Cooking Healthy: Do the Numbers

I get asked about healthy cooking now and then since I’m kind of obsessed with it. And by that I mean actually cooking healthy and delicious, which really isn’t too hard once you get into the swing of it.

The thing is that healthy cooking often involves goals, even if the goal is “eat less crap” (since you measure your crap-consumption numerically once you figure them out). That can make the situation boring or confusing as you juggle proteins, sodium, meal counts, and the like.

However, it’s really pretty simple – you just need to look at the right numbers.

(And by the way, I’m not talking healthy cooking for serious or specific conditions – that’s an entire different area. I’m talking like weight lost, lower sodium, etc.)

First, you and/or your doctor should actually set goals for your health that are measurable as – you guessed it – numbers. Maybe you want to get your weight down to a certain level, or lower your blood pressure, or lower that cholesterol. What you want is a goal that you can measure to check your progress. I call this The Goal Number (or numbers).

You also want a way to measure your Goal Number (or numbers). It may be simple, like measuring weight by stepping on a scale once a week. It might be a blood test for cholesterol. It could be something else. But know how to measure it and then measure your Goal Number(s) as appropriate

By the way, most Goal Numbers are usually not measured constantly. You’re not going to get a blood test or a urine test daily (unless you have a serious condition, which is possible). You’re not going weigh yourself daily (I’ve always heard weekly is best).  So your Goal Number is not something to fret over all the time in most cases.

Now the thing is that Goal Number is great. You see if you’re making progress. But how do you make progress by changing your eating and cooking?

That’s where we come in to what I call the Active Numbers.

Active Numbers are what you measure in your food (and elsewhere, but hey this is about cooking).

We all know foods contain various components; proteins, calories, vitamins, mouse droppings, etc. We know there are things that are good for us and bad for us, and sometimes that good or bad is just a measure of amounts. Out of all this jumble of numbers on nutrition labels and the like are the numbers you need to measure to eat healthy (at least for your goals) – you just have to find them.

So what you do is find the numbers in your foods that contribute to your Goal Numbers, and measure them. These are your Active Numbers.

So if you’re supposed to cut fats, measure fats consumed. If you’re supposed to reduce calories, count calories. If you need more of a particular vitamin, measure that.

However, don’t overdo it. In my general findings you can closely follow about three Active Numbers effectively long-term. Past that, it gets quite challenging unless you really have to follow them for health reasons (which, again, is possible).

In a few cases you may follow more numbers for awhile (in fact, I like to do larger diet inventory now and then to see how my various new meals and habits are doing), but I find that keeping it to 3 lets you keep your sanity.

I’ve also found that in general if you eat healthy for a few “Active Numbers” then many more fall in line.  Cutting those fats or calories, replacing bad foods, thinking about your choices seems to have a kind of “cascade effect” on other numbers.

So why you do is check your eating and food to make sure the Active Numbers are appropriate. Maybe you’re supposed to get less sodium, or have only so many calories a day. Those numbers are tracked because by keeping them in certain rangers in theory it will help you meet your Goal Numbers.  If they’re not helping, then your targets, your Active Numbers, and perhaps your health need to be re-evaluated (again, when in doubt, go to your doctor.  Heck, go to your doctor anyway).

Less calories usually means less weight. Less sodium may mean lower blood pressure. And so on. The Active Numbers are what lets the Goal Numbers become possible.

To give you my own example, I wanted to loose some weight and lower my blood cholesterol, and I also wanted to lower sodium. Interestingly enough I did not cut calories – instead I moved to a vegetarian diet (which usually cuts calories anyway) and measured protein (to get enough), fats (to keep them lower), and sodium (to cut, well sodium). I lost weight and had good blood numbers.

(Though the last few pounds in my goal required a mix of further decrapification and calorie control.)

Another friend of mine is carefully monitoring calories only. One number. But the results are also dramatic because she’s developing the right eating habits to go with it.

Here’s why I think this works:

  1. Goal numbers give you, well, a goal. You can measure progress.
  2. Active numbers also give you a goal and give you something you can measure and control directly.
  3. Not doing too many numbers keeps you from being overwhelmed and makes it instinctive in time. At this rate I can’t NOT remember that one serving of my home-made salad dressing has 22% USRDA recommended fat intake if I tried.
  4. Many healthy Active Numbers go hand-in-hand with other healthy practices. If you monitor calories for instance you’ll also cut out a lot of bad food. If you monitor sodium chances are you’re eating less processed stuff.
  5. If you make general good diet changes periods, the numbers just help you do that.

It’s really about good math and good planning – but I would note a general decrapification approach is a lot easier on the numbers.

I don’t think it’s that hard to have a healthy diet. it’s just a matter of goals, research, and numbers.

OK, it shouldn’t be hard. Sometimes in an age of fad diets and innumeracy maybe it is hard.  But really?  Pretty easy.

– Steven Savage

Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach.  He blogs on careers at, nerd and geek culture at, and does a site of creative tools at He can be reached at