The modern day processed "white foods" such as sugar, bread, white rice, seed "vegetable" oils and processed breakfast foods are full of empty calories and low in nutritional value. Unfortunately, these foods now make up a large portion of the average Western diet.
Meanwhile, most people rarely consume their required intake of fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans and other nutritious food. When they do consume vegetables, often it is in the form of over-processed potatoes without the nutrient-dense peel, and deep fried in "cholesterol and saturated fat-free over-processed vegetable oils".
The average American, British person or Australian eats only one or two vegetables serves per day, a couple of pieces of fruit and a lot of over-processed and nutrient-depleted foods. These nutrient-depleted foods often require nutrients in order to be digested, absorbed, utilised and eliminated from the body. The cost of this may actually deplete the body of nutrients rather than provide them.
It is generally recognised that our bodies require some 90 essential nutrients that include 16 vitamins, 12 amino acids, three essential fatty acids and 20 or so minerals or trace elements. In addition, we need a growing list of phytonutrients such as antioxidants.
Rising rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses continue to be linked to a growing consumption of refined grains, added sugars and "empty calories", as well as major nutritional deficiencies. Refined grains, processed vegetable fats, and sweets are inexpensive, palatable, and convenient. However, they can also be energy-dense and are low in vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. The World Health Organisation has found sufficient evidence to link high consumption of energy-dense foods to the global obesity epidemic and chronic illness.
Energy-rich but nutrient-poor
Concerns that the standard Australian/American diet (SAD) has become energy-rich but nutrient-poor have been expressed for many decades now. Unfortunately, the food industry has consistently slowed positive change and confused the situation even more. Claims like "low fat", "no added sugar" or "protein enriched" are just perplexing the situation more and causing long term harm.
We now know that saturated fat, salt and cholesterol in food are not so bad for us and definitely not the demons they are made out to be by dietetic organisations who derive large sums of money from the sugar and vegetable oil industry. For example, eating foods with cholesterol is not bad for you according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) of the US Government. So it is not bad to eat eggs, particularly given that they are relatively nutrient-dense and they are much better for you than cereal breakfast foods. Protein enriched breakfast foods also translate to added gluten, the protein linked with gut conditions including coeliac disease. Just recently, the sugar industry has been discovered subverting policies to restrict sugar consumption by blocking information linking sugar with tooth decay over many decades. The sugar industry is now attacking the World Health Organisation which wants to lower the recommended sugar consumption by even more.
Calorie counting tunnel vision
Calorie counting is another example of a distraction from nutrition. Most of the diet programs count calories and barely even touch on nutrition. This is the root cause of why these programs don't work. People make judgments on the foods they eat based on calories, "low fat" or "no cholesterol" rather than eating healthy nutritious foods. Having tunnel vision and simply focusing on these issues at the cost of giving consideration to any of the other food issues is absolutely wrong and will never have a positive effect on your health and wellbeing. Simply counting the calories and balancing it with your exercise is a sure way of developing nutritional deficiency and illness that goes with it. The trick is to choose foods with high nutrient density that fill both needs at the same time. Whole foods tend to have the most nutrients for their calories.
Demonisation of fats and cholesterol
Attempts to translate dietary guidelines into practice, as formulated by professional associations and expert panels have also tended to focus on the negative. In many cases, healthy foods are defined by the absence of problematic ingredients like fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium, rather than by the presence of any beneficial nutrients they might contain. In the UK, the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute defined healthy foods by low amounts of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium per serving. The definition of healthy foods adopted by the American Heart Association was also based on the virtual absence of fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol and on a low sodium content per serving. The demonisation of these ingredients has occurred at the expense of more sugar and processed omega 6 fats being added, both which are inflammatory and linked with many forms of chronic illness.
Processed fats and sugary foods don't have the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals that your body needs to be healthy. That's why we call these calories empty. The World Health Organisation has cautioned against the excessive consumption of energy-dense foods, notably those high in sugar and fat.
The National Cancer Institute included in its former definition of healthy foods all fruits and vegetables in their natural form, with the exception of avocados, nuts, olives, and coconut. The exclusion of avocados, now rescinded, and was based purely on fat content and did not take the beneficial nutrients in avocados into account. But going against any common sense and science they still restrict nuts and coconuts. The research on avocados, nuts and coconuts is overwhelmingly positive. It seems these professional guidelines are just opinions.
The key to optimising your health and achieving your ideal body weight is to eat predominantly those foods that have a relatively high proportion of nutrients (non-calorie food factors) to calories (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins). Adequate consumption of micronutrients - vitamins, minerals, and many other phytochemicals - without excessive calorie intake, is the key to achieving excellent health and weight loss. The nutrient density in your body's tissue is proportional to the nutrient density of your diet. Dietary guidelines now recommend that consumers replace some foods in their diets with more nutrient-dense options.
Importance of nutrient density
Unlike food labels, which list only a few nutrients, nutrient density scores are based on many more important nutritional parameters. Nutrient density refers to how many nutrients you can obtain from food, given the number of calories it contains. Similar to the way energy density focuses on calories per serving, nutrient density is a simple way to highlight the link between nutrient content and calorie count. Foods that are nutritionally dense provide the most nutrients for the fewest number of calories. Any systematic nutrient-dense score should include fibre, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper, manganese, selenium, vitamin A, beta carotene, alpha carotene, lycopene, lutein and zeaxanthin, vitamin E, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B6, folate, vitamin B12, choline, vitamin K, Omega 3 and 9 fatty acids, as well as other phytonutrients and antioxidants as a percentage of their Dietary Reference Intake (DRI).
Not surprisingly, the most nutrient-dense foods tend to be plant foods, in particular leafy green vegetables. Also, because phytochemicals (plant based chemicals) are largely unnamed and unmeasured, these rankings may underestimate the healthful properties of colourful, natural, plant foods. The nutrient density of natural whole foods may be even higher. Nutrient density scores demonstrate the nutritional power of green vegetables, particularly compared to processed foods and animal products. Even though attention should be placed on these nutrient-rich foods, it is also important to achieve micronutrient diversity.
While there are many challenges associated with nutrient density, it is by far the best indicator of the nutrient base of foods. In reality, the energy density of foods is not always determined by their sugar and fat content. Often, energy-dense foods are simply those foods that are dry. Water, which provides weight but no calories, influences the energy density of foods more than any macronutrient, including fat. Examples of dry energy-dense foods are potato chips, whole grains and cereals. In contrast, fruit, vegetables, and milk are energy-dilute. Although the overall inverse relation between energy density and nutrient density may hold, not all energy-dense foods are necessarily nutrient-poor or vice versa.
The automatic assignment of all energy-dense foods into the "bad" category seems arbitrary and is not based on any particular metric or scale. Furthermore, what can be included in the nutrient density scores is only what is currently available from various databases. For example, at present it is limited in antioxidant data.
For maximum effectiveness, nutrient density models need to be transparent, based on publicly accessible nutrient composition data, and validated against independent measures of a healthy diet. They should also be based on 100kcal serving sizes which performed better than those based on 100g.
Nutrient density also has the advantage of shifting attention from diets back to foods and people don't need a calculator or an advanced degree in maths or nutrition to calculate what constitutes a healthy diet.
DISCLAIMER: Dr Peter Dingle is a researcher, educator and public health advocate. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor.
Dr Peter Dingle (PhD) has spent the past 30 years as a researcher, educator, author and advocate for a common sense approach to health and wellbeing. He has a PhD in the field of environmental toxicology and is not a medical doctor. He is Australia’s leading motivational health speaker and has 14 books in publication.