Do you want to eat better, but you're not sure where to start? Keep on reading to learn how to understand nutrition labels and fuel your body with the things it needs (and leave out the junk!). While most things without a nutrition label are probably the best options for consumption, (i.e. fruits and veggies) we have so many different food items available for us - and they're not all bad!
By understanding a nutrition label and what it means for your health, you'll be able to slim down, gain lean muscle, and feel healthier and more energized. Let's begin!
Calories. The first thing most people look at on a food label. As you may know, counting calories is probably the most important thing for fat loss. It takes a calorie deficit to be able to shred off fat. However, there are numerous other factors at play. You might be able to shred off fat, but maybe you aren't building muscle simultaneously. Or, your blood cholesterol levels are rising even though you're watching your calorie intake. Perhaps you're in a calorie deficit and you're feeling sluggish and exhausted. Media feeds us lies about what we should and shouldn't eat. All of these are examples of real problems we may experience and they're all almost always attributed to what we're fueling our bodies with. So, observe the calories on that nutrition label first, but don't stop there- there is so much more information to consume! When you're trying to decide if the calories "are worth it," look below and keep reading the nutrition label.
Pictured right below calories is "Total Fat." For years, many people were told that eating fat made you fat. There may still be people out there who believe this today. But, that is not true! Fats are essential for our bodies/organ protection, heat insulation, and nervous system impulses. Fats are 100% necessary for us to consume, and they inherently do not make us "fat." But, like everything, it should be consumed in moderation. You see, each gram of fat has 9 calories. So, being calorically dense, consuming too much fat could cause weight gain. When looking at fat content on a label, the most important thing to look for is the percentage next to Saturated Fats. (In the above image, there is 5% saturated fat). When looking at this percentage, it is important to stick with foods that contain only 5-10% or less of Saturated Fats. Of course, eating food that contains more than that is okay, but try not to make it a habit. Saturated Fats raise your LDL cholesterol levels (or, "bad" cholesterol). High cholesterol can increase your chances of heart disease. Now, don't be too afraid. Heart disease if not going to occur from eating over 10% of saturated fats, but, neglecting Saturated Fats and regularly consuming too much, can, overtime, increase those chances. So, rule of thumb, when choosing food, try to avoid foods that contain over 10% of Saturated Fats-this same principle holds true for "Trans Fats" and "Cholesterol" on the food label, as well. Try to lean towards consuming more Unsaturated Fats, instead. Unsaturated Fats are "healthy" fats. They are found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts to name a few. They have benefits of lowering cholesterol levels and regulating cardiac health. These are the best fats to consume, while still consuming in moderation due to the calorically dense nature of them. The Dietary Reference Intake states that humans need 20-35% from their calories in fat. So, consuming a 2,000 calorie diet, that is about 44-77 grams per day.
Sodium is another essential part of our nutrition. Sodium is used by the body to regulate fluids and keep muscles and nerves working properly. Sodium should be limited to 5-10% on the nutrition label, as well, or no more than 2,300mg per day. Consuming too much sodium over time could increase changes of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Carbohydrates...another macronutrient many people are afraid of and believe will make them fat. You are probably familiar with the term "Keto," which is a diet in which carbs are eliminated or consumed at very minute levels. This triggers "Ketosis" in the body, allowing the body to burn off stored fat as fuel instead of carbohydrates. However, our brains entirely rely on glucose (a carbohydrate) to function. So, eliminating carbohydrates from your diet can lead to memory issues and brain fog, as well as extreme fatigue and muscle soreness. You need your carbs! Each gram of carbohydrates is 4 calories- much less than that of fats. This is why if you eat a bunch of carbs, with no fat or protein, you may not be full for very long. You need 45-60% of your calories to come from carbohydrates. With a 2,000 calorie diet, this is about 225-325 grams of carbs per day to provide fuel for your organs, muscles, and brain and regulate metabolism. In fact, you need 130 grams of carbs at a minimum per day just for brain function!
When looking at a food label, you may notice that "Fiber" and "Total Sugars" are listed under carbohydrates. These are both types of carbohydrates, both of which are important for consumption with regulation. Fiber is essential for regulating blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels, regulating bowel movements, and promoting healthy weight. On a food label, it is excellent if you can find a percentage of Fiber that is 10% or higher! The Mayo clinic recommends 21-25 grams of fiber per day for women and 30-28 grams of fiber per day for men. Increase your fiber intake and your body will thank you! Now, for sugars. All sugar is BAD, right!? Wrong! Glucose....that thing that the brain is entirely reliant on...that is a sugar! Sugar is found naturally in fruits, veggies, and milk. These sugars provide energy, but also are typically paired with other necessary nutrients and vitamins our bodies need. When sugar becomes unhealthy is when is it considered an "Added Sugar." Added Sugars include things like cane sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, molasses, honey, etc. These are examples of sugars that are calorically dense and do not provide health benefits to the body. These sugars should be limited to 5-10% or less on the food label. Consuming too much sugar as a regular part of your diet can lead to acne, fatigue, and weight gain on a small scale, and diabetes and heart disease on a more severe scale. Increase your intake of fiber and watch you added sugars, but carbohydrates are necessary for healthy functioning and quality of life, so do your body and mind a favor, and consume those carbs!
Last, but not least...definitely not least! Protein! Before we get into the discussion on protein, I want you to notice that protein does not have a percentage next to it on the food label (some labels do provide this information, but it is not required by the FDA). The reason that protein is the only macronutrient without a percentage, is because protein needs vary drastically by individual. Let's look at why:
Protein is essential for growth, acting as enzymes and hormones, maintaining fluid and acid-base regulation, nutrient transport throughout the body, making antibodies and helping with the healing process, muscle and tissue regeneration, and energy in the absence of fats and carbs. From this list, you may notice that proteins are crucial! It's true. But, protein requirements vary from person to person based on someone's age, sex, current weight, and activity level. As an athlete, you would need significantly more protein in your diet than someone who is predominantly sedentary. Regardless, the typical American does not get nearly enough protein in their diets. For the average-Joe, it is recommended to consume 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. So, for a 150 pound person, that is 54.4 grams of protein per day. One cup of chicken is about 43 grams of protein. However, for people who are more active, this number increases to anywhere from 0.8-2.2 grams per kilogram of weight. So, an active 150 pound person could be consuming upwards of 150 grams of protein per day!
Now, the cool thing about protein is that you can't get too much! Research shows that as long as you do not have any pre-existing kidney issues, it is okay to consume anywhere up to 3.5 grams/ kilogram of weight per day. 3.5 grams per kilogram of weight is considered the "upper tolerable limit," meaning it is still safe to consume protein at this level, but wouldn't be recommended to consume past this amount. However, it would take quite a lot for a 150 pound person to consume 3.5 grams of protein for their body weight (238 grams!). So, do not be afraid to consume lots and lots of protein. Protein consumption will help you build and repair muscle, especially in a calorie deficit/fat shredding process, and with only 4 calories per gram, you will feel fuller longer with higher volume of food and less calorie intake overall. The best part... you body uses 20-35% of calories from the protein you consume just to digest it!
To recap, all macronutrients have essential functions, and none of them should be entirely eliminated from your diet. You are now an expert in reading food labels, so use this to your advantage to make smart food choices and give your body what it needs, and avoid what it doesn't need. Good luck!