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Maximizing Nutrient Density for the Modern Day Hunter-Gatherer

by Dr. Terry Wahls
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

You have likely heard my story: I have progressive multiple sclerosis and spent four years dependent upon a tilt-recline wheelchair. And you know that I used my own research to design a diet based on hunter-gatherer dietary principles and functional medicine that maximized the nutrition for my mitochondria and brain cells and achieved the unthinkable: not only did I halt the progression of my disease, I dramatically improved my function. Within a year, I was able to walk without a cane throughout the hospital, bike again (after being unable to for six years), and complete an 18-mile bike ride with my family.

I have been transformed like Paul on the way to Damascus. I see the world of health and disease very differently these days. In my clinics, I teach patients and student doctors the biochemistry of nutrition. My patients are almost always ready to begin the journey of eating real food, increasing the amount of vegetables in their diet and moving away from processed foods and grains. The physicians in training I work with are learning that food can lower blood pressure and blood sugars and lead to weight loss without chronic hunger. They and my patients are learning the power of food as medicine.

I also educate the public and medical community. I share my story, explaining that we are chemical factories and our cells need specific nutrients to conduct the biology of life. Most people I know do not pour high fructose corn syrup into the gas tank of their car, but sadly they do not understand that they must treat their mitochondrial engines just as well as they treat the engine in their cars. If we give our mitochondria and brain cells the vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and antioxidants they need to conduct the biology of life properly, our engines will run smoothly.

Nutrient density means how many vitamins, minerals, and essential fats are in each calorie. Multiple studies have shown that the nutrient densities of traditional diets exceed the recommended daily allowance (RDA) two- to eight-fold, depending on which nutrient you are looking at*. However, these diets consist of wild foodstuffs. We have few assessments of a hunter-gatherer diet that uses agriculturally available foods, meaning foods we can buy from the grocer or local farmer.

In Naked Calories, authors Jayson and Mira Calton analyzed several popular American diets, including the Paleo and Primal diets, which they found to be among the most nutrient-dense diets. But these modern iterations of the diets of traditional societies (whose nutrient densities do exceed the RDAs two- to ten-fold, depending on the nutrient) still don’t meet all the RDAs for vitamins, minerals, and essential fats. This is because modern versions rely on domesticated agricultural foods, which have been bred to increase yield and carbohydrate content. The result of modern agricultural practices is an abundance of grains, vegetables, and fruits that are sweeter and starchier but less dense in nutrients than wild plants.

Modern eaters don’t have hunter-gatherer ancestors to help guide our food choices. Even following a Paleo food plan may not be enough to provide modern eaters with all the nutrients they need. In my recovery process, I used the medical research to identify 31 key brain nutrients our bodies need. Then I went to the internet to figure out which agriculturally available foodstuffs are good sources of these nutrients. The strength of the Wahls™ Diet is that it offers a nutrient-dense diet based on available foods. It is structured to maximize the intake of nutrients key to brain health.

There are, no doubt, many other variations of hunter gatherer–inspired eating plans, but I don’t know of any that actually measure nutrient density. In my book, The Wahls Protocol, I have completed a nutrient density analysis of a week’s worth of eating the Wahls™ Diet. We have shown that the Wahls™ Diet provides two to eight times the RDA of the 31 key brain nutrients I identified in my research, depending on the nutrient. The Wahls Protocol also provides a week of menus and recipes for three food plans–Wahls Diet, Wahls Paleo™, and  Wahls Paleo Plus™–allowing you to choose the plan that best suits you and your family’s health concerns, health goals, and food preferences.

Wahls Paleo Diet vs US Diet
Nutrient Wahls** US Diet
Vitamin A 343% 100%
Vitamin C 510% 133%
Vitamin D 75% 31%
Vitamin E 145% 55%
Thiamin 747% 128%
Riboflavin 838% 175%
Niacin 574% 154%
Vitamin B6 639% 121%
Folate 210% 122%
Vitamin B1 720% 201%
Calcium 129% 74%
Iron 237% 164%
Magnesium 176% 88%
Zinc 177% 123%

In addition to seeing patients, I do clinical research. To change clinical practice we must publish clinical research in peer-reviewed journals. I am one of the few researchers doing clinical trials that test the impact of structured paleo diets in the form of the various Wahls™ Diet plans on patients with secondary progressive MS. In another year, we anticipate completing our current clinical trial, Wahls Paleo Diet and Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, and knowing more about the nutrient density of these diets as well as their effect on disease progression, blood vessel health, and cellular health. It is exciting work. In addition to my research, I travel around the country and the world, spreading the message that food is medicine or the slowest form of poison, depending on our choices.

To learn more about Terry Wahls or the Wahls™ Diet plans, and Pre-order The Wahls Protocol from Barnes and Noble or Amazon.

* See, for example: JH O’Keefe Jr and L. Cordain. “Cardiovascular disease resulting from a diet and lifestyle at odds with our Paleolithic genome“; Kuipers et al, “Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet“.
**Compared to Dietary Reference Intakes, Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for females 51-70 years with Wahls Diets adjusted to 1790 calories. National Academy of Sciences.  Institute of Medicine.  Food and Nutrition Board. Average nutrient intake from food for females 50 to 59 years; source: What We Eat in America, NHANES 2009-2010
Chart Reprinted with Permission from The Wahls Protocol: How I Beat Progressive MS Using Paleo Principles and Functional Medicine.
Header Photo: Swiss Chard Rainbow.  Licensed under the Creative Commons.


The Paleo movement incorporates several different optimizing perspectives for helping you improve your health, all based on the latest science. Everyone is different. We want to support you in understanding your unique genetic makeup, symptoms and health goals so you can choose the path that is right for you.

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Dr. Terry Wahls

Dr. Terry Wahls

Dr. Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa where she teaches internal medicine residents, sees patients in a traumatic brain injury clinic, and conducts clinical trials. She is also a patient with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, which confined her to a tilt-recline wheelchair for four years. Dr. Wahls restored […]