How to Read Nutrition Labels: 101

How to Read Nutrition Labels: 101


By: Nely Ward

How To 101: Reading Nutrition Labels 

Knowing how to read a nutrition facts label is important for everyone, especially athletes who want to gain a competitive advantage by fueling their bodies with the best foods possible. Nutrition facts are required on packaged food (breads, cereals, canned and frozen foods, snacks, etc), while labeling for raw fruits, vegetables and fish are voluntary. Learning how to properly read a nutrition label will set you up for success when choosing foods and brands to pick while at the grocery store. 

All nutrition fact labels have the same format and will let you know: The Serving Size, Calories, Total Fat, Saturated fat, Trans fat, Cholesterol, Sodium, Total carbohydrate, Dietary fiber, Sugars, Protein, Vitamins and minerals for the serving size indicated. 

Below, I have put together the key items and order to read nutrition labels, with tips for understanding each. 

1. Ingredients: 

The first place to start is the ingredients list, which can usually tell you more than the rest of the food label. The key is to know that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So, if you are looking at a label and the first, second or third ingredient is sugar, you may want to rethink your choice. If you are buying any processed food, you want the most contained ingredient to be that food. Try your best to look for items that contain whole ingredients and how many ingredients are in the item. Less is more for ingredient lists! 

2. Serving Size: 

After looking at ingredients, move to serving sizes. The “Serving Size” tells you the amount of food you get per serving, and all the nutrition facts listed are for that amount of food. Always note to look at servings per container, it’s easy to overeat and double or even triple the calories you think you’re getting.  

3. Calories: 

It is important to keep an eye on these if you are trying to maintain or lose weight. 

The percentage Daily Values (DV) listed are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. This means if the label says the food has 10% DV for fat, the serving of that food is 10% of the fat in the diet of a person eating 2,000 calories a day. 

These percentages aren’t always relevant to athletes who often have higher energy and nutrient needs or have different macronutrient intakes based on their individual goals. Focus less on these percentages and really understand what the actual amounts are, which nutrients you should limit and which you should. 

4. Total Fat: 

Fats are listed right after calories. Everyone needs a fair amount of fat in their diet for a healthy metabolism, especially for those of us that are active. A healthy runner will get 20%-30% of their daily calories for healthy fats. Saturated fats are what is best in moderation, and trans fats are the fats that you totally want to avoid. 

5. Sodium: 

Sodium= salt! It is suggested that individuals keep their sodium intake below 2,500 mg per day. Athletes who are in heavy training blocks can expect to intake more than this, as sweaters may need more sodium to perform.  

6. Carbohydrates: 

For general function people need 150 grams of carbohydrates per day. As an athlete, the longer and faster you exercise, the more you burn through. Carbohydrates become the foundation of an athletes’ meal plan, and the type of carbohydrate is just as important as the amount. Pay attention to amount of added sugars, and avoid foods that have lots of added sugars (sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, etc) will be listed in the Ingredients list.  

And while I am not here to tell you that sugar is bad, but the foods that you eat daily, you need to be aware of how often sugar is snuck into foods to enhance taste or color. 

7. Protein: 

25% of your calories should come from proteins. The best type of meat to buy at the store would be “grassfed” meats. Fish, tofu, and leafy greens are all great sources of protein. Protein is the building block for muscles.  

It may take a little while to adjust to reading labels, you will start to know which brands to add to your cart and which not to.