Trick question! You do not need any app, tracker, chart or any other tool to keep track of the nutrients you are eating if you eat a whole-food plant-based diet. We don’t eat “nutrients”; we eat food. An ideal diet is one that naturally provides the optimal balance of proteins, carbohydrates and fat without the need for adjustments and planning. This is the beauty of eating plant-pure.
There is no mystery here. If you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods every day that give you enough calories to keep you satisfied, you will also be eating ample protein along with a healthy level of fat. Your diet will be high in carbohydrates but don’t let that frighten you off. Carbs are probably the least understood macronutrient and unfortunately have a totally undeserved bad reputation. Sure, there are carbohydrates that are detrimental to wellbeing ….think sugar, refined grains, processed foods. However, the majority of carbohydrates are extremely healthy and come in a package that is also full of fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients with their astonishing benefits for your health.
Carbs….what’s not to like?
A whole-food plant-based diet provides about 75% carbohydrate, 15% protein and 10% fat, but the carbohydrates in this diet are vastly different than the carbohydrates that are common in the standard western diet. Western diets are high in refined white flour, concentrated sugar and sweeteners, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, omega 6s, sodium and calorie density as well as being low in fiber, omega 3s and many nutrients. Plant-based diets are based on unrefined, unprocessed plant foods and are low in refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, saturated fat, trans-fat, cholesterol, sodium and calorie density. Plant-based diets are high in nutrient density and provide higher amounts of fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, thiamine, riboflavin, and folate than animal-based diets (1).
Simple lessons from simple people
Scientific studies have been done on populations that traditionally eat high carbohydrate diets. For example, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico thrive on a diet of corn, beans and peppers with very limited foods from animal sources. Their diet is 75 to 80% of total calories in carbohydrates, 12% in fats and the balance in protein. Their average protein intake is 87 gm per day and meets recommendations for all the essential amino acids. Their average dietary cholesterol intake is less than 100 mg per day. The average life expectancy of the Tarahumaras is low due to high infant mortality, however, they have a virtual absence of hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol (5,6). In addition, in 1991 an experiment was performed. Thirteen Tarahumara Indians consumed their traditional diet for one week, then began eating the standard western diet for the next five weeks. In just five short weeks, their health profiles began to resemble those of most westerners – cholesterol increased 31%, LDL increased 39%, HDL increased 31%, total triglycerides increased 18% and body weight increased 7% (7).
It becomes clear that choosing foods by the macronutrient content or macronutrient ratio is not important. Some low fat, high carb foods are healthy and some are not. Just because a food is low fat or high carb does not make it good or bad for you.
It doesn’t have to be so complicated
Tracking food intake is notoriously inaccurate. Counting calories is difficult without time-consuming weighing or measuring of food intake. Studies show that people underestimate the calories they ingest by as much as 40%. Calories displayed on restaurant menus and fast-food boards have been examined and 20% of foods tested actually contained 100 calories or more over what was stated. Eating just 100 calories extra a day can result in the accumulation of 10 extra pounds over a year (2). Electronic apps have been studied and found in one study to overestimate by up to 61% the calories burned during activities such as walking, jogging and cycling (3). A recent study reported that, though wrist-worn devices are fairly accurate for the measurement of heart rate, they fall down on estimation of calories burned by 27% to 93% (9). The devices did better at estimating the effect of more vigorous activities such as cycling and poorer when the activity was walking. The amount of error was greater for men, those with a high BMI and those with darker skin tone (9).
Furthermore, counting calories tells you nothing about the nutritional content of the food you are eating. There are other apps available that, when you enter the food you are eating, will estimate macronutrient content (protein, carbohydrate and fat). Once again, there are so many variables that cannot be accurately taken into account – the exact amount of food eaten, how it was prepared, the quality of the food and the variability of macronutrients in the foods themselves – that the results you get have little possibility of being correct.
But you don’t need to worry about all that. The plant-based diet works because of its nutrient density. Nutrient-dense foods have fewer calories and more nutrients per pound of food compared to calorie-dense foods which are high in calories and lower in nutrients. Nutrient-dense foods include whole vegetables, fruits, legumes and grains. People are able to eat on average 3 to 5 pounds of food a day. Choosing nutrient-dense foods allows you to eat the same amount of food but feel full and satisfied even though you are taking in fewer calories.
For comparison, here are calorie densities for sample foods (8):
Vegetables: 65-195 calories/lb
Fruits: 140-420 calories/lb
Potatoes/pasta/rice/barley/oats/hot cereals: 280-630 calories/lb
Legumes – Beans/peas/lentils: 310-780 calories/lb
Seafood/lean poultry/lean red meat: 600 to 870 calories/lb
Whole egg, hard boiled: 800 calories/lb
Breads/dried fruits: 920-1360 calories/lb
Dried cereals: 1600-1750 calories/lb
Honey/syrups/sugars: 1200-1800 calories/lb
Nuts/seeds/potato chips: 2400-3200 calories/lb
Chocolate bars/croissants/doughnuts: 220-2500 calories/lb
Ice Cream: 800 to 900 calories/lb
Cheese (Cheddar): 1800 calories/lb
Butter/margarine: 3200 calories/lb
Oils: 4000 calories/lb
You can see how choosing the majority of your foods from the vegetable/fruit/whole grain/legume groups will end up feeding you fewer calories. Foods with a calorie density of 300 or less can be eaten freely without weight gain. Foods with a calorie density of over 1000 should be limited as these can contribute to weight gain. Foods over 1,800 calories per pound should be eaten very sparingly as these foods can very easily contribute to weight gain and obesity.
A great way to visualize a meal is by “The Perfect Plate”,
invention of Registered Dietian, Jeff Novick (4).
The plate is split in half
One half is “green foods” – non-starchy vegetables and fruit
One half is “yellow foods” – starchy vegetables, legumes, and/or intact whole grains
Start your meal with salad; finish with fruit
Drink mostly water or tea.
Fruit juices, though natural, are very high in sugar and should be limited or eliminated.
Be sure to eat a variety of plant-based foods
So what should you be aiming for in your food choices? Eat foods that are intact, unrefined and unprocessed. As a guide to vibrant health, try to include the following in your meals every day – legumes, berries plus other fruits, greens, cruciferous vegetables plus other vegetables including starchy vegetables, whole intact grains, flaxseeds, nuts and spices. Carbohydrates are not something to be afraid of. Don’t worry about eating whole-food plant-based carbohydrates. They are not at all the same as the simple carbohydrates and sugars found in refined foods. Eat until you are satisfied and enjoy the knowledge that what you are eating will promote weight loss and weight maintenance and reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
1 Farmer, B., Larson, B.T. et al. A vegetarian dietary pattern as a nutrient-dense approach to weight management: an analysis of the national health and nutrition examination survey 1999-2004. J Am Diet Assoc. 2011 Jun;111 (6):819-27.
2 Urban, L., McCrory, M., Dallal, G., et al. Accuracy of Stated Energy Contents of Restaurant Foods.
3 Nelson, M.B., Kaminsky, L.A. and Montoye, A.H. Validity of Consumer-Based Physical Activity Monitors for Specific Activity Types. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Aug; 48(8):1619-28.
5 Cerqueira, M.T., Fry, M.M. and Connor, W.E. The food and nutrient intakes of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 32: April 1979, pp. 905-915.
6 Connor, W.E., Cerqueira, M.T., Connor,R.W. et al. The plasma lipids, lipoproteins, and diet of the Tarahumara indians of Mexico. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 31: July 1978, pp. 1131-1142.
7 McMurry, M.P., Cerqueira, M.T., Connor, S.L. and Connor, W.E. Changes in lipid and lipoprotein levels and body weight in Tarahumara Indians after consumption of an affluent diet. N Engl J Med. 1991 Dec 12;325(24):1704-8.
9 Shcherbina, A., Mattsson, C.M., Waggott, D. et al. Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort. Journal of Personalized Medicine 2017, 7(2), 3