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?