An Athlete’s Guide to Food Labels
If you want to change the way your body looks, feels or performs, you can start by learning more about what you’re putting into it. For people trying to improve athletic performance or gain muscle mass, choosing the right mix of foods can be crucial, and understanding food labels can help you to compare products and build a strategic diet for your unique training and performance goals.
People often consider one package to be one “serving,” but there could actually be multiple servings per container. Serving sizes can also differ between similar types of foods, and may not always equal the amount you normally eat. For an accurate estimate of what you’re consuming, multiply the nutrition information listed on the Nutrition Facts panel by the number of servings consumed.
Food labels are essential to knowing how many calories you ingest in a day, as well as the source of those calories. Remember that Fat-Free and No Sugar don’t always mean low in calories. It’s also useful to know that each macronutrient provides a different amount of calories; protein and carbohydrates each contain four calories per gram, while fat contains nine calories per gram. Tracking your calorie consumption throughout the day will help ensure that your body has enough fuel to perform at its best.
Fat can be an important source of energy in your diet, but it should be consumed in moderation. Total Fat on the label includes fats that are good for you, such as monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats (usually from liquid and plant sources, such as canola oil and nuts), as well as fats that are unhealthy, such as saturated and trans fats (from animal or vegetable sources), which are considered detrimental to heart health and should be kept to a minimum. The amount of total fat may not be as significant as whether it is healthy fat or unhealthy fat. Try limiting saturated fats to no more than 1/3 of your total daily fat intake.
Percent Daily Value
The Percent Daily Value (or %DV, as it is often shown on the label) tells you how much of a nutrient is in each serving. It is expressed as a percentage of your total daily allowance for that nutrient, and is based on a 2,000-calorie diet. However, this is less than most athletes require on a daily basis so first consider what your goals require.
Sodium is typically found in high quantities in processed and refined foods, and for most of the population, moderate intake is often recommended. Athletes, on the other hand, lose large amounts of sodium through sweat so your requirements may be different when participating in sustained activities.
These essential nutrients are the body’s premium source of energy and fuel your muscles and your brain during activity. The label lists them as Total Carbohydrates and breaks them down by type: Sugars (simple carbohydrates), Fiber and Other, which are the complex carbohydrates that are optimal for your body. The sugar, fiber, and other carbohydrates will add up to the Total Carbohydrates. Fiber is a carbohydrate listed with Nutrition Facts as it is essential for daily and long-term health. To make the most use of this information, first determine how much carbohydrate you need for your training or sport competition.
Proteins are involved in the development, growth, and repair of muscle and other bodily tissues, and are therefore critical for recovery from intense physical training. The Protein listing, measured in grams, tells you how much total protein is in a single serving of a food. While there are differences in the biological value and effects of various protein sources, there is usually no distinction made for the type of protein or the source on the food label. Most people get enough protein through their regular diets, however it is not always the optimal type. Go for lean cuts of meat and poultry, nuts, seeds, beans, and dairy such as yogurt whenever possible.
This is the section of the label that states what all the ingredients are. They are listed in descending order of their prevalence in the product and are usually listed below the Nutrition Facts box. You can use this as one way to evaluate the nutritional quality of a product as well as to avoid any foods or additives to which you may be allergic or intolerant. For example, although the total amount of sugar can be found in the Nutrition Facts box, many cereals have a large quantity of refined, added sugars; by studying the order of ingredients on the label and choosing a brand that does not have “sugar,” “sucrose,” “corn syrup” or other types of sugar in the first two or three ingredients, you can feel confident that you have chosen a lower-sugar, and potentially healthier cereal.
The food you eat plays such a large role in how your body performs and functions. Take the time to know what goes into your body, when, and why. And, in addition to energy and performance, remember to eat for health and enjoyment!