The Nutrivore Diet: What a Healthy Diet Looks Like | Chris Kresser
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The Nutrivore Diet: What a Healthy Diet Looks Like

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What is a healthy diet? For many, this is a difficult question to answer. There’s no shortage of dietary options out there, and each one claims to be the healthy option. I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to diet—or to health, for that matter—but there are characteristics a healthy diet should have. It needs to be nutrient-dense and based on whole foods, not processed or refined foods. It needs to be nourishing and meet the individual needs of the person eating it. The nutrivore diet checks those boxes.

nutrivore diet
The nutrivore diet emphasizes high-quality, nutrient-dense foods. iStock/mediaphotos

The nutrivore diet emphasizes whole foods that are rich in nutrients while avoiding the processed, inflammatory, and refined foods that drive chronic disease. The term “nutrivore” was coined by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne to describe someone who eats foods that are nutritious and provide the micronutrients our bodies need to be healthy and thrive. In this article, I’ll discuss what the nutrivore diet is—a healthy, whole foods approach to eating—and what it isn’t—the standard American diet.

Low-carb, low-fat, Paleo, plant-based … The diet options out there are endless, but what really constitutes a healthy diet? Check out this article to find out. #nutrition #chriskresser

What Is the Nutrivore Diet?

The nutrivore diet is made up of nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory whole foods like:

  • Meat
  • Organ meat
  • Shellfish and fish
  • Bone broth
  • A variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (including sea vegetables)
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Tubers
  • Starchy plants

Nutrivores avoid inflammatory foods like industrial seed oils and refined flour, and avoid things like processed foods and excess sugars.

Nutrivores also lead healthy lifestyles. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink excessively, they get plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep, and they manage their stress.

The nutrivore diet isn’t nearly as specific or restricted as some others. You won’t find a list of macronutrient ratios you have to hit to call yourself a nutrivore, and there certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all nutrivore diet plan to follow. The nutrivore diet is all about focusing on the nutritious foods that will nourish your body—whatever that may look like for you. 

That may mean including grains, legumes, and dairy, if your body tolerates them, or cutting out these things if not. You may find that you thrive on a cyclical ketogenic diet, or you could discover that you feel better with a more moderate carb intake. You might also find success with different eating patterns, like intermittent fasting.

We all have individual needs that vary, which means our personal definitions of a healthy diet will vary, too. In fact, the research into the diets of contemporary hunter–gatherers bears that out. There doesn’t appear to be one optimal human diet; instead, some people thrive on higher fat intakes, such as the traditional Inuit of Alaska and the Maasai of East Africa, while others emphasize carbs, like the Kitavans of Melanesia and the Okinawans of Japan. (1, 2, 3, 4)

The Nutrivore Diet vs. the Standard American Diet

Contemporary and ancestral hunter–gatherer societies have one thing in common: none of them followed traditional diets that were anything like today’s standard American diet. The standard American diet is characterized by processed and refined foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, and it’s associated with rapidly climbing rates of chronic disease. It’s dominated by nutrient-poor foods like:

  • Refined flour, which can raise blood sugar and cause metabolic dysfunction, and lead to other conditions like weight gain, cardiovascular disease, and many others (5, 6, 7)
  • Industrial seed oils, which can lead to inflammation, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic diseases (8, 9, 10)
  • Excess sugars, which have addictive qualities and may lead to gut dysbiosis, impaired immune function, metabolic syndrome, and other illnesses (11, 12, 13, 14)

This diet may be the standard now, but we didn’t always eat like this. The human diet changed fundamentally first with the Agricultural Revolution—when humans began cultivating grain and farming, leaving behind their nomadic, hunter–gatherer lifestyles—and again in recent human history with the invention of advanced food processing techniques. The nutrient-dense, whole foods diet we evolved to eat was replaced as recently as three generations ago, meaning we haven’t had nearly enough time to adapt—and that abrupt dietary shift has had a sobering effect on our health:

  • Six in 10 U.S. adults have a chronic illness. (15)
  • Four in 10 U.S. adults have multiple chronic conditions. (16)
  • One-third of Americans are at risk for nutrient deficiencies or anemia. (17)
  • Nearly 40 percent of Americans are obese. (18)
  • Around 30 million American adults have diabetes, while 84 million have prediabetes. (19)
  • The average life expectancy is dropping in the United States, and the leading causes of death include heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. (20)

This is the chronic disease epidemic, but we don’t have to let it continue unchecked. The nutrivore diet is a great antidote to standard American fare. Nutrivores cut out the inflammatory foods mentioned above, instead opting for an eating pattern that more closely resembles the ones our ancestors followed. Eating this way—and living a healthy, ancestral lifestyle—are the core components of ancestral health, and they go a long way toward correcting the genetic mismatch that’s responsible for the rise in chronic disease. That means living a longer, healthier, more vibrant life.

What Is a “Healthy Diet”? It Comes Down to Diet Quality and Nutrient Density

There’s a lot of variation when it comes to defining a healthy diet. Rather than focusing only on the details—like the quantity of each macronutrient—it makes much more sense to look at the overall diet quality to determine whether a diet is healthy or not.

The quality of your diet deals with the types of foods you eat, rather than looking only at the amounts. A high-quality diet would differentiate between the carbs in a hamburger bun, for example, versus those in a sweet potato.

High-quality diets prioritize nutrient-dense foods over their processed, nutrient-poor contemporaries. Nutrient-dense foods include a high concentration of micronutrients and amino acids that our bodies need to thrive. Our bodies need roughly 40 different micronutrients to function normally, and the only way we can get them is through our food. Eating foods that are high in nutrient density can protect against deficiencies and related health problems.

Some of the foods with the highest nutrient density include:

  • Organ meats
  • Herbs and spices
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cacao
  • Fish and seafood
  • Beef
  • Lamb, veal, and wild game
  • Vegetables
  • Pork
  • Eggs and dairy

Evaluating a diet through the lens of diet quality can help cut through some of the noise surrounding nutrition. A landmark 2018 study published in JAMA got right to the heart of this issue by looking at which diet was better for weight loss: a healthy low-carb diet or a healthy low-fat one? (21) The results showed that both of these diets led to weight loss, and there were no significant differences between participants who followed a low-fat diet and those who followed a low-carb plan. The key point from this study is that all the participants were encouraged to follow a high-quality, nutrient-dense, “healthy” diet. Macronutrient quantities didn’t seem to matter as much as the overall quality and nutrient density of the participants’ diets.

Why “Nutritionism” Gets in the Way of Our Ability to Judge a Healthy Diet

There’s a reason why it’s so difficult for many people to determine what a healthy diet is: nutritional research isn’t perfect, and it’s fraught with problems. A glaring issue is what’s known as “nutritionism,” or the practice of examining nutrients, isolated food components, or biomarkers—like saturated fats, carbohydrates, calories, or low-density lipoprotein cholesterol—out of the context of foods, diets, and bodily processes. (22) This is a reductionist approach that ignores important factors like overall diet quality, and it has interfered significantly with nutrition science’s ability to provide the public with useful guidance on health.

Nutritionism has led to great things, like the discovery of life-saving drugs, vitamins, and minerals, but it has also led to our current obsession over the minute details of our diets. Rather than focusing on certain percentages of fat or carbs, it’s far more helpful to pay attention to the overall quality of your diet.

For more on the issues with nutritional research, check out my two-part series:

Three Tips to Eat like a Nutrivore

If you’re following a Paleo, or ancestral diet, you’re already eating like a nutrivore. An ancestral diet is already anti-inflammatory and based on the types of nutritious, whole foods that nourish our bodies and improve our health. 

If you are considering a switch from a standard American diet, however, here are some general tips to get you started on a nutrivore diet.

Changing a diet is challenging, but a health coach can help. Health coaches are behavior change experts. They assist clients by helping them explore their own motivations, determine which steps they’re ready to take, experiment with changes, and connect their goals with their long-term vision of health.

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1. Include Plant and Animal Foods

The typical nutrivore diet includes plant and animal products. This is becoming a point of some debate as vegetarian and vegan diets gain in popularity, but I maintain that a truly nutritious diet must include a mix of nutrient-dense plant and animal foods.

We evolved to eat meat. Archaeological evidence suggests that our hominid ancestors have been eating meat for at least 2.5 million years, and studies of contemporary hunter–gatherers show that most human societies get the majority of their calories (around 68 percent) from animal foods. (23, 24)

Evolutionary evidence aside, the risk of deficiencies is much higher in non-meat diets, especially among vegans. Vegans and vegetarians could be deficient in several key nutrients like:

We get a variety of essential and nonessential nutrients from both plant and animal products, which is why it’s crucial to include both in a nutrivore diet. 

As an important note, I’ve always rejected the idea that a Paleo, ancestral diet is an “all-meat” diet (for more information about a true all-meat diet, check out my article on the carnivore diet trend). It’s much more accurate to call it a plant-based diet that includes meat and other animal products.

For more on this subject, check out my recent reviews on meat and its impact on our health and performance:

2. Pay Attention to Calories and Volume

If you do choose to zero in on calories and macronutrients, keep in mind that calories are not the same as volume. If, for instance, you’re following the hunter–gatherer example and trying to get 68 percent of your daily calories from animal foods and the remaining 32 percent from plants, that does not mean that 68 percent of your plate should be piled high with animal foods. Animal products are much more calorie-dense than plant foods, meaning you don’t have to eat nearly as much to reach your calorie goals.

Even if the majority of your calories are coming from animal products, it’s more likely that plant foods will take up most of your plate. In general, I devote around 70 percent of my plate to plant foods, while animal foods take up the remaining 30 percent. 

The specific amount of animal foods vs. plant foods you eat depends on your preferences, needs, and goals. I’ve seen many people thrive on a range of 35 and 50 percent of calories from animal foods and between 50 and 65 percent of calories from plant foods. If you’re unsure, that would be a good place to start.

3. Experiment with Different Foods

I’ve long been a proponent of the Paleo template, rather than the Paleo diet. The difference is that, while a “diet” implies rigid rules that must be followed, a “template” allows for flexibility, individualization, and experimentation. I believe the same principle applies to the nutrivore diet.

As you adopt a healthier, nutrient-dense diet, it’s important to experiment with different foods and to pay attention to how your body reacts to them. The best method for doing this is by undergoing a 30-Day Reset where you eliminate the “gray-area foods” that often cause reactions, like dairy, grains, legumes, sweeteners, and alcohol (as well as the processed, refined foods and industrial seed oils you would already be avoiding on a nutrivore diet). After you remove these foods from your diet for a full 30 days, you can systematically reintroduce them one by one, making a note of your body’s response. For a step-by-step process on how to navigate a 30-Day Reset, pick up a copy of my book The Paleo Cure.

Regardless of which diet you follow, your main goal should always be to focus on nutrient density. Humans can thrive on a variety of food combinations, but not on a diet that’s deficient in the vitamins and minerals our bodies need. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense, whole foods, and enjoy!

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