Tag Archives: pescitarian

nutrient dense diabetic friendly vegan foods

  • Eating plant-based foods can be a great way to improve nutrient density and reduce the amount of highly insulinogenic processed carbohydrates in your diet.
  • This article looks at how we can optimize a plant-based diet for nutrient density as well as diabetic friendly by reducing insulin load.
  • Finally, we will look at whether adding additional food groups such as seafood, dairy or eggs would diminish or improve the nutrient density of a plant based approach.

nutrient density

A nutrient dense diet is key to maximizing health and satiety with a minimum of calories.  Maximising nutrient density enables our mitochondria to do more with less.

If our world is full of beneficial nutrients our body realises that there is no longer an energy crisis and is more likely to stop searching for more nutrients and lets go of our stored body fat and decrease appetite.

As detailed in the ‘Building a Better Nutrient Density Index’ article, quantifying nutrient density enables us to prioritise foods that contain the highest amount of essential nutrients that are harder to obtain.[1]

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the percentage of the recommended daily intake of various essential nutrients provided by:

  • all 7000+ foods in the USDA foods database,
  • plant based foods, and
  • the most nutrient dense plant based foods.

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Restricting ourselves to ‘plant based’ foods will improve the vitamin and mineral content of the foods we eat.  However, focusing on the most nutrient dense plant based foods allows us to improve nutrient density even further

most nutrient dense plant based foods

Listed below is a summary of the most nutrient dense plant based foods sorted by their nutrient density score.  The nutrient density score (ND) is shown for each of the foods.

As you can see from the plot below from Nutrition Data, celery, which has a very high nutrient density score (ND), will provide you with a range of vitamins and minerals equivalent to 92% of your recommended daily intake with 1000 calories and 83% of your protein intake with 1000 calories.  Keep in mind though that you would need to eat five bunches of celery to get that 1000 calories though.

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The fact that broccoli has a low energy density may be a benefit if you are trying to lose weight, but perhaps would not be so helpful if you are fueling for an Ironman Triathlon.

Also shown in the tables below is the net carbohydrates and calories per 100g for each of the foods listed.

The great thing about most of these foods is that they will provide you with heaps of nutrients while having a low energy density which will make it hard to over consume them to a point that they will spike your blood glucose levels.

Listed below are the most nutrient dense plant based foods.  In the second half of this article we will look at how we can choose foods that will be more gentle on blood glucose levels for those of us that are more insulin resistant.

vegetables and spices 

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 13 2 11 2.2
white mushroom 10 5 22 1.8
spinach 10 4 23 1.7
portabella mushrooms 10 5 29 1.7
asparagus 10 3 22 1.7
spirulina 9 6 26 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
brown mushrooms 8 5 22 1.3
basil 8 3 23 1.3
chard 8 3 19 1.3
endive 7 1 17 1.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 1.2
seaweed (wakame) 7 11 45 1.1
zucchini 6 2 17 1.0
cauliflower 6 4 25 1.0
Chinese cabbage 6 2 12 1.0
turnip greens 5 4 29 0.9
chicory greens 5 2 23 0.9
escarole 5 1 19 0.9
mung beans 5 4 19 0.9
lettuce 5 2 15 0.9
parsley 5 5 36 0.8
radicchio 4 4 23 0.7
edamame 4 13 121 0.7
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 0.7
peas 4 7 42 0.7
soybeans (sprouted) 4 12 81 0.7
seaweed (kelp) 4 10 43 0.6
shiitake mushrooms 3 72 296 0.6
chives 3 4 30 0.6
paprika 3 26 282 0.6
coriander 3 2 23 0.6
collards 3 4 33 0.5
summer squash 3 2 19 0.5
beet greens 3 2 22 0.5
okra 3 3 22 0.5
mustard seed 3 37 508 0.5
celery 2 3 18 0.5
curry powder 2 14 325 0.4
arugula 2 3 25 0.4
Brussel sprouts 2 6 42 0.4
pumpkin 2 4 20 0.3
snap beans 1 3 15 0.3
carrots 1 4 23 0.2
chayote 1 3 24 0.2
cabbage 1 4 23 0.2
cloves 1 35 274 0.2
kale 1 5 28 0.2
radishes 0 2 16 0.1
jalapeno peppers 0 3 27 0.1
dandelion greens 0 7 45 0.1
pickles 0 1 12 0.1
cucumber 0 1 12 0.1
turnips 0 3 21 0.1
eggplant -0 3 25 0.1
red peppers -0 3 31 0.0
lima beans -0 20 113 0.0
yeast extract spread -0 27 185 0.0
sauerkraut -0 2 19 0.0

legumes

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 5 8 83 0.9
soybeans 2 49 446 0.3
lentils 1 19 116 0.2
natto 1 22 211 0.2
navy beans 1 22 140 0.2
cowpeas 0 68 336 0.1
broad beans -0 54 341 0.0
peas -0 57 352 0.0

nuts and seeds

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 0.6
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 0.0
brazil nuts -0 16 659 0.0
walnuts -1 22 619 -0.1
almond butter -2 26 614 -0.2
almonds -2 25 607 -0.2
flax seed -2 16 534 -0.3
pistachio nuts -2 34 569 -0.3
sesame seeds -3 17 631 -0.4
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4
hazelnuts -3 17 629 -0.4
cashews -3 40 580 -0.4
sesame butter -3 33 586 -0.4
pine nuts -3 21 673 -0.4
butternuts -3 28 612 -0.5

fruit

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
carambola -1 5 31 -0.1
blackberries -2 3 43 -0.3
cranberries -2 8 46 -0.3
avocado -2 3 160 -0.3
kiwifruit -2 9 61 -0.3
apricots -3 10 48 -0.4
raspberries -3 4 52 -0.4
peaches -3 8 39 -0.4
grapefruit -3 8 33 -0.4
mulberries -3 9 43 -0.5
boysenberries -3 8 50 -0.5
strawberries -3 4 32 -0.5
nectarines -3 9 44 -0.5

diabetic friendly nutrient dense vegan foods

While the foods listed above would represent a significant dietary improvement for most people, those who are insulin resistant may struggle to keep their blood glucose levels stable if they eat too much non-fibre carbohydrate that can be found in plant based foods (e.g. bread, sweet potato, quinoa, rice, beans or spaghetti).

It is hard to get too many calories and / or spike your glucose levels if you restrict yourself to vegetables like celery, broccoli and spinach.

The problem comes if you are still hungry after you have eaten your fill of non-starchy veggies and are not wanting to lose more weight.  People using a plant based approach may end up filling up on energy dense higher carbohydrate foods which are more likely to raise their blood glucose and insulin levels.

As shown in the chart below, our insulin response to food is only partially explained by the quantity of carbohydrates in our food.

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The analysis of the food insulin index data indicates that our insulin response is also influenced by the fibre and the protein in the foods we eat.

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We can use the formula below to estimate the amount of insulin that our food will require as shown by the formula below.  Foods with a lower insulin load will enable your pancreas to keep up with demand and maintain normal blood glucose levels without the ‘blood glucose roller coaster’.

insulin load (g)=carbohydrates (g)-fiber (g) + 0.56*protein (g)

The higher fat foods actually have a lower nutrient density than the most nutrient dense vegetarian foods listed above.  Ideally in time someone with insulin resistance would be able to restore their insulin sensitivity through eating nutrient dense, low insulin load foods along with perhaps intermittent fasting and exercise.  However, in the meantime the lower insulin load foods will enable you to maintain normal blood glucose levels.

The list of foods below is prioritised by both nutrient density and the proportion of insulinogenic calories.  These foods will provide high levels of nutrition while also being gentle on your blood glucose levels with lower levels of insulin required.

vegetables

The vegetables in this list have a lower percentage of insulinogenic calories, lower amounts of net carbohydrates and a low energy density and therefore will have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels.   While the percentage of insulinogenic calories is often high, the net carbohydrates is low so the effect on blood glucose will be minimal.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
curry powder 2 14 325 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
endive 8 1 17 1.3
poppy seeds -2 23 525 1.3
chicory greens 5 2 23 1.3
escarole 6 1 19 1.2
paprika 3 26 282 1.1
mustard seed 3 37 508 1.1
caraway seed -0 28 333 1.0
coriander 2 2 23 1.0
nutmeg -8 32 525 0.9
sage -5 26 315 0.9
mace -8 34 475 0.8
beet greens 3 2 22 0.8
marjoram -6 27 271 0.7
collards 3 4 33 0.7
eggplant -0 3 25 0.7
cloves -0 35 274 0.7
zucchini 6 2 17 0.7
thyme -2 31 276 0.7
banana pepper -2 3 27 0.6
edamame 5 13 121 0.6
jalapeno peppers -1 3 27 0.6
mustard greens -2 3 27 0.6
cinnamon -5 30 247 0.6
turnip greens 8 4 29 0.6
spinach 13 4 23 0.6
sauerkraut -1 2 19 0.6
pickles -1 1 12 0.6
cucumber -1 1 12 0.6
chayote 0 3 24 0.5
basil 9 3 23 0.5
red peppers -1 3 31 0.5
asparagus 11 3 22 0.5
radishes -1 2 16 0.4
cumin -6 44 375 0.4
summer squash 3 2 19 0.4
dill seed -3 43 305 0.4
parsley 5 5 36 0.4
chard 9 3 19 0.4
chives 5 4 30 0.4
arugula 0 3 25 0.4
lettuce 6 2 15 0.4
soybeans (sprouted) 5 12 81 0.4
cauliflower 6 4 25 0.3
portabella mushrooms 11 5 29 0.3
okra 4 3 22 0.3
Chinese cabbage 8 2 12 0.3
Brussel sprouts 1 6 42 0.2
carrots -1 5 37 0.2
celery 2 3 18 0.2
turnips -0 3 21 0.2
artichokes -2 7 47 0.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 0.1
watercress 17 2 11 0.1
dandelion greens -1 7 45 0.0
cabbage 0 4 23 0.0
celery flakes -4 42 319 -0.0
red cabbage -3 5 29 -0.0
white mushroom 11 5 22 -0.1
snap beans 1 3 15 -0.1
bay leaf -7 53 313 -0.1
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 -0.1
rhubarb -4 3 21 -0.1
pepper -2 47 251 -0.1
kale 1 5 28 -0.1
yeast extract spread -2 27 185 -0.2
carrots 1 4 23 -0.2
spirulina 13 6 26 -0.2
peas 5 7 42 -0.2
turnips -3 4 22 -0.3
turmeric -2 52 312 -0.3
radicchio 4 4 23 -0.3
onions -0 6 32 -0.3
carrots -1 7 41 -0.3
potatoes -4 26 158 -0.4

nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories as well as being lower in net carbs which makes them diabetic friendly.  They do have a considerably higher energy density and hence, unlike the veggies, it is possible to overeat nuts and seeds if you’re keeping an eye on your weight.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
brazil nuts -1 16 659 1.6
pecans -6 12 691 1.6
macadamia nuts -7 12 718 1.6
sesame seeds -3 17 631 1.5
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 1.5
hazelnuts -4 17 629 1.5
coconut milk -6 5 230 1.5
coconut cream -7 7 330 1.5
flax seed -3 16 534 1.5
coconut meat -7 9 354 1.5
walnuts -1 22 619 1.5
pine nuts -4 21 673 1.5
almonds -3 25 607 1.4
almond butter -2 26 614 1.3
butternuts -3 28 612 1.3
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 1.3
sesame butter -4 33 586 1.1
pistachio nuts -3 34 569 1.1
cashews -4 40 580 0.9
coconut -7 39 443 0.6
gingko nuts -6 15 111 -0.0
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4

fruits

The list of diabetic friendly fruits with a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories ends up being quite short.  Some of these fruits will raise your blood glucose levels if you eat enough of them.  So if you are particularly insulin resistant then you will want to limit your quantity of fruit or stick to the lower insulin load fruits (e.g. olives and avocados rather than mango).

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
olives -6 1 145 1.7
avocado -4 3 160 1.6
blackberries -4 3 43 0.9
raspberries -4 4 52 0.8
strawberries -4 4 32 0.1
apples -7 7 52 0.0
gooseberries -6 6 44 -0.0
carambola -1 5 31 -0.0
kiwifruit -3 9 61 -0.1
boysenberries -5 8 50 -0.1
passionfruit -7 14 97 -0.1
apples -7 7 48 -0.1
pears -7 7 50 -0.1
blueberries -6 9 57 -0.2
blueberries -7 14 88 -0.3
watermelon -5 5 30 -0.3
cherries -7 9 50 -0.4
mango -5 11 60 -0.4
cranberries -3 8 46 -0.4

legumes

These legumes have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories and lower carbohydrates, however there may still be some impact on blood glucose with the moderate levels of carbohydrates, so you may want to keep an eye on your blood glucose levels when you try these foods to see how you react to them.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 9 8 83 1.1
peanuts -3 29 599 0.5
natto 2 22 211 0.5
soybeans 3 49 446 0.5
peanut butter -4 27 593 0.4
lupin seeds 1 50 371 0.2
miso -1 25 198 0.1
lentils 1 19 116 -0.0
navy beans 0 22 140 -0.0
broad beans 0 54 341 -0.1
hummus -4 20 177 -0.1
peas -0 57 352 -0.1
chick peas -2 27 164 -0.2
kidney beans -0 63 337 -0.3
black beans -1 63 341 -0.3
cowpeas 1 68 336 -0.4
garbanzo beans -2 67 378 -0.4
pinto beans -1 64 347 -0.4

what about pescetarian, lacto, ovo options?

In the development of this article I spoke with Barry Erdman who runs the Vegetarian Low Carb Diabetic Healthy Diet Society Facebook group.

Barry has been a strict vegetarian since 1970 and was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes nine years ago.  Barry maintained a nutrient dense plant based diet after his diagnosis, however found that he needed to incorporate dairy, eggs and some oils (e.g. MCT, coconut) into his vegetarian diet in order to achieve acceptable blood glucose control.  Barry told me that when he lost 30 lbs when he switched from a vegetarian diet to a LCHF keto lacto ovo vegetarian diet eliminating all grains, bad oils and fruit (except berries).

Barry also came to the conclusion that he would need to incorporate some fish oil into his diet in order to provide adequate levels of essential fatty acids which are not available in significant quantities in plant based products.

Barry asked me to have a look at how a lacto, ovo, pescitarian diet would stack up against the straight vegan approach.  So listed below are the most nutrient dense lacto (dairy), ovo (eggs), and pescetarian (seafood) diabetic friendly foods.

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For those who are interested in adding eggs or seafood I have listed them based on their nutrient density and proportion of insulinogenic calories.

eggs and dairy

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
butter -6 3 718 1.7
cream -5 5 340 1.6
egg yolk 5 12 275 1.5
cream cheese -4 10 350 1.4
sour cream -4 6 198 1.4
limburger cheese -2 15 327 1.2
cheddar cheese -2 20 410 1.2
camembert -2 16 300 1.2
whole egg 5 10 143 1.2
blue cheese -2 19 353 1.1
Monterey cheese -2 19 373 1.1
muenster cheese -2 19 368 1.1
brie -3 16 334 1.1
Swiss cheese -1 22 393 1.1
gruyere cheese -1 23 413 1.1
feta cheese -1 15 264 1.1
Colby -3 20 394 1.1
edam cheese -2 21 357 1.1
goat cheese -3 14 264 1.1
gouda cheese -2 21 356 1.1
ricotta -3 12 174 0.9
sour cream (light) -4 9 136 0.9
mozzarella -0 26 304 0.8
parmesan cheese -2 35 420 0.7
Greek yogurt -2 9 97 0.6
milk (full fat) -1 7 64 0.4

seafood

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
mackerel 2 10 305 1.6
caviar 8 23 264 1.1
cisco 4 13 177 1.1
sardine 6 19 208 0.9
herring 5 19 217 0.9
fish roe 12 18 143 0.8
trout 10 18 168 0.8
anchovy 8 22 210 0.8
sturgeon 10 16 135 0.7
salmon 11 20 156 0.6
tuna 5 23 184 0.4
oyster 10 14 102 0.3
flounder 9 12 86 0.3
halibut 11 17 111 0.1
crayfish 12 13 82 0.1
perch 8 14 96 0.1
crab 14 14 83 0.1
rockfish 9 17 109 0.0

macronutrient comparison

The image below shows a comparison of the macronutrients of these different approaches compared to the average of all of the foods in the USDA foods database.

The nutrient dense vegan approach will provide a lot of of fibre which will make these foods very filling and hard to overeat, however perhaps not particularly diabetes friendly.

The diabetes friendly approach has more protein and only 30% net carbohydrates so it will have are more gentle effect on blood glucose levels.

With higher levels of fat from fish, dairy and eggs, the pescetarian approach is 40% fat which will be more gentle on the blood glucose levels of someone with diabetes.

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comparison of essential micronutrients

This chart shows the nutrients provided by the vegan approach compared to the average of all the foods in the USDA database.  We get a lot of vitamin K, vitamin C and vitamin A but no omega 3 fatty acids and lower quantities of vitamin B-12.

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This chart shows the nutrients contained in the diabetes friendly vegan approach.  While this approach has more fat and less carbohydrates the nutrient density is lower overall.

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This chart shows the nutrient density of the pescetarian approach which is higher overall.

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summary

So in summary, there are some great nutrient dense options for people with diabetes who choose to follow a plant based dietary approach.  Supplementing a plant based diet with some seafood will provide essential fatty acids and boost protein levels.

more information

If you’re interested in learning more about the nutrient density ranking system check out:

other approaches

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

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

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

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optimal foods for YOU

It’s no secret that there is no perfect diet for everyone.  Your nutritional requirements depend on many factors, including your age, health status, activity levels, and goals.

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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years designing prioritised food lists to suit a range of goals and situations.  This article summarises this labour of love into what I hope will be a useful resource that will help a lot of people.

I have grouped the various food lists into the following categories:

  • foods to optimise your metabolic health (e.g. therapeutic ketosis, diabetes management, weight loss, bodybuilding, and athletic performance, etc.),
  • foods that boost specific nutrients associated with common health conditions,
  • ethical, philosophical and religious considerations, and
  • macronutrient and micronutrient extremes (low carb, keto, high protein, low protein, etc.).

For those of you who just want to know which foods you should eat more of, I have included the food lists up front.

If you want to understand how I have developed the various food lists, continue reading to the end of the article.

Metabolic health, diabetes management, weight loss and athletic performance

Most people do well if they eat more nutrient dense foods.  However, we can tailor our food choices beyond nutrient density to better suit different people with different goals.

The table below contains optimal food for various metabolic situations.  In the table below you can:

  • click on the ‘PDF’ to open a printable list of ‘foods’,
  • download the list as graphic to save to your phone by clicking on the ‘foods’, or
  • click on the ‘nutrients’ to see the amount of each nutrient that those groups of foods contain.
approach average glucose (mg/dL) average glucose (mmol/L) PDF foods nutrients
well formulated ketogenic diet > 140 > 7.8 PDF foods nutrients
diabetes and nutritional ketosis 108 to 140 6.0 to 7.8 PDF foods nutrients
weight loss (insulin resistant) 100 to 108 5.4 to 6.0 PDF foods nutrients
protein sparing modified fast (PSMF) < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
most nutrient dense < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
bodybuilder < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients
endurance athlete < 97 < 5.4 PDF foods nutrients

I hope that these lists will help all those people who just don’t know what to eat.  Lots of people, my family included, have found these useful to print out and stick to their fridge or take it shopping for some inspiration.

If you belong to the 50% of the population that has diabetes or pre-diabetes,[1] your priority should be to normalise your blood glucose levels with a lower insulin load diet.  You can use your current blood sugar levels to choose the nutritional approach that will best support your journey towards optimal metabolic health.

The well- formulated ketogenic diet approach is designed for someone who has very high blood sugars or requires therapeutic ketosis.  The diabetes and nutritional ketosis approach will be more nutritious and suit people looking to manage their diabetes.  Before too long, with the reduction of processed carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels will stabilise to more optimal levels.

Once you have your blood glucose levels under control, you can then focus even more on increasing nutrient density and reducing energy density if you are looking to lose weight.   The weight loss (insulin resistant) foods will help you to reduce the energy density of your diet while keeping the insulin load down.  Stabilising blood sugar levels, normalising insulin levels and reducing hyper palatable processed carbs will help many normalise their appetite, reduce food cravings and naturally eat less.

The protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) approach aims to provide all the essential vitamins, minerals and amino acids with the minimum amount of energy to enable you to achieve aggressive weight loss while minimising your chance of developing nutrient deficiencies, keeping cravings at bay and losing your lean muscle mass.

In the long run, you may even find you have the energy to work out or build muscle for fitness and longevity.  This increased level of activity may require higher levels of protein and other nutrients.   You may also need higher energy density foods to enable you to ingest enough energy to support your activity levels.

The bodybuilder food list will provide you with plenty of amino acids and minerals to support recovery while the endurance athlete food list increases energy density to fuel increased activity levels while still keeping nutrient density high to fuel activity levels.

How do I implement all this information?

Not that long ago, before the advent of artificial flavours, colourings, refrigerators and packaged food, we were more in touch with our actual nutritional needs and went hunting and gathering in search of the foods that contained the nutrients we needed.  We ate until we got what we needed from the food and stopped.

The idea is that these food lists would help you to refine your food choices and make up for your appetite that might have been corrupted by the modern food system.  When you go shopping each week try to buy more of the foods that are at the top of your list and make sure you find a way to incorporate them into your cooking during the week.  You will not be able to eat all of the foods on the list.  You may find that you like some more than others.  Keep working down the list until you find foods that you enjoy and can easily eat lots of.

You will likely need to prepare your food more than relying as much on processed and pre-packed foods.  It may take a little bit more effort, but your health is worth it!

Nutrients to address deficiencies associated with common conditions

Most people are somewhere on the spectrum of metabolic health and will do well focusing on the foods that keep their blood sugars stable.  However, there are others that have developed specific conditions exacerbated by long term nutrient deficiencies.  Hence, focusing on the foods that provide more of the nutrients associated with these conditions can help manage or even reverse some of these conditions for some people.

The table below contains a range of food lists that are designed to provide more of the nutrients related to a diverse range of common health issues.  Eating these foods will not guarantee a reversal of a particular condition.  However, prioritising these foods will improve your chances of recovery and minimise reliance on drugs and other medicines.

If you don’t yet have any of these conditions, simply focusing on the most nutrient dense foods[2][3] may reduce your chances of developing poor health.

Some foods make an appearance on many of the lists (e.g. spinach, watercress, broccoli, organ meats).  However, as you look through each of the lists, you will see that they are unique in their ranking of the various foods required to provide the prioritised nutrients.  While eating any of the foods on the list will be helpful, focusing on the foods towards the top of the list will maximise the nutrients you need for your condition.

approach score PDF foods nutrients wheel references
most nutrient dense foods 99.0% PDF foods nutrients
aggressive weight loss (PSMF) 98.4% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
adrenal fatigue 99.1% PDF foods nutrients
asthma 98.5% PDF foods nutrients wheel
autism 95.5% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
depression 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
dyslipidemia 99.1% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
estrogen 98.4% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
fatigue 98.1% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
female fertility 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
hypertension 98.2% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
hypothyroidism 98.8% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
inflammation 98.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
methylation 97.6% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
sleep and insomnia 98.8% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
telomeres 96.9% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
low carb autoimmune friendly 97.3% PDF foods nutrients
alkaline (diabetes friendly) 96.9% PDF foods nutrients
testosterone 97.7% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
alkaline 96.4% PDF foods nutrients
autoimmune & SIBO 95.7% PDF foods nutrients
weight loss (insulin resistant) 99.3% PDF foods nutrients wheel references
diabetes friendly, autoimmune, & SIBO 76.0% PDF foods nutrients

The nutrients prioritised in these lists are generally based on research compiled by Spectracell which identified nutrients that are typically deficient in a range of conditions.  You can click on the “wheel” and “references” in the table for more details.   Check out the full Spectracell nutrient wheels for a range of conditions here.

Where there is no Spectracell “wheel” available, the nutrients used in the analysis were based on the Nutrient Bible by Henry Oseki which is an excellent detailed resource on the individual nutrients as well as the likely nutrients to support various conditions.

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The value of real food

Many modern foods are fortified with synthetic nutrients (e.g. folic acid, B vitamins, vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, iodine, etc.).[4]  While it may appear that the food companies are doing this for the benefit of your health or to make up for deficiencies in their processed foods grown quickly using chemical fertilisers, there is good research suggesting that fortification helps to ensure that we don’t lose interest in what would otherwise be bland unpalatable foods.[5] [6] [7]

By adding in a smattering of nutrients that our body actively seeks (e.g. iron, folate, B vitamins, sodium etc) we will maintain an increased appetite for these foods while not getting the range of other nutrients that are also important but do not drive our appetite to the same degree (e.g. potassium, magnesium, choline and vitamin E).

Paul Jaminet in his Perfect Health Diet[8] says “Potassium is the intracellular electrolyte while sodium is the extracellular electrolyte.  Cells continually pump sodium outside the cell and potassium inside.  Good health depends on the proper dietary balance between potassium and sodium.  Paleolithic diets were high in potassium, low in sodium; salt was rare and highly valued.  So we evolved mechanisms for protecting against the threat of low sodium levels: a food reward system that powerfully rewards salt consumption, and a hormonal network that shuts down urination and sweating whenever sodium is scarce.  There are no similar mechanisms to protect us against low potassium levels, even though they are every bit as devastating for our health.”

While supplements can be helpful, obtaining nutrients from whole foods will also maximise your chance of absorption and increase your chance of getting all the necessary complementary micronutrients in adequate quantities without being excessive. Note: excess supplementation of minerals can quickly cause diarrhoea, or the kidneys will excrete excess nutrients from supplements.’

I have not included fortified foods that may score highly due to a narrow range of synthetic micronutrients that have been added to highly processed and sugar ladened products.

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Nutritious whole foods will provide you with not only the essential nutrients that we can quantify but all the other beneficial non-essential nutrients, phytonutrients, enzymes, and cofactors[9] [10] that are not yet quantified or in the USDA database.

Ethical, philosophical and religious considerations

Many people choose to base their food choices on moral convictions or religious beliefs.  I do not have any issue with people making their food choices based on ethical considerations or religious beliefs.  I do, however, object to people claiming that their approach is nutritionally superior and forcing it onto others on that premise which is not supported by science.

The lists in the table below will help you find the most nutrient dense foods associated with each of these approaches.  The food lists have been sorted based on their nutrient score from highest to lowest at the bottom of the table.

approach score PDF foods nutrient profile
the most nutrient dense foods 99% PDF foods nutrients
nutrient dense Paleo 99% PDF click nutrients
low carb Paleo foods 97% PDF foods nutrients
pescetarian 95% PDF foods nutrients
bivalve vegan 92% PDF foods nutrients
low carb pescetarian 95% PDF foods nutrients
whole food plant based 80% PDF foods nutrients
plant based (diabetes friendly) 76% PDF foods nutrients
zero carb 76% PDF foods nutrients
Paleo (without ND) 64% nutrients
zero carb (no offal) 58% PDF foods nutrients
plant based (without ND) 57% nutrients
zero carb (without ND) 42% foods nutrients

As you might expect, we achieve the most nutritious selection of foods when we focus purely on nutrients.   If you chose to limit your food choices due to other ethical considerations, then you should pay particular attention to the foods that will provide you with more of the harder-to-find essential nutrients.

In the long run, the goal is to get the nutrients we need from our food to enable us to thrive without over consuming energy.  This will give us the best chance of maintaining an ideal body weight, energy levels, performance and avoid the modern diseases of ageing.[11]

See the discussion below detailing the pros and cons of each approach and the nutrients that may need to be supplemented based on the various approaches.

Macronutrient extremes

Some people like to define their nutritional approach in terms of large or small quantities of a particular macronutrient (e.g. low carb, low fat, high protein, low protein, high or low saturated fat, etc.).  The analysis in the table below shows the implication on the nutrients available if you follow any of these approaches.

I think it’s useful to understand the pros and cons of these extremes, particularly in terms of the micronutrients available and the range of foods involved in any of these more extreme approaches.

While high protein, low carb or ketogenic appear to have some positive impact on nutrient density, focusing on the most nutrient dense foods provides a vastly superior micronutrient outcome.

approach score PDF foods nutrients
the most nutrient dense foods 99% PDF foods nutrients
average of all foods in USDA database 75% nutrients
high protein foods 58% PDF foods nutrients
lowest carb 54% nutrients
most ketogenic 42% PDF foods nutrients
highest fat 33% PDF foods nutrients
lowest saturated fat 32% nutrients
lowest fat 31% PDF foods nutrients
highest saturated fat 29% nutrients
lowest fat 31% PDF foods nutrients
the most insulinogenic foods 27% PDF foods nutrients
highest carb 15% nutrients
lowest protein 5% PDF foods nutrients
the avoid list 3% foods nutrients

So that brings us to the end of the food lists section.  I hope you find an approach that will suit your current goals and situation and have a glimpse of how you can continue to move your health forward.

I have intentionally included a lot of data in these tables to allow you to fully understand the pros and cons of each approach and compare the nutritional options you might be interested in.  I hope you will dig into the data in the table for the short list of approaches that you may be interested in.

If you want to learn more about how these lists were developed I invite you to read on to learn about nutrient density, insulin load and energy density, and how they can be combined, using the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm to optimise our food choices.

 

Nutrient density

While there are a range of useful parameters that we can use to optimise our nutrition, the most important is arguably nutrient density.

Nutrient density is simply the amount of nutrients per calorie or the amount of the essential nutrients you get in your food each day.  Ideally, we want to be meeting the daily recommended intake for all of the nutrients.

Micronutrients seem to have been largely overlooked in our current discussion about nutrition. Perhaps this is because micronutrients are harder to quantify.  Without an easy way to quantify micronutrients we tend to focus on simpler metrics such as fat, carbs, saturated fat, protein, vegan, plant based, Paleo, keto, etc.

Unfortunately, neither avoiding a particular nutrient (saturated fat, salt, cholesterol, etc) or aiming for a macronutrient extremes (high fat, low fat, low carb, high carb, high fibre, low protein, etc) or even following our religious or ethical convictions (vegan, vegetarian, plant based etc ) are especially useful when it comes to identifying foods that provide us with the most micronutrients.

But what if we could quantify the micronutrient content of the food we eat?

Enter nutrient density!

The graph below shows the average of the micronutrients in the eight thousand or so foods in the USDA food database as a proportion of the daily recommended daily intake (DRI).  Imagine you ate just a little bit of all of these eight thousand foods to make up your 2000 calories for the day.

The nutrients at the bottom of this chart are easy to obtain in our food system (e.g. vitamin C, vitamin B12, vitamin K, and various amino acids).  There is little need to worry about these easier to find nutrients.  However, where this analysis is useful is that it highlights the nutrients that we might have to pay extra attention to obtaining in adequate quantities (e.g. vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, etc.).

After a lot experimenting with different approaches to develop a quantitative analysis method for optimising nutrient density, I found that:

  1. Prioritising foods that are high in only one nutrient (e.g. potassium, omega 3, magnesium, vitamin D, niacin, etc.) means you risk missing out on all the beneficial and complementary nutrients that typically come with real food and isn’t particularly useful.  You usually come up with a range of obscure processed foods that have been supplemented with that nutrient.
  2. Focusing on maximising the quantity of all the essential nutrients gives us a VERY high protein list of foods.  Protein is relatively easy to obtain in our food system.  Prioritising the amino acids provides a list of foods that will be very hard to consume because they are 70% protein.  We tend to get more than enough protein when we focus on the harder-to-obtain vitamins and minerals.
  3. Using the Nutrient Optimiser we can focus on the foods that contain more of the nutrients that are harder to find.  When we maximise a range of the harder-to-find nutrients, we get a variety of whole foods that contain a broad spectrum of the essential nutrients.

The chart below shows the nutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods in the USDA database when we prioritise for the harder-to-find nutrients (i.e. vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc, pantothenic acid, selenium, and niacin).  The red bars denote the nutrients that have been prioritised.   That is, foods that contain more of these micronutrients per calorie rank higher in the analysis.

If you compare the chart below to the chart above, you will see that by focusing on the foods that contain harder-to-find nutrients we significantly boost all thirty-four essential nutrients!

If you focus on eating foods in this list, you will have a good chance of getting plenty of the essential micronutrients.  The most nutrient dense foods in each category are at the top of the list, so you would ideally focus more on the food at the top of the list as much as you could.

I don’t think it matters too much if you want to focus more on animal or plant based foods.  We tend to achieve the best nutritional outcome when we include a range of vegetables, animal products and seafood.

  • What is notably missing from all of these lists is sugar and refined grains which have a very low nutrient density.
  • Fruits also do not feature in the lists (other than the exclusively plant based lists) due to the lower nutrients per calorie compared to nonstarchy vegetables and animal foods.
  • Dairy and nuts make an appearance on the lists only where it is not a priority to keep energy density low or to lose weight.
  • Red meat tends to feature more prominently when we need to boost nutrients such as glycine, cysteine and glutamine which are not as prevalent in seafood.

The nutrient score

You will notice the “nutrient score” for the most nutrient dense foods is 98.7%.  But what does this mean?

The nutrient score is designed to compare the various nutritional approaches quantitatively.  We want to meet the daily recommended intake of a particular nutrient.  However, there may not be much value getting more than twice the DRI.  Once you’ve achieved two times the DRI your efforts would be best spent seeking out other nutrients.  If we achieved two times the recommended daily intake for all the nutrients, we would get a score of 100%.  That is, we get a perfect score if the entire red rectangle was filled in.

A lot of these food lists score close to a perfect score because they contain a range of the most nutrient dense foods.  This is not practical in real life.  The nutrient score of a real life diet will be lower than the optimised short list of nutrient dense foods.  We tend to choose more energy dense foods that may not be as nutrient dense, or we don’t consume the range of foods that would be necessary to attain a very high nutrient score.  Dr Rhonda Patrick currently holds the record for the highest scoring food log with 82%.  You can check out her Nutrient Optimiser analysis here.

At the other end of the spectrum, we can see from the chart below that focusing on the least nutrient dense foods will provide an inferior outcome.   If all we have to eat is these nutrient poor foods, we will likely develop nutrient deficiencies.  Our cravings will drive our appetite to derail even our best calorie restriction intentions.

Energy density

The great thing about nutrient dense whole foods is that they typically force out the energy dense processed foods in our diet.

Whether it be low carb, whole food plant based or Paleo, the magic happens when we switch out nutrient deficient foods for foods that provide you with the nutrients we need with less energy.

The ‘problem’ however with nutrient dense whole foods is that they make it hard to ingest enough energy.  If you are active and are not wanting to lose weight, you may need some higher energy density foods.

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Over at KetoGains, they talk about using ‘fat as a lever’.[12]  If you are not worried about being low carb or ketogenic or your blood sugar control, you can also think of ‘energy density as a lever’ to manage the amount of energy you can get from your diet.  While a ketogenic diet is typically higher fat, if you want to lose body fat then some of the fat contribution to your diet should come from your body, with less fat required from your plate or coffee mug.

Energy density is a simple concept that can help you fine tune your food choices and is calculated by dividing the calories in a food by its weight.  Used in isolation it isn’t particularly useful, but can be helpful whne considered along with nutrient density once you have stabilised your blood sugars by tweaking the insulin load of the food you eat.

If you have stabilised your blood sugars and are trying to lose weight, then minimising the energy density of the foods you eat will help you feel physically full with less energy intake.  Practically this might involve filling up on more nonstarchy veggies and perhaps leaner cuts of meat.

Focusing on foods with a lower energy density can help you to get the nutrients you need without overdoing the energy intake.

Alternatively, if you are an athlete and need to ingest a lot of fuel, then focusing on higher energy density foods may be helpful.

Insulin load

As shown in my analysis of the food insulin index data below, the amount of carbohydrate correlates with how much our blood sugar rises in response to food.  [You can click on the images below to see more detail or click here to drill down into the data more in Tableau online.]

However, carbohydrates alone don’t do a great job of explaining our insulin response to the food we eat.  As you can see in the chart below, some high protein, low carb foods still elicit a significant insulin response.

We get a much better prediction of our insulin response to food once we account for the fibre and protein content of our food.  Thinking in terms of insulin load (i.e. net carbs + 0.56 x protein) is useful if you are manually injecting insulin to manage your diabetes.  If you are insulin resistant, you can reduce the insulin load of your diet to the point that your pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood sugars.

Reducing the insulin load of your diet will help achieve more stable blood sugar levels and get off the insulin rollercoaster that drives hunger and energy levels.  While various studies have not been able to demonstrate a metabolic advantage of one macronutrient versus another, it seems that appetite control is easier for people who are insulin resistant when they manipulate their diet to stabilise their blood sugars.

While too much energy from any source can promote insulin resistance in the long run (note: the pancreas secretes insulin to stop the flow of energy out of the liver when we have plenty of energy coming in via the mouth), increasing the proportion of fat in your diet will lessen the amount of insulin required by your food.

Increasing the percentage of calories from fat in your diet will also reduce your glucose response to food.

Although protein does need some insulin to metabolise, higher protein foods will typically force out the processed carbohydrates and reduce your insulin levels.

So what does all this mean?

If you are part of the 50% of the population that has diabetes or prediabetes, then manipulating the insulin load of your diet will help you stabilise your blood sugar levels.  This is a critical priority.

The problem with focusing only on insulin load, however, is that the least insulinogenic foods are primarily refined fats (cream, butter, olive oil, etc.) and do not contain a lot of the essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that we need to thrive and be metabolically healthy.

The solution is to find the optimal balance between insulin load and nutrient density.  As your blood glucose levels start to improve you can start to focus more on nutrient density and then on reducing energy density if you still need to lose weight.

The various food lists have been developed using a multi-criteria analysis algorithm that uses nutrient density, energy density and insulin load to highlight the ideal foods for a particular person.

Pros and cons of different dietary approaches

The table below outlines the pros and cons of each of the higher level nutritional approaches, who they will be appropriate for and which nutrients are harder to find.

approach who harder to find nutrients Pros Cons
well-formulated ketogenic diet Someone with an average blood sugar greater than 140 mg/dL or 7.8mmol/L or people who require therapeutic ketosis (i.e. for the management of conditions such as epilepsy, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc.) Vitamin D, choline, potassium, vitamin B5, zinc, niacin, magnesium, calcium selenium and folate. Aggressively lowers insulin load to stabilise blood sugars and drive ketogenesis.  Higher fat levels can help to increase satiety while in early adoption phase. High energy density and low nutrient density mean that it may not yield optimal weight loss or health in the long term for everyone.
diabetes and nutritional ketosis People with an average blood sugar of greater than 108 mg/dL or 6.0mmol/L. Choline, vitamin D, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B5, niacin, calcium and zinc. Helps optimise blood sugar control and eliminate the swings that can drive appetite. Higher energy density means that not everyone will achieve optimal weight without also focussing on energy density.
weight loss (insulin resistant) People who are slightly insulin resistant but want to lose weight. Vitamin D, choline, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, zinc, niacin. Lower energy density will help ensure a reduction in energy intake.  Higher nutrient density will reduce cravings. Lower satiety due to lower energy intake.
protein-sparing modified fast (PSMF) Someone targeting aggressive short term weight loss while maintaining muscle mass. Vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc. Very nutrient dense and very low energy density will drive weight loss.  Very hard to overeat these foods. Significant discipline, racking and planning required.
nutrient dense maintenance Someone looking to maintain their current weight. Choline, vitamin D, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc. Higher energy density while still being nutrient dense.
bodybuilder Someone looking to repair and build muscle. Vitamin D, choline, potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, sodium, vitamin B5, zinc, folate and branched chain amino acids Support muscle growth. Not ideal for someone not working out.
endurance athlete Someone who is active Choline, vitamin D, potassium, calcium vitamin E, magnesium, vitamin B5 and leucine. Higher energy density foods to support activity.

This table summarises the assumptions used in developing the lists based on religious, ethical or philosophical considerations and provides some brief commentary for each nutritional approach.  I encourage you to look in more detail at the data to better understand your preferred approaches.

approach score Assumptions & constraints Comment 
the most nutrient dense foods 100% Prioritises the harder to find nutrients. Maximises nutrients per calorie.
nutrient dense Paleo 99% Excludes dairy, grains and processed foods as well as prioritising nutrient density. Very similar outcome to most nutrient dense approach, though with a reduced range of foods.
low carb Paleo foods 97% Reduced insulin load to stabilise blood sugars while also maximising nutrient density. Will stabilise blood sugars more than straight Paleo which can involve more high carb veggies.
pescetarian 95% Plant based plus fish prioritised for nutrient density. Some vegans or vegetarians are comfortable eating fish.
bivalve vegan 92% Plant based plus molluscs prioritised for nutrient density. Provides some nutrients that are harder to find on a purely plant based approach (omega 3, vitamin B12).  Some vegans are comfortable eating molluscs which are not considered by some to be sentient beings.
low carb pescetarian 95% Vegetarian plus fish with a focus on nutrient density and a lower insulin load. Provides a solid nutritional outcome without eating animals or dairy.
whole food plant based 80% Excludes processed foods and oils.  Prioritises nutrient density without focussing on amino acids It is hard to obtain adequate omega 3 or vitamin B12 on a WFPB approach and hence they may need to supplement.

Weight loss is likely due to the low energy density if you are able to stick to unprocessed foods only.

plant based (diabetes friendly) 76% Plant based only, with the focus on nutrient density and lower insulin load. It can be quite hard to achieve a low carb diet, at least in terms of percentages without using a lot of oils or nuts.
zero carb 76% Animal only foods prioritised for nutrient density. A zero carb dietary approach struggles to meet DRI for vitamins K, C and E, folate, potassium and calcium.

Although some argue that nutrient requirements are different in the absence of glucose, though there is limited research to date.

Paleo (without ND) 64% All Paleo foods without consideration of nutrient density. Limiting yourself to unprocessed “Paleo food” is no guarantee that you will achieve exceptional nutrient density.
zero carb (no offal) 58% Animal based foods excluding organ meats. Organ meats provide a lot of the nutrients in a ZC approach.  Not everyone enjoys and eats a lot of organ meats.
plant based (without ND) 57% All whole food plant based foods without consideration of nutrient density. A plant based nutritional approach is no guarantee that you will achieve high levels of nutrients.
zero carb (without ND) 42% Zero carb without nutrient density. A zero carb approach without consideration of nutrient density can provide a poor nutritional outcome.

Summary

Congratulations, you’ve nearly reached the end of this data-heavy article!!

My hope is that all this data will be useful for people seeking clear guidance on optimal food choices for them.  I hope it will help you cut through the confusion and conflicts of interest that so often plague our food system.

Nutrient density is the centre piece of the algorithm for optimising nutrition to suit people with different goals and to suit different circumstances.  When we focus on foods that contain more of the harder-to-find nutrients we tend to boost all nutrients across the board.

A range of optimal food lists have been prepared to suit different states of metabolic health by also considering:

  • insulin load and energy density,
  • pre-existing health conditions using targeted nutrients, and
  • optimal short list of foods that still fit within a person’s ethical or religious system.

Simply focusing on trying to consume more of the foods on these lists will go a long way to helping you achieve optimal nutrition, health and happiness.  If you’re still looking for further guidance to help you refine your food choices, then I invite you check out the Nutrient Optimiser which has been designed to identify areas where you could improve your nutrition and help you fine tune your food choices to help you move towards your chosen goal and dreams, whatever they may be.

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references

[1] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/diabetes-102/

[2] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/05/16/building-a-better-nutrient-density-index/

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/towards-a-personalised-food-ranking-system/

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_fortification

[5] https://freetheanimal.com/2015/06/enrichment-theory-everything.html

[6] https://freetheanimal.com/2016/05/enrichment-promotes-everything.html

[7] https://freetheanimal.com/2015/10/fortification-obesity-refinements.html

[8] http://perfecthealthdiet.com/

[9] https://suppversity.blogspot.com.au/2017/08/vitamin-b6-b12-c-e-folate-iron.html

[10] http://suppversity.blogspot.com.au/2015/04/studies-confirm-natural-and-synthetic.html

[11] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/03/21/wanna-live-forever/

[12] https://ketogains.com/2017/06/energy-balance-macros-nutrient-density/