Stop looking for them — and do this instead.
I operate a plant-based meal planning service, which means that I get to decide what’s for dinner for other people. Regularly, I get emails from new clients or curious onlookers asking me whether I post the nutritional breakdown of my recipes somewhere. Some are counting calories, others want to maximize their intake of certain micronutrients. Some even kindly suggest this or that plug-in that could do it automatically for me.
The answer is “no.” Never did, never will — and not because I haven’t had time to find a technical solution for it. I do not believe that counting macro- and micro-nutrients is a health-promoting approach to food. Here’s why, and what I suggest you do instead.
Nutrition “facts” are only true in lab-like conditions
What is a “medium“ sweet potato (and what variety exactly)? How much pasta is in a portion? How big is a clove of garlic? How much sunshine did that apple get? Did any of the nutrients were lost in transportation… and in the produce drawer while the greens wilted?
In the best case scenario, standard measurements in nutrition databases are believed to be accurate within a 2 to 15% margin. That only means that a different laboratory would get approximately identical measurements, following the same procedure, for the same ingredients. However, cooking at home is far messier than running chemistry tests.
For starters, there is no such thing as a standard vegetable. For example, every head of broccoli is different in weight, has grown in different soil, and been harvested at a different time. Of course, one could increase their odds of approaching “standard” values in the home kitchen by using a digital scale and weighing their broccoli, but that is only part of the equation.
Indeed, different modes of preparation will allow for different outcomes for different nutrients. Some of the nutrients may become more absorbable by cooking while others leach out or get denatured. Combining certain ingredients together may increase or decrease absorption of the “good” micronutrients (iron, calcium, curcumin…).
Finally, the truth is that few of us accurately measure our ingredients when we cook and help ourselves to food… and I would suggest that those who do should consider spending their energies on something else. There are greater benefits in learning to eat intuitively instead — honoring our hunger and feeling our fullness — so we can develop a healthy and joyful relationship with nutritious food.
In sum, adding “nutrition labels” for my recipes would provide at best inaccurate, and possibly misleading, information, with little to no practical value… while possibly supporting an technical and obsessive relationship with food. I could do it to appeal to a few extra customer, but it wouldn’t feel authentic or helpful.
Instead of measuring and weighing ingredients, try this when you cook
I do not recommend accurate measuring when cooking — other perhaps than when baking a birthday cake, ’cause “you only have one shot.” (And who cares how many calories are in birthday cake? We all know cake has lots of calories and very little nutrition, so it’s something we can choose to eat once in a while, at meaningful traditional occasions, in small portions.)
Instead, let’s develop and listen to our intuition when cooking, paying attention to what goes in, and keeping track of the results. What worked out well? What would you do differently next time?
Ideally, one would get to the point where they can cook without a recipe because they understand the basic “grammar” of the main types of plant-based dishes. Nevertheless, on our journey there, recipes are useful because they provide us with a blueprint when we are either learning to cook vegan food or too tired to think for ourselves.
If one is using one of my recipes, here is what I hope they do. If it says “broccoli, 1 head,” and you really like broccoli, then use a really big head. If you aren’t a fan, use a small amount to “practice” tasting it, or maybe choose a different cruciferous veggie instead and adapt the directions accordingly.
There is nothing wrong with those who use the giant broccoli tree having the vague knowledge that they are hitting their vitamin C, K1, and folate targets. Knowing how many calories and what kinds of micronutrients are in broccoli isn’t completely unimportant. That is relevant knowledge when globally determining what makes an overall healthy diet, and supports an understanding of the big picture. Those are things I keep in mind when meal planning for my clients.
But when it comes to the scale of a single dinner, we are better off relaxing into intuitive cooking and eating flows that promote health and happiness both.
Plus, not everything that goes in… really gets in
Digestion is a complex process, and its efficiency — the body’s success at extracting every bit of nutrition from the food we intake by mouth — varies. Different people with different gut microbiomes will absorb different nutrients differently, due to stage of life, health status, age, and many factors we do not all perfectly understand.
Looking at a seemingly healthful nutrition label for a single recipe can distract us from acting upon the big factors that drive our health.
If you are choosing a diversity of whole foods, and minimizing refined foods, you’re golden
My recipes consist of ingredients that are mostly whole, meaning that I use vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, legumes, and (mostly) whole grains. (I admit to never having developed a liking for whole wheat pasta.) Cruciferous vegetables or dark leafy greens make an appearance in most meals. Oil and salt are always optional and, although I do not banish them from my kitchen entirely, I recommend training yourself to enjoying them in very small amounts.
There isn’t a thing that can go wrong with such such good ingredients. Balance them on your plate following the rough guidelines of the new, science-based Canadian Food Guide, with half of your plate filled with vegetables, one quarter with protein-dense foods (mostly beans and some nuts and seeds), and one quarter with whole grains, and everything’s going to be all right.
If you are using recipes that make you think you need to look at the nutrition label because some of the ingredients don’t seem healthful… maybe you should just pick a different recipe? Trust your gut.
If you need more guidance, aim for the Daily Dozen… but don’t get obsessive about it.
If you need further reassurance that the dinner on your plate takes you on the path to good health, I recommend moving your energy away from counting macro- and micro-nutrients and instead using Dr. Michael Greger’s “Daily Dozen” app. The Daily Dozen is the list of the 12 major building blocks of a healthful diet and lifestyle. Eating all those foods (plus getting enough water, exercise, and a B12 supplement) will ensure that you ingest all the macro- and micro-nutrients you need and none that you don’t need. It will help you track the diversity and completeness of your food intake. Choose recipes that allow you to roughly hit the targets but don’t worry about measuring everything to the gram.
And if you think you have eaten everything the Daily Dozen list and still feel hungry… go ahead and pull out a scale to measure your portions and make sure you aren’t under-eating.
Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle and better habits, consider signing up for a free week with her on coach.me using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people make a habit of eating more plants.