Dear Fat Nutritionist – does yummifying my food make it less nutrilicious?

(Yes, I just made those words up, and yes, I’m aware that they are completely stupid. Therefore, I will continue using them at every future opportunity, until people beg me in droves to STOP, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST STOP.)

Just the other day, I received the following wonderful letter, and nearly broke my spine tripping over myself to thank the writer for writing it:

Dear Fat Nutritionist,

I am trying to improve my diet by adding things to it, in recognition of the fact that one’s diet is a vital source of vitamins and minerals. So far I have added a daily serving of orange peaches (about the only thing from the orange-vegetables list that I like) and a serving of green vegetables, and I have been eating fish at least twice a week. (I’m giving myself a gold star for that, because it’s progress even though I have far to go. Seriously, eight servings of vegetables every day?)

What I’d like to know is whether there is any truth to the idea that nutrition-free additions to nutritious foods make them less nutritious. Is there something about pouring caesar dressing on a bowl of romaine lettuce that makes the lettuce less nutritious? Are chocolate coated almonds less almondy than unsalted ones? Does cooking my zucchini in butter make it less zucchiniful?

I know these things raise the count of calories and calories-from-fat, but these are things that I am deliberately ignoring.

Thanks Fat Nutritionist,

Dear Bookwyrm,

Wow. I’m actually really impressed with how you’re stretching your food-related horizons, especially with more “challenging” foods like fish and vegetables. I’m not a huge vegetable fan myself, so I know that can be a rough one. And as far as the eight-a-day goes, eeeehhh — I treat all those rules as more of a suggestion from a super-paranoid health-freak friend. Which is to say, with salt.

Lots of it.

So, in response to your question, “What I’d like to know is whether there is any truth to the idea that nutrition-free additions to nutritious foods make them less nutritious. Is there something about pouring caesar dressing on a bowl of romaine lettuce that makes the lettuce less nutritious? Are chocolate coated almonds less almondy than unsalted ones? Does cooking my zucchini in butter make it less zucchiniful?”

Basically — no.

Stuff doesn’t magically become less nutritious because you add butter or dressing. There are always tons of crazy nutrient-nutrient interactions, but many of them are so miniscule, or there are so many of them going on at once, that you’d drive yourself crazy trying to account for them all.

You can also always point out to any random nutrition police that, for every nutrient interaction that actively interferes with absorption (like calcium interfering with iron), there’s another nutrient interaction that enhances absorption (like vitamin C with iron.)

So, basically, let’s assume it all evens out. Roughly speaking.

The wider the variety of food you learn to eat, the better your nutrient intake becomes. So, whatever gets the food up off your plate and into your mouth is effectively enhancing its nutritional value.


  1. You’ll eat it today, and
  2. You’ll like it enough that you might eat it again another time, and
  3. You’re going to be way more likely to stretch those food horizons even farther in the future, since you’ve had awesome experiences with, I don’t know, gravy on your broccoli.

And, going even further, a lot of flavour-enhancers (especially the fatty ones, like butter and oil and salad dressings) actually improve your ability to absorb nutrients in the food (fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.) What’s more, fat slows down food on its trip through your gut — meaning, your gut gets more time to absorb all the goodness.

Now, of course, it is true that cutting, mashing, and cooking vegetables (and other foods) can destroy certain sensitive vitamins, as does letting them sit in the fridge too long, blah-de-blah-de-blah-everything-you’ve-ever-read-in-a-dry-nutrition-advice-column-blah-de-blah.

But, honestly, it’s really freaking hard to come by food that is so totally bereft of nutritional value that this is going to make much of an impact — assuming you eat enough food to begin with, which most people living in rich countries do. If you’ve got a food-security problem, that’s a whole other ball of wax that needs to be addressed before you go around worrying whether your broccoli is is broccolicious as it can possibly be.

So, bottom line? If you’re eating actual food, and eating multiple food groups, and not starving or unduly restricting yourself, then yay. You’re doing well.

And anything you can do to make that food tastier, sexier, and more likely to end up in your mouth? Go for it.

Hope this helps,

Join the FOOD-FIGHT!!!! in comments.






31 responses to “Dear Fat Nutritionist – does yummifying my food make it less nutrilicious?”

  1. Jenny Avatar

    Except in the case of chocolate-covered almonds. The almonds in that case are almost always roasted before they’re encased in delicious, delicious chocolate. The heat in the roasting process affects the beneficial oils in nuts, making them technically less nutritious. You still get the protein and general fat that’s in them, though. And it’s not the chocolate that’s making them less nutritious. But it’s not the same nutritionally as eating a raw almond.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      You have a point, Jenny — heating oils can do funky things to them. But I also think that this kind of thing is generally too picky to worry about. The amount of almonds an average person is going to eat isn’t likely going to contribute hugely to their overall fat intake or nutrition status. And if they’re like me, meaning they’d eat the roasted or chocolate-covered almonds, but not the raw ones at all, then it’s kind of a moot point.

      I guess this is how it’s going to go for a lot of what I write about food. I’ve learned, during school, that a lot of nutrition science is about WHAT to eat, meaning which specific nutrients, food processing techniques, etc., are “healthiest.”

      But I’ve found, while learning this stuff, that what’s actually more important than WHAT to eat (assuming a basic standard of food security is achieved) is HOW to eat, HOW to approach food, and HOW not to drive yourself nuts (pun) about it.

      So, a lot of my answers are likely to be philosophical in nature. That doesn’t mean they’re not practical — it just means we can all relax a bit from worrying about which nutrient is being PRECLUDED FROM MAXIMAL NUTRITIOUSNESS in our food.

      Anyone who is interested in the nitty-gritty nutrition data, can go here and do two separate searches to compare side-by-side: 12061 (for almonds, presumably raw) and 12063 (roasted almonds.) Choose the same measure (like 100 g) for each, and compare the fat profiles. It’s an interesting exercise in how little much of this shit really matters.

      (And for reference, 100 g of almonds is about 83 individual almonds, or a little over half a cup.)

      This is kind of a paradigm shift from how we’ve all been taught to view food, but I’m trying to write about it differently. This is a move away from “nutritionism,” to borrow a term from Michael Pollan.

      1. Jenny Avatar

        @Michelle — gotcha. I do feel what you’re saying. And in the end, I agree that it’s ridiculous to nickel-and-dime, as it were, over nutrients when the majority of humans in the western world get more than adequate actual nutrition (as evidenced by the overall increase in the size of our skeletons over the last 100 years!).

        I’m listening to The Current on CBC Radio here in Canada right now and the interview is making me think of you and this topic — I recommend you listen!

        A conversation with anthropologist Richard Wrangham about his new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. In it, he says that taming fire to heat and cook food has helped us evolve into the species we are today.

        A really interesting interview that ties in to what you’re saying in this entry.

        1. Michelle Avatar

          Oh that’s awesome! Thanks, I’ll check it out.

  2. WellRoundedType2 Avatar


    Oh, a move away from nutritionism would be such a good thing.

    1. JennyRose Avatar

      Jenny’s point made me think of something else. Things such frying or covering in chocolate may also reflect the quality/yumminess of the food within. I am a fan of fried calamari with spicy marinara sauce. A friend ordered it grilled with lemon and it was a whole new experience. Now I like both but what struck me was how different the 2 calamaris were in size, taste and texture. The grilled seem like a better piece of fish. I suspect this happens a lot with fried and coated foods. I am not saying once is better tasting or more satisfying than the other but it is worth branching our of the comfort zone to try a certain food in a new way.

      As a friend of mine says, it is broccoli with butter or cheese or no broccoli at all. I also have friends who eat things they do not even like because it is “healthy.” Although I try to be open minded to new experiences, I will no longer eat anything I do not like because it is good for me. I will also not take home most restaurant leftovers because I don’t like the way it tastes when reheated. I love my home made leftovers. I will also no longer buy and eat certain foods that are barely OK just because they are the least expensive things available when I can afford to spend a little more on myself.

      I guess the point I am trying to make is I try not to focus on nutrition as the sole reason for eating and I deserve to only eat food that I like!

      1. Michelle Avatar

        Oh, I think that’s totally true, too, JennyRose — often a fried coating or something is there to mask an inferior quality something-or-other. Or maybe something that is naturally very low in fat (like fish), so that the frying kind of balances it out. It’s all about being open to what appeals to you most, and feeling you have the right to turn down foods that you simply can’t enjoy. (Although it might sometimes worthwhile to give things a few tries before chucking it completely. I find I now enjoy things, as an adult, that I had decided never to eat again because I didn’t like them as a child. And I was a pretty picky eater as a child.)

        I know this is going against thousands of years of popular wisdom, but — for most people without certain diseases — food is not medicine. And we should not take it as though it is, with our noses pinched and our eyes closed, for “the good of our health.”

        Food is more than that. It can be enjoyable, and wonderful, and emotionally important to us, if only we let it. It is also less than that, in that it doesn’t really have the magical disease-curing/preventing properties often attributed to it.

        It’s just food. It is what it is.

  3. Twistie Avatar

    Arrrgh! People who keep telling me how much my food isn’t ‘really’ feeding me are a major pet peeve.

    It probably stems from the number of times my brother tried to inform me that the meals I was putting on the table had ‘no nutritive value at all.’ He would tell me that lettuce has no nutritional value, carrots(!) have no nutritional value, cucumbers have no nutritional value, this has no nutritional value, and that has no nutritional value…until the day I snapped and started informing him of every vitamin and mineral I could think of in all these foods. By the time I got to all the potassium in the much-maligned potato, he finally shut up and has never pulled that crap on me again.

    Besides, even if there were no nutritive value in a cucumber, I don’t eat them on their own. I eat them in salads made up of usually at least three kinds of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, avocados, and half a dozen other yummy things brimful of fabulous vitamins. It’s rare that I eat one food with nothing else around it.

    I decided a long time ago that as long as I got enough food to satisfy me, avoided foods that make me feel actively bad (say, anything I turn out to have an allergy to or that has reached a point of putrefaction), and didn’t eat nothing but Cheetos and Twinkies (which actually do tend to make me feel bad) all day, I was probably going to do just fine.

    Dealing with feeding a husband who has diabetes and an incredibly limited palate has taught me a lot about food. Most of all, over the years it’s taught me not to panic so much, oddly enough. I do my best to provide my family with tasty, nutritious meals featuring a variety of good things to eat. It’s up to them to take advantage of what I provide or not, according to their whim. I’m feeding all adults around here. They have to make their own choices. Panic on my part does not equal better nutritional choices on Mr. Twistie’s part. Calm introduction of foods rich in the sort of vitamins and minerals he needs to feel his best and presented in ways that are more likely to be palatable to him have actually expanded his willingness to try new things.

    All in all, I decided long ago that Douglas Adams had the right idea about a lot of things: Don’t Panic.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh yeah. I hear you.

      But seriously, it is really hard to find something with no nutritional value. And what does that even mean, anyway? WATER, technically, has no nutritional value.

      Except, guess what? It is the first, numero uno, primary nutrient that humans require for survival.


  4. caseyattthebat Avatar

    I really appreciate posts like this – ones that move away from a regime-like thinky-ness (see, I can do it too) about food and more towards the idea that, with a little education, we are all pretty self-sufficient beings when it comes to making food choices. I guess I just really like being treated like an adult with tastes and preferences when it comes to food. Thanks.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      I guess I just really like being treated like an adult with tastes and preferences when it comes to food.

      This is a fabulous way to put it. That is what it’s really all about — restoring people’s autonomy when it comes to food choices. Because, really? We’re all functioning, grown-up human beings here. And unless there’s some special underlying disease or condition that skews stuff, we’re all born knowing how to eat.

      Infantilizing the public and making them feel insecure about their food choices is a wonderful lever for people who are trying to sell you something.

  5. Jenna Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more!

    Nutritionism has made (most of) us forget that you feed more than your body when you eat hollandaise, burgers, gravy, nana’s home-made doughnuts, and birthday cake etc.

    You feel your heart and your connection to your culture and those around you; in other words, you are taking care of your MENTAL HEALTH!

    Thanks for this post!

  6. Meems Avatar

    EIGHT servings of vegetables per day? I’ve never heard that – even from nutritionists. Maybe 4-5, sure, plus 3 of fruit. Interesting.

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oh, Meems, just re-read your comment and wanted to clarify: I think she means 8 fruits + vegetables per day. They are often lumped together.

      Yes, I believe the most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide, and the US Food Pyramid as well, has a fruit/veg range of about 4-10 or 5-9 servings a day, depending on age and sex. Sometimes seems a bit optimistic to me. Then again, there are days when I probably eat that many — and other days where I don’t even get close.

      And, my favourite nutritionist, naturally, has some criticisms for these recommendations.

      1. Tangerina Avatar

        Also, it’s kind of nuts if you look up what they actually intend as a serving size. It’s pretty small. I probably ate 4 servings just now having a large salad with a bunch of fruit and veg chopped up in it.

        Six strawberries, a half cup of orange juice, five broccoli florets, or four onion slices all count as one serving. Also, these recommendations tend to change as popular ideas about food change, so take them with a grain of salt!

    2. Bookwyrm Avatar

      Fruits, vegetables, it’s all the same food group :-)

      Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy Eating says that a healthy woman between the ages of 19 and 50 (that’s me) needs to eat seven to eight servings of this food group each day. The only ones it will let get away with only four servings are children between the ages of two and three!

  7. Piffle Avatar

    Everybody also knows that tomatoes are more nutritious when cooked, but I still like the ones in my salad raw! I also like spaghetti and chili and other things with cooked tomatoes.

    I do often eat fruit as a single item with not much else with it. Apples and bananas are a snack all by themselves, and I found some very tasty nectarines recently for cheap (seasonal peak I assume).

  8. Michelle Avatar

    Oh, in addition, if anyone feels the urge to write to the USDA MyPyramid people after reading the nutrition guidelines, you can leave comments here. You can read comments from other stakeholders by going here and clicking each line to see the full comment.

    Might be a good opportunity to encourage them to look into HAES?

  9. JennyRose Avatar

    I have a friend who has a PhD in public health and she is all about eating for health (not fun to go out with). She even said nutrtionists etc. do not say the 9 a day is optimal because the public would feint. Even she knows it would be unattainable for most. I am surprised the food police have allowed this cover-up to continue.

  10. julie Avatar

    I became a lot less neurotic about food when I figured this stuff out. It was really hard to fight off the “low-fat mandate”, especially when my mom was so righteous that she didn’t even use salad dressing. I used to try to get myself to eat all this veggie/whole grain/low-fat stuff, and more often it would end up in the compost, and I’d have to go buy a sandwich. Some things I have discovered: if I use chocolate milk instead of regular milk, I can eat high fiber unsweetened cereal. If I add pepperoni to my pizza, I will tolerate whole wheat crust, broccoli, and bell pepper. If I add bacon to my omelette, I can tolerate bok choy and 12 grain bread. And for someone who doesn’t love cooked vegetables, roasting them in 1/2 butter/oil, with salt and some herbs makes them really tasty. And while I can eat raw almonds, I prefer them covered in dark chocolate. I’m generally striving to eat more vegetables, and if butter or cheese makes them go down, than it’s all good.

  11. Halle Avatar

    Nutrition-ism can go die in a pit. In a peach pit if it wants to, I don’t care. People forget that the Art of Cooking was developed to make food more edible. We have both developed more tasty raw food (vegetables are bigger, sweeter, nicer in color than their medieval counterparts, imagine how bad veggies were in the stone age..) and we have expanded our palates to accept eating raw foods. People used to think tomatoes were poisonous! And of course refused to eat them. Also, we don’t need to disguise the taste of rotten or off food – you know people didn’t just throw out bad food before refrigeration — how do you think we came to eating blue cheese? We survived all that because we’re omnivores. We survived because we found ways to eat bugs and moldy bread, milk that had gone off and meat that was on it’s way out. The incredible cornucopia of a modern supermarket would have been HEAVEN ITSELF to a starving farmer in some little village in France. Even the BAD BAD BAD processed food has caloric, at least macro nutrient, value. There is no inherent virtue in eating whole food, or raw food, or food that is “closer to the land.” Those are all mental constructs adding mental and moral values to food. It’s all well and good until your mental ideas about food start making you so picky you starve yourself near to death.

    “Anything that gets the food up off your plate and into your mouth…” AMEN! Trust the body to digest food — it never needed your brain to tell it to do so, it never will.

  12. Angie Avatar

    Hi Michelle- just found your blog. I love it. Can’t wait to read more. I’ll definitely be back!

  13. Marste Avatar

    It worked! It worked! For some reason, I can post, as long as I don’t include my website. Weird.

    OK. I WAS GOING TO SAY . . . :)

    I love this so much. My mom used to feed my sisters and me broccoli with cheese sauce all over it, because it was the only way we’d eat it, and since we didn’t drink a lot of milk, she figured we needed the calcium. (Though she figured we’d be more likely to get it from the broccoli than the cheese sauce, since we’re talking old-school processed cheese crap).

    But as a kid I made the mistake of mentioning it to a doctor (in one of those little-kid conversations: “Do you eat your veggies?” “Yeah, ESPECIALLY if we get cheese sauce on the broccoli!”), and he FLIPPED OUT at my mom about the evils of cheese sauce.

    My mom, never one to back down from a fight, told him that she figured that if we were eating the broccoli, even WITH the cheese sauce, at least we were GETTING SOME DAMN VITAMINS, and that if we wanted to eat differently as adults, well we’d be ADULTS and adults get to make those choices. In the meantime, we’d only eat it with cheese sauce, so cheese sauce we got!

    I love my mom. Seriously.

    (Though now that I think about it, I still refuse to eat broccoli without a fat – usually olive oil and garlic and mashed-up anchovies. It’s good. I SWEAR. ;D)
    (So there, comment form. ;D)

    1. Michelle Avatar

      So weird, Marste — I have no idea why it wasn’t working! I’ve put your blog url in the proper place now.

      The only way I ever ate broccoli as a kid was with cheese sauce. And I think that’s pretty much the reason I still love it now, as an adult.

      Certain food just needs added fat — particularly if it’s a naturally low-fat food. Why else did we start smearing butter on bread? Or putting sour cream on potatoes? Seriously, some things are just meant to go together.

  14. s Avatar

    haha. my mum yells at me for “ruining” tea with lots of cream and sugar. (is it really so wrong to put 4 spoons?) but what’s wierd is that i actually don’t like broccoli with cheese sauce. and it’s not because i don’t like cheese, either. i like broccoli better with garlic and olive oil. and salt. lots of salt. (did i neglect to mention i also love salt??)

    btw, i love the blog, michelle. =)


    1. Michelle Avatar

      Oooh, broccoli with garlic and olive oil sounds EXCELLENT. I am a complete garlic fanatic.

      I am also a bit of a sugar fanatic. And a salt fanatic.


  15. Zhana J Avatar
    Zhana J

    Oy. This comment thread is making me want broccoli very, VERY badly. With garlic and olive oil.

  16. Ellis Manifold Avatar
    Ellis Manifold

    I’m sure that being a ‘sugar and salt fanatic’ doesn’t make you the worst Nutritionist, I’d rather think that these elements are necessary for sustaining life as we know it. Key fact0r of course is moderation to your body’s needs, depending upon each of our personal requirements. I feel that all this ballyhoo you hear from the salt & sugar (and mayo) nazis is nothing more than an attempt to gain a more centered focus toward themselves and their mindless catterwalling, and nothing what-so-ever to do about proper nutrition. They may be loud in their critique, but often as not they’re too self absorbed to really care.

  17. Jerome Avatar

    I know that this is bizarre, but I fucking love broccoli (I like vegetables in general; never was much of a fruit person), and my favorite way to eat it is plain steamed, immediately after steaming so it is still very crunchy. I have even been known to order an entire plate of steamed broccoli at Chinese restaurants before…

    Of course, I also like it with sauce/oil/whatever, but I’d much rather have it plain.

    I will admit that my love of broccoli increased rather dramatically once Bush Sr. publicly declared that he won’t eat it (that indicated to me that it must have many positive qualities…).

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Broccoli is one of the greatest things known to man.

      I like it fresh, boiled, with butter.

  18. Louise Avatar

    Amen to that. Broccoli rocks. I even eat it raw when preparing it, but then I do that with cabbage and brussels sprouts too. I’ve always loved veggies and fruit… I’m a fat, happy salad-lover, hehe. I have to have my cauliflower with cheese sauce, though. Although I was at a sort of posh hotel recently and had creamed cauliflower soup with a mini cheese muffin on the side. OMG! Divine. Hurrah for veggies, with whatever we want to eat them with!