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What is “Nutrient Density”?

 Examples of nutrient density scores. 70 calories of each food is shown here.

Examples of nutrient density scores. 70 calories of each food is shown here.

“Nutrient Density” refers to the ratio between the amount of beneficial nutrients in a food and its caloric content. Foods high in nutrients (like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber) and low in calories get a high (favorable) nutrient density score, while foods low in nutrients and high in calories get a low (bad) score. 

The gold medalists

There is no single authoritative nutrient density scale, but all of the systems I’ve seen, whether on a 1 - 100 or 1 - 1000 scale, arrive at similar findings. When you look at the leaderboards, the powerhouses are always dark leafy greens like kale, chard, collard greens, and spinach. Dark leafy greens are low in calories and contain many antioxidants, calcium, nitrates, carotenoids and other phytonutrients. 

Also on the platform

Other low-calorie, nutrient-rich vegetables follow, such as romaine and Boston lettuce, broccoli, artichoke, and cabbage. Some rankings might surprise you. Even whole foods like bananas, nuts, avocados, and brown rice rank low on nutrient density scales because of their calorie count—i.e., you can get equivalent amounts of nutrients in foods that are much lower in calories. 

The losers

Not surprisingly, fast food, processed food, oils, sugary foods, meats, dairy, and eggs are low on all nutrient density scales. 

Why getting lots of nutrients matters

Most Americans believe that lots of protein and low levels of fat and carbs are the keys to health and slimness. The obesity rate in the U.S. would suggest that these beliefs are not working. In reality, a focus on whole foods high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and other amazing micro-nutrients) would help improve our health. Nutrients help the body function properly, including the immune system and cellular repair mechanisms, which protect us from chronic diseases. People who call themselves “nutritarians” focus on eating as high on the nutrient density scale as possible.

For more information

Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, is the best known proponent of nutritarianism and the person who coined the term. He offers books, welcome kits, checklists, and cookbooks. You can download a .pdf copy of Dr. Fuhrman’s nutrient density chart

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What is “Caloric Density”?

Caloric Density photo FB friendly.jpg

If you don’t have to watch your weight, you can ignore this post. For the rest of us, the 99%, “caloric density” matters. 

Caloric density is the concentration of calories in a food, essentially the relationship between the food’s calories and its weight. Some foods have many more calories per ounce than others. For example, 

  • Vegan chocolate cake – 93 calories per ounce (1488 per pound)

  • Fresh apple – 14 calories per ounce (224 per pound)

Big difference, yeah. But we all could have guessed that one.

Some otherwise healthy plant-based foods are relatively calorie-dense. 

  • Oat bran bagel – 71 calories per ounce (1136 per pound)

  • Raisins – 84 calories per ounce (1344 per pound) (not too far off the chocolate cake)

  • Dry roasted mixed nuts – 166 calories per ounce (2656 per pound) (almost doublethe chocolate cake!) 

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables have the lowest caloric density, as we see from the apple example. Fruits and vegetables tend to have high water content, high fiber content, and low fat content. This means they provide a lot of bulk without a lot of calories. 

Grains

Grains are higher in caloric density than the majority of fruits and vegetables. Whole-grain and refined grains don’t differ much in calories, but whole grains offer more fiber, which slows the movement of food through your system. Fiber also regulates sugar levels and helps keep you fuller longer. 

Oils

Oils and butter are the most calorie-dense foods. Oil is 100% fat, and butter (even vegan butter) is nearly that, too. 

  • Olive oil – 248 calories per ounce (3968 per pound)

Avoiding hunger pangs

Caloric density matters if you want to avoid hunger pangs. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables means you can eat more and feel fuller. But you can’t live on fruits and vegetables alone—you need protein and grains too. Tilting the balance toward fresh fruits and vegetables and trying to include them in every meal and snack will help you feel satisfied. 

Using dried fruit and nuts between meals to stave off hunger can be dangerous if you really do need to watch your weight. They are deceptively high in calories, even though they are much healthier for you than chocolate cake. 

For more information

If you want a visual representation of the caloric density of dozens of foods, download this chart

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Amla Powder, Antioxidant Powerhouse

Amla (Indian gooseberry) powder benefits

In a recent test of 3,000 different foods, Indian gooseberries emerged as the number-one antioxidant-rich food -- ahead of goji berries, raisins, acai berries, and anything else you can think of that might be at the top of the rankings. Check out this video for the details.

Anti-inflammatory too

Amla is also anti-inflammatory and, in one study, it reduced and reversed cancer cell growth in vitro. It can help normalize blood sugar levels in diabetes patients, and it’s high in vitamin C. 

Inexpensive and easy to use

And did I mention it’s cheap? I bought a 12-ounce bag of amla powder a month ago for $13 on Amazon, and we use 1 teaspoon a day in smoothies. It has a slightly bitter taste, but that gets counteracted in smoothies or sweet baked dishes like custards or pumpkin pies. For a smoothie with more antioxidants in one serving than most people get in a week, try my "How Not to Die" Pumpkin Smoothie.

You can also buy amla powder in capsule form. 

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Myths about Protein Combining

About 40 years ago, someone came up with the theory that plant-based proteins were incomplete and that vegetarians had to eat “complementary proteins” during the same meal, for example, rice and beans, or tofu and sesame seeds. This fallacy was refuted decades ago, but the myth persists.

It turns out our body maintains pools of free amino acids that it can use to do all the complementing for us. Some 90 grams of protein are dumped into the digestive tract every day from our own body to get broken back down and reassembled, and so our body can mix and match amino acids to whatever proportions we need.

Plant-based eaters do not need to be concerned about amino acid imbalances from plant proteins. For more information, see this video on Nutritionfacts.org.

 

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Health Benefits of Sweet Potatoes

Sweet potatoes get major points for nutrition (not to mention taste and ease of preparation). They are an excellent source of three major vitamins (Vitamins B6, C, and D) as well as iron, magnesium, and potassium. Their natural sugars release slowly rather than causing blood-sugar spikes. They’re also high in carotenoids like beta carotene, which are important for eye and skin health and associated with lower risk of cancer. (This is where they differ most with yams, which have lower levels of carotenoids.) The dietary fiber provided by one serving is approximately the same as oatmeal. Unless you slather them in marshmallows or too much brown sugar, the more sweet potatoes, the better. 

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Read! Best Websites and Books on Diet and Health

If you love to read--either books, articles, or websites--this is the essential list for you to choose from.

The case for giving up meat, eggs, and dairy is made in different ways and through different lenses in these books. Some of the doctors personally led cohorts of patients through plant-based regimens with incredible results. Others are voracious readers of medical journals and summarize the results of research studies, laying out the implications for food choices we all have to make. The book at the end of the book list, Skinny Bitch, is a bit lighter, using  a tongue-in-cheek self-help approach to deliver its message, but is still based in science. 

Books 

  • How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Dr. Michael Greger

    • An examination of the 15 top causes of premature death in the U.S. and how nutritional and lifestyle interventions can help and prevent them; based on peer-reviewed medical research articles but told in an accessible and lively way

  • The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health by Dr. T. Colin Campbell

    • An informative summary of a 20-year research study that was one of the earliest to provide solid evidence about the link between diet and health.

  • Food for Life: How the New Four Food Groups Can Save Your Life by Dr. Neal Barnard

    • A case for how grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits can dramatically decrease the risk of cancer and heart disease

  • Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically-Proven, and Nutrition-Based Cure by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn

    • Chronicle of how a medical doctor helped his patients with a program of plant-based, oil-free foods that in many cases reversed the progression of heart disease

  • The McDougall Program for Maximum Weight Loss by Dr. John A. McDougall

    • Many people call this the best book for those who are looking to lose weight with a plant-based diet; Dr. McDougall is a rock star among plant-based advocates

    • You may also want to check out Doug Lisle and Alan Goldhamer's The Pleasure Trap, which offers a compelling argument for why humans are so susceptible to dietary and lifestyle excesses, and offers ways to re-set your body's expectations for foods that will keep you healthy

  • Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin

    • An advice book for women told in a hilarious style; it connects all the dots about a plant-based diet even as it entertains

Websites

  • The site Nutritionfacts.org, created and led by a medical doctor--Dr. Michael Greger, who wrote the book How Not to Die recommended above--this site offers free daily videos and articles summarizing the latest science-based nutrition research.

  • The site www.pcrm.org reflects the work of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and offers many excellent resources for people changing their diet toward less meat, eggs, and dairy; it has an especially helpful section on Type 2 diabetes.

  • Dr. Dean Ornish's site, ornishspectrum.com, provides many resources, research summaries, stories about patients who followed his program, recipes, and cooking demonstrations.

There are many other sites to choose from. I didn't include those that are sales-oriented, i.e., they withhold important information so that people will buy their book or sign up for their program. And I've focused on sites that base their work on research conducted by nutritional scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals. 

More 

If you want more information on additional books and websites, check out these recommendations.

http://susanpitcairn.com/blog/86542/why-and-how-to-go-vegan-best-videos-and-books

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Watch! Best Documentaries and Videos on Diet and Health

Humans are wired for visual stimulus. In John Medina’s book Brain Rules, his Rule #10 is “Vision trumps all other senses.” He reviews studies that have shown that vision is by far our most dominant sense (it takes up half our brain’s resources). We learn and recall best if we’ve seen an image about something, not read about or heard it.

Many people have told me that a documentary or video dramatically changed their thinking about what they ate and solidified their decision to decrease meat, egg, and dairy intake. My sister-in-law had this experience. After watching a few videos (all of which are on this list), she plunged into a decision she’d been contemplating for a while: to cook vegetarian for her husband and herself. For many people, watching a case being made is what finally flips the switch. New information—visually presented—is powerful.

There are a lot of documentaries and online videos that cover the importance of diet to a person’s health and how the standard American diet increases the risk and severity of many chronic diseases. The documentaries and videos recommended here all conclude, in their own way, that a plant-based diet is superior to others. If that is the direction you are leaning in your thinking about what you eat, these resources will be helpful to you.  

For documentaries, I've listed streaming services that carry each one. For online videos, I've embedded the link in the name of the video. 

I hope you find these resources as helpful as I have. 

Documentaries 

  • Forks Over Knives, Netflix

    • An excellent overview of the connection between chronic disease and the standard American diet

  • Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead 2, Netflix

    • One man's journey to regain his health through a drastic change in the way he ate--he tells the story while on a road trip across the U.S.

  • PlanEat, Amazon Prime

    • In-depth interviews with three experts who became convinced that a plant-based diet is superior to all alternatives: a professor of nutrition, an environmental scientist, and a gourmet chef

  • Vegucated, Netflix

    • An honest look at three average New Yorkers who were selected to try a plant-based diet; we see how they responded to the evidence, what they ate, the effects on their health, the social and familial complications, and whether they stuck to it (short- and long-term)

  • Food Matters, Netflix, Amazon Prime

    • An examination of how what we eat affects our health through interviews with a number of doctors, nutritionists, and other professionals

  • The Engine 2 Kitchen Rescue, Netflix

    • The story of two families that make the switch to a plant-based diet with the assistance of Rip Esselstyn, an expert in plants-based eating

Videos

Get a cup of coffee or tea and begin watching. There are some awesome choices online.

  • Nutritionfacts.org is a comprehensive site of thousands of short videos on hundreds of nutrition topics. Dr. Michael Greger has been summarizing and explaining nutritional science for years, and he's exceptionally good at it. If there's been a scientific study on a topic, you'll find it here. His videos are informative, entertaining, and succinct.

    • Dr. Greger's videos are also available on DVD's, sent free to anyone who donates $25 or more per month to the non-profit organization that supports the site (see here); or they can be bought separately (see here).

  • If you like TED talks, see some good choices here: Must-Watch TED Talks On The Power of Eating Plant-Based

  • Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a well-known nutritional expert and has guided many people to better health. In this YouTube video you'll get an overview of his system. Dr. Joel Fuhrman: 3 Steps To Incredible Health — Eating Healthy to Achieve a Great Vital Life

  • Dr. Neal Barnard is a leader among medical doctors who support plant-based eating for preventing and reversing chronic diseases. This YouTube video is a good overview of his outlook: Foods for Protecting the Body & Mind: Dr. Neal Barnard

More

If you want more information on more documentaries and videos, check out these recommendations.

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/10-best-food-and-health-documentaries/

http://essentialvegan.blogspot.com/p/films.html

http://susanpitcairn.com/blog/86542/why-and-how-to-go-vegan-best-videos-and-books

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