
6.0 to 7.8
weight loss (insulin resistant)
100 to 108
5.4 to 6.0
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
most nutrient dense
nutrient dense maintenance
Targeted nutrients to suit your symptoms
We can also factor in additional nutrients that relate to your current symptoms such as diabetes, low testosterone, fertility or a wide range of other conditions associated with nutrient deficiencies.
Optimal food to suit your goals
The algorithm then generates a suite of personalised food sorted in descending order lists tailored and prioritised to suit your goals. And coming soon, optimal meals and meal plans that will align with your goals.
Best and worst days
The algorithm also gives a nutrient score for each day of your food log. You can learn a lot by reflecting on what you are consuming on your best and worst days.
It’s exciting to see the competitive types try to work their way up the leaderboard.
And if you’re a nutrition nerd like me you may find it interesting to head over to the leaderboard and drill down to see what each of these people is actually eating to achieve these high and low nutrient scores.
Sitting in first place at the top of the leaderboard is Dr Rhonda Patrick who, as you can imagine, does look like she eats pretty healthy.
But the best competition is against yourself, with incremental improvements by implementing the recommendations of each iteration of the Nutrient Optimiser analysis. For example, we can see Andy Mant has made leaps and bounds in his diet in preparation for his recent Paris wedding.
Andy had some great success with plenty of seafood and oysters (check out his report here). Meanwhile, people like Amy boost their nutrients with organ meats on a zero carb approach. Others achieve a high level of nutrient density with plenty of green veggies.
The Nutrient Optimiser still doesn’t force you to eat specific foods but allows you the latitude to find the best selection of foods that align with your preferences.
Want to learn more?
If you’re interested, all the food lists (and a whole lot more) are available for free here.
I presented the guts of this article as a presentation at Low Carb Down Under Gold Coast in October 2017. A frequent comment was that it was apparent that I had spent a LOT of time developing the food lists and the Nutrient Optimiser. Yes indeed, this has been a labour of love. A challenging problem to solve with personal ramifications.
I would love to see the Nutrient Optimiser take off and help a lot of people and perhaps pay for a little of the time that I have invested into it. Getting some income will enable it to be developed into a quality system that will help a lot more people.
But I really do hope that the system that I have developed will educate people to start an underground revolution by enabling them to confidently make food choices that provide them with the nutrients they need with enough energy while also optimising their hormones.
Decades of epidemiological studies have been fruitless in providing a clear direction as to the optimal human diet. Nutrition research and education are so fraught with entrenched belief systems, confirmation bias and with conflicts of interest.
It’s impossible for the everyday person to know what they should eat to feel OK and thrive at life. It seems Big Food is just winning and Big Pharma (also owned by the same companies) is making a killing cleaning up the mess. The current system is broken and needs to change!
The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm gives us the chance to redesign and rebuild nutrition from the ground up. My dream is that it will empower educated enthusiasts, then dieticians and personal trainers, then doctors, then insurance companies and then medical systems. At that point, big food will catch on and realise they need to provide nutritious foods that enable people to thrive and win at life.
The Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF) is regarded by many to be the most effective way to lose body fat while preserving muscle and avoiding rebound binge eating due to nutrient deficiencies.
First developed in the 1970s, the PSMF has seen various permutations in weight loss clinics and the bodybuilding community.
While the specifics vary depending on context, a PSMF generally defined as a diet with adequate protein, while simultaneously limiting energy from carbohydrates and fat.
While the protein intake is high in terms of the food on the plate, it could also be seen as a ketogenic diet due to the high contribution of body fat to your energy expenditure which will generate ketones.
Despite the peculiar name, there’s nothing really magical about a PSMF. It just means that you pay particular attention to protein in an energy deficit.
If you want to lose weight quickly and body fat fast you need a more substantial deficit, and therefore more attention needs to be paid to ensuring you are getting adequate protein.
This article outlines the key principles of the PSMF that can be applied to weight loss or maintenance over the long-term.
If you just want a PSMF calculator to determine your optimal protein, fat and carbohydrate range along with nutrient-dense foods and meals, then we recommend you get your Nutrient Optimiser free report.
Medical applications of the PSMF
In the medical version of the PSMF, patients obtain the majority of their energy from protein while keeping energy from carbohydrates and fat low.
Protein levels are set at 1.2 to 1.5 g/kg of ideal body weight per day. Note: For someone with 30% body fat wanting to get to 10% body fat this would be equivalent to 1.5 to 1.9g protein per kilogram of lean body mass or LBM.
Carbohydrate intake is typically restricted to less than 20 to 50 g/day.
Additional dietary fat beyond what comes with lean protein sources is minimised.
Patients in the weight loss clinic setting (e.g. for morbidly obese people in the lead up to bariatric surgery) are restricted to less than 800 kcal/day.
The Cleveland Clinic has carried out extensive research into the use of adequate protein low-calorie diets for aggressive weight loss and found that:
patients are encouraged by the initial period of rapid weight loss which leads to a lower dropout rate;
meal replacements in the form of commercial shakes or bars can be used, however learning to make meals from whole foods critical to developing habits that lay the foundation for long-term success;
the PSMF is effective for people with normal glycemic control as well as pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes;people on a whole food-based PSMF are significantly less hungry and preoccupied with eating compared to those on a liquid-formula based version of the PSMF; and
most of the weight lost during a PSMF is from fat tissue rather than muscle.Adherence to a very-low-calorie, ketogenic PSMF program results in major short-term health benefits for obese patients with type 2 diabetes. These benefits include significant weight loss, often more than 18kg, within 6 months.
In addition, significant improvements in fasting glucose and haemoglobin A1c levels are linked to the caloric and carbohydrate restriction of the PSMF. Insulin resistance was also attenuated, with possible partial restoration of pancreatic beta-cell capacity.
McDonald details how someone can individualise the PSMF based on their goals and context.
Someone who is already very lean and undertaking heavy weight training will need higher levels of protein, while someone who isn’t yet lean may do better with a less aggressive approach over a more extended period.
McDonald’s recommended protein intake ranges from 2.2 g/kg LBM to 4.4 g/kg LBM
Unlimited green leafy fibrous veggies are strongly encouraged as they are filling and provide the vitamins and minerals with minimal calories.
McDonald also recommends supplementing with a multivitamin, sodium potassium, magnesium, taurine, calcium and fish oil.
A severely energy restricted PSMF is typically not a long-term proposition due to the risk of nutrient deficiencies with a severe energy deficit.
If you are active and/or doing resistance training, then your requirement for protein is even higher. As shown in the chart below from a recent review paper by Stuart Phillips, lean muscle mass is best preserved when we have at least 2.6g/kg total body weight where there is an aggressive deficit (e.g. 35%). A lower protein intake of 1.5 g/kg body weight seems to be adequate where we have a more moderate deficit.
Protein drives satiety
The body fiercely defends loss of muscle mass by increasing appetite after periods of fasting or low protein consumption to ensure that muscle mass is retained.
Conversely, as per the Protein Leverage Hypothesis (Simpson, 2005), it appears that we continue to eat until we get enough protein, and thus prioritising protein typically leads to a lower spontaneous calorie intake.
“Protein generally increases satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrate or fat and may facilitate a reduction in energy consumption under ad libitum dietary conditions.”
If we eat foods with a lower % of energy from protein we may end up consuming more energy to obtain our adequate protein. Conversely, we can ‘hack’ our appetite by prioritising adequate protein while minimising energy from carbohydrate and fat.
Similarly, the chart below shows that diets with a higher percentage of their energy from protein tend to increase satiety and lead to less energy intake while dietary approaches with less protein tend to increase spontaneous energy intake.
Protein is prioritised, with carbohydrates and fat viewed more as lower priority fuel sources:
Minimum carbohydrate requirement: While there is a need for the vitamins and minerals that are often packaged with carbohydrate-containing foods such as non-starchy vegetables, there is really no minimum level of carbohydrates. While it takes a little bit more work, we can get the glucose we need for our brain function from protein via gluconeogenesis.
Minimum fat requirement: Most people have plenty of body fat stores that they can draw on and hence do not have an immediate need for dietary fat other than the essential Omega 3 fatty acids. You can still get a robust micronutrient profile with 10% dietary fat (or 0.4 g/kg LBM). This allows the fat from your body to be used for energy.
The secret to a sustainable and successful PSMF is to get adequate protein, along with vitamins, minerals, the essential fatty acids with energy. This will improve satiety while also getting adequate nutrients which is really the holy grail of weight loss and long-term maintenance.
Thermic effect of food
The other advantage of consuming a higher protein diet is increased thermogenesis (i.e. the energy lost in the process of converting food into energy). The thermic effect (or specific dynamic action) is 5 to 15% for carbohydrates and fat and 20 to 35% for protein.The thermic effect of food is illustrated nicely by these images from Physioqonomics. We lose a lot more calories metabolising protein compared to fat or carbohydrates.
While there is much debate over the “metabolic advantage” of fat vs. carbohydrates with claims that we can eat more calories of fat than carbs, there is actually an advantage’ when it comes to how many calories of protein we eat versus how much we can convert to energy.
While we can convert protein to glucose (i.e. gluconeogenesis), it is harder to do, and our body doesn’t like to do unless it has to. Satiety typically kicks in quickly once we have had adequate protein and we go in search of fat or carbs which are easier to convert to energy.
Just think, you can only eat so much steak, but you always have a ‘dessert stomach’, even after a big meal. Humans are programmed to overeat foods with fat and carbs with minimal protein to ensure that they survive the coming winter.
Should you just eat the highest protein foods?
So, the obvious question is:
What should I eat on a PSMF?
The table below lists the foods with the highest protein content as a percentage of energy. These foods may be useful if you are looking to boost your protein intake.
For a longer list of nutrient dense, high protein foods and meals tailored for your current situation and goals we recommend you get to obtain your Nutrient Optimiser free report. Just select “fat loss (insulin sensitive)” as your goal.
The problem with a very high protein diet
While you may be getting plenty of essential amino acids if you focus purely on high protein foods, you may not be getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
As shown in the chart below, there is a strong relationship between protein and nutrient density. However, if we only focus on high protein foods, we may still end up missing out on the harder to find vitamins and minerals.
The chart below shows the micronutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods in the USDA database when sorted for maximum protein content.
Now imagine, that rather than getting 2000 calories, we are getting only 800 or 400 calories during long-term fasting or extreme dieting. We have a higher chance of becoming deficient in many key nutrients which may in turn increase appetite and drive us to eat more than we would like to.
Ensuring you are getting adequate micronutrients is a key component to long-term success in weight loss and maintenance.
In his Rapid Fat Loss Handbook McDonald mentions ‘The Last Chance Diet’ which was popular in the 1970s and 80s. It was essentially a PSMF centred around liquid nutrition which led to the death of a number of devotees due to some fatal flaws.First, they picked the cheapest protein source available, collagen; a protein that provides essentially zero nutrition to the body. Second, they provided zero supplemental vitamins and minerals (some of which would have been obtained if the dieters had been eating whole foods in the first place). This caused a couple of problems including cardiac heart loss (from the total lack of protein) and arrhythmias from the lack of minerals.
Basically, the problem wasn’t with the approach so much as with the food choices. PSMF’s based around whole foods (which provide high-quality proteins as well as vitamins and minerals) and with adequate mineral supplementation have shown no such problems.
Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory
Nutrient density becomes even more critial when we consciously try to limit our energy intake.
Attaining adequate micronutrients can help to mitigate metabolic/mitochondrial slowdown and adaption to the severe calorie deficit. If we are getting the range of micronutrients we need, the body is more likely to keep on feasting on our own fat stores without reacting like there is a famine.
Similar to the protein leverage hypothesis, it seems if we provide the body with low nutrient density food it is driven to consume more energy to ensure that it gets the nutrients it needs.
While we can argue that the some of the DRIs for various nutrients are overly conservative, you also don’t have to look too far to find people that argue that we need multiple times the DRI for another particular nutrient to optimise our health and longevity.
You don’t need to worry about precisely meeting the daily recommended intake for every single micronutrient every single day. A healthy well-balanced diet will achieve the DRI for the majority of the essential micronutrients most of the time.
More research is required to understand whether our requirements for different nutrients change depending on our diet (e.g. how much less vitamin C do we need if we are not consuming as much glucose) and how much more bioavailable nutrients are from plants versus animals.
However, if you are an order of magnitude below the recommended values for a handful of nutrients, then you should consider focussing on foods that contain that contain higher levels of that cluster of nutrients. If you are an order of magnitude over the recommended values for a particular group of nutrients you don’t need to prioritise foods that contain those nutrients.
Bruce Ames’ Triage Theory suggests that if we are low in critical nutrients, the body will prioritise those nutrients for functions essential to short-term survival rather than longevity and preventing the diseases of ageing (e.g. cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, etc.).
“The triage theory posits that some functions of micronutrients (the approximately 40 essential vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids) are restricted during shortage and that functions required for short-term survival take precedence over those that are less essential. Insidious changes accumulate as a consequence of restriction, which increases the risk of diseases of ageing.”
So, while we might do OK with poor nutrition for a period of time, we will probably do better if we obtain a substantial amount of all the essential nutrients. Ideally, we would get these nutrients from whole foods which are more likely to contain all the non-essential but also beneficial vitamins and minerals that we don’t track.
The nutrient-dense adequate protein diet
So, to recap:
getting adequate protein is essential, especially if we are fasting or restricting energy intake, and
not getting sufficient nutrients is potentially dangerous and possibly the fatal flaw of the PSMF.
We can use the Nutrient Optimiser to prioritise foods with the nutrients we want to obtain more of. Prioritising amino acids is usually unnecessary because maximising vitamins and minerals generally leads to more than adequate protein. However, in a PSMF where we are severely limiting energy, we want to increase protein as well.
The chart below shows the resultant micronutrient profile achieved if we ate 2000 calories per day of the foods recommended by the Nutrient Optimiser. When we focus on nutrient density, we get adequate quantities of all nutrients other than the Omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid.
The chart below shows the same foods if we only ate 600 calories per day rather than 2000. Even with these highly nutrient dense foods, we miss the DRI for eight of the essential nutrients. Hence, we may still benefit from supplementing with Omega 3, vitamin D, calcium, magnesium and potassium if we are intentionally limiting energy on a PSMF.
It’s not hard to imagine that our ability to maintain a low energy intake and achieve sustained weight loss is likely related to getting adequate levels of the various essential micronutrients without having to over-consume energy. Conversely, a nutrient-poor diet will likely drive us to consume excess energy which will lead to obesity.
To make this a little more practical let’s look at some calorie math using a hypothetical scenario. If you want to skip the numbers and are looking for a PSMF calculator, then we recommend you check out the Nutrient Optimiser free report and select fat loss (insulin sensitive).
Let’s say Super Ted is looking to get shredded for the Ketogains conference in two weeks but also wants to stay strong and to win the arm wrestle and beat the reigning champion, Mighty Mouse.
Super Ted currently weighs 160 lbs or 73kg and has 10% body fat. His maintenance energy intake is 2336 cal/per day.
While getting the majority of your dietary energy from protein might seem excessive…
… it’s not so dramatic when you also take into account the body fat being burned.
Between the 8% dietary fat (8%) his body fat stores (60%) Super Ted will be getting a ketogenic level of 68% of his energy from fat while also adequate protein to maintain his muscles and enough carb containing vegetables to get the vitamins and minerals that are also critical to his long-term success.
The details of the calorie math are shown below. Once you take the energy deficit into account Super Ted is consuming 2.2g/kg LBM.
Meanwhile, Luis Villasenor (aka Mighty Mouse) is also consuming protein at 2.4g/kg LBM during his PSMF. Luis says his regular protein intake is around 140g increases this up to 180g during a strict PSMF.
Insulin resistant long-term fat loss scenario
For most of us, such an aggressive fat loss approach might be hard to maintain long-term. So, let’s consider another scenario with another hypothetical character.
Introducing… Big Ted.
Big Ted doesn’t post shirtless for photos on the internet.
At 110kg and 30% body fat Big Ted is far from shredded.
Big Ted is also pre-diabetic.
His doctor has warned him that if he doesn’t lose a significant amount of weight he will need to take Metformin and then insulin before too long.
Big Ted is motivated to drop a significant amount of weight with perhaps a calorie deficit of 30% which will take him about 30 weeks to get to his goal weight of 90kg.
We can refine Big Ted’s PSMF approach given that his circumstances and goals are different from Super Ted’s. Rather than just prioritising nutrient density and energy density, this scenario also prioritises a lower insulin load given Big Ted’s looming pre-diabetes situation.
The chart below shows the nutrient profile of these foods once we take a 30% energy deficit into account. Big Ted will be meeting the DRI for all his nutrient other than Omega 3s which he may need to supplement.
This is basically a hybrid between a PSMF and a low carb diet. If you want to try this approach in the Nutrient Optimiser select ‘fat loss (insulin resistant)’ for a not so aggressive version of the PSMF for a lower long-term approach.
The charts below show the energy consumed and energy burned. There is a significant amount of fibre which will not be metabolised for energy, but rather feed his gut bacteria. There is still a substantial amount of net carbs from veggies. However, there are no sugars or processed grains to be seen, so they’re not about to boost his insulin or send him on a blood sugar roller coaster.
Once his body fat loss is accounted for, half of Big Ted’s energy expenditure is still coming from fat.
Although we didn’t prioritise amino acids, we still get a solid 2.2g/kg LBM protein.
body weight (kg)
body weight (lbs)
body fat (%)
lean body mass (kg)
protein (% diet)
fat (% diet)
net carbs (% diet)
diet protein (g)
dietary fat (g)
body fat (g)
body fat (kg/week)
net carbs (g)
protein (g/kg LBM)
As shown below, the nutrient profile of these foods is also excellent. These foods will help Big Ted to minimise his chance of developing nutrient deficiencies which may lead to rebound binge eating and derail his long-term weight loss efforts.
How often should I eat on a PSMF?
Big Ted is fond of intermittent fasting. He finds it easier to not eat for a day or two and then eat to satiety rather than trying to count calories or restrict energy. Meanwhile, Super Ted likes to eat two meals per day which save him time and helps him not overeat. But which one is ideal?
It’s not so important when you eat as long as you stick to the foods that align best with your goals. Recent research suggests that in the fasted state we can use up to 3.5 g/kg/day and digest up to 4.3 g/kg/day of protein. This makes sense in an evolutionary context when there wouldn’t have been a regular supply of food, but we would have needed to be able to use the food when we came across a big hunt after a long famine.
Practically though, it can be hard to consume your minimum protein allocation in one sitting. Eating two meals a day seems to be ideal to help you maintain a consistent deficit while maximising satiety and minimise your opportunities to continue to eat.
Eating earlier in the day also appears to be better as it aligns better with your circadian rhythm and insulin sensitivity as well as eliminating opportunities to overeat which seems to be easier at night when you have time to kill rather than when you are trying to get on with your day.
How low can you go?
A PSMF is never a zero calorie fast as it will have enough calories to get the protein you need and ideally some essential fats and adequate vitamins and minerals. People with more fat to loss will be able to maintain a more significant deficit for longer without losing muscle than lean bodybuilders. Your Nutrient Optimiser free report will give you an estimate of this lower calorie intake based on your current body fat levels, and your minimum recommended protein intake.
Each person needs to find the ideal approach that they can sustain until they achieve their goal.
Ideally, if you’re going to the effort of tracking your food and dieting, then you want to be losing at least 0.5% body weight per week. If you’re not achieving at least 0.5% per week, you should ratchet down your maximum calorie intake until you do.
Weight loss of 1.0% per week should be treated as an upper limit over a shorter period. If you’re losing more than 1.0% per week over the long term you may risk losing excessive amounts of lean muscle mass.
What about rabbit starvation
Rabbit starvation happens to very lean people if they only have lean protein foods with minimum fat available. They just can’t get enough energy to sustain high levels of body fat. However, for most of us who have plenty of body fat, this is an advantage.
The fat loss (insulin sensitive) option is designed for aggressive short-term weight loss (i.e. leading up to a bodybuilding comp).
The fat loss (insulin resistant) option may be more appropriate if you have more weight to lose over a more extended period.
Minimum protein intake in a weight loss clinic setting is 1.2g/kg total body weight. Your appetite will likely drive you to eat more protein if you are working out. 2.2 to 2.4 g/kg lean body mass is typical for someone lifting heavy.
Focusing on nutrient-dense foods will ensure you still get adequate protein as well as vitamins and minerals while minimising energy consumption.
Eat only carbs that come with non-starchy veggies (i.e. no processed grains or foods with added sugars). Eat only the fat that comes with lean protein foods.
Don’t eat too much
It will be hard to overeat these high nutrient density low energy density foods.
It may be beneficial to track or plan your energy intake to ensure you are achieving your goals.
Ratchet down your maximum energy intake until you achieve your desired rate of weight loss (e.g. greater than 0.5% per week).
Lift heavy / exercise (optional)
If you are dieting and not active the body will see your muscle as unnecessary and expensive. Resistance training will help you to use the protein to build lean muscle and keep your metabolic rate up.
Pay attention to your micronutrients
To improve your chance of long-term success, it’s essential to pay attention to both your protein and your micronutrient intake. If you want to maximise your chance of success you can track your food in Cronometer and feed it back into your Nutrient Optimiser report to determine the optimal foods and meals to help you continue to fill your nutrient gaps.
The protein sparing modified fast (PSMF) provides adequate levels of protein to support lean muscle mass while restricting energy from carbohydrates and fat.
Protein intakes vary widely depending on the goals and the level of energy restriction between.
Providing adequate nutrients, ideally from whole foods, is critical to long-term weight loss and maintenance.
It is crucial to prioritise nutrient-dense foods to improve your chances of long-term success.
While the PSMF is commonly used in weight loss clinics and the bodybuilding community, the principle can also be applied in other situations to maximise fat loss while maintaining lean muscle mass.
There are a number of moving parts when it comes to optimising nutrition to suit your personal situation and goals.
General nutritional recommendations are standardised for simplicity. However simple and standard doesn’t always work for everyone, particularly if you aren’t average, or don’t want to be average.
Just like people come in different shapes and sizes, their nutritional requirements vary widely depending on our situation and goals.
The Nutrient Optimiser is a moderately sophisticated tool to optimise food choices to suit different people with different goals. However, I don’t want it to be a black box. Ideally I would like people to understand the inputs and how best to refine their nutrition to suit their goals.
The problem is black boxes is you get what you put in. If you understand the inputs you’ll have a better chance of getting the output you’re after.
This article discusses the various parameters that the Nutrient Optimiser manages. Even if you’re not a user, it may be of interest to see how you can truly personalise your nutrition. If you are already using the Nutrient Optimiser this article will help you understand how the algorithm uses various parameters to determine the optimal foods for you.
The first thing to understanding is the parameters used in the multi criteria analysis which is at the heart of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm. The image below illustrates the three main dials that you can adjust in the algorithm:
nutrient density, and
A multi criteria analysis is a way to combine a number of priorities.
You do it all the time. You want to have money in the bank but you also want to wear clothes and live under a roof. So you balance these priorities depending on your goals. You like to look and feel good but you also like to eat treats “occasionally”. So you balance these priorities.
You want to have the proverbial cake and eat it too. We make compromises all the time in life. Living at the extremes is not always healthy or optimal.
I have written at length on the blog about the three key parameters of the system. The pros and cons of having the various parameters at either extreme are highlighted in the table below.
Very high insulinogenic processed junk food that drives a blood glucose roller coaster.
Super high fat therapeutic ketogenic foods do not provide high levels of the broad range of various essential vitamins and minerals.
Very high nutrient per calorie foods are also very low energy density. For someone who is active and not looking to lose weight the most nutrient dense foods may not contain enough energy to provide satiety and prevent excessive fat loss.
Low nutrient density processed junk food leads to a lack of satiety (nutrient hunger), overeating and a whole host of other health issues.
Energy dense foods are ideal for someone who is very active and looking to replenish energy, though not necessarily for someone who is less active or looking to lose weight.
Low energy density foods are very bulky and hard to get enough energy to maintain weight if you’re very active.
As you can see, these three parameters are important to different people to different degrees for different people. The table below shows the ‘pre-set values’ in the system that have been found to work well for different goals. More experienced users of the Nutrient Optimiser may want to tweak these values to refine the results to further suit their preferences.
nutrient dense maintenance
weight loss (insulin resistant)
weight loss (insulin sensitive)
diabetes and nutritional ketosis
You may have noticed that some of the parameters are negative (e.g. insulin load and energy density for the bulking approach).
While many people are eating too much, some athletes want to bulk up and / or get more energy “down the pie hole” to support their amazing feats of endurance.
Someone who is insulin resistant will want to minimise the insulin load of their diet, bodybuilders often want food to spike insulin around workouts to promote growth. If you turn the nutrient density parameter negative you’ll get a list of processed junk food that you see in the supermarket aisles.
Adapting the system as you progress
People would ideally use these value as a starting point and refine them to suit your goals as you see fit and as you get fit.
Someone who starts out with diabetes, is on three medications and hundreds of units of insulin may need to start on the high fat therapeutic keto approach to reduce the insulin load of their diet.
Someone like this who is looking to progressively refine their diet would come back and re-run the Nutrient Optimiser every two to four weeks to see their new dietary recommendations and refinements. Through continual, gentle, non-judgemental and anonymous guidance (with the support of the Nutrient Optimiser Facebook group community as required) they would be able to progressively refine their diet.
In time, their blood glucose would come down with lower insulin load foods. But then they still might want to lose weight so they would start to prioritise lower energy density foods rather than low insulin foods so much. Then as their weight came closer to optimal and they were more active they might swing back to some focus on insulin load to enable them to have a more nutrient dense suit of foods.
Where do I start?
While there are a lot of parameters you can use, your average glucose levels and waist : height ratio is a pretty good starting place as shown in the table below.
A higher fat / ketogenic / low carb approach typically works really well for people who have elevated blood glucose and elevated insulin levels. However, as blood glucose control and improved insulin sensitivity kicks in but you still need to lose weight energy density and nutrient density become more important.
The table below will give you a guide on which approach might be most appropriate based on your current weight blood glucose levels and body fat levels.
There are a plethora of different approaches to choosing foods. Some of these are based around avoiding allergens (autoimmune, lactose intolerant, nut allergy etc) or digestive issues (zero carb, low fodmap). Some are based on religious belief systems (e.g. vegetarian).
Although the ideal approach is going to be to prioritise the most nutrient dense foods available, we have also created options to suit your preferences.
The recommended foods list will be based on the remaining top 10% foods. Noting your preferences up front will save you sifting through a long list of foods that you may not want to eat.
most nutrient dense
Eliminates vegetables, fruit, grains and any non-animal based sources of carbohydrate.
vegan / plant based
No animal products or animal derived products such as dairy or eggs.
No animal products but includes eggs and
No grains, dairy or processed foods.
Vegetarian plus seafood
No grain products
no organ meats
Excludes organ meats.
Should I log my supplements?
But why not?
The goal of the Nutrient Optimiser is to identify nutrient deficiencies and whole foods to fill them. If you don’t manage to fill the gaps, then you will know which nutrient you might need to supplement.
There is a credible line of thinking that the reason that many processed foods are fortified with B vitamins and the like is that we would find these foods unpalatable and lose our appetite without the fortification. With fortification, we associate these otherwise nutrient devoid processed foods with essential vitamins and hence we are happy to keep eating them. Unfortunately, they don’t also contain the full range range of beneficial nutrients that whole foods possess (i.e. essential, non-essential and the ones that we haven’t discovered yet) so fortified foods are unlikely to lead to optimal health.
If you are taking a ton of supplements then you may be able to continue to happily eat large quantities of nutrient poor processed food that you would otherwise lose your taste for. If you cut back to foods that don’t need to be fortified or flavoured to make up for their nutritional deficiencies you will be able to hear your appetite again and let it guide you to whole foods that contain the nutrients you need at a particular point in time.
Regardless of whether this narrative is correct I think it’s safer to get your nutrients from real food. Supplements supplement. They shouldn’t be the foundation.
If you still can’t quite cover off on the nutrients you need from real food, you can supplement in a targeted manner once you’ve got the foundation of whole foods in place.
The Nutrient Optimiser compares the nutrients you are getting to the recommended daily allowance (RDA) or daily recommended intake (DRI). Different RDA / DRIs are commonly given for different situations including whether you are male or female and if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Recommended micronutrient levels for men are typically greater than those for women (other than iron, which is greater for women). Levels of micronutrients during pregnancy and breastfeeding are greater for obvious reasons. These values (for adults) are included in the Nutrient Optimiser.
You may have blood tests that indicate you are deficient or sufficient in particular nutrients. You may also be able to use tools like the Organic Acids Test or the NutrEval test to identify any nutrient deficiencies that you need to prioritise.
If you have this data you can override the recommendations from your food log to focus the nutrients you know you are low in. For example you may have blood tests that you are getting a lot of vitamin D from the sun so you could decrease your dietary targets or you may have blood tests that suggest you are low in iron due to poor absorption so you can increase your dietary targets.
The daily recommended intake levels for vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids are shown in the table below. Keep in mind that these are the recommended minimum levels to prevent the diseases of malnutrition. There is generally no harm in being above these levels in a particular nutrient if you are getting it from real food. However if a certain nutrient is super high there is a chance that you are neglecting other nutrients.
B1 (Thiamine) (mg)
B12 (Cobalamin) (Âµg)
B2 (Riboflavin) (mg)
B3 (Niacin) (mg)
B5 (Pantothenic Acid) (mg)
B6 (Pyridoxine) (mg)
Vitamin A (IU)
Vitamin C (mg)
Vitamin D (IU)
Vitamin E (mg)
Vitamin K (Âµg)
There is a lot of passion around the topic of optimal protein levels.
I think the long and short of it is that if you focus on getting the harder to find nutrients you won’t need to worry too much protein. However if you focus on getting particularly high or low levels of protein you will risk missing out on getting adequate vitamins and minerals.
However, unless you’re actively trying to avoid protein you will likely be getting enough. Conversely, unless you’re trying to hammer down to get extra protein with powders, you will find it hard to get too much protein whole foods.
As long as you’re not living exclusively off hyperpalatable processed foods I think you can generally trust your appetite to make sure you’re getting enough protein. People who are active and working out will need more protein to support muscle growth and recover. People who are sedentary will need less protein (as well as fat and carbs).
The Nutrient Optimiser takes your weight and LBM into account to tell you how you’re positioned against normal healthy protein intake levels which are noted in the table below.
To take things another step further, the Nutrient Optimiser also looks at the adequacy of the individual amino acids. If you’re following a lower carb or paleo approach these are likely to be adequate. If you’re vegan, fasting or aiming for therapeutic ketosis, the Nutrient Optimisermay encourage you to seek our more of specific amino acids if you’re not getting enough. Although typically most people get enough of the amino acids unless they are actively trying to avoid protein.
The table below shows the minimum daily requirement of the various essential amino acids in terms of milligrams per kilogram of body weight as well as for someone who is 70kg and 100kg. These target levels have been included in the Nutrient Optimiser based on your total body weight. If you are deficient in any of these individual amino acids the Nutrient Optimiser will highlight foods that will fill the gaps. The Nutrient Optimiser also checks to make sure you’re getting enough protein overall based on your lean body mass.
Managing micronutrients is a bit of a moving feast. You could run a reasonable argument that the various daily recommended intakes (DRI) are based on limited knowledge and understanding. Realistically in the early stages of understanding nutrients and how they work in our body.
For this reason, the Nutrient Optimiser doesn’t try to hit the DRI for every single nutrient. That would be unrealistic with real food (chemical concoctions like Soylent or other meal replacement products, might get closer, but who knows what you’ll be missing out on if you only get what we currently understand to be the essential nutrients). Instead we want to highlight the nutrients that you are currently getting in smaller quantities and help you focus on the foods that contain more of those harder to find nutrients.
The chart below shows common micronutrient deficiencies. The majority of people are not getting adequate amounts of vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium, calcium, vitamin A and zinc. However your situation will be unique.
The Nutrient Optimiser will progressively train you to incorporate new foods and rebalance your diet to fill your nutritional gaps. When you get to the point that most of your nutrient requirements meet the minimum from real food you might just find your appetite and cravings for particular nutrients start to diminish.
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.
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 produce energy,
more fibre due to the lower level of processing, and
less non-fibre carbohydrates which will normalise 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.
Seafood packs some nutrient density and energy density at the same time.
eggs and dairy
Eggs are nutritionally excellent. Butter has plenty of energy.
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.
palm kernel oil
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 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.
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.
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.
Organ meats also do well in terms of nutrient density. Fattier cuts of meat will pack some more energy.