Nutrient Density; what does it mean?

Eating a “nutrient dense” diet sounds terrific. Sign me up.  But what does it actually mean? Density in physics is mass per volume. So water is less dense than lead because one cc of water weighs less than one cc of lead.  Pretty straightforward. So what are we going to measure for nutrient density?

Dr. Fuhrman has created a “Nutrient Density” scoring system called ANDI.  You may have seen ANDI scores at your local Whole Foods grocery store.  Kale, the “vegetable with a PR agent”, scores at the top of ANDI. He believes that nutrients per calorie is the best measure of nutrient density. This puts meat at a disadvantage since meat has more calories than most vegetable foods. Obviously he has his list of favorite nutrients, most of which are probably what we usually call “micronutrients.” These are the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids that we need in sub-gram quantities. I suspect his list does not weight vitamin B12 very high…

On the other hand, Dr. Terry Wahls has a different, and ultimately more rational, idea of nutrient density. She says to eat nine cups of vegetables per day (3 each from the leafy greens group, the sulfur containing group, and the colorful group), seaweed, organ meats, and grass fed regular meat.  She found that getting the nutrients from real food worked better for her than getting them from purified pills. Given the history of science, PaleoPathologist can well believe that my fellow scientists have not even begun to catalog all the various chemicals needed for good health, so if we consume a wide variety of plants and animal parts we are more likely to get the known and unknown ones. We can use the ones we know as markers for the others and probably do pretty well.

PaleoPathologist has a huge salad at Porter Adventist Hospital most days, with leaves (spinach, mixed greens), sulfur (broccoli, onions, cauliflower), and colors (mixed sweet peppers, green peppers, tomatoes) every day along with some protein (usually dry unappetizing “healthy” chicken breast or Feta cheese.) Tracking and bagging those elusive diseases through the stone and wood microscope requires calories, which come from Olive Squeezings put over the salad.

Meat is not high on Fuhrman’s list due to the calories, but his list vastly oversimplifies nutrition. “Density” as we saw in physics is two terms, mass and volume.  “Density” in nutrition is many terms: in the numerator, there are at least 31 nutrients needed just for brain health according to Wahls and they vary from food to food. And should the numerator be amounts or percentages of some standard?Similarly, what is the correct term to use as the denominator?  Should it be nutrients per gram of food, per cc of food, per calorie?  What about time: per day, per month? Not really clear to me. PaleoPathologist’s stomach holds a certain volume, right?  Not weight, not calories. PaleoPathologist has a PhD and believes in measurement but doubts that there is a single nutrient density score that means anything.

Kale has some good stuff in it, and PaleoPathologist had stir fried kale with his bacon and eggs for breakfast, but there is not a lick of vitamin B12 in Kale. So PaleoPathologist also enjoyed the bacon and eggs.

Spinach is another biggie on the ANDI scale but you could eat more spinach than Popeye, turn as green as Kermit, and not get any omega 3 fatty acids. For DHA and EPA, PaleoPathologist pan-fried some fresh Pacific Northwest wild caught salmon last night and since most fish has lots of selenium he worried not one whit about mercury poisoning.

PaleoPathologist has also found that the most concentrated natural “vitamin pills” are Egg Yolks and Liver. He fully recognizes that probably less than one in a thousand fellow Paleo- (or Meso- or Neo-) pathologists are willing to TOUCH liver as food for basically aesthetic/emotional reasons.  But it is actually not that easy to get vitamin A, B12, or copper from many other foods.  Chris Kresser calls Liver the most potent superfood. He measures per gram of food which seems as rational as measuring per calorie.

Also note in his article the statement that liver does not store toxins. Myth! Myth! The liver is a detoxifying organ, among other functions, but it takes toxins in, chemically modifies them, and sends them back out to be excreted in bile or urine.

PaleoPathologist tries to have Liver and Onions every week. Elk liver is fabulous, beef liver at Black Eyed Pea is good (but make sure they bring you the full serving, not the senior portion!) PaleoMate asked for Chicken Livers fried in cast iron during pregnancy for the three PaleoDaughters.

Also please note that most measures of “nutrient density” ignore protein, fat, and carbohydrate. I guess they just assume that we’ll get the right amount of all those, right? And yet one might argue that we are overfed on carbohydrates and underfed on some good fats, while probably most of us do just fine on protein.

What are foods that are NOT nutrient dense? Sugar. Wheat flour, either white or whole wheat. Other grains. Seed oils. Skim milk. Yucky lean chicken breast overcooked! PaleoMama called them “empty calories” for a reason.

What is your favorite strategy for getting lots of nutrients?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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