Nutrition is the golden ticket.
Aside from how you exercise, how you eat is the single most important factor in your fitness journey.
You know exactly what’s happening at the gym—how much weight you’re lifting, how many reps and sets, and how long your workout takes. But do you really know what you’re putting into your body?
If you’re making meals yourself—and let’s face it, eating out can be a minefield for healthy eating—then you have all the information you need right in front of you. You just need to know how to read it.
The good news is, because food labels are federally regulated, you’ll have the exact same information at your fingertips, whether you’re buying from your local Bradenton Publix or you find yourself shopping for groceries anywhere else in the country. Just check the label!
Food Label Overview
Since 1994, U.S. law has required there to be a standardized nutrition label on all packaged foods and beverages that are manufactured in the country, as well as packaged food and drink that’s imported here.
If you’re brand-new to this whole concept, all you have to do is look for the black and white rectangle labeled “Nutrition Facts” somewhere on the item’s packaging.
If you don’t see a nutrition label, chances are you’re buying single-ingredient fresh fruits or vegetables that have had no added ingredients. Congratulations! Still, these items do, of course, have calories, recommended serving sizes, and all kinds of other nutritional contents. You can see a fairly comprehensive list of fruit and veggie facts from the FDA here.
The Food Label Basics
The FDA’s Nutrition Facts label is based on “serving size,” or “the amount that is customarily consumed in one sitting for that food.”
Serving size is the first place people get tripped up! All of the other information on the label hinges on this one measurement. So take good note of how much of this food or drink they intend for you to be consuming.
You feel bad enough when one serving of your fruit drink contains 25% of your recommended sugars for the day; you’ll feel worse when you see that there are four servings in a bottle and you just drank the whole thing.
Secondly, on the right you’ll see a column labeled “% Daily Value.” This is based on the FDA’s average nutritional recommendations (sometimes called “RDA” or “Recommended Daily Allowance”), so it’s a pretty vague label—but it’s still a great place to start if you don’t know anything else.
No matter what nutritional content we’re considering, at the end of the day, each one should add up to 100%.
- In some cases, that 100% is a goal: You want to get at least 100% of your essential vitamins, fibers, etc.
- But, in other cases, that 100% is a limit. You want to get no more than 100% of your sugars, sodium, etc.
In order to adhere to your nutritional plan, you have to take these percentages into account for everything you eat during the day.
Of course, every body is different. And if you’re working with a nutritionist, physician, or other dietary expert, you know that how much you’re aiming for—your 100%—may vary widely from this label. In that case, you’ll have to rely on the actual measurements of each nutritional item listed, often measured in grams, to know how your grocery choices fit into your dietary needs.
Nutritional Facts—The Details
So now you’re ready to dive into how much of each selected nutritional element is contained in one serving of the food you’re holding.
First up, and usually bigger than the rest, you’ll see “Calories” per serving. And good thing, too. When used in a timely manner, calories are just energy. “Calories in, calories out” (ie how much you eat versus how much you burn) remains a sound nutritional guideline, especially for weight control. If you eat more calories than you burn—no matter what kind of food those calories come from—your body will usually store them as fat.
Next you’ll see a section that summarizes and then details the fat, cholesterol, sodium, and carbohydrates, including the food’s dietary fiber (yay!) and sugars (sometimes boo!), as well as protein.
All of these components are major parts of what we eat, and your own personal health history—and what kinds of health habits you’re trying to break or establish—will determine which details stand out most for you.
Still, you will want to pay special attention to
- Saturated fat, which is often closely linked to “bad” cholesterol.
- Sodium, which is prevalent in Western diets and in processed foods, and is often linked to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
- Added sugars, which are sugars that have been added as sweeteners or just added during manufacturing or processing.
Lower down on the label you’ll see information about other vitamins and minerals. So many common health conditions hinge on deficiencies in certain nutrients. If you’re trying to get more of something, check the label!
Factor In Your Fiber
When calculating your carbs, feel free to give yourself a discount for the fiber you eat. Fiber is a good carbohydrate, and if you deduct your fiber from the total carbohydrates on the label, that’s how many simple carbs you’re getting. And simple carbs are what you need to worry about on the carbohydrates section.
Simple carbs can spike your blood sugar, which will give you a quick energy boost but a crash later. Worse still, that crash makes you crave more simple carbs to regain that short-term boost. Don’t get caught in that cycle!
If you start with a healthy and balanced meal, you’re setting the tone for feeling good and making healthy decisions for the rest of the day.
Nutrition Label Variations
You’ll only see a recommended percentage (%) for protein if the product claims to be high in protein. You won’t see a percentage for total sugars, because there is not currently a recommended amount for how many should be eaten in a day.
Some labels will give you even more information. You might see two columns, for example, if a package contains more than one serving, but still might be consumed in a single sitting. Or cereals might give you the nutritional value for a serving when eaten plain, and when eaten with a cup of lowfat milk.
For more details on food labels, go to the source itself: The Food & Drug Administration’s official website includes guidelines on all the information listed, sample listings, and clarifications on what each term means.