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RHR: Why Nutrient Density Matters and How to Optimize It


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Nutrient density should be the primary consideration when it comes to the choices we make about what we eat. In this episode, Chris discusses what nutrient density is, how common nutrient deficiencies are and why, ways to optimize nutrient intake in your diet, and what is important to include in a quality supplementation program.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What we mean when we talk about nutrient density
  • How common nutrient deficiencies are and issues with the current Recommended Dietary Allowances
  • Reasons why nutrient deficiency exists, even in people who eat a healthy, whole foods-based diet
  • Which key nutrients people are most commonly deficient in
  • How we can get adequate amounts of nutrients, including by increasing their availability in food and through supplementation
  • Why Chris chose each of the products in the new Adapt Naturals line of supplements

Show notes:

Chris Kresser:  Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m joined by Tracey O’Shea, and she’s going to take over the show and host it for this episode. Sometimes it’s fun to do this, where Tracey gets to interview me rather than me interviewing a guest because we’re going to talk about an issue that is near and dear to my heart [and is] something I’ve focused on throughout my entire career. As my career has progressed, I’ve only become more focused on it because I really believe that it’s probably the primary issue when it comes to nutrition and thinking about what is most important when we make choices around nutrition, but it’s one that I don’t think gets enough attention. It’s nutrient density.

Tracey, for those folks who don’t yet know you [and] maybe are newer listeners, can you say a little bit about your background? When we started to work together and what you’re up to now? Then we can dive right in.

Tracey O’Shea:  Of course. And thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to have these discussions that are extremely important. I’m a functional nurse practitioner, and Chris and I had the fortune of starting to work together about six years ago when I was hired at the California Center for Functional Medicine. Before that, I was at a pain clinic, and we were trying to integrate Functional Medicine and pain management, which was very fascinating. Since then, I’ve been seeing patients at the California Center for Functional Medicine, where I still am today, treating a variety of chronic illnesses for patients [of] all age ranges. [Anything] from hormones to autoimmune conditions to gastrointestinal issues, cardiovascular disease, you name it, I think I probably have seen it, and am managing it.

I think the biggest thing for me is [that we] had a great opportunity of you mentoring me for a few years and being by your side with almost every single patient and then really just being able to spread my wings and go from there. I think the value here is [that] we get to talk about nutrient density and the importance of it in a very general space, but also what we see clinically and how it is impacting the evolution of chronic disease, as well. So that’s what I’m also hoping to bring to light in this discussion, as we move through the process.

Chris Kresser:  Great. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little bit about nutrient density. What are your questions for me? Because this is such a huge topic, there’s so much to say. But I know that you’ve prepared some questions to help get to the root of it as quickly as possible.

Tracey O’Shea:  I think we should start at the beginning. When we say nutrient density, what do we mean? And why is it such an important topic? Let’s just start with the very basics.

What Is Nutrient Density?

Chris Kresser:  That’s a great place to start. Nutrients in our food fall into two categories, macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients refer to the three main substances that are required in large, or macro, amounts in the human diet. Those are protein, carbohydrates, and fats. I’ve talked about those in many different contexts for many years. [It’s a] very important subject. But the focus of this podcast, specifically, and of nutrient density, in general, is on micronutrients, which are the vitamins, minerals, and other compounds that are required by the body in small, or micro, amounts for normal physiological function.

When we talk about nutrient density, what we’re talking about is the concentration of those micronutrients as well as amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, in a given food. Carbohydrates and fats are important, of course, but those macronutrients can be partially synthesized by the body, at least for a limited amount of time if dietary intake is insufficient. An exception to that is the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which we can only get through food. But it is possible to survive without carbohydrates and fat, whereas it is not possible to survive without essential amino acids and micronutrients. So that’s what the term “nutrient density” refers to. I should say that the way nutrient density is thought of in the conventional world is slightly different than the way we think about it in the Functional and ancestral health communities. In the conventional world, nutrient-dense foods are defined as those that are high in nutrients, but low in calories and saturated fat. In other words, if a food has a lot of nutrients but it also has saturated fat or is higher in calories, it will be penalized in a conventional nutrient density scale. Whereas in the Functional and ancestral health world, we recognize that certain foods that are very nutrient-dense, like some animal products, meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, etc., can also be higher in calories, and that’s not a reason not to eat them and not to consider them to be nutrient-dense foods.

We can come back to that later when we start talking about some of the nutrient density scales. But I don’t think that food should necessarily be penalized on the nutrient density scale if they have some amount of saturated fat or are slightly higher in calories.

Prevalence of Nutrient Deficiencies

Tracey O’Shea:  I think that is a really good point to make. We know there’s a lot of misinformation, [and] it’s really confusing. There’s a lot of nuance to deciding how and what foods to eat, and the basic level of information can be a little misleading to a lot of people. The other question that comes to mind for me is, how big of a problem is nutrient [deficiency]? How common is it? Where are we seeing it and in what populations, specifically, do we need to be concerned about?

Chris Kresser:  Well, it’s shockingly common, unfortunately. The latest statistics suggest that the majority of Americans are deficient in not just one but several micronutrients. I’ll give you some data on specific nutrients from the Nurses’ Health Study: 100 percent of Americans don’t get enough potassium, 94 percent don’t get enough vitamin D, 92 percent [don’t get enough] choline, 89 percent [don’t get enough] vitamin E, 67 percent [don’t get enough] vitamin K, 52 percent [don’t get enough] magnesium, 44 percent [don’t get enough] calcium, 43 percent [don’t get enough] vitamin A, and 39 percent [don’t get enough] vitamin C.

Tracey O’Shea:  It might be easier to just say the opposite, right?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, most Americans are probably not getting enough of many essential micronutrients. As shocking as those numbers are, I think they’re even still underestimates of the true prevalence of micronutrient deficiency for a couple [of] different reasons. Number one, these numbers that I just provided are based on the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). The RDA was originally created around World War II, and it was used as a way of defining the level of nutrient intake that a soldier would need to avoid acute diseases, like rickets or scurvy. They weren’t looking at the amount that somebody needs for optimal health and longevity. They were just looking at what we need to feed a soldier so that they can survive during wartime. I think we can all agree that’s probably not the best way of looking at optimal nutrient status.

Another issue is that the RDA, as inadequate as it is, hasn’t been updated, in many cases, to reflect changes that have happened in human health over the last several years. I’ll give you an example of that. The RDA for most nutrients is based on [the] average body weight of a typical adult male and female. For magnesium, the RDA was last published in 1997, which is 25 years ago, and at that time, the average body weight for an adult female was 133 pounds and it was 166 pounds for an adult male. So the RDA for a male was 420 milligrams a day [of] magnesium, and 320 milligrams a day for females. Fast forward to 2021. Researchers just published a study arguing that the RDAs for magnesium need to be updated because the average body weight of the U.S. population has increased dramatically over that time. Today, the average body weight for an adult female is 169 pounds, versus 133 pounds back in 1997, and it’s 196 pounds for the average adult male, versus 166 pounds back in 1997. When the researchers redid the RDA for magnesium to reflect these increased body weights, they suggested that the revised RDA for women should be somewhere in the range of approximately 470 to 535 milligrams per day. That’s compared to 320 [milligrams per day], which is [the] current [recommendation]. And for men, it could be as high as 575 to 660 milligrams per day, compared to 420 milligrams per day now.

Now, if you take that new RDA, which has been appropriately revised for the current average body weight, we find that the average American is consuming between 200 to 300 milligrams per day less magnesium than they need. So we’re not talking about missing the target by a few milligrams; we;re talking about missing the target by up to 300 milligrams a day. That is a huge difference. And there’s very likely a similar scenario happening across all these other nutrients. If we were to update the RDAs for all the nutrients across the board, I’m virtually certain that we would see even higher rates of deficiency than we already are seeing, which are above 50 percent for most of the micronutrients.

Causes of Nutrient Deficiencies

Tracey O’Shea:  There’s so much to say about the inefficiencies of the system, but that’s not what this is about, so I will stay focused on the questions at hand. Let’s say someone is doing their best and eating a healthy diet and getting all their servings of fruits and vegetables, and they’re feeling like they’re pretty good. Then they come into the clinic, and they have some underlying issues, and boom, their labs pop up and there’s a bunch of different deficiencies in these micronutrients that we’re testing. They’re very surprised because they think that they’ve been doing what they’ve been told as far as eating a healthy diet. Where’s the disconnect here? Why are we seeing these nutrient deficiencies even in people [who] are putting their best foot forward?

Chris Kresser:  I’m going to take a step back first and say that I think the number one cause of nutrient deficiency in the general population is the Standard American Diet. And just a caveat here, when I’m saying the U.S. population, American, [or] average Americans, you can pretty much extend that to the entire industrialized world. The actual numbers are going to vary from country to country, but if you live in the U.K., Australia, Canada, [or] any other industrialized country, we’re looking at probably pretty similar statistics. I live in the U.S., [and] I have access to more U.S.-based statistics, so I use those more frequently. But I think what we’re talking about here applies to everybody living in the industrialized world.

I think it’s clear that the number one reason is that people are primarily eating food that is devoid of nutrients. That’s the simplest way of putting it. Sixty percent of the calories the average American consumes come from ultra-processed and refined foods. We’re talking about crackers, cookies, cakes, [and other] products that are made with flour, sugar, and seed oils. Those foods have almost no nutrients at all. And when 60 percent of the calories that you eat come from foods that have no nutrients, you’re going to be nutrient deficient. There’s really no way around that. So that’s the number one cause. But we know that many of the people listening to this show are not people who are consuming that kind of food, at least on a regular basis. I don’t want people to get the idea, “Hey, I don’t eat a Standard American Diet; therefore, I’m fine when it comes to nutrient status.” You and I have tested virtually every patient [who] has walked through the clinic door for the last, in my case, almost 15 years, and the last six or seven years that we’ve been working together, and I’m hard pressed to remember even a single patient [who] had all their nutrients at or above the level that we wanted them to be.

Tracey O’Shea:  Yeah, [it’s] very rare and surprising, and exciting when it happens. And I would say most often, when that does happen, there’s some other explanation [for] why their nutrient levels are so good.

Chris Kresser:  And that’s disappointing, right? Because our patients are generally people who are highly educated and highly motivated when it comes to nutrition and health. They’re doing the right things, they’re following a Paleo or ancestral type of diet, or some other nutrient-dense, whole foods-based approach, they’re paying attention to what they eat, and they’re trying to do the right things. But there are several reasons why even people who are paying attention to this and doing all those right things are still struggling with nutrient status. One of them is changes in the soil that have reduced the availability of nutrients in [the] soil to the plants that grow in that soil. I’m not a soil scientist, but I’ve spoken to several, and I’m going to give you my best understanding of why this is. It’s not that the nutrients are no longer present in the soil; it’s that there have been changes to the biome of the soil that make those nutrients more difficult for the plants to extract.

It’s very similar, in some ways, to when we talk about changes to our gut microbiome and how that affects our ability to absorb nutrients from food. We’ve messed up the biome of the soil with our industrialized agriculture, chemical pesticides, fertilizers, [and] monocropping. All the things that we have done to the soil over the last 100 years, in particular, have changed the biome of the soil in a way that makes nutrients less available to plants. I’ve read a number of different studies on this, and one of the most common examples that I’ve seen offered is that if we want to get the same nutrients from a single orange that our grandparents might have eaten when they were young, we would have to eat eight oranges today. So again, we are not talking about small differences; we’re talking about pretty massive differences.

Going back to magnesium, there are studies that have shown declines of magnesium in soils in the U.S. in the range of about 25 percent in vegetables, 17 percent in fruit, 15 percent in meat, and 26 percent in dairy products. In the U.K., that decline was closer to 35 percent. And this is just since the 1940s. Those numbers that I just gave you were published more than 30 years ago, so it’s almost certain that by now, especially because we’ve just intensified all the industrial agriculture during that last 30-year period, the decline in nutrient levels is even more significant. That’s one major factor, and it’s one that, unfortunately, is very difficult for individual people to do much about. Soil quality is something that is not an individual problem; it’s a society-wide problem.

Another issue is a shift to a global rather than a local food system. We know that nutrient levels in produce begin to decline as soon as a food is harvested. When produce is harvested and it doesn’t have access to light, photosynthesis is impaired, and you start to see nutrient levels decline right away. So if you eat a carrot that’s been shipped 1900 miles before you consume it, which is the average distance that a carrot is shipped before someone eats it, that carrot will have far lower nutrient levels than a carrot that you buy at the farmers market, or that you grow on your own land, if you’re fortunate [enough] to be able to do that.

So even when we’re eating really healthy food, [and] even if the soil is good, if that food has been transported for a long distance, stored in a dark truck, and then stored in a dark warehouse before it ends up in the produce section of your local store, you’re going to have lowered nutrient levels in that food. A similar phenomenon is true with the shift to industrial animal production. Cows that are raised in the factory farm environment have lower levels of many nutrients than pasture-raised cows. Wild-caught fish often have higher levels of nutrients than farm-raised fish. So you see a similar situation in animal products as you do with produce. Then you have an increase in toxins in the environment like heavy metals and glyphosate. Those toxins can bind to nutrients and decrease their bioavailability. You’ve got greater numbers of people following restricted diets and doing intermittent fasting, which, of course, can be beneficial in many different ways. But I think you and I have both seen where, if somebody reduces their food intake to a six-hour window, almost always, they’re going to be consuming less food overall [and] fewer calories overall. And when you’re eating fewer meals and fewer calories, you’re getting less nutrients. It’s a dark side, if you will, of intermittent fasting that’s not talked about very often. It’s certainly something we’ve talked about with our patients, and I’ve mentioned on previous podcasts and in articles, but it’s perhaps an unintended consequence of that approach, and it can affect some people more than others.

Tracey O’Shea:  I think [that] can go for any restrictive diet, not just pulling your time window in, but [any of] these therapeutic restrictive diets that started off with good intentions, [like] low FODMAP [fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols], low fermentation potential, [and] ketogenic. There are legitimate reasons why some of those are prescribed, but sometimes people are on them for way too long, or they lose contact with who told them to, or they read an article, and they just haven’t ever resumed back to a more robust diet full of variety. So I think that’s the other side of that, just narrowing what you can eat or what you think you should eat down so far that you really are not getting any variety.

Chris Kresser:  It’s true. It’s a great point. And again, we say this with full understanding and compassion for why people do those diets. We’ve put people on those diets because they serve a purpose. But we always encourage people to get back to as complete of a diet as possible within the ancestral template because of this issue, among others. We know that there is potential for nutrient deficiencies if you follow something like low-FODMAP or [autoimmune protocol] (AIP) [diet] for an extended period of time. And what we’re talking about now highlights that in a big way.

A few other causes would be over-the-counter and prescription medications that deplete key nutrients or affect nutrient bioavailability. Metformin and B vitamins is a great example. Metformin, as I’m sure many people know, is a drug that’s used to lower blood sugar, and it can decrease levels of [vitamin] B12 and folate. We’ve seen this over and over in patients we’ve treated [who] take metformin. There are many, many other examples of drugs that deplete key nutrients or make it harder to absorb those nutrients. Unfortunately, most physicians or clinicians [who] prescribe those medications are not fully aware of the research on how those drugs affect nutrient levels and don’t adequately inform their patients about it, and then the patients are not told to supplement or do anything to compensate for that reduction in nutrient levels. At least that has been our experience. When we identify this in a patient [who’s] been taking medication, they often tell us that they weren’t advised at all by the prescribing clinician that this could be an issue, and they were quite surprised and disappointed to learn that.

There’s been a pretty dramatic increase in chronic disease over the past 50 years. Six in 10 Americans [now] have a chronic disease, and four in 10 have multiple chronic diseases. This is a double whammy effect, where having a chronic disease both increases the demand for nutrients, because the stress of the disease itself depletes nutrients so we need more of a nutrient than someone who doesn’t have a chronic disease would need, and also reduces the absorption of nutrients. So you get hit on both sides when you have a chronic disease.

The last factor I’m going to talk about is an epidemic of chronic stress. We know through several different studies that chronic stress increases nutrient demand, and it also depletes nutrients that we have stored in the body. When you put all these factors together, it’s almost a wonder that we’re doing as well as we are, given that almost everyone is subject to at least one, if not several or even all, of those. Many people are subject to almost all those factors.

This is why I’ve been so passionate about this issue and I’ve spent so much time thinking about it and paying attention to it. It’s clear to me that if we agree to the premise that micronutrients are the fuel for the body, which is pretty clear based on our understanding of physiology, and we look at the statistics indicating that, even if we use the inadequate RDA, most people are deficient in not just one but several micronutrients, and we understand that if we updated the RDA to reflect our current average body weight and [our] current status in terms of soil quality and all the other factors I just mentioned, we’re dealing with a pretty severe epidemic of nutrient deficiencies and one that’s completely under-recognized and not a subject of conversation at all in the conventional medical world, and not even as much in the Functional Medicine world or ancestral health space as I think it should be.

The Most Commonly Deficient Nutrients

Tracey O’Shea:  Yeah, is it being given enough attention? That’s a very legitimate question. I think we all know that it’s there. But are we talking about it loud enough? Which is why we’re here. So we’ve talked about the RDA and some of the fallacies with that, and some of the reasons why nutrient [deficiency] exists even with the best intentions. If we had to narrow down to some of the key nutrients that we think most people are deficient in or most likely to be deficient in, do you have a handful that come to mind when we’re trying to address the ones that are most common?

Chris Kresser:  Well, again, according to the NHANES data, the highest on the list were potassium, vitamin D, choline, vitamin E, vitamin K, and magnesium. If you consider retinol separately from beta-carotene or the vitamin A precursors, I think that would certainly be higher on the list. I think zinc, even though [it] doesn’t [show] up in this NHANES data. We very regularly see patients [who] are low in zinc. I think there are some reasons why zinc didn’t turn up there in the NHANES data, but almost certainly, it’s an issue for many people. That’s one of the many nutrients affected significantly by the form and the bioavailability. If someone is eating, on paper, adequate amounts of zinc, but most of the zinc is coming from plant foods, it’s much less bioavailable than the zinc that is found in animal products. So even if they’re eating enough, they’re not actually absorbing that amount, and their levels will be lower than what their dietary intake would suggest.

Even though they’re not technically included in nutrient density analyses because they’re fats, I think the essential omega-3 fats like [eicosapentaenoic acid] (EPA) and [docosahexaenoic acid] (DHA) would be part of the equation. Vitamin B12 is another that didn’t appear on the NHANES list but is one that a lot of people struggle with because of issues with bioavailability and absorption. We’ve seen so many people, even those who are eating animal foods, who are B12 deficient or at the very low levels of the adequate range [and] struggling with B12 deficiency symptoms. Folate is another one that I would put in that same category.

One more [that] I should mention is calcium. It’s complex because calcium metabolism is highly dependent on the status of other nutrients like magnesium and vitamin D. So you could take five people with the exact same calcium intake, and even the same serum calcium numbers, and they could all have different biological activity of calcium because of differing levels of vitamin D and magnesium and other cofactors. This is an important point. It’s not just true for calcium; it’s true for almost all other nutrients. Nutrients don’t exist in our bodies in isolation; they exist as part of a whole system. Most nutrients require other nutrients as cofactors, which is a technical way of saying they require those other nutrients to work properly.

A good example would be [that] copper is required for the body’s ability to utilize iron. There are certain forms of iron deficiency that are essentially driven by copper deficiency. You can try all day long to correct the iron deficiency by providing more iron, but you won’t be able to do it unless you address that underlying copper deficiency. [The] same thing is true for vitamin D and magnesium, and the same thing is true for calcium deficiency. If you have calcium deficiency and you also have vitamin D and magnesium deficiency, [and] you give that patient a lot of calcium, you could not only not improve the situation, [but] you could make it worse because there are risks of supplementing with excess calcium. If you’re throwing a whole bunch of calcium into the system but you don’t have the vitamin D and magnesium or vitamin K2 needed to regulate where that calcium goes, it’s going to end up in the soft tissues like the arteries or the kidneys, rather than in the bones or teeth where you want it. I think one of the main reasons that we see such a problem with osteoporosis and osteopenia in people as they age is not just that they’re not getting enough calcium; it’s probably even more that they’re low in vitamin D and magnesium and other cofactors, and that causes a functional calcium deficiency.

How to Get Adequate Amounts of Nutrients

Tracey O’Shea:  [There’s] lots of nuance to all of this for sure, and we’re not meaning to bum you out. This is just the facts. This is what exists. [As] with anything we are here to do, knowledge is power. To know that information and know what to do with it and how [to] make adjustments to our life in order to accommodate for these evolving changes that are happening in our world. So, short of buying your food locally, trying to go to the farmers market, getting your food as fresh as possible, getting a variety [of foods], if you have a farm on your land, great—you can control your nutrient density in the biome of your soil. But short of being able to try [making] all these micro changes to get [a] variety of nutrients in your diet, can we just supplement our way out of this? That’s a legitimate question because I think for some people, it is a lot easier to take a pill to supplement. So let’s start having that conversation about what [we] can do about this. What supplements are safe? What nutrients are safe to take as supplementation? Let’s start to go down that road.

Chris Kresser:  I don’t think we can supplement ourselves out of this situation. I have argued from the very start of my career, and I still make this argument today, that a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet must be the foundation of any nutritional strategy. That’s a reality that I hope I never live to see the end of. Human beings are primarily adapted to get nutrients from food. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about the complexity of nutrient synergy and how nutrients interact. Food is delicious, [and] we like to eat it. I’m not one of these people that advocates for a Soylent Green type of reality, where we just suck liquid nutrient blends through a straw while we’re sitting at our computer all day.

I think we should be getting as much of the nutrition that we need from food as possible, given the world that we live in. You can basically take the reverse of what we talked about before to try to optimize for that. First is to think about the nutrient density of every bite of food you put into your mouth. We want to try to optimize for nutrient density with the food choices that we make. For example, eating an ancestral/Paleo type of diet that has organ meats, shellfish, meat, fish, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds. These are the foods that are going to be richest in the nutrients that we need. Eating as many of those foods as possible and as few of the foods that are virtually devoid of nutrients, like flour, sugar, and seed oil, as possible is going to push us in the right direction.

I’m not a zealot about this. As you know, I believe in balance and the 80/20 rule that I argued for in my first book, where there is a social component to eating, and it’s important to think about pleasure when it comes to food. Having desserts or [an] occasional piece of bread, or gluten-free bread if you have to, or whatever, is not going to make an enormous difference in health outcomes for most people. So I’m not suggesting that we become neurotic about this. But I am suggesting that, overall, [with] the balance of the majority of the food that we eat, we should be thinking about nutrient density and optimizing for that. As you mentioned, within that template, there are further things that we can do, like try to eat as many of those foods from a local source as possible, because as I explained, the longer the food is shipped, the lower the nutrient value will be. There are some ways that you can process food to make nutrients more available and store food to reduce the decline in nutrient availability.

I did a podcast with Jo Robinson, who wrote a book called [Eating on the Wild Side], which I highly recommend as a resource for this. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes. She talks about a number of different ways that you can increase nutrient availability. For example, ways that you can store lettuce and other produce in the refrigerator to reduce the decline [in nutrient availability], [or] ways that you can chop or mince garlic to make more allicin, which is one of the active compounds in garlic, available. There are lots of tricks and tips that we can follow to increase the nutrient density. We can choose organic and pasture-raised animal products, wild-caught fish, [and] organic produce, which a lot of local produce is anyway. Those are all the things that we need to be thinking about from a dietary perspective.

By consuming a diet composed of nutrient-dense foods and being aware of bioavailability, you can optimize your nutrition status, protect yourself from nutrient deficiencies, and create the foundation for lifelong health. Tune in to this episode of Revolution Health Radio to gain a better understanding of nutrient density and its crucial role in your health.

Now, in terms of supplementation, if you were to ask me 10 years ago whether I thought we needed to supplement to meet our basic nutritional needs, I might have said yes in the case of things like magnesium, which it’s been clear for a long time [is] very difficult to get enough of, given changes in soil quality, [or] vitamin D, which most people don’t get enough of from food, and don’t [get] adequate sun exposure, in many cases, to make up for the shortfall. But I think, at that time, [I] still really hoped that it was possible for most of us to meet all of our optimal nutrition needs through diet alone, without supplementation. And that’s something I’ve changed my mind about over the last several years. The reason that I’ve changed my mind is clinical experience, number one. [I’ve seen] so many patients who have suboptimal levels of multiple nutrients, and when we correct those deficiencies, the patient feels a lot better. The markers on their blood panels change, their health status changes, and everything starts working better.

Then, of course, my ongoing research in this area, which has been 15 years plus now. You can’t unlearn what you’ve learned. Having seen what I’ve seen as a clinician, having seen what I’ve seen as a researcher, and connecting all those dots together [and] understanding that the statistics, as dramatic as they are, are likely far under reporting nutrient deficiencies, and seeing the changes that we’ve observed in patients after correcting those nutrient deficiencies. At this point, I think that most people probably benefit from supplementation as a way of closing the nutrient gaps that the modern world has introduced.

Tracey O’Shea:  I think that’s a good point, and I like how you referred to it as this nutritional gap because it really truly is that, and no matter how hard you work, sometimes, and most often, that still exists. Even in [the] clinic when we restored and corrected chronic illness, there were still those lingering things where we tried to get people off of a supplement and they just couldn’t maintain those adequate levels. So we’ve experimented with it. We did that quite often to try to see if someone could really maintain those levels on their diet alone.

I think at this point, we can start talking about Adapt Naturals, the new line of supplements that you have. I want to talk a little bit about why you chose certain nutrients as part of [the] Core Plus bundle and why this specific form of some of these are important. I think it would be helpful to have some insight into why you chose specific ones and why you think they’re important together.

Adapt Naturals and the Core Plus Bundle

Chris Kresser:  Sure. As many of you podcast listeners have heard by now, I am launching my own supplement line called Adapt Naturals in July. We’re beginning with a daily stack of five products, which we’re calling the Core Plus bundle. The idea here is that we want to add back in what the modern world has crowded out. [If] you look at all the factors that we talked about in the modern world that have decreased our consumption of nutrients and made nutrient deficiency more likely, the question [that] I sought out to answer with the development of this line is, “How can we compensate for that? How can we close that nutrient gap and add back in those nutrients that all those aspects of the modern lifestyle have squeezed out, and give ourselves the confidence that we need to know that all our nutrient needs are being met [and] we’re giving our bodies the fuel that they need to perform all the functions that our bodies and minds need to perform every day for optimal health and performance and longevity?” I wanted to give people a way of just setting it and forgetting it.

It’s hard. Earlier, you said [that] there’s a lot of nuance and complexity here, and we’ve only scratched the surface of that. We haven’t yet started to talk about all the different forms of nutrients and nutrient synergy and bioavailability, which are really key concepts that affect our nutrient status. I’ve talked about those on other shows, and if we did that all in one show, it’d be a three-hour plus show. So we’re trying to spare you that. But it is complicated, and it’s very easy for the average consumer or even the educated consumer to get overwhelmed because there’s just so much information out there, [and] a lot of it’s contradictory or even misleading. I’ve spent 15 years doing this research and treating hundreds of patients and then training hundreds of practitioners and health coaches, and getting feedback from all those interactions, and I feel like I have a pretty good grasp now of what’s really important and what truly works, and I wanted to have a way of curating all that research and clinical experience into a plan that people can follow and feel confident in following and not have to worry about, “Should I take this, or what about that?”

We always ask people when they come to visit us for their first appointment in person to bring their supplements. And they would come in, literally, with shopping bags full of supplements. Then we ask them to go through each supplement and tell us when they started taking it, why they’re taking it, and whether they even notice any difference from it. And usually, the answers to those questions are, “I don’t remember, I’m not sure, and I’m not sure,” respectively. People are taking all these supplements, [and] they have no idea why they’re taking them or if they’re beneficial or even appropriate for them, given their circumstances. So when I set out to create the Core Plus bundle, I was thinking [about] what nutrients the majority of people are not getting enough of, need to thrive, and are safe to take pretty much regardless of where they’re starting from. That was the premise for me and the starting place, and what I came up with was five different products.

The first product is an ancestral multi[vitamin]. I call it that because it’s not like most of the other multi[vitamins] on the market. If you’ve been following my work for some time, you’ll know that I’m very critical of most multivitamins because they tend to have too much of the wrong stuff, not enough of the right stuff, or the wrong forms of the nutrients that we need, [and are] often made with synthetic and cheap ingredients. Bio-Avail Multi is a multivitamin, multimineral, and phytonutrient blend that draws on the principles of an ancestral diet to determine what the optimal amount of nutrients is, both from that ancestral perspective and a modern clinical research perspective. Then we use food-based, naturally occurring or bioidentical ingredients. It’s rich in not only the essential vitamins and minerals that we need, like the B vitamins, B12, folate, vitamin A, vitamin D, iron, [and] magnesium, [but it’s also] rich in phytonutrients that we now know from a very large body of evidence play crucial roles in human health and are really important for our longevity. These are carotenoids, flavonoids, beta-glucan, and a variety of compounds that are found in plant foods.

I’ve always argued that an ideal dietary approach is some combination of animal foods because there are certain forms of nutrients that are richer and more bioavailable in animal foods, and plant foods, because there are certain types of nutrients, namely phytonutrients, that are almost exclusively found in plant foods. I wanted the multi[vitamin] that I created to reflect that balance and not just be essential vitamins or minerals, or not just be phytonutrients like a greens or reds powder. So Bio-Avail Multi is like an ancestral multi[vitamin] plus a greens and red powder, all in one product. That’s really the foundation of the Core Plus bundle.

On top of that, I wanted to include an organ meat supplement. This is probably going to surprise exactly zero people [who] have been following my work for any length of time because I’ve been beating on the organ meat drum for 15 years plus, and there’s a reason for that. The evidence just keeps stacking up. I had Ty Beal on my podcast a few episodes back, [and] he just published what I think is a landmark paper that quantified the nutrient density of the most common foods that we eat. For the first time ever in a nutrient density research paper, they were able to include bioavailability as a factor. That’s huge because the bioavailability of a nutrient can dramatically affect how much we absorb and utilize. For example, spinach, on paper, is a really good source of calcium. But only 5 percent of the calcium is absorbed from spinach because of the presence of oxalates in spinach, which block calcium absorption. So you’d have to [actually] eat 16 cups of spinach to get the same calcium that you would get from drinking a single 8 ounce glass of milk. That’s how dramatic the difference can be. And previous studies didn’t consider bioavailability. They just looked at the amount of the nutrient on paper in a given food.

In Ty Beal’s study, four out of the top seven foods in terms of nutrient density were organ meats—liver, heart, kidney, and spleen. And they weren’t just a little bit higher; they were a lot higher, even than other animal products and certainly, like over a hundred and even, in some cases, several hundred times higher than foods like whole grains or refined grains. Organ meats are really, ounce-for-ounce, among the most nutrient-dense foods that we can eat and yet, very few people eat them. And I’ve been very upfront about this from the start—I don’t like the taste of organ meats. I wish I did. I really wish I did. I’ve done so many different things to try to incorporate organ meats into my diet, with varying levels of success and consistency over time. And we share those ways with our patients, yet I would venture a guess that maybe 10 percent of our patients consistently eat organ meats.

Tracey O’Shea:  I agree. I think you have to get a little creative if you’re going to try to actually cook it and consume it. And yes, you can mix it in with other meats, but I have family members that [if] they know it’s there, they don’t want anything to do with it. So yeah, we’ve got to find ways to hide it.

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Chris Kresser in kitchen

Chris Kresser:  They’re not part of our culture either. That’s another thing. If you eat a significant amount of foods in a restaurant, you’re not going to be eating organ meats in general. And that’s a shame because as I just said, they are, ounce-for-ounce, the most nutrient-dense foods we can eat. So I wanted to create a way for people to easily get the benefit of eating organ meats without having to eat them. Because in a perfect world, we’d all eat them, but we don’t live in a perfect world when it comes to organ meats. And I would rather see people get the benefits of the nutrition that is available from organ meats than not get them at all, which is what typically ends up happening in the real world when we recommend that people eat organ meats.

Bio-Avail Organ is a blend of five freeze-dried organs. Not just liver, but liver, heart, kidney, and spleen, which are four of the seven top most nutrient-dense foods on that scale, and then also pancreas, which is rich in certain nutrients that are not present in other organs. These are sourced from 100 percent grass-fed, grass-finished, free range New Zealand cattle that are never given hormones or antibiotics. Taking the supplement on a daily basis is the equivalent to eating about four ounces of organ meat a week, which is about what I have recommended over time.

The third product is magnesium. There is some magnesium in the multi[vitamin], but it’s not enough to compensate for the extreme lack that most people are dealing with, based on what we talked about earlier in the show. Most people are falling 200 to 300 milligrams a day short. That’s an enormous amount, and if we were to put that much in the multi[vitamin], it would have made the capsules way too big and caused problems with the formulation. So we pulled this out as a separate product. Bio-Avail Mag contains 300 milligrams of magnesium. Here’s one of the most important parts—a lot of the forms of magnesium that you might see in typical supplements, like oxide or citrate, are not that well absorbed. This is actually why those forms of magnesium are used as laxatives. They draw water into the bowel because they’re not absorbed very well, and a lot of that magnesium just gets excreted. If anyone’s taken too much magnesium oxide or too much magnesium citrate, they know exactly what I’m talking about. It can cause a lot of bloating and digestive upset and cause loose stools. We use a chelated form of magnesium that’s highly absorbable and is far less likely to cause those gastrointestinal side effects. And of course, magnesium is critical for physiological function. It’s required for over 300 different enzymatic reactions in the body. It promotes sleep and relaxation, helps maintain normal blood sugar, supports bone health, works with vitamin D to regulate its functions, and so much more.

So those are really the core part of the Core Plus bundle. I was thinking about that question of what I want myself and my patients and everybody that I’m trying to help to have in their daily regimen that can really promote optimal health and longevity, and what we could add to that to not just close the nutrient gap and replace the nutrients that we’re not getting enough of, but [also] supercharge our health and well-being in a way that’s safe and food based, and that mimics or replicates nutrients that we might have access to in a diet but that many of us just don’t eat or can’t access for various reasons.

The next product is Bio-Avail Myco. If you’ve been listening to my podcast recently and emails over the past few years, you know that I’m extremely interested in the health benefits of edible mushrooms. They’ve been used for over 7000 years in traditional cultures, traditional Chinese medicine, ayurveda, African and South American systems of medicine, [and] Native Americans. All around the world, mushrooms have been revered for their health benefits and their capacity to influence nearly every system of the body. Bio-Avail Myco is a blend of eight of the most researched mushrooms including reishi, chaga, lion’s mane, and turkey tail. These mushrooms have huge impacts on immune and cellular health, protecting our brain and nervous system as we age, boosting energy and mental clarity, and maintaining healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. I’m really excited about this product and its inclusion in the bundle. I think it’s going to have a game-changing effect for a lot of people. There have been 400 studies published on turkey tail alone in the past couple of decades. I have a research alert set up for mushrooms so that anytime a new study is published, I’m notified and I get to read it. And I can tell you that it’s one of the most exciting areas of research right now.

The best part is that they’re essentially functional foods. They’re very safe, [and] they’re generally not contraindicated in most cases. While it is possible to eat some of these mushrooms and it’s possible to prepare all of them in a way that you can consume them, that preparation can be pretty laborious. Some of them are really bitter and chewy and difficult to eat, so you have to make decoctions or tinctures or something like that. And some of the other mushrooms [are] acquired tastes and they’re not part of our typical diet. I don’t know many people who eat reishi mushrooms or turkey tail or lion’s mane, or even have access to them in their local grocery store. So I wanted to include this so that people could have access to the incredible health benefits of mushrooms.

And last but not least, is Bio-Avail E+. This one is very interesting. It requires a little bit more explanation, but it’s also a topic I’ve been researching for the past several years. When I say [vitamin E], most people think of alpha-tocopherol. The tocopherols are the most commonly known form of vitamin E. If you have a vitamin E supplement, chances are if you look on the label, it’ll say alpha-tocopherol. If you have a multi[vitamin] that has vitamin E, chances are it will be alpha-tocopherol. The problem with [this] is that studies have shown that long-term supplementation with tocopherols is not only not helpful, [but] it may be harmful. There are several studies now that have shown that excess alpha-tocopherol is linked with [an] increase in cancer and heart disease. I talked about this recently in a podcast with Dr. Barrie Tan, and we’ll put a link to that in the show notes if you want more info. There’s some nuance and complexity, as well, as is often the case, and I encourage you to listen to that whole show if you’re interested in this topic. But the key point here is that recently, only about 20 years ago, another form of vitamin E called tocotrienol was discovered, and it was understood that [they were] distinct from the tocopherols. These tocotrienols had different effects on the body than tocopherols. They were more potent as antioxidants, and they also had a variety of benefits that tocopherols don’t have, without the long-term risks of supplementing with tocopherol.

For example, tocotrienols have been shown to improve lipid profiles, promote cellular health, support healthy blood sugar levels, and improve bone health, among many other benefits. And they do that, like I said, without any of the risks of tocopherol. Bio-Avail E+ contains 300 milligrams [of tocotrienols], which is consistent with the dose used in most of the research done on [it], and they’re in the delta and gamma form of tocotrienols, which is the most beneficial form. It’s sourced from the annatto plant, which is the only known source of 100 percent delta and gamma tocotrienols. It doesn’t also contain tocopherols, and that’s important because tocopherols can cancel out the benefits of tocotrienols if you take a product that has both tocopherols and tocotrienols.

So when you put all that together, the Core Plus [bundle] was the result of my 15 years of clinical experience and decades of peer-reviewed scientific literature, and it’s what I hope is going to be an easy to follow and powerful plan for people to implement to make sure they’re getting all the nutrients they need for optimal function and some additional powerhouse nutrients to take their health to the next level.

Tracey O’Shea:  And they all come together, right? They’re all meant to be layered in together to help fill all the gaps?

Chris Kresser:  That’s right, yeah. We’re selling them as a bundle together, and the point is, like I said before, just set and forget. They’re designed to replace many of the supplements that people are taking that they don’t know why they’re taking or if they’re getting any benefit.

Tracey O’Shea:  I think that’s the main difference here, is supplementing with intention. Supplements exist; they’re everywhere. We’re bombarded with them. But, like you said, the whole point is for people to feel confident in the decision that they’re making with their supplements and that someone has done the work behind that recommendation and that it’s with intention. It’s not just blindly taking things that you’ve read about in multiple different articles and have no idea if you need it or why you need it. I think that’s the main difference that I see here is really supplementing with intention versus just blindly going at it yourself.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely. I mean, we’ve done the research so you don’t have to, is one way of thinking about it. Because it’s hard. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and it’s taken me a long time to get this clarity, and I hope it’s of value to folks who listen to the show and are looking for more of a plan and a clear strategy and approach to their supplementation so that they don’t have to continually be out there researching [and] thinking about it, and they can just follow a process that we’ve used with thousands of patients over a 15-year period that we know works, both from our clinical experience and from the published peer-reviewed scientific literature.

So that’s the Adapt Naturals Core Plus bundle. You can check it out, learn more, and order it at AdaptNaturals.com. Before we finish, I think we should talk a little bit about the Core Reset app because this is something that I’m really excited about. I mentioned earlier in the show that you can’t supplement yourself out of [the] problem that we face in the modern world of nutrient depletion and declining health. I’ve always been a big advocate of diet, lifestyle, and behavior change as the foundation for optimal health and longevity, and that’s been reflected in everything that I’ve done from writing my two books, providing all the info we provide on our website and podcast, training practitioners, and also training health coaches. So along with the supplements, I wanted to create a way to make it easy for people to improve their diet and lifestyle behavior. We built an app called Core Reset, and it features a 28-day Kickstart [Program] that can help you dial in your nutrition, your sleep, your movement, and your stress management. In that 28-day period, we have recipes, meal plans, shopping lists, guided meditations and stress management practices, [and] guided movement routines, especially for people who are maybe less experienced, [plus] some great bodyweight movement routines that you can do easily from your home or hotel or wherever you happen to be.

After that 28-day Kickstart [Program], you can continue to use all those resources in the app indefinitely. You can come back to it and do kickstarts throughout the year, which many people like to do after the holidays, or [if you] just need a tune up. The best part is [that, for a limited time,] we are offering access to this app for free to anyone who orders the Core Plus bundle. Because I’m serious about [the fact that] you cannot supplement yourself out of a bad diet and lifestyle. As powerful as the Core Plus bundle is, I don’t want people to think, “Hey, I’m just going to take these supplements and not worry about what I eat and my lifestyle.” Don’t do that. I would rather see you just dial in [and] focus on your lifestyle and diet above all else and not take the supplements, if you had to make a choice. Of course, I think doing both is the most powerful option, and that’s why we built the app and we’re including access to it to anybody who orders the Core Plus bundle. So [I’m] super excited about that, as well.

Tracey O’Shea:  I’m really looking forward to [the] feedback and seeing people’s transformations. It never ceases to amaze me the feedback that we start to get as people are incorporating these changes. The fact that we’re touching on all those pieces, I think [is] a really nice touch. So thank you for adding the app in. I think that’s really, really good. It’s more well-rounded.

Well, I think we covered all the questions that I had when it comes to nutrient density and nutrient deficiency and what to do about it and not to freak out and that there’s an answer and that there is some guidance for people on how to address these issues. So thank you so much for letting me participate and take over the show for the day. I really appreciate it.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely, Tracey. Thank you for taking over the show. It’s always a pleasure to have you on, and the addition of your clinical experience in our work together adds a lot of real-world knowledge and experience to help people figure out how all this stuff works in a clinical setting. So I’m really grateful that you were able to join me. And thanks, everybody, for listening. Once again, if you want to learn more about the Adapt Naturals Core Plus bundle, head over to AdaptNaturals.com, and there’s lots of information [there]. You can check out the labels and learn more about it, FAQs, etc, and you can go ahead and place your first order.

One thing to consider, if you do decide to order, is [that] nutrient deficiencies take time to develop, and they take time to reverse. This is something we’ve seen in our practice over and over. It would be awesome if it took 10 years to develop a significant [vitamin] B12 deficiency and then you could correct that overnight. But that’s not generally how it works with B12, or any other nutrient, especially the fat-soluble vitamins. So I really recommend giving these a good three months at least to determine the impact that they can have. And that won’t even be the full impact. You’ll continue to get increased benefits over a longer period of time because in the case of some nutrients, it can take up to two years to fully replenish them. That’s evident from both published research and our clinical experience. The good news is you don’t have to wait two years or even three months to start getting benefits. In fact, many people will see changes very, very quickly. But it’s worth pointing out that deficiencies or suboptimal levels of nutrients that took years or even decades to develop need a little bit of time to reverse. I just say that in order to set expectations because the last thing we want to see is someone take these products for a week and go, “Oh, I don’t notice any difference. They’re not going to help me; I’m going to stop.” That’s not a safe assumption to make, given what we know about nutrient deficiency. I feel like we’ve had to have this conversation a number of times with patients, right Tracey?

Tracey O’Shea:  Yeah. I mean, we live in a society, good or not, [of] instant gratification. We want it to happen, [and] we want it to happen now. So I think it’s a really important reminder to be patient, give it some time, and be in touch a little bit with what it is that you’re feeling, what is changing, [and] what is shifting. It’s usually this very gradual shift, in my experience, versus, “Whoa, I have so much energy and I feel [amazing].” It’s usually not overnight. It is gradual improvement, being able to sustain exercise longer, starting to build [more] muscle, having more energy, [and] having sleep that’s better and more fulfilling. But it is a very slow, gradual process. I think that’s a really important key feature to mention.

Chris Kresser:  I’m glad you [brought] that up. I was talking to one of the guys in our company who’s been taking these products and asking him about his experience, and he pretty much put it that same way. He said, “One day, I just realized I felt better than I’ve felt in recent memory in my adult life.” And that was more apparent in retrospect, just like you said. It wasn’t like everything shifted in one moment. It happened over time, [and] then looking back, he’s like, “Wait, I haven’t been sick in a long time, my energy has been great, [my] mental clarity has been fantastic, [and] I’ve reached my personal best in my workouts.” Because we’re talking about nutrients that fuel our core metabolic processes. We’re not talking about a drug like caffeine where you notice a change immediately.

Tracey O’Shea:  Right, because that wears off.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it comes on quickly and it wears off. Or ibuprofen, where you take it and you have a very distinct reduction in pain in a short period of time. That’s not how micronutrients work. They work by changing systemic underlying processes, and those changes take time to develop. So [it’s] definitely worth thinking about. If you are planning to order the products, we do have an auto ship option for the purpose of set and forget, [which] makes it easy to make sure that you’re getting what you need. And [I] highly recommend giving it a good three-month, at least, trial to see how much they can help you.

And let us know! Let us know how it goes. We definitely want to hear your feedback. Thanks again for listening to the show. [I] hope you learned a lot about nutrient density and the importance of it and some practical strategies for optimizing nutrient intake in your diet and through supplements. Keep sending your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.

This episode of Revolution Health Radio is sponsored by Butcher Box and Kettle & Fire.

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