When I was in my early 20’s I used to buy packaged meals at my local health food store. At the time I was under the impression they would be convenient and healthy dinner options, then I finally learned how to read a nutrition label. That’s when I stopped buying packaged meals and started cooking meals at home.
It turns out even health food stores carry foods that can totally sabotage your waistline! Knowing how to read a nutrition label saved me from wasting my hard-earned money on food that in no way helped me meet my fitness goals.
You’ve glanced at nutrition labels about a zillion times, but are you actually reading them? What do these labels really mean in terms of your fitness goals?
Let’s start from the top.
Serving sizes are where people generally tend to overlook nutrition labels. The serving size shows you how many tablespoons, cups, or pieces, make up 1 serving so you can decide if you need to cut a serving in half in order to watch your calorie, fat, and carb intake. It’s important to notice here how many servings are in the entire container you’re preparing.
For example, a Macaroni & Cheese label may indicate a serving size of 1 cup, with calories being 250 per serving; but there may be multiple servings per container. This means the amount of calories is actually doubled, or even tripled, etc. This label reads the entire container has 2 servings, making it 500 calories for the whole box.
Alright, so there are 500 calories in a box of Macaroni. Why should this matter? To answer that, let’s first define what a calorie actually is.
Calories are a measurement of energy. Calories refer to energy consumption through what you eat and drink to what you burn through physical activity. In order to lose excess fat, your calories in to calories out ratio should be skewed in favor of the output — or calorie deficit.
When you eat an entire box of Macaroni & Cheese to yourself, you eat 500 calories. That’s close to 1/3 of the average woman’s daily value in calories! Keep in mind it takes about an hour of vigorous running to burn approximately 500 calories.
The purple column represents your daily value, which is the recommended amount a person should have each day of each category. These percentages are important to note, because too much of one category can be bad for your health. Typically, 5% or less is low — good, and 20% or more is high — bad.
- Total fat: the total percentage of all fats included in your container.
- Saturated fat: comes from animal fat products, like cream, cheese, butter, whole dairy, and fatty meats.
- Trans fat: artificial fats added to vegetable oil to make it more viscous (thick).
The other type of fat to consider is Cholesterol, which is a waxy, fat-like substance that’s found in all cells in the body. It may seem counter-intuitive, but your body actually needs cholesterol to create hormones and enzymes to digest food.
There are two kinds of cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL).
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL).
It’s important your body has a healthy balance of both LDL and HDL.
LDL is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol. This is the kind that clogs arteries and over time can result in major heart issues. HDL is the kind your body wants.
Consuming foods in excess like — dairy, mayonnaise, and even egg yolk makes you susceptible to high amounts of LDL in your blood stream. Of course, this is in excess. Every body is different, which is why it’s important to speak with your physician to understand how much is too much for you.
According to the American Heart Association, 9 out of 10 Americans consume too much sodium. It’s really important you find a healthy balance with your sodium intake because too much can result in high blood pressure, and too little can result in low blood pressure, both of which are dangerous to the functioning of a healthy body.
What about salt? Well, salt, calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphate, and chloride all make up the components of electrolytes, and these play a HUGE role in muscle contractions for movement and transmitting messages from your brain to the rest of your body. Again, to know how much is the right amount for you would require you to meet with your doctor.
The stat for total carbohydrates means the absolute amount of carbs in the container. I really want to emphasize the importance of having a balance in not only your sodium intake, but your carb intake as well. Women hear the word ‘carb’ and they immediately shudder.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that carbs make women fat; however, this is an exaggeration. Carbs are necessary for the body. Carbs supply the body with energy. They fuel your organs and nervous system, they provide you with fiber, and fiber is essential for healthy digestion. They even help regulate serotonin in the brain and cholesterol in the blood-stream. In short, carbs make your body happy.
Now, consuming too many carbs a day can absolutely contribute to weight gain, but too little and your body won’t work efficiently.
Here’s that word again: balance. Are you detecting a theme yet?
This represents how much fiber is in the container and is considered an extension of carbs. Fiber is essential for a well-balanced diet. Fiber plays a huge roll in the functionality of your digestive system, it lowers bad cholesterol levels in your bloodstream and passively aids in weight-loss.
A diet void of enough fiber can lead to side-effects — like, constipation, weight gain, even heart disease.
Sugar is also considered an extension of carbs but is considered an empty calorie too, meaning it supplies you with energy but no nutrition, so really watch these amounts on nutrition labels.
Sugar, though delicious, harms your healthy cholesterol levels, decreasing HDL, and increasing LDL. It increases the risk of heart disease when consumed liberally. Too much sugar spikes your blood. When this happens, it literally disturbs your metabolism. Digestion slows, blood pressure rises, and over time, constant exposure can lead to weight gain and obesity.
This is the big one to watch for. Protein is essential to your diet, and chances are you’re not getting enough. The amino acids that make up protein are the building blocks to healthy hair, nails, and lean muscle tone, among SO many other things. Protein helps regulate your hormones, creates enzymes, and helps with stabilizing blood.
If you’re not consuming enough protein, your hair and nails weaken, but that’s the least of your problems. Your body will use whatever small amount you consume to create energy, rather than use it to build muscle. Without muscle mass you will never be able to burn fat.
Vitamins and Minerals
Good quality food should contain both vitamins and minerals. These are vital for maintaining bone health — including your teeth, organ development, and your overall health. When you aren’t consuming enough vitamins and minerals, your bones get brittle, your hair and nails weaken, your organs don’t function properly, and your eyesight suffers. In general, you feel sluggish and weak.
Multivitamins are a great source to get all your vitamins and minerals, but it’s also very important you’re getting these nutrients from whole food, as well.
This is the bottom part of the nutrition facts label. This section provides you with recommended dietary information based off a 2,000 calorie daily diet, including fats, sodium, and fiber.
Now that you know what you’re doing, I suggest taking the time to read every nutrition label before you eat the contents inside the box. Don’t be deceived by “healthy” labels printed on a box. Just because it says it’s healthy doesn’t mean it’s good for your waistline. Many packaged foods hide ingredients that will hinder your progress, so pay close attention.
Spread the word of healthy nutrition to your friends and family. Change starts with knowledge and awareness!
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