A Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Food Diet Part 2
In Part 1, we talked about the staple foods of a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet – vegetables, fats, protein, and safe starches – and some of the research about the health benefits of each group. In this article, we’re going to talk about foods to consume in moderation.
“Consume in moderation” means to eat small portions infrequently. 80% or more of your daily intake should come from the staples we discussed in Part 1, but 20% or less may be able to come from the following foods without too much interference with your goals. Of course, everyone is unique and so is their ideal diet. There may be foods missing from this list and some of those listed here may actually belong on your “foods to avoid” list.
Foods to Consume in Moderation:
Sugar, Legumes, Dairy, and Processed Food
The general rule for deciding which foods belong on this list is to limit food that has no nutritional benefit aside from calories. While these foods may not be directly harmful, consuming them in large quantities instead of more nutrient-dense options limits the amount and diversity of micronutrients, phytonutrients, fatty acids, and amino acids you consume. Over time, this can lead to suboptimal biology.
Optimal health and physical performance start with optimal nutrition. Focus on filling up with nutrient dense staples and add in the following foods with moderation for some variety.
Sugar → Simple carbohydrates may taste great, but they are one of the primary dietary drivers of inflammation and cellular aging.
When you hear the word sugar, you probably picture the tiny white crystals of table sugar, but as a chemical term, “sugar” refers to any simple carbohydrate made up of one sugar molecule, a monosaccharide, or two sugar molecules, a disaccharide. Glucose and fructose are both monosaccharides, and sucrose, lactose, and maltose are the most common disaccharides.
Not all sugars are metabolized equally and therefore both type and quantity matter. Table sugar is the disaccharide sucrose that has been extracted from sugarcane or sugarbeets. This refined sugar is digested rapidly due to its simple chemical structure. The gastric stretch response that leads to a feeling of fullness is not activated which encourages the overconsumption of calories that are devoid of nutrients. Blood glucose and insulin levels surge which is linked to numerous metabolic problems such as the development of type 2 diabetes. Fruit, on the other hand, contains sugars as well as important nutrients (like antioxidants and vitamins) plus fiber which slows the absorption of the simple carbohydrates, providing more stable blood glucose and insulin levels and helping you to feel satiated.
Sugar is toxic.
If calorie consumption and blood glucose levels alone were the only concerns maybe we could stop here, but the evidence suggesting the role of sugar, especially refined sugar, in undermining health is too compelling not to share.
Numerous studies have linked higher sugar consumption to depression and one such study showed that men consuming more than 67g of sugar per day (that’s equal to about 1 can of soda and an apple) were 23% more likely to suffer from depression after five years . Sugar consumption has also been linked to increased levels of systemic inflammation in otherwise healthy individuals , increased production of the enzyme β-catenin which promotes the development of malignant cancer cells , and a reduction in DNA telomere length which is an established marker of cellular aging in otherwise healthy individuals . In other words, there is a strong connection between sugar consumption and inflammation, cancer, depression, cardiovascular disease, and aging – all of which are associated with reduced healthspan.
In short, pick your sugar sources with care. Optimize your nutrient intake by consuming sugar from eating fruit and occasionally through honey and maple syrup. Avoid the refined sources, especially those high in fructose, such as agave and corn syrup.
- Here are some common sources of sugars ranked from healthiest to worst→ Fruit (especially berries), honey, maple syrup, organic raw cane sugar, refined cane sugar, agave, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup.
- The top three (fruit, honey, and maple syrup) are okay to consume in moderation, the rest belong on the “food to avoid” list.
- Your primary source of sugar should come from natural, whole fruits such as berries, to maximize your micronutrient intake. Organic wild blueberries have so many beneficial phytonutrients they really belong in the staples category.
- Sugar feeds unhealthy intestinal bacteria which is another reason to keep your intake low.
- Artificial sweeteners like saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose found in things like Equal, Splenda, Nutrasweet, and diet sodas are toxic. Avoid them.
- Use caution when buying packaged products especially sauces and bars. Sugar is a common additive and can be listed on the ingredient label under a variety of pseudonyms. Watch out for cane juice, barley malt, and brown rice syrup.
Legumes → Beans, peas, lentils, and other legumes need careful preparation.
One of the most compelling reasons to consume legumes in moderation is simply that they aren’t as nutrient-dense as the foods listed in the staples category. The micronutrients in legumes have limited bioavailability. Legumes are high in the anti-nutrient, phytic acid, which binds to minerals preventing their absorption. Phytate also interferes with digestive enzymes that are needed to break down protein and starch .
Proper preparation can reduce phytic acid which means that having legumes on occasion can be okay as long as the majority of your food comes from the more nutrient dense staples list. The Weston A. Price Foundation recommends sprouting, fermenting, soaking, and/or boiling legumes to reduce phytate content, with sprouting providing the greatest reduction in phytate. At a minimum, they suggest soaking beans for 36 hours, draining and rinsing them every 12 hours throughout the process .
- Fill up on other safe starches, like sweet potatoes, for a bigger dose of micronutrients, and consume carefully prepared legumes when you are looking for some variety.
- Green beans, sugar peas, and snap peas are the exception. They are typically well tolerated and can be enjoyed cooked or raw.
- Soak lentils or beans for 36 hours with a fresh water change every 12 hours. Discard all water used for soaking and boiling.
Dairy → A healthy source of fat and fat-soluble vitamins for some, but a trigger of harmful chronic inflammation for others.
Dairy can be a complicated and confusing food. For some people, dairy is a great addition to their nutrient-dense, whole-food diet. The main components of dairy are fat, the proteins casein and whey, and the sugar lactose. Numerous studies have linked higher consumption of dairy fat to a reduction in adverse cardiovascular events, like heart attack and stroke [7,8]. Casein, however, is one of the most commonly found food sensitivities and can trigger chronic immune system activation (ie. inflammation) in individuals with increased intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”). Milk proteins have also been shown to cross-react with gluten, so individuals who are gluten intolerant are much more likely to have a negative reaction to dairy. Lactose may also trigger digestive system woes in individuals with dysbiosis (a harmful microbial imbalance) in the gut .
All of the above factors make knowing when to cut or keep dairy a bit complicated. The best way to figure it out is through an elimination diet. Remove all dairy for a minimum of 30 days before careful reintroduction while monitoring symptoms. We’ll go into the details of an elimination diet in the future, but when in doubt, cut it out.
- Goats, sheep, and cows produce dairy with slightly different protein structures. Some people may tolerate one animal’s milk products better than the others. Goat and sheep tend to be less inflammatory than cow dairy.
- Butter is low in protein and lactose making it a safe form of dairy fat for many individuals.
- Ghee is clarified butter, which means the casein and lactose have been removed. It is a great source of short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids, including butyrate, for individuals who can’t tolerate dairy.
- Fermented dairy like creme fraiche, kefir, and yogurt contain beneficial probiotics .
- Raw dairy contains naturally occurring lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. Some individuals may not be able to tolerate pasteurized dairy but can consume raw dairy without problems.
Even when made with good ingredients, processed foods are lacking in the micronutrients found in whole-foods like vegetables and safe starches. Processed food that contains real healthy ingredients can make a great treat, just consume occasionally instead of daily.
- Always read the label to make sure you know exactly what you’re eating, even if it says “Paleo” or “Gluten-Free.” Don’t recognize an ingredient? Skip it until you can do more research.
The Bottom Line
Maximizing your nutrient intake is one of the keys to recovering from chronic illness, preventing disease development, boosting your healthspan, and increasing your athletic prowess. Focus on the foods we discussed in Part 1, eat more vegetables(!!!), and dabble in the foods we went over in this article when you’re looking for a little more variety.
In Part 3, we go through “foods to avoid” and dig into the research on why keeping them out of your diet is so critical to your health.