Old internet joke: what happens when you divide by zero? You destroy a city, that’s what.
You can’t divide by zero in euclidean space…well you can but your outcome will be wrong. However, in nutrition you can and this magic leads to “correct but meaningless” statements like “kale is the most nutrient dense food on Earth.”
The Demon in the Denominator
So how is nutrient density calculated? It’s pretty simple:
The amount of a nutrient (vitamin, mineral, etc) in a serving of food divided by the total calories of a serving of food
Veggies just don’t have a lot of calories, so if you’re dividing by nearly zero, the nutrient density score will approach infinity…or at least by a large number relative to, say, meat.
The problem becomes how that sways decision making in food stuffs. Dividing a food’s nutrient content by nearly zero kcal equals very high nutrient density (again, a ratio of vitamins, minerals, etc. to its kcal), but that’s not total nutrient content. The absolute is low per serving, even if the relative amount of said nutrient is quite high. So you have to eat a LOT of kale to get enough off the good stuff. Kale’s rad, but I don’t want it to be the ONLY thing I eat.
Why do I mention this? Because this is where animal products shine.
Absolute nutrient content is where meats shine. Look in almost any college textbook for sources of key vitamins and minerals, and you’ll almost always find meat near the top of the list.
I love fruits and veggies. Beyond vitamins and minerals, they’re packed with thousands of phytochemicals (phyto = plant) in complex combinations that help our health and physique, often through a hormetic response (for a really complex explanation, read this). But researchers are increasingly coming back to meat, basically animal muscle, because it’s rich in “zoochemicals”.
Never heard of “zoochemicals”? Zoochemical is general term for the many chemicals found in animal products that can have health promoting properties. Further, they’re found only in animal products or found in relatively high amounts compared to most plant foods. And the biggest thing? It’s not a silly “denominator-approaching-zero” thing, meat has meaningful amounts of these zoochemicals per serving, making meat nutrient rich. So if nutrient density is a relative measure, nutrient richness is an absolute measure. It’s either there or it isn’t.
Speaking of there, what sort of things are we talking about? Here are a few zoochemicals found in nutrient-rich meat and some of their potential benefits:
- Quality protein (lean tissue building, metabolic function)
- Vitamin B12 (essential nutrient, red cell formation, energy)
- Heme Iron (readily absorbed form, fights fatigue in some persons)
- Zinc (readily absorbed, most diets are deficient)
- n-3 fatty acids (potent EPA and DHA, especially compared to the plant’s n-3, linoleic acid)
- Creatine (muscular power,cell volume)
- Carnosine (cellular buffering, antioxidant effects)
- Coenzyme Q10 (antioxidant effects, energy generation)
So am I saying it’s time to go all carnivore? No, not at all. I’m underlining the fact that we’re omnivores and that both plant and animal foods have different beneficial properties for health and fitness. Demonizing “carbs” when you mean “processed junk food” is the same thought error as demonizing “meat” when you mean “processed foods that happen to contain meat.” Human animals need both and now you know why.
So next time you’re at your local organic grocer and they’re carrying on about nutrient density, you’ll crack a little smile because you know.