Counting nutrients not calories is the latest healthy eating trend. So can following a ‘nutritarian’ diet really improve your health and wellbeing?
It’s the flavour of the month in the US. With singer Alanis Morissette as its poster-girl and the once-uninspiring green vegetable, kale, as its top superfood, the ‘nutritatian’ trend is now heading to the UK. We all have our favoured healthy eating method: counting calories, cutting wheat and dairy, opting for low-GI, fat-free or organic. But advocates of the nutritarian system suggests these ways of monitoring food intake are missing the point about the best way to eat healthily.
Instead, they suggest we would do better to concentrate on making each spoonful of food we put in our mouth as full of nutrients as we can possibly make it. Using the ANDI (aggregate nutrient density index) score system, nutritarians rate food according to how many micro-nutrients it contains per calorie, including vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
‘The ANDI system is about scoring micronutrients and phytonutrients – the things in food that make us healthy and protect against disease. It’s a powerful tool for helping people eat better,’ says Kevin Leville, CEO and founder of Eat Right America, which funds nutritional research and devised the system.
‘The results are amazing. When people stop eating processed foods and eat more fruit and vegetables, which have the ANDI scores, they lose weight and become healthier,’ says Leville. Indeed, weight loss is one of the main side effects of what Leville calls ‘overindulging on health foods’ – eating high ANDI-scoring foods such as nutrient-packed green and colourful vegetables and fruits. Alanis Morissette apparently lost 20lb (9kg) by following the diet, reducing her meat consumption and boosting her intake of greens, beans, nuts and tofu. With nutrient-dense foods, your appetite is naturally curbed and you soon stop craving processed foods and stay fuller for longer.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, chief medical officer of Eat Right America and author of Eat for Health (Nutritional Excellence) says the ANDI eating system is all about preventative health.
‘It’s not just about counting calories and eating less food. It’s about how higher nutrient consumption suppresses appetite and reduces food addiction and food cravings,’ says Fuhrman, commenting online about Morissette’s 20lb weight loss on the nutritarian diet.
Although it can help with weight loss, it also promotes long-term emotional and physical health, insists Fuhrman. ‘It promotes long life, heart attack and cancer protection and prevention of dementia and strokes. It’s aggressive in terms of disease protection.’ He says the diet works because, rather than merely cutting fat or eating fewer animal products, for example, it steers you towards foods with the most powerful disease-protecting micronutrients.
To come up with an ANDI score, nutrient quantities, which are normally in many different measurements (mg, mcg, IU) are converted to a percentage of their reference daily intake (RDI) so a common value is devised for each nutrient. The highest possible score a food can achieve is 1,000 and all foods are rated on a scale of 1 to 1,000. The higher the concentration of micronutrients a food contains, the higher its ANDI score.
Green vegetables, especially kale, are the most nutrient-dense foodstuffs. All vegetables and fruit rank fairly highly (between 100 and 1,000) and most other foods below 100, for example rice and potatoes are about 50, wholewheat bread is 25, eggs 27, salmon 48, walnuts 35, and chicken breast 32 – so the diet privileges fruit and veg. Since the regime is about packing nutrients into every mouthful, favourite meals are smoothies crammed with fruit and veg. Soups are also recommended because instead of throwing away nutrients with the cooking water, you stir them back into the soup before liquidising it – and you can have a few cashew nuts to add more nutrients, healthy fat and to give a creamy flavour.
Fuhrman insists the nutritarian diet delivers enough protein even though it cuts animal proteins, such as meat and fish. He says we can easily eat enough protein in plant-based foods, such as nuts, seeds, soya foods such as tofu, mushrooms, wholegrains and green vegetables.
Nutritarians also eat fats, because existing on the highest ANDI fruit and veg foods alone risks leaving them short of calories. ‘This system suggests the healthiest way to get fats, which we need for health, is via nuts and seeds, rather than animal fat,’ says Leville. ‘The diet is lower in fat and calories, but much higher in nutrients.
‘Unfortunately, in Western society we can easily overindulge on fat and calories from processed food, but our bodies are still chronically undernourished. Many people are overweight but starving for nutrients. They all live in a state of chronic hunger with stomachs gurgling because they’re not properly nourished.’
A low-fat diet
The ANDI system is based on research at Tufts University, says Leville. He points out that a two-year peer-viewed study showed a group of people on the nutritarian regime lost an average of 53lb (24kg) and 38 per cent of them had still kept the weight off two years later.
Health store Whole Foods Market has been so impressed with the ANDI system it’s labelling food with ANDI scores at its London stores. ‘We’re committed to helping customers make healthier choices and we think this helps them identify the most nutrient-rich foods,’ says spokesperson Alex Tunney.
‘Dr Fuhrman has discovered through the years of research on thousands of patients that a body rich in micronutrients will quickly seek its ideal weight and stay there, reversing most diet-related chronic conditions.’
She says ANDI scores will steer people towards healthier foods. For instance, a serving of kale, a dark leafy green, scores 1,000, placing it a t he top of the index, while a fizzy drink scores just one and brown rice has a higher score than white rice.
How to do it
The ANDI system advocates you eat a minimum of four daily servings of green and colourful, non-starchy vegetables; three to five daily servings of fruit; one to three daily servings of nuts and seeds; one to three daily servings of beans and one to three servings of wholegrains and starchy vegetables.
You’re advised to limit consumption of fish, eggs, non-fat dairy, poultry, meat, white bread, pasta, oils, full-fat dairy, processed meats, processed food and sweets. You should also exercise for 20 to 30 minutes a day, five to six days a week.
However, registered dietician Anna Raymond sounds a note of caution about the ANDI system. She fears it may be too extreme and challenging to maintain in the long term. ‘It’s essentially healthy because it suggests you cut refined carbohydrates and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, but it’s an extreme eating regime that’s hard to maintain in the real world.
‘It tilts the scales too much towards fruit and vegetables and doesn’t include enough protein or carbohydrate. You’d definitely lose weight, but might end up bloated because it’s so high in insoluble fibre.’ She fears foods that may be useful in an easier-to-follow long-term balanced diet (especially if you’re low in iron or calcium) such as red meat, dairy or olive oil, have low ANDI scores, which could put people off them.
‘I’m also worried that because it’s extreme it may attract those who are overweight or dangerously underweight – and they should talk to their GP or the British Dietic Association for advice first,’ she adds.
Leville admits the nutritarian system is extreme and might be hard to follow when most of the food on sale in the Western world scores low on the ANDI index. ‘Yes it’s radical, but we need real change in our eating because the way most people choose food isn’t keeping them healthy – they’re getting sick with obesity, heart disease and diabetes and we need to do something different. The results of this regime are amazing,’ he says.
Registered dieticians may still take some convincing that nutritarianism is a better method than the more moderate ‘eat well plate’ system they recommend. The plate sets out a balanced daily intake of vegetables, carbohydrate, meat and dairy; see bda.uk.com.
If you think this regime’s for you, buy a book to find out the ANDI scores like Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman (Little Brown & Co.). Oh and prepare to eat kale, lots and lost of kale! If that’s a bit extreme for you, you could try adding in some of the top-scoring foods to your existing diet to boost your nutrient intake.
The new superfoods and top ANDI-scoring foods for each food group
Green leafy vegetables are the top ANDI-scoring superfoods. Use in soups or savoury smoothies.
Kale and watercress 1,000 (ANDI score)
Bok Choy 824
Brussel sprouts 672
Green pepper 258
Choose fruit for dessert.
Pomegranate juice 193
Cantaloupe melon 100
NUTS AND SEEDS
Eat top scoring nuts and seeds as key contributors to your daily fat intake. Whizz into smoothies or add to salad dressings.
Flax and sunflower seeds 78
Sesame seeds 65
Pistachio nuts 48
Healthy protein – add to soups and stews with green leafy vegetables.
Kidney beans 100
MEAT AND FISH
Keep animal products to a minimum, but salmon is one of the highest ANDI scores of this category.
Chicken breast 32
Minced beef 20
Contrary to what registered dieticians recommend, the nutritarian diet is much lighter on traditional carbs such as pasta and bread. Their place is filled by the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables.
Wholewheat bread/pasta 25
Nutritarians suggest you get your calcium by eating lots of green leafy vegetables. But also use skimmed milk, eggs and low-fat yogurt if you want to keep eating dairy.
Skimmed milk 36
Low-fat yogurt 24
These barely register on the scale.
Ice cream 9
French fries 7
Try these high-ANDI foods. See eatrightamerica.com for details
BLUEBERRY ORANGE SMOOTHIE
- 3 dates, pitted
- 2 oranges, peeled and chopped
- 1 banana, peeled and chopped
- 148g blueberries
- 1 tbsp ground flaxseeds
Whizz all the ingredients up in a smoothie maker with soya milk to taste.
- 4 large wholewheat flatbreads or wraps
- 500ml pasta sauce, no or low salt
- 35g chopped shitake mushrooms
- 80g chopped red onions
- 285g broccoli florets, finely chopped
- 113g shredded soya cheese
Bake the wraps in the oven at 200 degrees celcius for 2 minutes. Lay them flat on a baking tray and spoon on the pasta sauce. Sprinkle evenly with the mushrooms, onions and broccoli and cover lightly with soya cheese. Bake in the oven at 200 degrees celcius for 20 minutes or until they look ready.