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  • Writer's pictureTrae

The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Nutrition Facts and Fiction: How To Read Food Labels

Updated: Jan 20

Understanding food labels is difficult for many people. Nutrition facts are guidelines that should inform consumers about what they’re eating and how to fit those food choices into an all-around “healthy diet,” or a diet that includes nutritious foods that meet your macro and micronutrient needs.

The nutrition facts label on your food products has recently been updated for the first time in more than twenty years. Food manufacturers must include even more information to help you make more informed choices. However, consumer awareness is still lacking regarding appropriate portion nutrition facts count, health claims on product labels, and how to make healthier choices.

Here’s how to read food labels for better-informed decision-making and answers to your most common nutrition facts and food label questions.

Understanding Key Nutrient Facts

Reading food labels is important for a few reasons. First, they help you decide whether you regularly meet your nutrient goals over time. Note that we’re speaking about patterns over time, not daily goals as part of a specific sports training plan or diet. There will be days when your macronutrient and micronutrient consumption vary due to access and eating habits, which is a normal experience for the human body. The twenty-four-hour schedule is mostly just a construct regarding nutrition.

Even if you’re not sure what your daily requirements are for the energy-providing macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins), monitoring your consumption and observing patterns in food consumption is an important place to start. Over or under-consuming any macro or micronutrient for chronic periods (like your whole adult life) can have a huge influence on the genetic expression of chronic illnesses that run in your family. In other words, micro and macronutrient consumption patterns are the “lifestyle” factors that make you more or less likely to become ill with hereditary and other chronic diseases.

Your nutrition label will give you all the content information in the form of units of energy (number of calories), grams of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, and added sugars. The carbohydrates, fats, and proteins contribute to the energy count (calories) listed. The daily percentage values estimate how much of your daily macronutrient needs are met with one serving of this food product. Remember that they are based on a 2,000-calorie diet, which will be inaccurate for most people (more below).

Other essential vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and their daily values in a single serving of food are listed on the label. Some micronutrients are water-soluble and must be consumed daily, while others are fat-soluble and can be stored in the body for self-regulation. More on macro and micronutrients, including how much energy you need, is in my Nutrition 101 article.

Other key nutrients to understand are the different types of fats, sugars, fibres, and the infamous cholesterol. You can learn more about some of those in Nutrition 101. If you’re interested in learning your daily values, I recommend meeting with a Registered Dietician in your state. In most states, personal trainers cannot legally write client-specific meal plans, but a Registered Dietician can. If you have health insurance, your provider may cover some of the cost (though they can be pretty expensive, but worth it). I don’t recommend making any major dietary changes without consulting your primary care doctor first.

Nutrition label will guide you in the form of units of energy (number of calories), grams of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre, and added sugars.
Your Nutrition Label Will Give You All the Content Information

Decoding the Ingredients List and How to Read Food Labels

The ingredient list should be one of the first parts of the nutrition label that you check before buying a new food for the first time. This is especially true if this new food item is highly processed or created to be shelf-stable, even when some of its ingredients would not be natural.

The ingredients on the ingredients list are listed in order of prevalence in the food item. This means the first few items on this list are the major ingredients in the product. This helps you understand just how much of that protein bar or pop tart you want to buy is high-fructose corn syrup or potassium sorbate and how much of it is egg, water, whole grains, or some variation of natural or artificial sweetener.

Why Do Nutrition Facts and Food Labels Matter?

Think critically about the things that you consume regularly. They’re delicious, right? Are they mostly food? What kind would real humans eat if we were self-sufficient and generated our own food sources? Or are they predominantly manufactured and manipulated to be able to avoid mould and retain a beautiful artificial colour, smell or texture? Your body’s cells and digestive system are very well suited for one of those food types, but not the other.

The United States also has more lenient laws about the kinds of additives allowed in food. This includes shelf-stable foods specifically marketed toward toddlers, small children, and mothers just trying to give their children the best nutrition options. For example, food additives that change the natural colour or scent of food to make it more appealing are often banned in countries like the UK. These include the Yellow No. 5, No. 6, and Red No. 40 dyes that are commonly in children’s snacks and cereals in the US.

Did you know farm-raised salmon is fed astaxanthin to give the muscle tissue a coral colour? While this potentially beneficial, or at least non-harmful carotenoid compound may eventually prove safe and effective as a food dye, Australia and New Zealand do not believe enough research has been done on the compound and its application to know if it’s safe, especially as administered as the food source for the fish during their lifetimes. Farm-raised salmon is not legal there.

The ingredients list can also help you identify whether you have a food sensitivity or allergy. Did you know that The Lancet (the oldest peer-reviewed weekly medical journal) found that nearly 70 per cent of the global adult population is lactose intolerant? That’s because your body wasn’t designed to digest milk well into adulthood (it’s for babies, so are boobs y’all, wake up).

Oftentimes, our bodies tell us something’s up long before we realize the painful physical symptoms of sensitivity or misread needs from the body. Keeping a regular journal of the physical experiences or discomforts you have throughout the day, particularly related to the digestive, metabolic, and nervous systems, can help you pinpoint whether a food ingredient is the culprit. Feeling foggy every day at 3 pm? What are you having for lunch? Did you eat breakfast? What role does caffeine play in your energy management?

Stay attuned to your food labels and have a general sense of your caloric and macronutrient needs. Do a quick Google search of new ingredients on your food labels. Do you feel comfortable feeding that to your family? Or do you want to research a little further? Do you feel comfortable finding credible sources for these important decisions if you do?

If all of this seems overwhelming, I have some great practical tips for approaching food labels and finding a balance that works for you. Remember I am not a registered dietician, the experience I speak of is through making my own informed decisions through research experimentation and scientific exploration within my own body. Be a good consumer and take care of your temple.

The Myth of the 2,000-Calorie Diet

Your daily calorie intake depends on the individual needs of your unique body and varies from person to person. You may have been told that you should aim for 2,000 calories per day, but that doesn’t account for the metabolic differences between individuals. Individual caloric needs vary based on a number of factors, including height and weight, typical activity levels, the amount of muscle mass you have, your environment, whether or not you are pregnant or recovering from illness or injury, and even how well you’re sleeping and managing your stress.

Thanks to the globalized internet, we recently learned that the 2,000-calorie suggestion for average adult energy needs was probably a gross underestimate based on self-reported nationwide food consumption surveys. More importantly, it’s a one-size-fits-all estimate that is inaccurate for many folks.

To find your own caloric needs using your height, weight, and hormonal balance as an indicator of biological sex, use my formula here or check out these links to online calculators.

Remember that caloric needs change when you’re not getting enough sleep or managing stress well. Your needs will likely be higher when you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or recovering from pregnancy. Always talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian (not a “nutritionist”) before starting a new meal plan or implementing dietary restrictions of any kind. It is always encouraged to get a second opinion, no matter the guidance, and understand that PCPs may not have current information about the lifestyle (like plant-based) or trend (like keto, Atkins, or any diet that asks you to ignore balance for restriction). Seek a specialist if you have questions about dietary restrictions, micro and macronutrient supplementation, or food allergies before making your most informed dietary decisions.

We also advise that you seek the advice of a registered dietician if you struggle with mental health challenges, like depression. Maintaining a proper diet with balanced nutrition (and sometimes supplementation, in accordance with your RD's guidelines) can have a major impact on the efficacy of certain prescription medications for mental health management. In addition to a balanced diet, strength training, yoga, meditation and, time in nature have all been proven to help regulate neurotransmitter deficiencies in the brain and even aid in addiction recovery.

Food Labeling Regulations and Organizations

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) handles most federal regulations for food labelling in the United States. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s medical research agency, which “provides leadership and direction to programs designed to improve the health of the Nation”. This organization shares its research and findings with national government organizations that make health-related decisions and legislation. These two organizations are the main components of the public health sector as it relates to nutrition and food regulation, and the USDA controls the food production process, including agricultural regulations. Local health departments further regulate food based on local needs (like announcing food contamination recalls or issuing “boil” advisories for contaminated tap water).

However, the American diet is heavily influenced, moulded and commodified by other groups, including the media, the fitness industry, the dairy and meat industries, and other exploitative companies and organizations. That’s why understanding “health claims” and ambiguous labelling is important. Let’s start with organics.

The American Diet Is Heavily Influenced, Moulded and Commodified the food labeling including nutritional facts
The American Diet Is Heavily Influenced, Moulded and Commodified

What “Organic Food” Really Means

“Organic” is a term that means “carbon-based” or “derived from living matter of Earth”. In today’s supermarket, it’s grossly misconstrued. Certified “organic” food in the US is any food product (usually produce, but sometimes processed foods and dairy products) that was grown in accordance with federal standards, and its soil was not exposed to a prohibited chemical for at least three years before harvest.

Organic foods do not have different nutritional value than non-organic foods. They do not contain more or fewer antioxidants than their non-organic counterparts (all produce has many natural antioxidant benefits). They’ve been exposed to fewer (ideally, zero) chemical additives through pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.

You can grow your own organic food at home, and I encourage you to try it. Composting is nature’s way of fertilizing the plants you eat, so maybe even give that a go. It’s rewarding.

Demystifying Health Claims

Like abusing or manipulating the marketing around “organic” products, the food industry uses other wild health claims to appeal to the part of you that’s working hard to be better (thanks, Capitalism). Here’s what some of the FDA’s 12 authorized health claims and some of their “qualified” health claims really mean:

Note that the FDA can reasonably allow an exception to the health claim regulations if they find that allowing the claim to persist will “assist consumers in maintaining healthy dietary practices”.

Food Safety: "Sell By" Date, "Use By" Date & All Dated Information

Let’s talk about food safety. Nutrition labels also typically have a printed date somewhere on or near the label. Food products use different labels to mean different things, including when the product should be sold when it’s freshest (“best if used by”), and when it’s safe to consume. To avoid liability, I will allow the experts at Consumer Notice to explain those differences here. I encourage you to read the full article for complete food safety information.

That being said, be aware that the more shelf-stable your food is, the more likely it is to contain additives and preservatives. Don’t forget to feed your body many fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes; only buy what you’ll need. Many American food products go directly to a landfill without ever leaving their packaging, so we’re not great at this.

If you frequently have food waste, reduce the amount you buy with each trip and take more trips to the store. This is a great excuse to walk to a nearby grocery store once a week, get outside, save fuel, and burn calories. It’s also a great excuse to start composting.

Nutritional facts labels should be attached with Commonly Use Protein and Micronutrient Supplements
Commonly Use Protein and Micronutrient Supplements

A Note on Dietary Supplements

Both athletes and ordinary folks commonly use protein and micronutrient supplements. While they might seem like the solution to the ongoing calls from the fitness and dairy industries to “consume more protein,” the science supporting supplements is pretty new and pretty inconclusive. Scientists are still learning about the bioavailability of these proteins through normal digestion and the long-term effects of consuming synthetic protein supplements.

Still, supplements must contain the same nutritional information as other food products and can be read exactly the same way.

It’s almost impossible to know how much of any supplement your body will use and absorb. This includes your micronutrient supplements, like daily vitamins. However, a Registered Dietician can help you identify whether you’ve developed a deficiency or excess of certain nutrients over time.

I consume some vegan proteins because they help me meet my fitness and other health goals (see my recipes page). However, I am merely a consumer with a journal, keeping my notes, adding a single variable to the fitness equation at a time, and noticing how I look, feel, and perform. None of these observations happen overnight. Learn and grow with your body over time.

If you choose to supplement, do so responsibly. Pay attention to the way your body reacts to supplements (including in the gut, through cognition, and mental health) and ask your PCP or RD before trying new supplements or ergonomic aids, especially if they make health claims or use marketing and product presentation to imply something without saying it. Whole food sources will always be your best source of both micro and macronutrients. Keeping a food journal can help you be more objective about your health outcomes, and to avoid the “placebo effect”.

Want to learn how to implement all of this, one step at a time, into your daily life? Sign up for coaching and we can take a deep dive into personalizing your lifestyle and nutrition choices so that you love the foods you choose to nourish you. Check out my recipes and other articles to get started on your own, email me with questions or contact us on Sanjana Fitness.

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