Why I Don’t Calculate Nutrition Info

recipe nutrition informationThe minute I landed at Sea-Tac airport a few weeks ago after a long flight from Paris, I took my phone out of airplane mode so I could check my email. I was surprised, but not surprised, to see four emails in my inbox asking me to send them nutrition information for a muffin recipe that was published with my column in The Seattle Times that day.

Since then, I’ve received more emails, some simply asking for nutrition info, others asking me how the recipe translates to Weight Watchers points. I actually think it’s fascinating that people assume I am well versed in commercial diet plans or invested in calorie counting because I’m a dietitian. Well, I’m not. Also, nutrition information doesn’t just appear—it requires professional software in order to be accurate. I could do what it takes to calculate calories, carbs, fat, protein and so-on for recipes I create, but after a significant amount of thought, I decided not to, and here’s why:

  1. Many of my patients read my column and my blog. I don’t encourage my patients to count calories. Instead, I use a plate method (not the USDA MyPlate, but somewhat similar) to guide proportions or help patients develop intuitive and mindful eating skills. I feel that including calorie counts on my recipes would be hypocritical, especially since the Menu for Change program puts out a cookbook every year featuring recipes from our annual potluck that does NOT include nutrition info.
  2. The reason I don’t encourage counting calories (or points) is because there is zero evidence that it helps people lose weight and keep it off for the long term. Zero, zip, zilch.
  3. While I am in favor of nutrition information on packaged foods and on restaurant menus when it’s practical (not all dietitians agree with me on the latter,* believe you me), that’s because it fills in important information gaps. Let me explain: When you look at a dish on a menu, you may have a general idea of what’s in it, but not exactly. And you can’t be sure of the proportions (like, there’s oil but how much oil). Similarly, when you are looking at the list of ingredients on a packaged food, you can see what’s in it and have somewhat of an idea of the proportions, but not exactly. (In other words, there’s more of the first ingredient listed than the second, more of the second ingredient than the third, and so on.) Even if you aren’t calorie counting (and I hope that you’re not), it’s pretty darn clear that an entree that contains 2,000 calories may not be the best thing to order (unless you are an Olympic athlete in training, perhaps).
  4. Contrast that with a recipe, where not only do you know exactly what is in it, but how much. Based on your taste preferences (“There’s cilantro in here? No thank you!”) or nutritional needs (“This recipe has 2 cups of sugar? That’s way too much for me.”) you can assess whether the recipe looks like something you want to make.
  5. Regarding the *, one quite valuable concern about calorie counts is that they may be triggering for people with eating disorders. For all the talk about the alleged “obesity epidemic,” an estimated 1 in 10 people struggles with an eating disorder, and they deserve consideration. Sources of recipes that don’t come with calories attached can be a safe space, of sorts.
  6. When I create and share a recipe, it includes real foods and is designed with both nutrition and flavor in mind. I give an idea of serving size, but honestly that’s arbitrary, too. I fully endorse learning to tune into hunger and fullness signals and limiting distractions during meals/snacks to help guide you to the amount of food you really need to be satisfied.
  7. And…there’s no shortage of recipes in the food universe that include nutrition information, if after reading all of this, that’s still important to you. Every time I publish a recipe, I get a number of emails or in-person comments (such as from my patients) telling me that they made and enjoyed it.

I hope that sufficiently explains my thought process. It’s impossible to please all of the people, all of the time (sadly), so I had to choose a path, and commit to it. This is the path I chose.

Update (4/13/17): To follow up on point #2 above, I just happened across this article in The Atlantic, “It’s true, hot baths burn calories,” which nicely talks about, as the author has tweeted out, “calories are an ‘almost useless and often misleading metric.'”