Understanding nutrition labels equates to making better choices that could impact your performance
Calorie counting is often frowned upon with good reason. Not only is it an inconvenient task to do on a daily basis, it can also potentially deprive you of nutrients since calories don’t tell the whole story when it comes to nutritional value.
However, understanding the concept of calories is important if you want to improve your overall well-being. Here are a few tips on how to read nutrition labels.
Check how many calories there are per serving
A calorie, in simple terms, is a unit of energy. Our body takes in food quantified by calories and it also burns energy the same way. If you take in more calories than you expend, your body stores it (possibly in the form of fat).
However, if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you will utilize stored energy; this usually comes from stored carbohydrates and fat. The downside is that your body can also burn muscle if carbohydrate stores get depleted.
The first thing to check is how many calories are present per serving (#1). Calorie-dense foods usually have 200 calories and up per serving. To put things into context, running a 10K burns roughly 600 to 800 calories (depending on efficiency and weight), so things can add up quickly.
Look at serving size and servings per container
Serving size (#2) is important as it can tell you how filling certain foods are. For example, a handful of nuts has around 200 calories. This is roughly the equivalent of two medium bananas. In terms of volume, the bananas win this head-to-head. Just remember that some manufacturers tend to cheat by lessening the serving size to confuse consumers. That “100 calorie” bar of chocolate might actually be four servings of 100 calories for the entire bar.
Check your carbohydrates
If you’re into sports and you’re looking at loading up on fuel, see beyond the calories and focus on carbohydrates. Most endurance athletes require 200 to 300 calories from carbohydrates per hour. That’s around 50 to 75 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
Gels, sports drinks, and bars are the best option. However, other natural sources such as dried fruits are great as well. Just remember to look at foods that have a lower fat and protein content to help make it easier and faster to digest and absorb.
Conversely, if you’re looking to lose weight and are on a keto diet, limiting your carb intake is crucial. However, there’s a “hack” that not many know about. You can actually subtract dietary fiber (also counted as carbs) from the total carb count (#3).
Fiber is not digested and absorbed by the body and often takes a pass. Take note of this as well if you’re into sports as high dietary fiber not only effectively lessens your usable carb intake, it can also lead to some gastrointestinal distress. The same can be said about sugar alcohols.
Look at the other details
Vitamin and mineral content (#4) are also important things to look at and analyze. These are micronutrients that add to the nutritional quality of food.
Certain “enriched” foods such as cereals add vitamins and minerals artificially and are rather inferior to the all-natural kind in terms of bioavailability (how the body can actually use these nutrients).
These aren’t necessarily bad, but some brands use it as a gimmick more than anything. Just remember to keep an eye on sodium content since we already get a ton from other food sources. Staying well within the recommended daily allowance of 2,400mg is recommended as too much can lead to hypertension and other potential health problems.
Understand that not everything is quantifiable
It’s easy to get caught up in the whole calorie counting craze that we forget how our body actually uses up and digests food. Yes, things like peanut butter and oils are calorie dense but these can also help delay gastric emptying or how fast food exits the stomach. That said, adding a little bit to fruits or shakes can help make you feel fuller for longer. Remember that eating a well-balanced diet coming from mostly natural sources is a no-brainer and one of the easiest ways to keep your eating habits in check—aside from reviewing nutrition labels, of course.
Have some training questions, feedback or suggestions for future articles? Drop a note in the comments section below or on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You can also get in touch with Don directly here.