Understanding Nutrition Labels

Posted on Feb 14, 2019

Getting started in the world of calorie counting and macro tracking can be pretty complex. 

At least, it can feel pretty complex, when you’re overwhelmed with numbers and figures, and are trying to work out what you can and can’t eat, what does or doesn’t fit your macros, and looking at food in a whole new light.

One of the best ways to make this whole thing a lot easier though, is to get good at reading nutrition labels. That’s what we’ll take you through in this article.


Step 1: Ignore the Charts and Traffic Lights

Most packaged foods now come with some kind of graphic on them, depicting how the food fares compared to certain government recommendations.

This will vary depending on your country, but a lot of the time, there’ll be a colour coding system, where different properties of the food, (i.e sugar, salt, or saturated fat,) is given a red, amber or green score. 

While this may be useful for someone dieting for general health, and who doesn’t necessarily want to build muscle or lose fat, for anyone who’s looking to get lean, get shredded, or pack on size, these guidelines are pretty useless.

For one, they judge foods in isolation, rather than in the context of an overall balanced diet, and secondly, they often focus on the minutia.

Take salt for example. While a diet extremely high in salt probably isn’t the best idea, if you’re training lots, you can get away with having a lot more than the average sedentary person. Likewise, with saturated fat, it’s probably not quite the nutrition bad guy it’s been made out to be, so worrying too much about it is majoring in the minor.

You also want to ignore the recommended guidelines for calories and macros.

Again, these are fine for a regular person, but chances are, you have your own goals, are a lot more active, and probably already carry more muscle mass and less fat than most other people your age, so you don’t want to look too deeply into what the labels say for these.


Step 2: Check Your Measurements

Before you get too carried away with checking out the actual nutrition data, double check what’s being presented.

Most of the time, nutrition info will be given per 100 grams. However, sometimes it’ll be displayed based on the whole product in the package, or per serving. 

It’s very important you make note of how the data is given, otherwise it’s easy to make mistakes. You don’t want to pick up a package of something and just assume the numbers on the label are for its entire contents.


Step 3: Calories

Your first port of call is always going to be calories, for the simple reason that these are the driver in weight loss or weight gain.

Calories can be displayed in kilocalories (kcals) or kilojoules (kjs,) or both. 1 kilocalorie is around 4.2 kilojoules, though where we usually talk about calories in the form of kcals, you’re going to want to use that reading.


Step 4: Macros 

This is where you can see how well a certain food fits in with your diet. It’s where flexible dieting really comes into its own.

As above, you need to be sure whether the macro values are being given per 100g, per product, or per serving, but once you’ve established this, you should be able to factor said food into your current plan. 

For our purposes, all you really want to concern yourself with is the total protein, carb and fat content.

There’s no need to delve too deep into how much of the carbohydrate content is sugar, or fibre, or whether the fats are unsaturated or saturated. While this stuff isn’t completely insignificant, provided you’re eating an overall balanced diet, with plenty of fruits and veggies, lean meats, nuts and grains, there’s no need to get bogged down in the minutia. 

Obviously we can’t say what amount of protein, or carbohydrate or fat to aim for in specific foods, because that’s highly individual. The key thing is to make sure that whatever you’re eating fits your own personal macros.


Step 5: Leave the Micros 

Most foods will give a full breakdown of the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) they contain.

It’s important to get a good mix of these, but at the same time, you don’t need to actively be tracking them, or making note of what’s on the labels. 

Not only is this massively time-consuming, it’s also just not needed. Provided your diet is balanced on the whole, has a wide range of food, and isn’t based around convenience or junk food, you’re likely going to be doing okay from a micronutrient standpoint.


Step 6: If In Doubt, Double Check 

The vast majority of the time, food labels will be accurate. However, if you’re unsure, or something doesn’t seem right, just do a quick search for the same food (or something similar,) in My Fitness Pal, or whatever tracking app you use, to make sure it lines up.

After a while, you’re probably going to pretty instinctively know more or less what’s in the foods you eat on a regular basis, and you’ll even have a good idea of what’s in the ones you eat more infrequently, so won’t need to check labels too much. 

Plus, most flexible dieters end up using their tracking app much more than they do food labels.

That said, knowing how to read nutrition labels is still a useful skill to have, as it helps you cut through the noise, focus on what’s important, and makes eating out or on-the-go a whole lot easier.

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