Are you really eating a nutrient dense diet? (And would Dr. Price approve?)

We’ve seen the term “nutrient dense” a lot in recent years. It is used to describe everything from butter to kale to chocolate. Raw foodies use it, primal dieters use it, whole grain advocates drop it, and many companies use it to describe their products. But before that term was on everyone’s tongue, I saw it used primarily by Sally Fallon when talking about the research of Dr. Weston A. Price.

This overuse of the term “nutrient dense” can make us think that we are eating a nutrient dense diet, when we aren’t. That dark chocolate you ate may be good for you, but that doesn’t mean you are eating a nutrient dense diet. But this is true for a wide variety of diets, including even paleo and grain-free diets, diets that have many similar roots as Dr. Price’s research.

For those of us who follow some of the individual recommendations of Nourishing Traditions such as consuming fermented foods or soaking whole grains, and eating a wide range of produce and meats and whole grains, we can assume we are eating a nutrient-dense diet while falling far short nutritionally of the type of diet Dr. Price advocated. It is not that the diet is that hard to follow, sometimes we just need to tweak what we are already doing to really follow his guidelines. And those tweaks can make a world of difference.

Let’s say you are on a paleo diet, and at your dinner, your most “nutrient dense” meal of the day, you had grilled grass-fed steak, squash with coconut oil and cinnamon, and a large green salad with an olive oil and vinegar dressing. While this healthy meal could certainly be part of a nutrient full diet, if that is your typical meal, there are going to be some gaps in certain nutrients – at least according to Dr. Price.

But let’s talk a little about Dr. Price before we get into that.

Sometimes personal tragedy leads to a life that blesses and touches others by the thousands, and that is true of Dr. Price. A dentist whose child died from complications from a tooth infection, his desire to study and research the topic of cavities and health in general was deeply impended not just as a dentist but as someone who was touched tragically by ill-health. His world travels and research both abroad and at home ended up touching many lives, not only during in his lifetime, but it continues today as well.

His book has had a lasting impact on me, for one. And it was from his writing that I learned what a truly nutrient dense diet is. His book, Nutrition and Physical Degenerationis huge. But in short, he studied 14 people groups who were largely untouched by modern food who had strong immunity to the many modern disease of the time, as well as excellent dental health. He compared this group with a modernized selection from the same people group who had largely abandoned their traditional diet in favor of white flour, sugar, jams, and processed vegetable oils. He found an alarmingly high rate of disease and tooth decay in the second group, so different from the good health of the first. He was just one man, and his research, like any other, is not going to be perfect or the entire picture of the world. But it has been so helpful for many of us today, just like it was for those who he counseled during his lifetime.

In the 14 groups that he studied he found that while the food items varied greatly, the nutrient levels were very similar. For example, one group that he studied was an isolated group in Switzerland who lived primarily on rye bread, dairy products, and meat once a week and various vegetables. The group of people in the Outer Hebrides had a diet “chiefly of oat products and sea foods including the wide variety of fish available there”. No dairy products here. But included in the liberal supply of fish, was a focus on the livers of fish. Eskimos included liberal use of organs, fish, and fat, along with some berries and nuts. Indians living in the Rocky Mountain Range of Canada lived mostly on game during the winter, along with certain barks and buds of tree, and plant food during the growing season. However, don’t think just lean steak here. They obtained a lot of nutrients and fats from the marrow of the bones, and gave a lot of the lean meat to their dogs. African tribes ate insects, as well as the milk and blood of their cattle. “The native diet of the tribes living in the islands north of Australia consisted of liberal quantities of sea foods. These were eaten with a variety of plant roots and greens, together with fruits. Few places in the world have so favorable a quantity of food for sea-animal life.”

The wide range of diets seemed so different, yet they were wildly similar in nutrient levels. Their diets were high in calcium, phosphorus, vitamin A and D and K2, among many other trace minerals. I also noted that Dr. Price said that he had “been impressed with the superior quality of the human stock developed by nature whenever a liberal source of sea foods existed.” As you read his further descriptions of the diets of these healthy people groups with little cavities and robust health, fish eggs, organ meats, whole fat dairy, and lots of seafood continue to appear. Even in the high altitude of the Andes, he found that they had bags of dried fish eggs and kelp to help fill in the gaps of their otherwise whole food diet.

Some of these diets would be considered “primal” some of them not, but he found that all of them were high in calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins D, A and K2.  When he compared the diets of the traditional food people group to those on a modern diet, he found that the traditional diet had an abundance of more nutrients. For example, the Swiss had 3.7 fold more calcium, 3.7 fold more phosphorus, 2.2 fold more magnesium, 3.1 fold more iron, and at least ten times more “fat soluble activators” (such as vitamin A, D, and K2). The other people groups were similar, and many of them had even higher amounts of more nutrients in their diet.

He found that while the modern diets of his time were lower in many nutrients then the minimum recommendations of his time, that these 14 people groups had diets that were substantially higher in nutrients. “ It is of interest that the diets of the primitive groups which have shown a very high immunity to dental caries and freedom from other degenerative processes have all provided a nutrition containing at least four times these minimum requirements [of nutrients}.”

Two brothers: One ate a nutrient dense diet, the other didn’t and it showed up in their health and teeth

Because vitamins and minerals can be so nuanced in nature, he believed that you couldn’t simply supplement these nutrients, but that they needed to come from food and from food that worked in a synergy together. “Clearly it is not possible to undertake to provide an adequate nutrition simply by reinforcing the diet with a few synthetic products which are known to represent certain of these nutritional factors.”

Certainly these native people groups only got high nutrient levels by including consistently in their diet certain “nutrient dense” foods. These foods were often considered sacred in that society. They may not have had the knowledge of certain nutrient names, but they knew these foods were special. What nutrient dense foods they ate varied by culture, but they included seafood, liver and other offal, whole milk and butter (especially from pastured cows – Dr. Price found that milk from modern raised cows in his time not nutrient rich), fish eggs, fish liver (Dr. Price used cod liver oil), and other items not often found in English diets such as insects and blood.

Dr. Price brought what he learned back to America and used it to help children with nutritional deficiencies and dental issues, which we will talk about more next week.

This broad over sweep of his research is sure to raise as many questions as it answers. I will be talking more in future posts about the how’s and why’s of eating a “Dr. Price diet”, and putting together resources and a challenge in response to this research. So stay tuned for that. There is so much here to talk about.

Meanwhile, here is a downloadable PDF, which shows some of the nutrient-dense foods we should include in our diet on a regular basis according to Dr. Price’s research. It is not complete and in a rough order from most nutrient dense at the top of the list to least, but it covers the food most often easily accessible to use that is nutrient dense.

 I’d love for you to share how nutrient dense your diet is when compared to this list. Do you eat items off of each category on a regular basis? Which category is hardest for you?

 

KimiHarris

I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

Comments

  1. sarah says

    I’m printing off the pdf and putting it on my fridge. I hope to try everything on the list this year, so far there are lots of scary and new things and lots of favorites!

    • Michelle says

      What a great idea, best of luck to you. I am wondering how I could make myself eat a lot of those scary items. But I may just print this off and try your plan!

  2. Crystal says

    That is a great list. We seem to do a fairly good job but could do better on the D3 foods. I would love to introduce more of those to my family other that the FCLO and on a personal note I would eat wild caught salmon EVERY day if I could I Love that stuff.

  3. Amanda M. says

    After going over the list I was pretty surprise on how well my diet is. Only areas I seem to be lacking is vitamin A. Need to get some fermented cod liver oil!

  4. kitblu says

    I don’t get any of the Vitamin A group. I would love to find a source of raw, pastured milk. I do eat wild salmon but maybe I should up the quantity. Thanks for the list and reminding me about Dr. Price.

  5. Andrea says

    Thanks, I’m printing the list and putting it on my fridge too! We eat fairly well, but we could definitely stand to have some of these in the rotation more often (and try a few new things as well).

  6. says

    what a GREAT list! i’m also going to put it on my fridge. you spoke of how dr. price’s closeness to tragedy lead him to help so many people as a result of his quest–his work is still trickling down (thanks to sally fallon and mary enig too). my family eats nutrient dense food 95% of the time; we have to! we manage chronic illnesses and choose food as medicine. it’s inspiring to read this post and be reminded that one person’s story can affect so many. i just launched a cooking show with an emphasis on traditional foods in the hopes of sharing my story and inspiring other folks to look at their food too. i’m not cured, but i’m SO much better than i was before that–and i attribute that to the high nutrient density of our diets! thanks kimi. LOVE the nourishing gourmet.

  7. Diana says

    Thank you so much for this post. My husband and I are planning to have a baby in the next year or so and I have been looking into our diets to see what gaps we need to fill. We live in Korea and I can say that we are doing very poorly on the nutritional front. I find it hard to access many of the foods I would usually eat to fulfill our nutritional needs. Also, I’m concerned about eating the seafood here because of the pollution. I would greatly appreciate any advice on Asian foods that we could source that would provide us with a nutrient dense diet.
    Thanks again!

    • cirelo says

      Traditional korean diets are typically rich in nutrients. Organ meats, roe, seaweed, rich stocks amongst other foods are typical fare (including many fermented foods). I wonder if there is anyway a local could show you the ropes because I can say from experience that korean food can also be intimidating. You might also try smaller fish like anchovies, and sardines that usually have less pollution and are common in Korean cuisine.

  8. Gina says

    This is awesome! Thank you! I’ve been transitioning my family to more nutrient dense and traditional foods, so the PDF is quite helpful to use as a kind of cheat sheet when planning meals. I’ve also sent it to my parents who still seem to buy into the conventional low fat diets, but are slowly coming around. Thank you again!

  9. says

    So instead of just focusing on nutrient-dense foods, it may be more important to eat “nutritionally balanced” nutrient-dense foods? Makes sense to do both! Thank you!

    • KimiHarris says

      YES! I will be talking about this more, but Dr. Price tried to give certain minerals and vitamins together, as they worked together. That is, you needed the vitamin “activators” to help you absorb and use the minerals. :-)

  10. Lisa says

    What a great post! I’m looking forward to more like this. According to the list, we are doing quite well, with two lacks: besides the wild salmon and cod liver oil, we don’t eat much seafood, and I would say my biggest lack is the organ meat. We’re only eating liver about once a month, which is probably not nearly enough. My children gobble up the liver (mixed with ground pastured beef), but my husband and I eat it more like medicine…we don’t enjoy it at all. We got more adventurous this year when we had our beef butchered and got the kidneys AND liver, so we’re branching out, but I’d still rather have a good ol’ roast.

    I’m trying to incorporate more fermented foods into our diet as well. We do yogurt and kefir and kombucha, but I would like to do more with fermented fruits and veggies.

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful and thought provoking article.

    • KimiHarris says

      Lisa,

      That is munch how we are! I think it was a little shocking to read through his work again and see how much both seafoods and organ foods were emphasized. Without that important vitamin A and other important minerals/vitamins, the other nutritious foods you are eating may not be doing as much good! I’ll talk more about how much of these foods you should be eating next week. :-)

  11. says

    I eat paleo/primal/ancestral and according to this list I am doing really well! My only area of challenge is the Vitamin A list. I do have access to pastured butter so I can certainly increase the amount of that in my diet, and I will definitely look into fermented cod liver oil, but I can’t get raw dairy where I live without jumping through a lot of food regulation hoops.

    • KimiHarris says

      Getting raw milk can be a hassle, thankfully there are other options if that option is open to you. :-) That vitamin A, according to Dr. Price is vital to good health. I love taking fermented cod liver oil. (Well sort of…hehe).

  12. Jen B. says

    Wow! This is great! I’m so looking forward to reading this whole series. Anyways, great pdf! This really helps put things in perspective, what we should be focusing on. Basically I think we fall short on the organ meats, and I have a dairy allergy, so my calcium needs to come from something other than dairy. Anyways, this is a great list. Now how much of all of this we should be eating per day? Or maybe I should just read Price’s book. :)

    • KimiHarris says

      Definitely read his book! Very interesting. I will be talking more about amounts next week. When we are drinking (raw) milk, I just really concentrate on getting a lot of bone broth in my diet.

  13. Mark says

    Thanks for sharing this Kimi. Do you have any advice for magnesium? That is always a hard one to get. Do you supplement?

    • KimiHarris says

      Hey Mark!

      We do (hopefully) get magnesium from our diet from whole grains, etc. However, just today I bought a topical magnesium to use with my family. I’ll let you all know how I like it!

    • Lisa says

      I’ve been putting Epsom Salts in our baths (or putting the plug in while I take a shower, then adding the Epsom salts) to up our magnesium intake. My kids had been waking up quite alot at night and since I started the salts baths, they have done much better sleeping through.

  14. says

    What a great topic to bring up! I really appreciate this focus and your chart. It’s always good to have reminders, especially since we’ve just gone through a time of year where my “healthier treats” substituted for real food more than a few times!

    (Also – I think you mean Switzerland instead of Sweden in your early example)

      • says

        I think you meant “human stock” instead of “human stick,” too… I reread it several times, trying to figure out what a human stick was and how it could possibly pertain to nutrition. :) Wonderful, incredibly helpful article, and the PDF is SO fantastic! I was about to go read through Nutrition and Physical Degeneration again, but you’ve done all the work for me.

        • KimiHarris says

          Ummm..they were so skinny they were sticks? ;-) That is what I get for typing while looking at the book for the quote and then not double checking my typing well enough!

  15. April says

    What a great post and thanks for the list!

    We are a lot stronger in the calcium foods than I thought. So we’re actually doing really good there and eat a lot of stuff on a very regular basis, and that’s with us not tolerating diary.

    We’re poorest with the vitamin A group as we only occasionally have liver and don’t eat any of the other things in this group. Time to give the ol’ fermented cod liver oil a go again! lol

    The other groups we need to do better in as well but we do eat something from each on a fairly regular basis.

    Blessings,
    April

    • KimiHarris says

      It seems like being low in the Vitamin A area is common! Dr. Price thought it was one of the most important vitamins – but it is too common for us not to get enough of it.

      • Janet D. says

        Other sources of Vitamin A include pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, and turkey giblets, especially the liver.

  16. Becky says

    We eat a ton of pastured eggs in this house, and drink raw, pastured milk. I like making chicken and turkey bone broth but next up is beef bone broth as I took the soup bones from buying our half cow and they’re in my freezer! I also need to do better in the organ meat dept. Fish we don’t do as often, but mercury is worrisome. We do supplement with omega 3′s (my kids love Barlean’s lemon swirl fish oil) and vit. D with K2. Will do better this year! Organ meats with a 9 and 10 year old though should be interesting LoL

  17. Courtney Guerrieri says

    Thanks for the reminder. And the PDF is an awesome outline. It looks like I’m one of the few who feels comfortable that we get enough vitamin A. We get two gallons of raw grassfed milk every week for our family of 4. I make lots of cultured foods with it. We also do smoothies frequently for getting the kids to take their FCLO. (The cinnamon flavor from green pastures is actually quite good in a veggie/fruit/yogurt smoothie!) I have yet to attempt liver, and wish I could afford wild Alaskan salmon. Even on the west coast where it travels such a small distance, we choose the milk over salmon. Hopefully soon. Anyway, thanks again for posting.

  18. Heather says

    Wow Kimi! Thanks for stepping on my toes. It truly is not enough to say that we’re following NT practices, but to make sure we’re getting what we need to out of our diet. Thank you so very much for putting this in front of me and making me look at it through fresh eyes.

  19. says

    His work was life changing for us too, though we discovered his wisdom through The Maker’s Diet. When we are diligent, our health flourishes, when we stray too much, it suffers. Thanks for the printable list, I love having a quick reference like this to pass along to friends. :)

  20. Emilie says

    Thank you for this, a great source of information! A huge goal of mine this year is to revamp out family’s diet, but first we have to cook from our pantry so we can start with a clean slate. A few questions….

    Is it even worth eating non-pastured (conventional) animal products and non-raw dairy? What is the difference between pastured, free-range, and cage free in regard to eggs?
    Can we get vit. D from sunlight or is there a different type of vit. D in food?

    Our food budget is small and our family has 3 growing children. I have to ask you for thoughts about keeping it frugal and making food stretch, I am sure that is something that is on your mind.

  21. says

    one quick thought: it’d be interesting to put this list side by side with one for veggies, legumes, fruits, etc. because i know some very adamant vegans who’ll tell you that one can get all the nutrients they need from plants. it’d be so interesting to do a side-by-side comparison of the relative nutrient density of both…i wonder how that could be measured. looking forward to the future articles in this series.

  22. says

    Kimmi this was so well written :) I like to read these types of summaries a lot since I haven’t read the whole book yet! I especially like that you said “while the food items varied greatly, the nutrient levels were very similar” – today there is such debate about what we should eat, and what’s bad/good. This statement kind of calms the ruckus :)

  23. Angela says

    Thank you so much for this chart! I can’t wait to use it for meal planning. I’m really bad at that, but I hope to use your chart to make sure I get enough of every category for the week. I think my family eats an okay diet- but we definitely do not eat large enough quantities of most things. We are grain free, but I don’t think eating 5 slices of grain free cinnamon raisin bread is cutting it in the healthy department :/

  24. says

    I am super bummed & really discouraged right now. I try very hard to consume a “well balanced, nutrient dense” diet, but I have to avoid animal proteins due to my endometriosis. I feel that (for me) it is better to control it through diet rather than pump my body full of hormones, especially when we want to conceive, but in doing so many of the foods listed are off the table. I’ll have to see if it would be worth it to try consuming one serving a week… *sigh*

    • Lisa says

      Heather,
      I am surprised that you are avoiding animal foods because of endometriosis. Do you find that it is helping? Do you trust your source for that recommendation?

      I find it hard to believe that avoiding foods on this list would help. I always go back to Dr. Price’s research. The people he studied didn’t just have good teeth and then have problems elsewhere in their bodies. He found that when people were eating healthy diets ALL of their heath was improved, including their ability to reproduce, live long productive lives, and their mental health and outlook on life.

  25. Mrs. Nancy Bowman says

    Any tips for getting the link to work? I’ve tried multiple times and it won’t make the leap. Agreeing wholeheartedly on the comments so far, though. We’ve had NT for a number of years, and dabble in some of the concepts. The grass-fed beef (I’m from southern Alberta) and raw dairy are easiest; the rest (fermented whatever) is the working challenge…I’m grateful you’ve put this out there to stimulate others into moving further on in the NT ways.

  26. says

    I like this list…not sure about Goose Liver Pate, though (!)
    I also wonder about the vegetarians and vegans out there and what Dr. Weston Price would recommend. Thanks for this!

  27. Angela says

    Hi Kimi (and commenters),

    A dear friend of mine is suffering from colon cancer, and I was just about to send her an email encouraging her to incorporate bone broths in her diet. Since I know glycine is present in bone broths, I did a quick search of “glycine” and “cancer.” I got a bunch of websites about how glycine encourages cancer cell proliferation. I have no science background at all, but should I hold back on recommending bone broth for my friend? Anyone in the comments have any thoughts? I want to encourage her to eat a nutrient dense diet, because I think it will strengthen her greatly for her fight against cancer. Thank you!

    • says

      That’s a tough one Angela … a quick search for ‘bone broth cancer’ turns up quite a few people eating lots of bone broth as part of their cancer treatment. Maybe reading their comments on how it’s going would shed some light? It can be really confusing reading the scientific articles … often the testing is done in a really isolated way that wouldn’t really be the same thing as eating bone broth. It’s more likely something like adding glycine to a petri dish with cancer cells in it. Eating it as part of a nutrient dense diet is something else altogether.

  28. says

    Great post Kimi! I’ve been grappling with coming up with a way to emphasize this very point on my blog. As a society we are so focused on avoiding the bad things in food everyday that we forget to focus on ensuring we have LOTS of the good stuff in our diet. We tend to think avoiding toxic food is all it takes, but it’s not.

    Planning to spread this post around :-)

  29. Renee says

    Yes, I’d like to know more about fruit and vegetable sources that are nutrient dense. We eat lots of pastured eggs around here (beautiful yolks that are almost orange!), some pastured butter, wild salmon, and some others that are on most of the lists. I’d like to include more chia seeds and even more fish, but I’d really love to hear about the non-animal sources. I’m placing a hold on Nourishing Traditions at the library, but they don’t have Dr. Price’s book there.

  30. says

    Great chart! I’m regularly getting items from all categories, but have been meaning to try liver. Seafood is big on Dr. Price’s list, but seafood has never agreed with me. Sometimes it’s fine, but other times I get a terrible stomach ache. So, I avoid it. I don’t really want to spend the money or time preparing fish if it’s going to make me miserable! I have been taking FCLO with few problems, but I take it before bed so I don’t experience the aftertaste. Dairy, on the other hand, is awesome for me. I started making my own yogurt and love it!

  31. Jeanine says

    For years I have kept regular organic butter out on the counter for it to be soft and ready to use. Now, in switching to Kerrygold brand I wonder if it can stay out on the counter? Can anyone help me with this? Thanks.

  32. Simone says

    Hi I suffer with anaphylaxis to all nuts kiwi fruit and coconut can you please tell me the best way to achieve slouch outstanding results with these eliminated.

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