Nutritional Rating Systems

I’ve always eaten what I liked, usually junk food, but for decades I’ve longed to eat healthier and lose weight.  Now I have to eat healthy because of my heart.   Eating healthy has always been a vague concept:  avoid junk food, eat natural foods.  What exactly are healthy foods? What are junk foods?  Is there a scientific, quantitative way of judging foods?

I started studying Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a health guru I discovered on a PBS fund drive.  I made the pledge and got a bunch of books and videos by Fuhrman.  From Fuhrman’s book Eat to Live I read about his nutrition index which I’ve since discovered evolved into the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI).  Just look at this chart to get an idea how it works.  It’s rather revealing in a simple obvious way.


[Click for larger image]

Is kale really a 1,000 times better than a glass of Coke?  That’s not hard to believe, I would have thought it infinitely greater.  But what about something healthier sounding?  Is kale 50 times better than feta cheese?  Or 20 times more nutritious than peanut butter?  Only if you’re just counting micronutrients.  But Dr. Fuhrman believes phytochemicals are the real key to health.  His books and lectures are quite persuasive in convincing me that eating very nutritional foods can actual reverse my clogged arteries and reduce my cholesterol.

The trouble is, when I tried his starter diet it made me feel awful, and I hated eating the prescribed food.  Fuhrman claims there’s a barrier to get through, and once on the other side I’d feel great.  I’m going to try again, but this time I’m going to work my way into slowly.  Fuhrman doesn’t want his converts to be pussies, but to bite the bullet and jump into eating healthy cold turkey.  I’m having a problem with that.  So I’m going to improve my diet by improving my numbers.

My point however, in writing this essay is to explore nutritional rating systems.  The idea of food coming with a score is appealing, especially when the rating is based on quality rather than quantity, which is essentially what calories count.  When I look at the above list and see that carrots are almost ten times more valuable than an apple it makes me wonder why an apple a day keeps the doctor away.  The ANDI system is far from perfect though, which measures micronutrient density per calorie.  Almonds get a rating of 28, yet I’m seeing all kinds of reports about how almonds are good for you.  And why is a white potato equal to brown rice?  See, they both have equal levels of micronutrients, but the ANDI system makes no claim about macronutrients, or energy producing values of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.  Low value ANDI foods can and do include valuable chemicals that our body needs but is not reflected in their numeric scale.

There’s another rating system that is more complex, that also rates processed foods, called the NuVal, that scores foods from 1-100.  In this system broccoli scores a 100, avocadoes get an 89, but Pepperidge Farm Goldfish are 20.  Iceberg lettuce gets a 82 and pineapple gets a 99.  That doesn’t seem to jive with the ANDI system, but that’s because it’s counting other qualities including fiber.  NuVal is used in over 1700 supermarkets to help shoppers compare all kinds of foods.

Fuhrman’s ANDI system is designed to recognize the healthful benefits of phytochemicals in whole foods.  It’s more of a specialized system.  NuVal is a comparison system to be used by all food manufactures for marketing purposes.   Both have their value.  For my purpose, I value the ANDI system more.  I want to create my own menu of healthy foods to cook, and want to get away from eating prepackaged processed foods.

I can also look at the bigger picture of any food by looking at sites like NutritionData – see this page for kale, which give extensive data, including the amino acids in the protein breakdown.


I doubt I’ll ever need this level of detail information.  Dr. Fuhrman claims if you eat a variety of high value fruits and vegetables from the ANDI system you’ll get everything you need.  But I’m a vegetarian and need to worry about protein.  I do think the ANDI system is a great scale to eat by, but not the only one.

JWH – 12/5/13

4 thoughts on “Nutritional Rating Systems”

  1. Eating “healthy” is a major new effort for me (age 55) and I too am struggling through the basics of calorie counting, limiting fats and sugars, ensuring balance, and staying hydrated. I’ve abandoned my Atkins mentality and have accepted a conventional eat often, not that much, but balanced approach. I’m real interested in this new (to me) indices and will start reading about them…

  2. Eating healthier food is a good idea, Jim, but you only need so many nutrients. You’ll just piss away anything extra.

    Food isn’t medicine. I forget who said that, but while I was looking for the quote, I found this post. Like him, I think this says it all: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    Of course, I don’t do that myself. I wouldn’t eat vegetables or fruit at all if I didn’t grow them myself. And I don’t grow nearly enough vegetables. But I can sure give advice. Heh, heh.

    PS. Kale is a piece of cake to grow. In fact, I grew a kale plant this year by accident. (It came up from a root I hadn’t pulled up the previous year.) But I never use it for anything. I can’t imagine what I would use it for, except maybe kale soup, once in a blue moon. And that doesn’t take much kale (but lots of sausage).

  3. I don’t see how kale is 1000 while Shrimp and Salmon rate a 36 and 34. I do not understand how people can proscribe vegetarian diets especially ones that include grain while not listing a single non-fish meat for health reasons. I can see it for ethical reasons, but never for health reasons. Throughout human history meat has been the major (but not only) component of our diet. Most of the vegetables we are familiar with weren’t even crossbred until the 16th century. meat, then nuts, fruit and root vegetables were 95% or more of our diet.

    Only as civilization developed, mostly due to human population getting too high to support hunter-gathering, did we turn to grain and masses of vegetables. In hunter-gathers and other groups eating traditional diets it is common for people to live until their 80s and 90’s. Due to their low level of medical knowledge many such people die from accidents or disease, but those who didn’t almost universally lived long lives. After “civilization” people began to die by age 30, it was the rare person (usually rich) who lived a normal life span. We supposedly live in a golden age of long life, but if you control for accidents and incurable diseases we do not live significantly longer than we did in the past (and for Americans that was a meat-eating past). I know plenty of people in horrible shape who are the walking dead because they eat the garbage the food corporations sell, and they’ll likely be die in their 50s.

    Atkins was more of a cult than a sensible eating plan, but a diet based on human evolution is the way. I abhor animal cruelty, but I can’t see how a lion eating a wildebeest is somehow morally different than a person eating a cow. We have an obligation to our entire biosphere, to ensure the animals we eat have a decent life as they grow, but if you outlawed meat-eating half of the species on earth would be extinct. The corporate system that controls all large scale meat production is a horror-show for the animals they process and the people who eat the resulting disease laden meat.

    All the problems we see, diabetes, heart disease and dementia are due to grains, sugar and other forms of processed foods and the preservatives and other chemicals they are laced with.

    1. Greg, that scale is only for micro-nutrients of the kind we mainly get from plants. It’s really only good for comparing one plant to another, or to show that the micro-nutrients in plant aren’t common in non-plant food sources. For example, kale and spinach are better for a salad than iceberg lettuce.

      The paleo diet is strong on fats and proteins supplemented with good plants. The whole idea is to get away from junk carbs which are usually from processed foods that are recent inventions.

      Even though I’m a vegetarian I understand we need to eat in the manner we were evolved to eat. I’m trying to learn to eat healthy and ethically.

      I think we’re just at the beginning of a diet revolution. Up till now diets have been more about theory than science. I’m hoping to see a lot more science.

      I have no idea how it will turn out. All I know is I feel MUCH better since I’ve given up gluten because of stomach and intestinal problems. Not only have the stomach and chest pains stopped, but I’m feeling better mentally and physically in general. And my joint pains have stopped too. Gluten must have been causing a general inflammation.

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