Here’s what you need to know…
- Forget about counting calories. If you eat from the list of nutrient dense foods (which includes bacon), you can eat as much as you want, as often as you want.
- Eating nutrient poor foods leads to “toxic hunger” and even withdrawal symptoms when you try to clean up your diet. Toxic hunger is a condition where the body lies to the brain and tells you it’s time to eat when it isn’t.
- The list of nutrient dense foods contains a huge number of surprises, including nutritional powerhouses like liver. Surprisingly, fruits are relatively low in nutrient density
- By using the foods on the nutrient density list, you can mix and match nutritionally appropriate foods that allow you to control hunger, get healthier, and lose body fat.
Counting Calories Is Obsolete
Has anyone ever lost weight effectively and consistently by counting calories? To do it correctly, you’d have to weigh all your food and then take into consideration your age, activity level, weight, and percentage of muscle and then do a series of calculations that might earn you a Field’s Medal in mathematics.
And really, it’d all pretty much be worthless anyhow unless you were able to somehow figure out a way to assess how much brown fat you had and whether the communities of mitochondria in it and your muscles were youthful and perky or old and sluggish. Yep, counting calories is a fool’s errand.
If you want to lose fat, forget about counting calories. Instead, eat as much as you want, whenever you want, as long as your diet is based on a balanced selection of specific foods.
I know, I know. Eating as much as you want was how you got so well upholstered in the first place, but hear me out. If your diet were based on eating what you need instead of eating what you want, you’d say goodbye to hunger, lose body fat, and get healthy. So what is it that you need? Nutrient dense foods instead of calorie-dense foods.
I’m about to throw a handful of new stuff into your mental blender; some new or little-known paradigms about nutrients, how your body responds to them, and food in general. And I’ll even throw you a tasty, nutrient-packed morsel right now to keep your interest piqued: Bacon is nutrient dense and it’s something you should eat more of. I’ll tell you why soon.
What Does “Nutrient Dense” Mean?
The major problem regarding nutrient dense foods has always been defining exactly what the term means. For now, let’s just say nutrient dense foods have a high ratio of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, anti-oxidants, etc., relative to the total calorie count of the food. For instance, spinach, the first “super food,” has a lot of nutrients and very few calories so it fits this definition very nicely.
But before we figure out what’s a bad food, what’s a good food, and what’s a great food, let’s figure out exactly why you could eat a balanced diet of all the nutrient dense foods you want and lose body fat at the same time. Yes, eating too much of any food can lead to fat storage, but it’s harder to overeat protein or nutrient dense foods in general than the processed carbs and fat found in calorie-dense foods.
In other words, you’d have to stuff yourself to the gills with nutrient dense food over and over again before you’d get an abundance of calories. Not so with crappy calorie-dense foods. In general, eating high nutrient, lower-calorie foods would have the following benefits:
- Allow you to control calorie intake without counting calories.
- Make you feel full a lot longer between meals.
- Make it much harder to overeat.
And it would also eliminate a newly recognized villain in the fight against fat: toxic hunger.
True Hunger vs. Toxic Hunger
There’s a new theory coming out of the nutrition community and it has to do with the difference in the physiological effects of hunger between someone who eats a nutrient dense diet and someone who eats a nutrient deficient diet.
For those who eat crappy foods, there’s a recurring hunger response that’s more like the response a heroin addict gets when he’s gone too long without a fix. In other words, the hunger experienced by someone who eats a lousy diet that by definition contains a lot of pro-inflammatory foods is more like withdrawal symptoms than true hunger.
Normally, hunger occurs when glycogen stores approach depletion. Hunger signals are sent to the brain and you feel compelled to scrounge around the deep, dark recesses of the refrigerator for food. Eating prevents the process of gluconeogenesis, otherwise known as the breakdown of lean tissue for needed glucose. It’s a process that prevents the body from using up muscle tissue as an energy source.
Contrast that with that toxic hunger. When someone subsists on nutrient poor foods (not just calorically dense foods, mind you), hunger signals are sent to the brain much earlier in the digestive (catabolic) process before the breakdown of lean tissue is anywhere near to becoming a problem.
“The body lies to the brain and tells you it’s time to eat when it isn’t.”
Experiments have shown that people who switch from eating calorie dense foods to eating nutrient dense foods actually experience an adjustment phase while their system learns to adapt from eating pro-inflammatory foods. It’s sort of like the drug version of cold turkey, only it involves actual turkey!
The implications of all this is that if people learned to eat nutrient dense foods, they wouldn’t have to get their lousy food “fix” when it wasn’t needed. They’d presumably eat only when they were actually hungry, when the body sent signals to the brain to start eating and spare muscle tissue. Since hunger is one of the main impediments to fat loss, people on a nutrient dense diet wouldn’t experience it as much, and when they did get hungry, it’d be legitimate hunger.
Clearly, a diet filled with nutrient dense foods would likely make a significant difference in the way you look naked. It also has far-reaching health benefits, but I’m going to avoid that discussion because you’re not a neophyte, this isn’t Better Homes and Gardens, and it’s just common sense.
Hell, you know that riboflavin is better for you than propylene glycol, which, aside from being a main component in aircraft de-icing fluid, is a common food additive. So let’s instead discuss the more interesting topic of seeing how some people have attempted to define exactly what it is that makes a food “nutrient dense.” The answers might surprise you.
Beware of Nutrition Experts with Agendas
When it comes to measuring nutrient density, there’s no shortage of food scoring systems that presumably help consumers figure out what’s good to eat and what’s not-so good to eat. The trouble is, a lot of them reflect the biases of the people who came up with the system.
Some, like the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) system that you can see on signs hanging in some Whole Foods grocery stores next to the organic Leapin’ Lemurs cereal, were designed by pale-skinned vegetarians who wear underwear made out of organic, undyed hemp.
In addition to leaving out an alarming number of vitamins and minerals, these lists, including the ANDI list, give short shrift to protein in general, but especially animal protein.
The ANDI system gives food a score of 1 to a 1,000 based on certain nutritional parameters. Kale, mustard greens, collard greens, and watercress all get a 1,000, but meats, seafood, and dairy products all rank under 50 and aren’t considered to be health-supporting. Consider that chicken and beef only earn a score of 27 and 20 on the list, which makes you want to beat the ANDI people with the business end of a hormone-free drumstick.
Other systems judge the value of a food by what it doesn’t contain, like saturated fats, cholesterol, or sodium, but this type of system can be hugely problematic. For one thing, the evidence strongly suggests that cholesterol and saturated fat are perhaps villains of yesteryear instead of today, but the creators of these lists haven’t read the nutritional crime blotter to find out that these “bad” nutrients have been exonerated.
As an example, consider that some fat-free yogurts have one-sixth the protein of comt&eacte; cheese, but calculated per 100 grams, the yogurt comes out way on top because the fat in the cheese skews the math in the yogurt’s favor.
Other systems give weight to things like fiber, but fiber is clearly not an essential nutrient. However, one such system gives fiber equal footing to 16 other nutrients that include protein, calcium, iron, potassium, niacin, folate, etc. It’s called the “Powerhouse Fruits and Vegetables” (PFV) classification scheme.
Unfortunately, as the name suggests, the list only considered fruits and vegetables. Surprisingly, watercress came out as the most nutrient dense food. Equally surprising was that only 7 of the 41 items on the list were fruits, with all of them ranking in the bottom half of the list. Notably missing off the list entirely, for undisclosed reasons, were raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries, three fruits that aren’t used to being dissed in such a flagrant manner.
Here’s a sampling of some of the superstars on their list:
|Chinese Cabbage||Turnip Green|
|Leaf Lettuce||Dandelion Green|
What’s noteworthy about the list is that aside from spinach, you have to go down to number 17, red pepper, before you hit a vegetable that most people actually eat on a regular basis. You have to go to number 20 to hit a fruit (pumpkin) and the next one doesn’t show up until the 30th slot (strawberry).
While the list is of limited value because it only addresses fruits and vegetables, it definitely caused me to change my eating habits. Instead of relying heavily on the various “familiar” vegetables that hover around the bottom of the Powerhouse list, I’ve started sampling the weirder and often more distasteful members of the top 20 vegetables on the list. Hey, good nutrition isn’t for wimps.
There’s another list, though, that sees the merit in meat, doesn’t eschew silly things like fat or cholesterol, and doesn’t consider fiber to be an essential nutrient.
A Liver a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Harvard nutritionist Mat Lalonde looked at all the definitions of nutrient density and found the same problems I did, so he decided to compile his own list. Unlike other systems, he essentially took nutrients per serving and divided it by weight per serving so that foods could be on a relative equal footing when measured against each other.
He then defined “essential” by listing those things that were truly important to human health. The list included essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, and a host of crucial vitamins and minerals. After compiling and crunching the numbers, the group of foods that topped the list was organ meats, and in particular, liver.
Oddly enough, more “primitive” societies have long recognized liver and other organ meats as the consummate nutrient-dense foods. For instance, liver is so full of good stuff that the Inuit classify it as both a meat and a vegetable. Indian tribes in the continental U.S. used to feed the muscle meat of hunted animals to the dogs while they themselves would feast on the hugely more nutritious organ meats.
Consider that while an apple has 7 grams of Vitamin C per 100 grams, liver has 27. Or look at B12. An apple has zero B12 per 100 grams, red meat has about 1.84 mcg. per 100 grams, and liver has 111.3 mcg. per 100 grams.
And it’s not much different for liver (or organ meats in general) when you look at nutrients like phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, copper, vitamins A, D, and E, and thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, or practically any of the nutrients on Lalonde’s list.
Liver, as well as other organ meats, might the most nutritionally complete foods in existence, and the fact that we don’t eat very many of them here in the States might well correlate with a whole lot of degenerative diseases that plague us.
Surprisingly, herbs and spices compete with organ meats on LaLonde’s list. Their only drawback is that it’s difficult to pepper your foods with nutritionally significant amounts of cilantro, basil, spearmint, parsley, oregano, or thyme without causing your taste buds to have a seizure. Still, if you used spices often and as liberally as your taste buds allowed, you could upgrade your nutritional status considerably in the long term.
Other interesting observations:
- Nuts and seeds rank very high, with Brazil nuts, hazel nuts, and coconuts leading the charge.
- Fruits rank surprisingly low, with apples and watermelons bringing up the rear.
- The common potato beats the sweet potato, except in Vitamin A content.
- Pork ranks really high, with bacon approaching superstar status.
- Eggs are high, but for God’s sake, eat the yolks, too.
- Exotic meats such as emu and ostrich rank high, but duck ranks low.
- Kale and seaweed rank very high.
- Legumes are low on the list.
- Grains are low (raw grains, according to Lalonde, rank higher, but they’re indigestible in that form).
- Beef and pork rank higher than vegetables.
Here are the approximate nutrient density values derived by Lalonde. Don’t let the minus values throw you off. It just means that the foods may be high in certain nutrients but are perhaps lacking or completely deficient in others. There are, after all, very few foods like organ meats that “have it all,” which is why a proper diet requires a variety of nutrient dense foods.
Lalonde Nutrient Density Values
|Organ Meats and Oils||17|
|Herbs and Spices||17|
|Nuts and Seeds||10|
|Fish and Seafood||1|
|Eggs and Dairy||-0.6|
|Lamb, Veal, Raw Game||-1.2|
|Vegetables (Cooked, Canned)||-4.8|
|Plant Fats and Oils||-5.4|
|Animal Skin and Feet||-6.2|
|Refined and Processed Oils||-6.4|
|Animal Fats and Oils||-6.8|
If there’s a drawback to this list, it’s that it doesn’t take phytonutrients into account. That’s likely because the science of phytonutrients is still in its infancy. We don’t know which phytonutrients are important, what quantity is important, and whether they act interactively instead of independently.
Of course, it probably doesn’t matter. We all know, presumably, that vegetables and fruits are an important part of a healthy diet and that we should eat a variety of them, which ipso facto would assure a broad intake of phytonutrients.
So How Do We Use This Information?
Let’s say you’re planning a meal. You manage to overcome your aversion to liver and cook up a bit, perhaps in a frying pan with a little olive oil. Since liver is so nutritionally complete, you really wouldn’t have to worry too much about what you were going to have with it.
But let’s say you were having some turkey breast. It’s an excellent protein source, but it’s nowhere near liver in nutritional might, so you might augment your turkey meal with some raw, green vegetables to get the equivalent amount of nutrients you’d get with a meal of liver.
Or let’s say you were cooking up some black beans. They’ve got some nutrients and some amino acids, but not all of them. So you might put on a flannel shirt and make a lumberjack meal of cooked beans with bacon, which, of course, is rich in protein (and a number of important nutrients). You might also throw in some herbs to compliment the taste and nutritional profile of the dish.
Likewise, you could pour a serving or two of Superfood into whatever you’re making. While the supplement doesn’t fall under the conventional umbrella of a nutrient dense food (it has no measurable calories or macronutrients), it would add a considerable amount of phytonutrients and significantly kick up the ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score of whatever dish it is you’re making.
Forget Calories, Remember Nutrition
Maybe the list doesn’t tell you all that much you didn’t know. After all, regardless of your nutritional savvy, you probably knew that vegetables and fruits and seafood and clean meats were good for you, while store-bought pastries probably aren’t.
However, it does a body good to start thinking about how foods can compliment each other and a balanced diet is truly an intricate blend of a variety of food groups, not just the typical 15 foods that most athletes or lifters eat week-in and week out.
It’s as simple as this: Eating a balanced diet of foods that are nutritionally dense, we accomplish the following:
- We can forget about counting calories.
- If you only eat high value, it’s almost impossible to overdo calories.
- If you optimize for high value, calories take care of themselves.
And, most importantly, we create lean bodies that are as snazzy on the inside as they are on the outside.