Sunday, August 2, 2015

Introducing the concept of Nutrient Density

In some of the previous posts I briefly introduced macro and micro nutrients. There is still a lot to say but that's enough to start speaking about nutrition in a more constructive way than the outdated eat less move more.
Nutrients are fundamental for health, if you still have doubts of if you are starting reading this blog only now I recommend you take your time to check my introductory articles on carbohydrates, fats part 1, fats part 2, proteins, vitamins and minerals.

In our society an excessive importance has been put on the macronutrients. How many times per day a vegan is asked where he gets his proteins from? A question to which he correctly replies by presenting a list of pulses and nuts that (on dry weight) have more proteins than meat. Paleo-dieters are asked if they aren't eating too much in terms of meat and fats, remembering that the base of the infamous pyramid are the carbs.
I don't yet want to go into the detailed analysis of those two diets, which I don't follow but from which I take a lot of interesting ideas. For the time being I just want to underline what they have in common: they both put emphasis on the concept of nutrient density over the mere calories count, and this is why they look so strange to the public. This is also the reason why both perform better than many other diets.

Nutrient density

I chose a bowl of white rice as a counterexample of nutrient density to represent this article. I had a large list to choose from, but everybody pretty much knows already that fast food, sodas, luncheon meats, snacks, etc are not good choices. There is even an increased awareness on the dangers of soy, so many people started realising that tofu is not a health food at all. But that would have been too easy and I like to provoque. So I chose a bowl of white rice. What is wrong with white rice? After all it is the staple food of billions of people around the world.

Actually, there is nothing wrong in white rice per se, if not for the fact that it is a source of empty calories.  Proteins are very poorly represented in white rice, fats are basically non-existent, which made rice the official choice of people looking forward to losing weight. Depending on the cooking technique, minerals may be thrown away with the water (this is why I steam my rice). Finally, vitamins are either destroyed by heat or thrown with water.

What stays is a concentrated source of soaked carbohydrates which have the privilege of being at the top of the list of foods which raise blood sugar levels quickly. White rice can make you feel satiated (or better, bloated), it definitely provides calories. It is feeding billions of people, but it is not nourishing them.

Don't get me wrong: I myself eat white rice on occasions, but far from being my main course, it is instead and additional source of starches when I need them more (for example a meal after an intense workout). The provocative idea to use white rice as an example of bad choice when it comes to nourishing was to show that, if what we think is healthy has some drawbacks, imagine fast foods, sodas, luncheon meats, snacks and processed food in general. I used what in mathematics is called The Squeeze Lemma.

Using the limited space in our stomach and its ability to digest food with something that is missing essential nutrients (proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins) is obviously not a winning choice, not in the long term at least. What is winning are diets that have proven to be sustainable for millennia, this is where I can finally speak about my favourite subject: traditional diets.

Nutrient density in traditional diets

Introducing nutrient density in the ambit of traditional diets wouldn't make sense if I didn't mention Weston A. Price.

Weston A. Price was a dentist who first started considering dietary factors as the cause of tooth decay. His most important work is a 10 year research in the beginning of the 20th century that brought him to visit dozens of primitive and isolated cultures around the world, just mention some: native americans, polynesians, inuits, pygmies, aborigines, gaelics as well as isolated villagers in the Alps in Switzerland.
His objective was to understand how those people could maintain optimal health and although his research first addressed cavities and crooked teeth, the observations and the analysis of their diets found more than he was actually looking for.
I personally believe he was the right man at the right time: he had the unique opportunity to compare healthy traditional diets with the raising Western Diet. Fifty years earlier or fifty years later his researches would not have been possible.

To cut short, his findings revealed that, although there are consistent differences (think the diet of eskimos and that of masai), they all shared a common philosophy, nutrient density: no food was "just for calories". There was also a particular attention to the preparation of food, either through lacto-fermentation or soaking. Many foods were eaten raw, people did not know why, they had just done like that since ever, today we know: most vitamins are thermolabile.

He also reported that none of the groups he studied could thrive on a plant-based diet and the cultures using some form of dairy (raw and full-fat) had an even superior health compared to the individuals of the same genetic pool that didn't. These are important points on which I will return.


- "First biochemistry, then philosophy, mathematics, history... Alex!!! We are reading your blog because we want to know WHAT TO EAT!"

And you're right! Here comes the pragmatic paragraph of this post. I tend to spend a lot of words on the theoretical part because for me it is more important that people understand the rules behind the choices that are made.

I have been thinking long how to close this post, and that's the reason why I waited so much before publishing it. I wanted to make it easy so that it conveys a message, it doesn't need to be exhaustive, it must on the contrary leave some open questions and stimulate the intelligence of the reader.

Some food for thought below:

Poor choice Good choice Non plus ultra

  • French fries
  • Chips

(that's it...)

  • Salads
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Beet greens
  • Low Glycemic Load roots

  • Same as "Good Choice", preferable in-season, local produce, raw or lightly cooked
  • Seaweed


  • Tropical fruits
  • Dried fruits with added sugars
  • Roasted nuts

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Watermelon
  • Pumpkin
  • Raw nuts

  • Berries
  • Stone fruits
  • Avocados

  • Luncheon meats
  • Salami
  • Bologna
  • Bacon

  • Beef Filet
  • Chicken breast

  • Organ meats
  • Bone broth

  • Fried fish

  • Canned fish (if of good quality)

  • Fresh wild-caught cold water fish
  • Roe

  • Cheesecake
  • Cheeseburger
  • Cheese slices
  • Skimmed milk

  • Yoghurt
  • Fresh cheese
  • Butter

  • Aged cheese
  • Homemade yoghurt/kefir
  • Full fat diary
  • Grass-fed butter
  • Heavy cream
Cereals Pulses

  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • White bread
  • Biscuits
  • Crackers
  • Cakes
  • Boxed cereals

  • White rice
  • Whole cereals
  • Pseudo-grains
  • Chickpea
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Green peas

  • Properly prepared whole cereals, pseudo-grains and pulses (soaked, lacto-fermented, sprouted...)

I sense a disturbance in the Force. You may not like what is in the list, it is not my fault: I didn't invent the rules, I just know them.

Some paleo readers will be surprised to see pulses, grains and dairy in the Non Plus Ultra column. They are there with a caveat: they must be properly prepared according to traditional ways. Also: dairy is grass-fed and is either aged or fermented.
Paleos will also complain that bacon it in the list of Poor Choices. Get real my friends: cavemen were eating spleens and lungs, not bacon ;)

Although I can't imagine everybody kneading sourdough right away and eating tripes and kidneys by tomorrow on a regular basis, one good initiative for health could be to remove everything from the poor choice, use more of the things from the good choice column and try to introduce step-by-step some elements from the NPU column.

It is not easy, especially when it comes to organ meats. I have two more articles to go then in one week or more I will start publishing the first recipes. Thence... stay tuned!


  1. Firs, bacon is not food, is religion:
    Second, recent studies tells that butter is not that good after all:
    but who cares.

    You always compare paleo and vegetarian diet, what about diabetes low glycemic diet ?

    1. Hi Jacek, thanks for asking!

      Actually, the cholesterol thing is quite complex. No study so far ever confirmed the link of causation between high cholesterol and CVD, that's why after half a century it is still an hypotesis. Even correlation reports confusing findings, a lot of people hospitalized for stroke have normal cholesterol levels, while high cholesterol levels in the elderlies seem to protect from CVD. Consequently, while it may be true that butter raises total cholesterol, does it really matter?

      The study considered 47 healthy men and women, so a very small pool, also: have they been tested for dairy intolerance first? According to the study, butter proved to raise both LDL and HDL, with no increase in triglycerides. Recent findings seem to indicate that the problem is the ratio between triglicerides and HDL, in this optic I would say that butter is good for you ;)

      Btw, I am speaking about vegan and paleo diets because they are the most fashionable right now. Both are great starting points, but my feeling is that they took the wrong direction to follow dogmas and practicity, instead of common sense. I see for example more and more processed snacks labeled "paleo" and "vegan".

      On the other side, I am a great fan of low glycemic diets, which (just to be clear) does not mean low-carb. You can pretty much be on low-glycemic regimen while eating food with the good type of carbohydrates, rich in fiber and with some fats to slow down absorbtion.

    2. How come cholesterol can be good, since if You have a lot of it in blood, You are asked by your doctor to change the diet and take some pills? Isn't there something like good cholesterol and bad one?

    3. It is more complex that I could ever summerize in a reply in the comments section, I will write a series of articles on this.

      But one thing I need to clarify immediately:

      Blood tests don't explicitly look for cholesterol but rather for lipoproteins, they are the transporters of cholesterol and other fats in the blood. In this sense high/low good/bad doesn't make much sense, it only tell you whether the cholesterol is being carried from the liver to the cells or from the cells to the liver.

      There may be a requirement for more cholesterol, for example because of an inflammation or an infection: the liver will just produce more and the LDL lipoproteins (the so called bad cholesterol) will shuttle it where needed, so it works as part of a healing process... how can it be called bad?

  2. Hi Alex,
    Could you please give some more details on "Non plus ultra" as this is not entirely clear

    1. It is latin ;) It means "Can't do better than this"

  3. excellent tables! I'm rather lazy to read the whole but the tables summarize pretty well what i wanted to know! Thanks Alex