A Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Food Diet
Our daily behaviors play a vital role in the maintenance and decline of health through their direct influence on our physiology. Food has a particularly powerful role in the development of our internal environment and a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet is designed to take full advantage of that role.
This is great news! It means that you are an incredibly important and powerful player in reaching your health potential.
By focusing on consuming food that is packed full of essential nutrients and supports a healthy digestive system, you provide your body with the building blocks it needs to create the internal physiology that will have you feeling your best for years to come.
Preparing with the right mindset.
Changing your diet means changing your habits, and I know change can be hard. Having the right perspective made all the difference for me and allowed me to finally adopted a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet not as a diet, but as a lifestyle.
I switched my focus from the foods I couldn’t eat to the foods that I need to eat. I started off by telling myself that at least 80% of the food I consumed would be nutrient-dense and 20% would be because food tastes good, is social, and can be fun. Over the years, the foods that fall in my 80% and 20% categories have evolved and as you begin to feel the benefits of a nutrient-dense diet, yours probably will too. Plus you’ll learn how nutrient-dense, whole-food can be delicious, social, and fun too!
What is a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet?
A nutrient-dense, whole-food diet emphasizes foods packed with micronutrients that are readily absorbed and largely unprocessed.
Diets like Paleo, Ancestral, Ketogenic, Autoimmune, Whole30, and Mediterranean, just to name a few, are all different templates for a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet. In this series, we are going to take a look at a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet in the broadest sense.
There are three main categories: the staples, foods to consume in moderation, and foods to avoid. Here, we’ll explore the staple foods in detail and the research-driven evidence for using those foods to optimize your health and performance.
The Staples: Vegetables, Fat, Protein, and Safe Starches
Vegetables → Eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you can with as much variety as possible.
It’s no surprise that vegetables are good for you, but did you know that the more vegetables you consume the better? Research has shown that there is a dose-dependent relationship between health benefits and vegetable consumption. This means that the higher your intake of vegetables, the more positive health outcomes you will experience, particularly when it comes to cardiovascular health . This is especially significant in the United States where cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women .
In fact, one study found that individuals with the highest intake of vegetables reduced their risk of all-cause mortality by 16% and the top 20% of cruciferous vegetable consumers reduced their risk of all-cause mortality by 22% . In other words, individuals who ate more vegetables, especially more cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and kale, had a significant reduction in their likelihood to die from any non-traumatic cause of death at their given age. Wow.
Consuming cruciferous vegetables has also been shown to significantly reduce the risk of developing prostate , bladder, , breast , and lung cancer , and it’s even associated with the prevention of osteoporosis . I could go on and on about the benefits of increasing your vegetable consumption, but for now, suffice it to say that every form of nutrient-dense diet is packed full of vegetables.
- The cruciferous vegetable family includes arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, horseradish, mustard greens, radish, rutabaga, turnips, watercress, and wasabi.
- Spinach and artichokes are the most nutrient-dense of the non-cruciferous vegetables.
- Organic vegetables generally have a higher nutrient density, are grown without the use of toxic pesticides, and are typically grown using more environmentally sustainable methods than their conventional counterparts. Opt for organic whenever possible. In case you have to choose between organic and non-organic options, the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 are a great resource.
Fat → Your primary source of fuel.
Fat is a fabulous source of metabolic energy, and it’s time to liberate it from the misconstrued idea that fat consumption leads to heart disease. In fact, the research shows the exact opposite to be true. In 2010, a review of the relevant literature involving nearly 350,000 individuals found no association between saturated fat and heart disease . More recently, a study published in August of 2017 revealed an inverse relationship between fat intake and cardiovascular disease as well as cardiovascular-related death in a study pool of over 135,000 adults in 18 different countries . They also found that higher carbohydrate consumption was directly associated with an increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease and death. That is to say, people who consumed more fat were less likely to develop or die from cardiovascular disease including stroke, whereas people who consumed more carbohydrates heightened their risk.
We all need fuel, and in order to reduce our health risks and maximize our healthspan, opting for fat over carbohydrates is the way to go. Toss out the “Fat-Free” and “Reduced Fat” packaged goods and bring on the coconut oil. Fat is your friend and in the future, we’ll talk about how eating a low carbohydrate, high fat diet promotes healthy weight loss.
- All oils should be unrefined and cold pressed to preserves their chemical integrity.
- The oils that are best for cooking have a high smoke point, meaning they won’t oxidize while you’re cooking: coconut oil, ghee/butter, grass-fed animal tallow/lard, and avocado oil.
- Coconut oil is a great source of medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s).
- Unheated (raw) olive oil drizzled on cooked vegetables or used in salad dressing is a great source of monosaturated fats.
- Nuts can be a good source of fat → Cashews are best due to their omega-3 profile followed by walnuts and almonds.
- Avocados are another great source of monounsaturated fat.
- Dairy fats are okay if they are well tolerated→ creme fraiche (homemade/living), full-fat yogurt, and kefir are fermented and therefore also full of beneficial bacteria. Butter is typically well tolerated unless you have a fairly significant dairy sensitivity or allergy.
- Fat from animal products (meat, lard, and dairy) should come from grass-fed sources to maximize their omega-3 content.
- Cold water fish, like salmon and sardines, are your best source of omega-3’s.
Protein → Amino acid building blocks.
Protein is essential to provide the amino acids your body needs to construct its own proteins, but we often need less than people think. Typically, consuming 10-35% of your daily macronutrient intake as protein (the ratio between carbohydrate, fat, and protein), is sufficient to meet all dietary needs. In the case of athletes, the timing seems to matter more than quantity. Consuming protein-rich meals immediately post-exercise is more beneficial to muscle mass development and strength gains than the average daily quantity of protein consumed .
- Emphasize proteins with high omega 3 content. Think grass fed.
- Organic, free-range, and hormone free whenever possible.
- Eggs, ruminants, and seafood are your staples with some poultry and pork for variety.
- Egg yolks are packed full of nutrients and they won’t negatively affect your cholesterol. Fried or poached is best because those nutrients are more bioavailable when the yolk is left runny.
- Ruminants: beef, bison, lamb, goat, venison, elk.
- Seafood: Wild-caught cold water fish like salmon and sardines, shellfish, and other seafood from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List.
Safe Starches → The good carbs.
Safe starches are starchy vegetables, like yams, that act as fuel while also containing prebiotics and micronutrients but none of the harmful compounds found in refined carbohydrates or cereal grains.
- Sweet potatoes & yams → Provide food for beneficial intestinal bacteria. These along with winter squashes are the most beneficial starches to include in your daily diet.
- Winter squashes → kabocha, carnival, butternut, pumpkin, etc.
- White and black rice → Some people do well with rice. Notice I left out brown. The intact hull in brown rice contains high levels of arsenic- a toxin. Brown rice should be prepared carefully or replaced with white or black rice.
- Potatoes → These are debatably a safe starch. Eat sparingly for variety. The more colorful the potato the better. Purple potatoes are the most nutrient-dense. Avoid russets due to their poor nutrient content.
Your Personal Nutrient-Dense, Whole-Food Diet
A nutrient-dense, whole-food diet is the framework for providing your basic nutritional requirements but it doesn’t account for your current health status or genetics. Tweaking this diet to meet your individual needs is essential to maximize your health and athletic performance. For you, that might mean adopting an autoimmune variation and eliminating dairy and eggs or using a ketogenic diet to promote insulin sensitivity. Working with a trained professional can be helpful for discovering your ideal version of a nutrient-dense, whole-food diet and implementing it safely. Always consult a healthcare provider before making any changes. Whatever you decide, remember that your optimum diet is a moving target and every little bit of effort you put into eating a nutrient-dense diet is a huge step toward reaching your health potential.
In Part 2, we’ll continue exploring the nutrient-dense, whole-food diet by diving into the details of the foods to consume in moderation.