Eat for Optimal Health

A micronutrient-rich diet can shrink your waistline and increase wellness. Here’s how.
By Joel Warner

One night in May 2008, Emily Boller had an epiphany: Her body was a work of art, and it was high time she crafted it into a masterpiece. The avid painter was used to spending hours on her expressionist landscapes and flowers but little time on her diet and health. A 49-year-old mother of five, Boller says many of her meals were variations on pizza or pasta. She was prediabetic, 100 pounds overweight, and recently diagnosed with heart disease.

“I was putting mud on this masterpiece that was designed to function at optimal health,” she says. So then and there, she committed to cleaning up the mess.

To do so, she turned to a new eating program developed by Joel Fuhrman, MD, a New Jersey–based family physician and author of the best-selling books Eat to Live (Little, Brown and Company, 2005) and Eat for Health (Gift of Health Press, 2008). After a month following Fuhrman’s recommendations for what he’s dubbed the “nutritarian” diet, Boller lost 20 pounds, and within six weeks, her blood pressure dropped significantly.

That was just the beginning.

“I had taken off the majority of the 100 pounds within 10 months, and I was no longer prediabetic,” she says. More than two years later, she has kept the weight off.

A new kind of eating
Fuhrman’s approach diverges from other diets: Instead of increasing or restricting macronutrients, such as fat, carbohydrates, and proteins, his zeroes in on micronutrients—vitamins, minerals, and plant-based chemicals called phytochemicals. Not only do micronutrients contain zero calories, but they also boost immunity and detoxify the body. Calcium, bioflavonoids, folate, selenium, and vitamin C are among the most important micronutrients.

The problem, says Fuhrman, is that the typical American diet comprises primarily processed foods and animal products, woefully deficient in micronutrients. “Chronic disease results from the harmful effects of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and the lack of micronutrients’ beneficial effects,” he explains, referring to studies linking chronic disease and mortality to low blood levels of antioxidants and vitamins C, D, and E.

Fuhrman started to see a better way two decades ago when he put his sick patients on high-nutrient diets. At that point, studies were suggesting that phytochemicals, such as bioflavonoids and phenols, helped prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. Those findings have been bolstered by recent research: A 2007 study of 40,000 Spaniards found diets high in fruits, vegetables, and specific micronutrients were associated with decreased risk of mortality. Sure enough, in addition to improving their health, many of Fuhrman’s patients quickly dropped to and maintained an ideal weight.

But Fuhrman doesn’t necessarily recommend wholesale vegetarianism. “High-nutrient vegetarian and vegan diets, and high-nutrient omnivorous diets can all be healthy choices,” he says. “Science tells us that animal products should be limited, but the extent of that limitation is still unclear. There isn’t any research to suggest that two to three servings per week in an otherwise vegetable-based diet is any more detrimental than a totally vegetarian diet.”

Instead, Fuhrman advocates becoming what he calls a “nutritarian”: Emphasize nutrient-dense vegetables—such as kale, spinach, berries, and seeds—but don’t turn up your nose at an occasional dinner of wild-caught salmon or grilled turkey breast.

In this approach, counting calories and watching carbs take a backseat to understanding a food’s intrinsic nutritional value. For example, whether you decide to eat a bagel or chicken breast makes little difference because both have far fewer micronutrients than, say, a handful of strawberries or even a serving of salsa.

Fuhrman explains that when your body is devoid of necessary nutrients, it will continually crave more food. Therefore, it’s hard to make weight loss last when it’s achieved simply by cutting calories. “We have to eat fewer calories, but that becomes simple to achieve when the protein, carbohydrates, and fats we do eat are high in micronutrients.”
4 steps to becoming a nutritarian Fuhrman created the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) to rank how well individual foods hold up in terms of micronutrients. For example, cooked mustard greens, packed with iron, vitamin E, thiamine, dietary fiber, and carotenoids, score a perfect 1,000 ANDI grade, while tomato sauce clocks in at 248 points; cola, the lowest of the low, earns a paltry 0.5 points. (Visit to see the ANDI scores of common foods.)

For the mathematically challenged (you know who you are), Fuhrman developed these four steps to nutritarianism. Although it’s common to spend a couple of months mastering each phase, Fuhrman is quick to point out that you should spend as much—or as little—time as you need to fully understand each step.

1. Just like a new exercise routine, set the bar low and build from there. Start out by shifting a few basic elements of your diet. Eat three fruits a day, for example, along with one serving of beans and a good amount of leafy vegetables. “Eat a salad every day,” Fuhrman says. “Think about it like going to the gym. Just do it. At this stage you are acclimating to a greater volume of vegetables. You are building your digestive muscle.”
Recipe: Healthy Chocolate Cake

2. At this stage, begin actively lowering your animal-product intake. Instead of making meat a main course, use it as a condiment—place scallops on a salad or add some turkey to a soup. Now more of your calorie intake will come from high-nutrient plant foods, such as veggies and herbs. Meanwhile, go easy with the saltshaker. Your taste buds are ready to reacquaint all those fresh, vibrant foods, and, as Fuhrman puts it, “salt deadens taste, so when you start a diet lower in salt, you start to really experience flavors.”
Recipe: Spaghetti Squash Primavera

3. This is the time to zero in on an ideal diet. Almost all your fat intake at this stage should come from foods such as avocados and seeds, and most of your carbs should derive from vegetables such as corn and sweet potatoes. Limit eating animal products—including milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter—to once every other day. The upshot: Your taster is better now than it was at Step 1.
Recipe: Citrus Salad With Orange Peanut Dressing

4. Congratulations: You’ve reached no-holds-barred nutritarianism. Everything you eat boasts maximum micronutrients. Rice, potatoes, and starchy vegetables, such as beets and squash, have been minimized to make room for top ANDI-scoring veggies. And animal protein is down to one or two servings a week.
Recipe: Raisin Collards and Carrots

Finding true hunger
What are the benefits of a nutritarian lifestyle? A healthy body, a great waistline, and a special reward: The pleasure of true hunger.

Most people confuse hunger with the uncomfortable, irritable feelings they get when their bodies break down all the sugars, starches, and other bad stuff they eat, Fuhrman explains. Once those detrimental foods have been replaced with micronutrient-rich alternatives, your body stays satisfied until it’s really time to eat. “True hunger is felt in the throat, and is quite a different sensation than simply wanting to eat,” he says.

Emily Boller is a perfect example. Once she became a nutritarian, you couldn’t pay her to eat pizza or fried chicken. “I have no desire for them anymore,” she says. “Now that my body is nourished, I don’t have that toxic hunger.” For the first time in a long while, she can say: “It’s a pleasure to eat.”

1. If it has a label, it’s probably low in micronutrients. If possible, replace with label-free alternatives such as produce.

2. When you have to buy a product with a label, Be Sure to check its salt content. Stay away from anything with more than 300 mg of sodium per serving.

3. Scan ingredient lists. Choose whole-grain breads. Avoid foods that post sugar—including honey and stevia—as a top ingredient.

4. Look for colorful produce. Sweet potatoes have more micronutrients than white potatoes, wild rice tops white and brown varieties, and black and brown beans will always beat out white ones.

-  Do you eat at least a pound of vegetables a day?

-    Do you eat a cup of beans daily?

-    Do you eat five fresh fruits a day?

-    Do you use very little oil?

-   Do you eat at least 1 1/2 ounces of raw seeds and nuts a day?

-   Do you eat two to five animal products per week?

-  Do you eat at least one big salad each day?

If you answered “yes” to:
0–3: Your diet is low in micronutrients. Time to get cracking on making changes to your diet.
4–5: You’re on your way! Start with Step 3 above
6–7: Congratulations—you’re a full-fledged nutritarian!