To understand how foraging decisions impact individual fitness of herbivores, nutritional ecologists must consider the complex in vivo dynamics of nutrient–nutrient interactions and nutrient–toxin interactions associated with foraging. Mathematical modeling has long been used to make foraging predictions (e.g. optimal foraging theory) but has largely been restricted to a single currency (e.g. energy) or using simple indices of nutrition (e.g. fecal nitrogen) without full consideration of physiologically based interactions among numerous co-ingested phytochemicals. Here, we describe a physiologically based model (PBM) that provides a mechanistic link between foraging decisions and demographic consequences. Including physiological mechanisms of absorption, digestion and metabolism of phytochemicals in PBMs allows us to estimate concentrations of ingested and interacting phytochemicals in the body. Estimated phytochemical concentrations more accurately link intake of phytochemicals to changes in individual fitness than measures of intake alone. Further, we illustrate how estimated physiological parameters can be integrated with the geometric framework of nutrition and into integral projection models and agent-based models to predict fitness and population responses of vertebrate herbivores to ingested phytochemicals. The PBMs will improve our ability to understand the foraging decisions of vertebrate herbivores and consequences of those decisions and may help identify key physiological mechanisms that underlie diet-based ecological adaptations.