Sunday, May 22, 2011

Nutrient density of dietary fats and high fat diets

 I decided to do a comparison of the nutrients in 500 kcalorie portions of olive oil, butter, lard, white rice, brown rice, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. 

I chose to include white and brown rice only because I wanted to find out if common animal fats really provide more nutritients, kcal for kcal, than white rice, commonly referred to as "filler" food.

I chose 500 kcalories because this would represent 25% of a 2000 kcal diet and 30% of a 1500kcal diet.  If you eat a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet (more than 50% of kcals from fat), you will be getting most of your calories from fats.

Does this supply large amounts of fat-soluble vitamins or result in improved nutrient-density, compared, for example, to substituting white rice for those 500 kcal?  

I mean, does a diet that delivers 50% of its energy as fat really pack a nutritional punch, compared to one that delivers 50% of its energy as white rice, brown rice, potatoes, or sweet potatoes?

Using USDA data I compiled this table:

Click to Enlarge
Some observations:

1.  Sweet potatoes provide more vitamin E than any of the fats except olive oil, and potatoes supply almost 3 times as much vitamin E as lard and nearly as much as butter.

2.  None of the fats supply significant vitamin D; considering that our requirement is about 4000 IU daily, a 500 kcal dose of butter or lard provides only 1-1.4 percent of the daily requirement.

3. Butter delivers more micronutrients than either of the other fats, but the amounts are very small.  Except for vitamins A, D, and E, it doesn't even hold a candle to white rice.

4. A 500 kcal dose of butter provides only 50% of your vitamin A, and 11% of your vitamin E requirements. It provides no more than 2% of the requirement for any other nutrient.  By contrast, one teaspoon of cod liver oil provides 150%  of the vitamin A requirement, and 450 IU of vitamin D, ten times more than butter, and for only about 50 kcalories, one-tenth of the butter.

Kcalorie-for-kcalorie, enriched white rice meets more micronutrient needs than butter.  A diet providing 500 kcal as white rice, supplemented with a mere teaspoon of cod liver oil for your vitamin A, far surpasses the nutrient-density of a diet replacing those 500 kcal of white rice with either butter, lard, or olive oil, even if you include the teaspoon of cod liver oil. Choose brown rice, potatoes, or sweet potatoes and your vitamin and mineral intake will start to reach superior levels.  

Now, if you are trying to lose 25 to 50 pounds, you will need to be in energy deficit for 6 to 12 months.  If you consume 1800 kcalories daily, and 60% of those come from fats, which all have a very low vitamin and mineral density, you will need to get virtually all of your vitamins and minerals from the non-fat portion of your diet, which consists of only 720 kcalories. 

In Understanding Nutrition 6th Edition, Whitney and Rolfes point out on page 271 that "Nutritional adequacy is difficult to achieve on fewer than 1200 kcalories a day, and most healthy adults should not consume any less than that."  They make this statement in reference to a diet supplying only 20 percent of kcalories as fat.  A 60% fat, 1800 kcal diet is, from a nutrient-density perspective, equivalent to an 1100 kcal low-fat diet.  Most likely it will have multiple micronutrient deficiencies.

Now consider the following table, which lists the nutrients involved in metabolism of fats for energy as well as other functions. 

Role in fat metabolism
Part of TPP coenzyme in TCA.
Base of coenzymes FMN and FAD required for TCA cycle and electron transport chain.
Base of coenzymes NAD and NADP required for TCA cycle and electron transport chain; required cofacdtor for ∂-5 desaturase in EFA metabolism.
Delivers carbon to the TCA cycle to replenish oxaloacetate; required for catabolism of some fatty acids and for fatty acid synthesis.
Pantothenic acid
Base for Coenzyme A (CoA) required for making acetyl CoA, which cells need for synthesizing lipids and steroid hormones as well as for running the TCA cycle.
Pyridoxine (B6)
Part of coenzymes PLP and PMP used in fatty acid metabolism and steroid hormone activity, cofactor for ∂-6 desaturase in EFA metabolism.
Helps to break down some fatty acids.
Needed to synthesize the phospholipid lecithin.
Required for hydroxylation of carnitine, a compound that transports long-chain fatty acids into the mitochondria for energy metabolism; cofactor for ∂-5 desaturase.
Tocopherols (VT-E)
Protect lipids from free-radical damage (esp. PUFAs)
Part of ATP required in TCA cycle.
Catalyst in ATP formation; required for synthesis of lipids and elongation of essential fatty acids to produce prostaglandins.
Part of vitamins biotin and thiamin.
Part of hemoglobin required to deliver oxygen to cells for oxidation of macronutrients.
Co-factor in EFA  metabolism.
Part of glutathione, an assistant to VT-E.
Needed to make hemoglobin and in energy-releasing reactions.
Cofactor in lipid metabolism.

If you develop a deficiency of any of the nutrients required for oxidation of fats to release energy, this may impair your ability to convert body fats to energy, and stall your loss of fat.

Notice that it is the B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals you need most to metabolize fats.  So far as I know, vitamins A and D play no role in fat metabolism, so the star vitamins in butter probably aren't going to help you burn body fat.

Thus, from a micronutrient standpoint, a diet providing 30% of its energy as free (i.e. refined) fats differs little from a diet providing 30% of its energy as refined sugar. 

If you have a higher energy requirement—say, 2500 kcal daily or more­­––this might not affect you.  You might get at least 1200 kcalories from meat and possibly vegetables, enough to at least meet minimum micronutrient requirements. 

This might explain why some people eating high-fat, low-carb diets feel and perform adequately over a longer term, while others do not.  I would expect that those on high kcalorie, high fat, low carb diets, more typically large, active men, would have a better micronutrient status and general health and results than those on low kcalorie, high-fat, low-carb diets, more typically small or sedentary women.

Since the nutrients in meat lie in the muscle or organ, not in the fat, high-fat meats have a lower micronutrient density than lean meats. Since requirements for B-complex vitamins vary in proportion to energy expenditure, if you have a high energy expenditure, it would seem rational to get your energy from foods with the higher density of B-complex vitamins, such as unrefined starches and lean meats, rather than surplus fats.

Regardless of energy requirement, I would rather choose the more nutrient-dense path, increasing my chances of superior micronutrient status without use of isolated supplements having questionable value and potential for harm.

Just a thought.


Sean Preuss said...

Hey Don,

I enjoyed the post. However, the fat foods that you mentioned aren't necessarily included in many high fat diets. If a person eats a diet featuring leaner meats, eggs, chicken with the skin, nuts, and vegetables, the majority of the calories still would likely come from fat and it would feature nutrient dense foods. Is the point of your post that we shouldn't eat a lot of high fat foods outside of basics like meat and eggs?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

It works the other way too. Fatty whole foods like meats, fish, eggs, nuts and avocados are more nutrient dense than sugar, honey or maple syrup. The fats you listed are all refined similarly.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but it seems to me to be an apples and oranges comparison. Cooking fats are essentially supplements and should be treated as such. But we knew that didn't we? Who is eating butter by the spoonful?

Paleo Phil said...
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Paleo Phil said...

Don wrote: "Kcalorie-for-kcalorie, enriched white rice meets more micronutrient needs than butter."

Wouldn't UNenriched white rice be a fairer comparison to the fats, or a comparison of enriched fats to the enriched rice? After all, anyone can add vitamins to candy, call it "enriched candy" and claim it's healthy based on the nutrient content.

Thomas said...

I think the point is don't add lots fats to your diet (ex. fried eggs in lard or bacon grease, drinking cream, boat loads of butter on your veggies). All it adds is nutrient re pleat calories. And since you need to be in a calorie deficit to lose fat, ALL of those calories must count from a nutrient perspective.

Thomas said...

Make that nutrient depleted calories, not replete calories-sorry.

Jesús said...

Astonishing, fat-friends(paleo) movement is K.O.

Derek said...

The chart you provided is very interesting.

Could these problems of an extreme fat-based diet explain Jimmy Moore's failure to get himself out of the weight loss rut? And overall health - I couldn't believe when I found out he's not even 40 yet! He looks so worn out and speaks like he's going to fall asleep. I hope he finds a better diet soon.

It seems he can't see the forest for the trees, and tries more extreme attempts each time he re-motivates himself to try something new.

e.g. after his egg-only diet he got sick with pneumonia and carb binged, claiming he needed the carbs.

Then more recently he went without food at all for a week. Lot of good that's doing him in the long run.

Eating the way he does, with such a high fat diet and fear of carbohydrate-based foods must have caused some serious nutrient deficiencies over time.

MM said...

Very interesting post. I was wondering about this myself towards the end of my low carb stint when I was stuck on a weight-loss plateau for 1.5 yrs. The one that always bothered me was coconut oil. A lot of bloggers/commenters in the in the paleo/low carb sphere seem to think it's one of the best fats you can eat. However, look at the nutrition data for it:

Look at how many zeros are on the chart. And this is for over 1800 calories worth.

Flowerdew Onehundred said...

Derek - I've been wondering about Jimmy myself. He's also been mentioning his high cortisol a lot because of one of his sponsors.

When I stopped being able to lose on a high-fat, low-carb diet, I had the opportunity to ask Robb Wolf about it. He said that forcing the body to get glucose out of protein is stressful and can raise cortisol.


Dustin C said...

I personal don’t eat a high fat, low carb diet, so I’m playing devil’s advocate. But what about a high fat diet that incorporates liver (and other organ meats), sardines, Brazilian nuts, broccoli, mineral rich water, oysters, and eggs? That gets the majority of nutrients. Magnesium may be deficient but you could take Epsom salt baths to help with that. The diet would be dependent on the individual and I do understand that not everyone likes nor eats the food items I mentioned.

john said...


I guess his point was that the nutrients in most of those foods are not in the fat; ie, is liver and potatoes better than liver and butter?

Also, how did you get involved with your trip to Mongolia (my e-mail is on my profile)?

CarbSane said...

In energy deficit, supplementation makes sense. But a maintenance diet should at least come close to meeting one's micronutrient needs.

Judging from the laundry list of supplements many high fat/low carbers take, I question their beliefs on how "nutritious" the diet is.

This was October 2007. Three & a half years on his "healthy diet" ...

Matt Schoeneberger MS said...

A fringe exists on both sides of the argument. There are vegans who eat nothing but bananas and there may very well be low-carbers who take in 25% of their daily allotment of calories from butter.

The staples of most high fat diets include eggs, beef, avocados, etc. The comparison of “fat foods” to “carbohydrate foods” is misleading, since in both cases the entire diet would not consist of these foods only. Why not compare the entire composition of a typical days’ worth of eating for each eating style, including the wide varieties of foods available to each style?

A common definition of low carb is anything under 150 grams of carbohydrate/day. There’s plenty of room for sweet potato, even 500 calories worth if you'd like. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition.

We must also consider the satiating effects of the entire diets in a weight loss scenario since even the perfect dietary plan is worth nothing if hunger is over-bearing.

Dustin C said...


Yeah, it seems that I misunderstood. I’ll send you an email soon.

hannah said...

Can you comment on the fact that animal fats like butter and lard are not all created equal? Feedlot butter compared to grass fed raw butter or commercial lard compared to pastured can't have the same nutritional profile.
Also, with brown rice there is the issue with phytic acid. All those wonderful minerals that we can't absorb. Are you familiar with Stephan at Whole Health source posts on reducing phytic acid in brown rice? It is trickier than just a simple overnight soak.
I am also a bit confused as to why enriched white rice is being used in this comparison.
I've been eating a lot of sprouted and fermented buckwheat. It's got a ton of phytic acid so I hope I am actually making the nutrients more available.

Don said...


I used enriched white rice because that is what most white rice eaters eat.

Sean and everyone,

Since fat cells are relatively metabolically inert compared to muscles or organs, they don't need stores of vitamins or minerals; organs are most active, thus have the highest nutrient density, and muscles lie between. The fatty parts of foods, rich in stored fat in fat cells, (e.g. chicken skin) have a low nutrient density and dilute the nutrient density of the lean.

It doesn't take much oil, lard, or butter to provide significant energy. Just 4 tablespoons of olive oil provides nearly 500 kcal, but few micronutrients.

My overall point is that replacing most free fats with starches produces a higher nutrient density diet, even if you use enriched white rice, and this seems the preferable way to meet energy requirements, especially in low energy diets.

Don said...


Who is telling people that they should eat "nutrient dense" traditional fats?


I think it is very possible.


That could work. But how many people will eat those foods every day in a low kcal diet? The point is, especially as you cut calories, or increase your energy expenditure, it is more important to focus on calories that provide the metabolically important vitamins and minerals.




I was comparing the carb and fat foods because you can choose between adding 4-5 tablespoons of oil or fat to your diet, or using an equivalent kcaloric portion of whole food starch. Plus, this is a part of a set of posts. I have one coming up addressing the hunger issue. For now, most research shows fat is LESS satiating than carbohydrate, especially on a kcal for kcal basis.


REgardless of feeding strategy, fatty tissues are metabolically inactive compared to organs or muscles, therefore they never have high amounts of vitamins or minerals involved in metabolic transformation compared to organs or lean muscles. Plus, B-complex, vitamin C, and minerals are more water-soluble than fat soluble. So, pasturing can raise levels of fat-soluble nutrients in fats, but will have little effect on water soluble nutrients.

I don't think you need to remove all the phytic acid from brown rice. Research shows that phytate has almost no detrimental effect on mineral status in people who have mineral sufficient diets from a variety of foods. Phytate is really only an issue for people on already marginal or limited diets, not for people. In addition, we have some evidence that a small amount of phytate in the diet has beneficial effects, e.g. by reducing excessive iron levels.

lightcan said...

Hi Don,

I've never seen enriched white rice. Phytic acid is supposed to bind the minerals in that food or maybe the minerals in that meal, isn't it? It depends on context as in how much phytic acid, how many minerals, and general mineral status or overall intake. People don't spend time calculating micronutrient intake, which is bound to be incorrect as it depends on imprecise content in food and questionable absorption. Could you give some suggestions or guidelines maybe in a separate post when you resume your 'my meals' series? It seems Mg and Se needs to be supplemented, Zn is in meat, Cu problematic on low carb, we don't want too much iron but it can be found in all multivitamin supplements, Ca and Phosphorus need to be in balance. Thanks.

Sean Preuss said...

Thanks guys.

Kevin said...

The USDA data that you cite, lists lard as having no Vitamin A and very little Vitamin D (about 55 IUs). However, the USDA data from the 80's had lard listed as containing 2800 IUs of Vitamin A per 100g. The paper Nature of the "Vitamin A-like Factor" in Lard [1], says that lard has the "biological activity" of between 500 and 2,500 IUs per 100grams, but that this vitamin A doesn't appear in standard chemical and spectroscopic analyses, and it suggests the reason for that.

I heard Sally Fallon, from the Weston A. Price Foundation, say that the USDA is lying about the Vitamin content of lard, and that when they paid for their own tests to analyze lard, they found that it actually much more nutritious than what the USDA lists.

According to Chris Masterjohn [2], only cod liver oil contains more Vitamin D than lard.



Michal said...

Don wrote:
" (e.g. chicken skin) have a low nutrient density and dilute the nutrient density of the lean. "

Others claim that:
"Since hyaluronic acid is found in the connective tissue of animals, consuming animal products is believed to be the best natural source available. Chicken soup made from boiling the bones and skin of chickens can be a surprisingly rich source for hyaluronic acid. Even most hyaluronic acid supplements are made from rooster combs."

Don said...


Hyaluronic acid is not classified as an essential nutrient. We make it ourselves from that vilified nutrient, glucose. It is one of the reasons we need dietary glucose.

Kevin said...

A quick point related to my previous comment regarding Vitamin-A and lard. Another (old) name for Vitamin-A is actually "lard factor" [1], so it's a bit incredible for the USDA to claim that lard doesn't actually contain any "lard factor".