Nutrition Labels 101

16-Aug-2014 Written By: Rick Arora

This is probably one of the most basic skills that most people know very little about. Reading nutrition labels is a simple task that can take you a long way; whether your goal is to be stronger, lean out, or just live a healthier lifestyle. There has been confusion between grams and weight of a food item. For instance, when I’ve told people to eat 30 grams of carbs or 15 grams of fat, what they always do is weigh out 30 grams of a carb, or 15 grams of fat, which is so interesting to me. While it is important to understand diet, and nutritional concepts, I am going over the more important information… the labels. Nutrition labels are always misread, misunderstood, or not even read at all. Personally, I am a big proponent of knowing exactly what you put into your body.

Side note, I will be avoiding the percent column of the nutrition label. This is because that percentage is based off a 2000-calorie diet, and most individuals, especially athletic individuals, may need more based on activity. For that reason, I am going to avoid the percent column all together.

Lets start from the top. We have the serving size and the weight. This is where the label breaks down how many pieces or by weight (in grams) the serving size is. This is helpful if you are trying to dial in how many carbs, protein, and fat you are taking in. Also if you are into weighing your food, this is where that information is found.

Example: Fig Newtons: 29 grams = 2 cookies = 23 grams of carbs

Below the serving size, you will find calories. This is the total number of calories that are in your food. This number is relevant, but is not the most important part of the nutrition label.

The first macronutrient listed on the nutrition label is fat. The label will have the total fat, again listed by weight in grams. The fats are broken down into their various types including Saturated, Trans fats, Polyunsaturated Fats, and Monounsaturated Fats. Fats are the most calorie dense macronutrient out of the three macros. Fats contain 9 calories per gram. It is important to note, that fat is what satiates your appetite, and so foods that are low in fat can generally be eaten in larger quantities. Think about potato chips… have you ever eaten a whole bag of chips and not even thought twice about it? That’s due to the low fat content in most potato chips.

After fat, we have cholesterol. Cholesterol gets a lot of bad press for being the “cause” of heart disease. But some cholesterol is necessary for your body to function. Fun fact: Did you know cholesterol is the base molecule for most hormones in the body? That’s right. Testosterone, estrogen, cortisol, etc, are all a slightly modified cholesterol. So your body does need some cholesterol to function at a hormonal level. However, a doctor may recommend limiting cholesterol if you have some kind of health concern.

Sodium and potassium are important to note, because each is a necessary component to how our body functions at a cellular level. Unless you have high blood pressure, or are cutting water, it is not necessary for you to worry about these too much.

Everyone’s absolute favorite is next on the list… can you guess? Yes, CARBS! Carbs, like the serving size and fats, are listed in grams. Carbs are probably the main macronutrient that you will want to change while cutting or bulking.

Right below, is fiber and sugar. Just because something says sugar, does not mean there is table sugar in the food. There are naturally occurring sugars in some foods. Fiber is also one of the key factors in keeping your digestive system functioning normally. Too low or too high is never good. Getting in a moderate level of fiber is suggested to keep yourself on a regular schedule, if you know what I mean.

My favorite macronutrient listed last, (best for last), and that macro is protein. Protein again, is listed in grams, and is very crucial to building strength. I recommend getting in your body weight in grams of protein. So if you weigh 150lbs, shoot for 150 grams of protein daily.  

Beneath the main part of the food label, are the micronutrients, which include vitamins, calcium, iron, etc. These are smaller nutrients that keep your body healthy, and only a few are listed. Others include nutrients such as; vitamin D, niacin, Vitamin B, Magnesium.

Finally, we have the ingredients. These are the items that make up the food you eat. Normally, the “main ingredient” of the food is listed first. For this particular label, we have figs as the main ingredient, and then the other ingredients in descending order. This is important to note if you have food allergies, or are against food dyes. By law, food manufactures must state if the equipment they use to produce the food also have ingredients like soy, dairy, or wheat, because of cross contamination concerns.

Now, I know that was a lot of information. Hopefully information you know a little bit about, and this was just a refresher course. What the take home message from this article is, is to focus on the macronutrients (carbs, fats, protein). This is important when it comes to losing weight or putting on weight. If you are meticulous about counting your macronutrients, and knowing what you are putting into your body, your performance will be that much better off. After all, you can probably tell me the sets and reps you do, but do you know your macronutrient breakdown for your meals? Start studying!
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