Grains are more nutritious than meat

Reading Time: 6 minutes

As a former Paleo dieter (for 10 years!), the ideas that grains are nutritionally deficient, meat nutritionally rich, and carbohydrates inherently harmful were deeply engrained in my habits of thinking. So much so that my first forays into eating whole grain bread after learning about plant-based diets were marked by an anxiety that lasted for years–“am I eating carbohydrates instead of fats for an ideological reason, at the expense of my health? Surely these plant-based writers cannot be right?”

Well, certainly the plant-based writers are not right, as I understand now that they could not impartially analyze their way out of a wet paper bag. Still, those days of carb anxiety are long over, as I now understand carbohydrate and fatty acid metabolism to a sufficient degree as to now be inoculated from the Paleo/keto/low-carb/low-fat macronutrient fear-mongering. (When I say “understand”, I mean that I understand how little we know–and how, when popular nutrition writers inveigh against carbohydrates or fats in the diet, they are, to be generous, reading the scientific literature creatively.)

But what had lingered was the sense that, because grains are nutritionally deficient relative to meat, I needed to be especially careful to avoid the nutritional downsides of wheat bread, of which I ate copious quantities.

See for example the bloggings of the major Paleo writers.

Chris Kresser:

Robb Wolf:

So surely whole grains have a well-justified bad reputation?

It is worth noting that neither writer actually explains how the “nutrient density” algorithms determine the rankings that they report. My guess is that, as with much they write, they did not in fact critically analyze the primary sources that they used to make their recommendations but instead used the ready-made listings that agreed with their biases.

That is my guess, in any case, because when I actually looked at the raw data, I saw a different story, which is significantly more complex. This was purely accidental, just the result of playing with Cronometer. Yet what I found shocked me.

For instance, here is the nutritional profile for 2500 calories of whole wheat bagels:

10 whole wheat bagels, 2500 calories

Now here is 2500 calories of lean ribeye, the favored cut of the online so-called carnivore subculture.

36 ounces of ribeye, 2500 calories

All-ribeye diet: severely deficient in 9 nutrients, moderately deficient in 4. All-bagel diet: severely deficient in 6 nutrients, moderately deficient in 1.

In other words, if one could choose between only wheat or meat, and one was aiming at nutrient adequacy, the answer is clearly wheat.

Of course choosing between eating only meat or only wheat would be insane, but the former is, as I said, just what one online subculture has chosen to do. (I am just reporting the facts.) Not a coincidence, Robb Wolf, mentioned above, helped to promote the growth of this subculture.

What happens when one slightly diversifies the plant foods?

2500 calories, half lentils, half wheat bagels:

Half wheat bagels, half lentils

All-ribeye diet: deficient in 13 nutrients: severely in 9, moderately in 4.
Half-bagel, half lentil diet: deficient in 6 nutrients, severely in 6.

What about reducing wheat and lentils to 43% of total calories each (86% together), putting almonds at 9% of calories (a handful of almonds), and making up the final 5% of calories broccoli and carrots (a handful of each) and sardines (a single sardine, 1.6% of calories)?

I call it the Poverty Omnivore Diet, and it is very nearly my own diet (as an amateur athlete, I add supplemental protein for optimal recovery and muscle mass, and a lot of berries):

A diet of 86% legumes and grains, with very modest quantities of nuts and vegetables

Add sunlight, and you are meeting all of your vitamin, mineral, and protein needs in spades.

For reference:

Again, for comparison, here is an all-ribeye diet:

To provide a further contrast, it is easy to find claims by pseudoscience pushers online that animals are more “nutrient dense” than plants:

That said, a few points are in order.

First, it is sometimes claimed that meat nutrients are more bioavailable than plant nutrients. For a few minerals, this might be true, but I’m not aware of any evidence that this has a meaningful impact on nutrient sufficiency. If readers are aware of such evidence in an otherwise nutrient-rich diet such as the one I have posted, please leave a comment or contact me.

Second, the idea that grain consumption led to worsened health at the beginning of agriculture has led to much speculation that grains per se are suboptimal foods. A paper that reviewed all of the literature on the subject, published in 2011, concluded that stature certainly diminished in most (but not all) human populations during the transition to agriculture. Yet in its discussion, it focused on famine as the likely explanatory factor, not grain intake per se:

Furthermore, if grain consumption and agriculture was the cause of reduced height, then average height would not have increased dramatically over the past few centuries (the Western diet is still heavy in grains):

Finally, if grains replacing meat were the cause of reduced height during agriculture, then vegetarian children wouldn’t be of similar height as omnivorous children. Yet they are.

So why are Paleomyths about meat being more nutrient-rich than plants so widespread, despite the actual story being much more complicated (to say the least)?

My guess is that this is largely motivated by modernity anxiety. For all of human history, humans have idealized and romanticized simpler ways of life, as exemplified by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We imagine our hunter-gatherer ancestors all ate large quantities of meat. It follows that we should eat meat. We therefore look for sciency-sounding reasons for this belief. Folks like Chris Kresser, Robb Wolf, and Mark Sisson all provide these sciency-sounding reasons. Because this is what we already believed anyway, and we are just looking for reasons to believe it, instead of critically evaluating what these bloggers write, immediately we think “ahhh so that’s why!” We are already primed to believe, not to question. And so we believe. Or at least, once upon a time, I did.

The reality is that the role of plant foods in our ancestors’ diets is substantially more complicated than these writers let on. For instance:

And the rabbit hole goes much deeper. But that is a subject for another post.

Suffice to say, every scientific field is more complicated and richer in controversy than we think at first. Often, we first access a scientific field via a popular writer who tells a good story and appeals to pre-existing beliefs to sell that story. Yet no matter if they are a New York Times bestseller or a famous columnist or respected by large popular audiences on the Internet, we should always be skeptical of the new things we learn, especially if they resonate with and make sense of what we already believe. Unless we are aware of and have critically assessed the relevant body of scientific literature, there is no way whether we are being sold a good yarn or something with strong basis in scientific fact. Until we know better, we need to proceed through life with the assumption that most of what we know is simply a “best guess” based upon “something that we heard that sounded credible”. Because that’s all it really is. My journey through nutrition science, especially with respect to grains, carbohydrates, meat, etc., has taught me that over and over again.

UPDATE

Some people have pointed out that ribeyes should not have carbohydrates. I do not know why the entry at the USDA has ribeyes with carbohydrates. Therefore, I have found a new ribeye entry:

Slightly better than the ribeye I included originally. Still not as good as grains.

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19 Comments

  1. In cronometer vitamin K2 and K1 both show as Vitamin K. I wish the app would distinguish the two. What’s funny though is that most anti-vegan folks say that you can’t get K2 on a vegan diet. As far as I know, the most K2-dense food is plant-based. You only need 9 grams of Natto to get your daily requirement. Whereas, you need 171 grams of dark chicken meat to get 100 mcg. However, it’s probably true most vegans don’t ever get K2 in their diet. But I found that since 9 grams of Natto is so little, I can’t taste it in a smoothie or protein shake. As a side note, I noticed that Joel Kahn recommends that vegans supplement with K2.

  2. something is wrong on your photos.
    1)Beef Steak, Rib Eye, Visible Fat Eaten or No Visible has
    a)B5 between 5-6 mg for 36 oz.
    b) 0 carbs. Not sure where you got 15g carbs.
    c)has more vitamin D and calcium.

    2)you quote Chris Kresser’s list which has organ meats as first and red meat as 9th but then you compare rib eye steak (just 1 food) with multiple other foods. What about if you add organ meats and fish? The outcome is obvious, but apparently you decided to present something for those you have no clue.

    3)Nutrients in plants are not really absorbed with the same rate as nutrients in animals.

    4)Result: Grains are NOT more nutritious than meat.

    5)Adding organ meats+fat+some vegetables(occasionally or daily) to the rib eye steak (>75% total fats and not 1kg of just muscle meat) is way better than your diet.

    1. 1. There are many ribeye entries on USDA. I picked one at random.

      2. Yes, you can always add more items to make meat look better than grains. I just compared them head-to-head, one-to-one. There is a large community of people on the Internet who eat only steak and who claim that grains are nutrient deficient. This post was aimed mainly at them.

      3. I addressed the absorption issue in the post and requested references showing that there is real-world relevance of this alleged bioavailability issue.

      4. OK.

      5. I could also hack the predominantly plant-based diet to look comparable to anything that you would want to hack, but that would be missing the point of this post.

      I await your addressing the post’s actual content

      1. 1. Are you kidding us? There is no meat except organs that have such high amount of carbs. You probably had something forgotten there.

        2.nobody is eating 10 whole bagels. And what is it healthier? 160g of fat or 500g of carbs with almost 100g of sugar?

        3. As for your height hypotheses there is data which correlates all the “high height” countries with milk consumption.

        4.The site’s comment section is tragic and not useful to communicate easily. Maybe you should try another system which is kinda live.

        1. 1. I included an update. You can also log into cronometer.com if you would like to double-check the results.
          2. The point isn’t to tell anyone to eat only bagels. It is to comment on an ideology about meat. I agree that few people eat only bagels.
          3. OK.
          4. Prefer for it not to be useful, as I generally find responding to comments exhausting.

        2. 2. “The point isn’t to tell anyone to eat only bagels. It is to comment on an ideology about meat. I agree that few people eat only bagels.”

          There is no ideology about meat. You start saying that people who say meat is better than grains are wrong because these people have made lists with the most nutrient dense foods such as organ meats, fish etc. And then you compare something that is on 9th position. Also red meat is not only rib eye.
          You cant beat the first 6 on the list with grain consumption. This is the fact.

        3. There is a gigantic online presence of people who eat only ribeye and claim that this is the “human diet”. If that does not qualify as an ideology, I don’t know what does.

          I then compared this diet, which they claim is especially nutrient-dense, with a diet consisting entirely of the opposite: the food that they say caused people to become unhealthy. And it turns out that the latter diet actually provides much better for human nutritional needs.

          I then apposed what I had come up with, to their claims about nutrient density. By doing this, I meant to suggest that there was something wrong with the nutrient density metric that they were using.

          And that’s this: simply “adding up” micronutrients from one food and comparing these to the “added up” micronutrients from another food does not actually tell us much about what is most nutritious for human beings. After all, if it did, then a pile of iron powder would rate more as nutrient dense than any actual real food, and one would then want to compose one’s diet entirely from iron powder. This is clearly absurd.

          Therefore, the metric of “nutrient density”, as defined the way the Paleo bloggers have defined it, is lacking. Instead, the degree to which a food helps us to meet nutrient requirements, and not just provide us with X amount of nutrients, should also be taken into account. In other words, nutrient diversity is also important–especially if one is suggesting that one should compose one’s entire diet from just that food or a few foods.

          Additionally, I want to point out that, historically, humans have used grains as a staple. This has been argued by Paleo ideologues to have been a mistake. However, if the above analysis is correct, it actually appears that using grains as a staple has not been an entirely crazy idea. It might have been a very good idea.

          I hope that this has answered some of your questions about my article.

    1. FWIW, Kresser references Lalonde’s work adjacent to the table you’ve taken a screen shotted in this article as well as in his Personal Paleo Code book. https://chriskresser.com/what-is-nutrient-density-and-why-is-it-important/

      Kresser also references Lalonde in this presentation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqOjbycvUgw

      Robb references Lalonde adjacent to the table you have screen grabbed in this post. https://robbwolf.com/2015/05/13/grains-whats-the-upside/

      Unfortunately, Lalonde’s nutrient density analysis was a bit of a weekend blitz that was a stroke of genius, but needed more work to be practically applicable. The problem was really that he tallied up all the essential micronutrients. And because we tend to have plenty of protein in the food system, we end up with a very protein heavy list of foods (like 60%).

      Defining nutrient density based on adequate amount of all the the harder to find nutrients is a much more useful approach. To do this we only need to prioritise the 10 – 15 of the nutrients we’re not getting enough of rather than everything. Unless you’re a strict vegan, you probably don’t need to seek out more amino acids. When we prioritise foods that contain more of the harder to find vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids we tend to get plenty of protein. See https://optimisingnutrition.com/2019/01/13/nutrient-density-101/

      We can quantify nutrient density based on the DRIs (i.e. the minimum to prevent deficiency). See https://optimisingnutrition.com/2018/05/27/the-nutrient-optimiser-score/

      But we can also quantify nutrient density using the Optimal Nutrient Intakes (https://optimisingnutrition.com/2019/11/30/the-optimal-nutrient-intake-oni/) that align with health and satiety (see https://optimisingnutrition.com/2019/12/07/oni/).

      Foods with an optimal nutrient profile tends to contain a mix of animal/seafoods and non-starchy vege (see https://www.sacredcow.info/blog/what-if-we-all-went-plant-based). Refined grains tend not to make the cut (see https://optimisingnutrition.com/2019/01/20/should-you-eat-lancet/).

      Protein from meat and seafood tends to be more plentiful per calories and bioavailable than plant based foods (due to their Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score) (see https://www.sacredcow.info/blog/are-all-proteins-created-equal?). For example, glutinous wheat based foods have a PDCAAS of 0.25 compared to eggs, milk and whey protein which have a PDCAAS of 1.0, so you’ll need to eat four times as much protein from some grains to get the same amount of bioavailable protein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_Digestibility_Corrected_Amino_Acid_Score).

      Some nutrients in animal based foods are in the active form rather than the precursor forms and hence more bioavailable. For example:

      1. Omega 3 – The three most important types are ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). Effectively, we are allowing the fish to do the conversion of and bioaccumulation of omega 3s for us.
      ALA is found mainly in plants, while DHA and EPA occur mostly in animal foods and algae. Omega 3 is one nutrient that strict vegans tend to struggle to obtain in adequate quantities in a bioavailable form. It seems women can convert more ALA to DHA and EPA for use in the body. Healthy men can convert 8% of ALA to EPA, and 0-4% is converted to DHA, while healthy women can convert 21% of ALA to EPA and 9% to DHA. in view of these low conversion rates from plant-based ALA to the bioavailable DHA and EPA, most people will need to find a way to get DHA and EPA from fish-based sources in order to get enough bioavailable omega 3. (see https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/).

      2. Vitamin A – There are two different types of vitamin A. You obtain Provitamin A carotenoids (e.g. alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin) from plant-based foods (e.g. carrots), while preformed vitamin A is found in animal-based products. Most people can convert adequate amounts of provitamin vitamin A to preformed vitamin A as required.
      The reduced bioavailability of vitamin A from plant-based food may be a real issue if you are relying on a highly processed grain-based diet with minimal animal products or leafy veggies. (see https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18214019)

      3. Vitamin B12 – The bioavailability of Vitamin B12 from animal products ranges from 42 to 66%. Interestingly, Vitamin B12 in eggs seems to be poorly absorbed (i.e. less than 9%). The bioavailability of Vitamin B12 from animal products ranges from 42 to 66%. Interestingly, Vitamin B12 in eggs seems to be poorly absorbed (i.e. less than 9%).
      The official Dietary Reference Intake is based on the assumption that healthy adults absorb 50% of dietary vitamin B12 with normal gastrointestinal function. Some plant foods such as seaweed contain substantial amounts of vitamin B12. However, the edible blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) used for human supplements predominantly contain pseudo vitamin B12, which is inactive in humans.

      4. Calcium – Foods that contain phytates (e.g. spinach, rhubarb, chard, legumes, grains and cereals) can decrease the absorption of calcium in your diet. Around 20 – 25% of the calcium in legumes is absorbed. Soaking legumes can be a useful strategy to remove phytates before eating to improve calcium absorption. A little over 30% of the calcium in milk is absorbed, 40 – 60% of the calcium in cruciferous vegetables is absorbed. However, only 5 – 9% of calcium is absorbed from rhubarb and spinach. Calcium absorption is improved by Vitamin D status and resistance training while it is made worse by exposure to lead, high alcohol consumption and low acid levels in the stomach. This is unlikely to be a significant concern if you consume a broad range of nutrient-dense foods, particularly given you can get too much calcium in your diet. However, if you drink a lot of green smoothies expecting to absorb all the calcium, you may be disappointed. Most people will struggle to consume excessive amounts of spinach regularly. A standard western diet consisting of predominantly refined grains, not only provides minimal calcium, but the phytates ensure that it is not adequately absorbed.

  3. Plant based doctors can’t rationalize their way out of a wet paper bag? Your arrogance is ridiculous. Anytime any day and anywhere you want to debate and on any platform.

  4. Say one wanted to eat a predominantly poverty omnivore diet and is concerned with gaining/maintaining muscle mass while optimizing health span what would be the ideal protein supplement? Whey? It’s cheap and has plenty of bio available leucine. But is there any known health downsides from getting the majority of ones protein from whey powder?

      1. Thanks, I love your articles! I have a follow up question if you have the time and inclination. I’ve seen some pretty conservative, evidence-based researchers imply that limiting mTOR activation and protein may be good for longevity. I see many with an interest in fitness push back on these suggestions and they reference correlations of higher muscle mass/strength with longevity. To a layman like me it seems logical that 60+ year olds in better shape (have more strength/muscle) will live longer than fellow 60+ individuals in worse condition (more robust to falls and general aging). Following that, it is true that a muscular bodybuilder enthusiast 30 year old will tend to have more muscle than average at 60+. However, beyond that correlation I am skeptical that the studies they reference imply that lifting hard and eating to optimize muscle growth between ages ~ 25-45 has a positive impact to healthspan/lifespan.

        I guess what I am asking is: IYO if one is not a competitive athlete but enjoys a very active lifestyle (including some weight training) would prioritizing muscle growth by focusing a bit more on weight training and eating animal protein be a healthy decision for long term health.

  5. Hi Kevin!

    Nice that vegan works for you!

    But did not works for me.

    Before i started Paleo/lowcarb my digestion was a mess, constipaded a lot (it did not matter how much fiber or water i hit a day), bloated, joint pain, low energy and the list goes on.
    Than i changed and no bloated, energy up, digestion is good, at least one bowel movement a day (not constipated anymore), no more pain. And no heart problems or cholesterol to high.
    So i stick to it.

  6. I tried, but did not work for my health.

    I tried to eat raw, cooked, bolied, fermented and nothing worked.

    After i erased grains, legumes and high carb foods (Potatoes, rice and so) and increase animal protein and fat the positive results were almost immediately.

    Vegan can work for some, but not to everyone.

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