Nutrition Facts 101
The world of food is an ever-evolving, complicated area with a constant influx of information. There are different diets ranging from keto, intermittent fasting, low-carb, or vegan to name a few and every day it seems like a new one pops up touting to be the best. If you’re trying to become more health conscious, it can make your head spin. This is why it’s important to understand nutrition fundamentals. Packaged foods almost always have a white label on the back known as the Nutrition Facts. This label is required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to tell the consumer the nutrition facts of a given food. It’s a great place to look to decide the health benefits of a given food product. The aim of this post is to give you enough information to be informed without being overwhelmed.
Serving Size on the label is the first place to look if you are minding your calories. The serving size on the label will influence the calories and all the nutrient amounts thereafter.
For example, a box of Ritz® crackers will specify the serving size is 5 crackers. This means the calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates, etc., are all based on 5 crackers. You’re probably thinking who the heck only eats 5 crackers? Well, there’s another line called servings per container. In this example, there are 24 servings in a box. If you were to eat the entire box of Ritz® crackers, you would consume 1,920 calories (24 x 80cal). If you’re trying to get it tight you’re gonna want to eat less crackers. If you trying to get thick, eat away.
Calories (cal), are defined as the amount of energy your body will obtain from the food. The higher the number the more energy. People are probably most familiar with this part of the nutrition label. If you are attempting to lose/gain weight, it is important to know that 3500 calories equal 1 pound. If you create a deficit of 500 cal per day, you will lose 1lb in a week. On the other hand, if you eat 500 cals per day more than needed you will gain 1lb per week. Every label will specify the number of calories, which is based on the serving size discussed above. It will also note the calories from fat, which will indicate the number of calories coming from fat.
Fat, is one of three main macronutrients; carbohydrates and proteins are the other two. Macronutrients are defined as nutrients the body needs in large amounts. It is the most calorically dense of all the macronutrients yielding 9cal per 1 gram. Typically, when people diet, they assume you need to drastically lower fat consumption; however, flavor and satiety or prolonged fullness comes from fat. The daily recommendation for calories from fat is 20-35% of your calories, with the majority coming from polyunsaturated or monounsaturated sources. To convert this into numbers, it you eat 1800 calories a day, it would be 360g – 630g from fat. An important number to remember is that only 10% of your fat intake should come from saturated fat, which would be 180calories if eating 1800 calories. If you look at the right side of a nutrition label, the %daily value is present to help you understand these numbers.
Saturated Fats are solid at room temperature, and are very common in the American diet. The term saturated fat is derived from the Hydrogen molecules that make up the carbon backbone. Diets high in saturated fats are attributed to high cholesterol and the harmful LDLs (low density lipids) cholesterol as well as blocked arteries and an increase in heart disease. The most common sources of saturated fat come from animals such as cheese, red meat, whole-milk, coconut oil, and many baked goods.
Trans Fat is the worst kind of dietary fat. They occur by a process called hydrogenation that turns liquid fats into solid fats. They have no health benefits and increase the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol, and increase the likelihood of stroke, diabetes, and type 2 diabetes. The most common sources of trans fat are commercial made desserts such as: pie, cookies, and pastries as well as French fries.
Monounsaturated Fats are liquid at room temperature. They are called monounsaturated, with mono meaning one. So there is one double bond (lacking hydrogen molecules) on the carbon backbone, which causes it to be liquid. These fats are considered good fat, and decrease LDL cholesterol in the blood. These types of fats along with polyunsaturated, increase HDL (high density lipids) cholesterol and decrease your risk of heart disease. Common sources of monounsaturated fats include: olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados, and most nuts.
Polyunsaturated Fats are liquid at room temperature. They are called polyunsaturated, with poly meaning many. There are two or more double bonds in the carbon chain. This category of fats is considered essential; the body requires them for normal functions, but can’t make them on their own. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids are the two most discussed polyunsaturated fats. Omega-3 help prevent heart disease and stroke. Common sources of omega-3s are obtained form salmon, mackerel, sardines, canola oil, and walnuts. Omega-6 fatty acids are also linked in reducing heart disease. They are found in vegetable oils such as corn, sunflower, or soybean.
Carbohydrates get a bad wrap in dieting conversations. It provides 4cals per 1 gram. There are both unhealthy and healthy carbs that are essential in normal body functions. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, which is the main energy source for the brain, bodily functions, and physical activity. It is important to eat the right kinds of carbohydrates instead of focusing on the quantity overall. Complex carbohydrates are either not processed or minimally processed. They give the body fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Common sources of complex carbs are whole grains (quinoa, steel-cut oats, barley, brown rice), vegetables, fruits, and beans.
Fiber is a very important aspect of complex carbohydrates. Americans don’t consume enough fiber daily. The recommended daily intake of fiber for women is 25g per day while mean should eat 38 grams per day. It has numerous benefits including slowing the rate of sugar absorbed, signal satiety, cleans colon, and keeps you regular.
Simple carbohydrates are heavily processed. They are digested quickly by your body and provide very minimal nutrients. These are derived from sodas, sport drinks, pastries, breakfast cereals and may contribute to weight gain.
Protein is the last macronutrient. It also provides 4cals per 1 gram. Protein is found throughout the body in muscle, bones, skin, hair, etc. It differs from carbohydrates and fat because it contains a Nitrogen molecule or amine group. There are nine essential amino acids that must be consumed from food for the body to utilize them. These are histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Meat, vegetables, eggs, and whole grains are great sources to obtain these amino acids. Most Americans over consume protein in the form of meat. Although consuming meat isn’t bad, most meats also contain saturated fats; so it is important to balance your protein intake. The calculation for protein needs is a minimum of 0.8 grams for every kg of body weight.