Demystify Nutrition Labels

You’ve seen that little box on the side of the food package. It gives you multiple facts and figures about the food you may (or may not) want to consume. …

You’ve seen that little box on the side of the food package. It gives you multiple facts and figures about the food you may (or may not) want to consume.

It hits all the big targets mass media tells us to look out for carbohydrates, fat, and protein.

As you scan down a little further, you will get information about sodium, a few vitamins, and minerals, and maybe even the associated percentages.

Do nutrition labels seem overly complicated?

Do you wonder exactly which parts are the most important?  

Do some of the sub-headings confuse you?

Let’s start with the basics, ok?

First, look at the serving size. It’s important to know just how much of the food the box is talking about. For instance, did you know cereal is often labeled with a serving size of 1/2 cup?  Who eats a 1/2 cup of cereal?  

Pour a bowl of cereal and then go measure it. I’d be willing to bet you’ve got yourself about 2 cups of fortified cardboard in your bowl. Product marketing is very sneaky!  They will subtly trick you into thinking there’s less of everything by just decreasing the serving size.

Knowing portion size is vital to addressing the rest of the nutrition label. Now you will know what factor to multiply all of the other values by. If the serving size is 1/2 cup, and you eat 2 cups, you need to quadruple all the other values.

NEXT – The very next part of a nutrition label I look at is ‘added sugar’. I always aim for a ‘0’, nada, nothing, zilch, but if I’m being honest, there are certain treats that I know will not happen. My next goal is 5 grams of sugar or less.

One summer, I was teaching my boys to read nutrition labels and told them they could have anything that didn’t have sugar over 5 grams per serving.

Haha!  I’m so mean. They got really excited, then really disappointed. 

They quickly realized that none of the ‘good stuff’ would qualify for this mom-imposed standard. They asked for a different set of rules. I told them ‘ok, then it can’t have sugar listed in the first 5 ingredients’. Once again, a rush of excitement, then a rapid drop into disappointment. I can tell you in this teaching moment, they learned quite a bit. They learned how to read part of a label AND what the many masks sugar wears. 

The next part of the label I evaluate is fat. Fat is a good thing. Most types of fat that is. Saturated fat has gotten a bad rap from some shoddy research. We’ve been told it’s bad for our hearts, causes cancer, and will clog our arteries. I’m here to tell you that this is just not true. Cholesterol isn’t a bad guy either . . . but that’s for another time (in my book, Pain Proof Your Diet). In the meantime, I highly recommend reading “Eat the Yolks” by Liz Wolfe.

Saturated fat is ‘saturated’ because all of its chemical bonds are filled (saturated), and therefore do not have a chance to have free radicals, which are known to actually lead to cancer. If something has all of its bonds holding hands, so to speak, it’s stable. Like Red Rover. When all the bonds have something to hold onto they are going to run off and go crazy (oxidation). Make sense?

Trans fat, on the other hand, is not a natural fat like saturated fat. It’s a chemical byproduct of partially hydrogenated oils. Trans fats are bad for you. Look for a ‘0’ on the label. This one is non-negotiable! 

Carbohydrates are next on my list. Yes, sugar is a part of the carbohydrate profile. Fiber and sugar are types of carbohydrates. Did you know that carbs are our ‘quick’ source of fuel?   Carbohydrates hold 4 calories per gram. Here’s the catch: If you don’t use those carbs in a timely manner, your body will store them for later use.

All excess fuel is stored as fat – adipose in particular. Since carbs are the least satiating (satisfying) of all the macros, we tend to overeat them the easiest. Carbs are what we crave when we aren’t getting the nutrients our body needs for day-to-day operations. If you aren’t eating enough protein, your body will think it’s starving and look for quick energy in the form of something sweet.

Protein – This is possibly the exact opposite of carbs when thinking of it in terms of satiety. Protein tends to be the mighty macro that will keep us full the longest. Interestingly enough, protein is not the macro with the most calories per gram though (4 calories/gram). That would be our friend, fat, coming in at 9 calories per gram. 

Did you notice something interesting about protein and carbs, and their caloric content?  It’s identical . . . on the surface. Both have 4 calories/gram, yet one holds us over longer. This is exactly why it’s important to not just look at calorie content. 

HOWEVER — Calories in vs calories out is not always reliable. Calories from real, whole foods generally do not need to be counted. When you eat real food, your body gets the nutrients is wants and is able to tell you “I’m satisfied”. When you eat foods that have a long list of ingredients that are difficult to pronounce or claim to be zero calories, your body will continue to want more!  

Simply stated, when you eat real food, you will naturally lose unwanted fat. When you eat pre-packaged, factory-built Frankenfoods (including most “healthy” protein powders), you will find it difficult to lose that fat, and most likely will still have sugar cravings.