The Athlete’s Guide to Reading a Nutrition Facts Label

Do you read the nutrition facts label on the back of food items?

Knowing how to read a nutrition facts label is important for everyone, especially athletes who want to gain a competitive edge by fueling their bodies with the best foods possible.

Many packaged foods will have some sort of advertising on the front that often makes the food sound healthy or to appeal to the increasing number of health-conscious shoppers…but did you know those front of the package statements can often be very misleading?

For instance, you may have read a story in the news this week about a lawsuit against General Mills for falsely advertising or being misleading in their labeling of “Cheerios Protein”.

The nutrition facts label of the higher protein cereal lists a larger serving size, and contains a significant amount of added sugar compared to the regular cereal. Consumers may think they’re buying a healthy product by buying the cereal advertised as having more protein, because protein is touted to help keep us fuller for longer and build muscle…but honestly, the protein-enhanced product isn’t worth the extra added sugar. You’re better off having your cereal with a protein-rich cup of milk or having a side of eggs or yogurt.

This blog is to help guide you in making healthier choices at the grocery store by reading the nutrition facts label and knowing what to look for.

The nutrition facts label 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.

So in the example label below, 1 cup (228 g) of this food contains 250 calories, 12 grams of total fat, 30 mg of cholesterol, etc.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Sample Nutrition Facts Label

1. Start with the serving size

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.

So, as mentioned above, there are 250 calories in 1 cup of this food. The next thing you should notice is that right below the “serving size,” it lists that there are 2 servings per container. If you eat the whole container, you have to multiply all the nutrition facts by 2 (or whatever the amount of servings per container are). If you eat 1.5 cups, you would multiply the nutrition facts by 1.5, and so on. This is a good time to notice what your usual portion is versus what the serving size is for that food.

2. What all the percentages mean…

The % 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

3. Look at the calories, fat, and sodium

If you multiply the portion you usually eat by the serving size indicated – how many calories, grams of fat and milligrams of sodium are in your typical serving?

Calories aren’t always the most important indicator of whether a snack is healthy or not, BUT  this number can be important for determining serving size, depending on your goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might compare two similar products and see which one has less calories for the same serving. If you are choosing a snack, calories are important because you don’t want to eat a product that has a full-sized meal amount of calories at snack time. If you’re trying to put on weight, you might want to choose the product that has more calories per serving.

Reduce the amounts of these foods: 

Trans fats –  Not all fats are created equally, so it is important to choose products that have no trans fats, which are often found in processed, packaged baked goods and snack foods. These fats can promote inflammation, which is bad news for athletes who should be focusing on reducing inflammation for faster recovery.

Sodium – The recommended daily amount of sodium (salt) is under 2000 mg per day, but many athletes spend a good amount of their day sweating out salt. Focus on choosing unprocessed foods that are low in sodium most of the time, but if you notice a food you regularly eat is higher in sodium, make sure to pay attention to the serving size. Canned vegetables and soups, bread and snack foods are some of the higher sodium foods, so make sure to read the label.

4. Increase fiber, vitamins and minerals

Dietary fiber is found in complex carbohydrates, like whole grains, vegetables and fruits. These foods help keep athletes control body weight, regulate blood sugar, and maintain body weight. Include more of these foods in your diet. Athletes should focus on getting at least 25 grams of fiber per day.

 Foods that include more vitamins and minerals will help promote good health and lower inflammation that helps athletes recover more quickly and stay healthy throughout the year.

5. Check out that ingredient list

I’m sure you’ve heard people say you “shouldn’t eat anything you can’t pronounce,” but it might be worth it to focus your attention on choosing foods that, in general, have fewer ingredients. If you’re choosing a pre-packaged product, it may have a preservative or ingredient that makes it more shelf-stable that you may not be able to pronounce/recognize…but that doesn’t necessarily mean the food is unhealthy. The ingredients are listed in descending order by weight, which means the food contains the largest amount of the food listed first and the least amount of the ingredient listed last on the label.

My tips for using the ingredient list to your advantage:

Choosing a whole grain product/bread

The first ingredient of the bread/cereal/whole grain product you choose should be whole wheat flour or whole grain flour. The package may even be labeled “100% whole grain bread” – this is the bread that contains more fiber, vitamins and minerals than the white/processed breads.

Avoiding partially hydrogenated oils

If you spy the words “partially hydrogenated” on your food label, that indicates that the food item contains trans fats, which are those unhealthy inflammation-promoting fats that can raise your cholesterol. Avoid this ingredient, which is often found in baked goods, chips/snack foods, coffee creamer, margarine, fried foods (donuts, french fries), and canned cinnamon rolls/biscuits. Even if a product claims it has “No trans fat!” it can still have a small amount – check the label to make sure you’re choosing foods without this ingredient. Athletes need to be focusing on reducing inflammation, and this ingredient isn’t going to help you meet your goals.

Limit added sugars

This article isn’t here to tell you that all sugar is bad, but if you’re buying a food that  you eat daily (yogurt, cereal, granola, snack bars, bread, crackers), you need to be aware that sugars are often added to enhance taste or color of the product (even if you wouldn’t expect the food to contain sugar and even if the food doesn’t taste sweet).

The sugars listed on the nutrition facts label can indicate naturally-occurring sugars (lactose in milk or yogurt, sugar found in fruit juices), in addition to added sugars (sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey, brown sugar, etc). You might even find sugar in things you wouldn’t think have sugar, like peanut butter!

Look for added sugars by noticing where “sugar” is listed in the ingredients list – is it the first or second ingredient? Try to find a comparable product where sugar is listed later. With yogurts, you can usually choose the “plain” variety and add your own sweetener – the ingredients should just be “milk and added cultures.” 

Adding berries, cinnamon and a touch of honey is a good way to sweeten plain yogurt.

It may take a bit longer at first to start reading labels, but after a while, you will know which brands and products to put in your cart.

Related links:

More questions? Need help choosing better options at the grocery store?

Make an appointment with the Sanford sports nutritionist to discuss how to individualize your diet to meet your goals. Call 605-312-7878.