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Reading Nutrition Labels Beyond Calories

"Success is the sum of small efforts -- repeated day-in and day-out" - Robert Collier

We all know how fast the number of calories on a nutrition label jumps out at us. We have been trained to only look at the calorie number when deciding what to eat, but this is neither healthy nor beneficial for what our body needs. In fact, the nutrients, vitamins and minerals listed on food labels are critical for our success in both the short term and long term. As I explained in last week’s article, while calories are a part of how we decide what to eat, they are just one of many factors we need to consider when talking about food. This week is dedicated to helping you learn how to do so.

When you read the amount of carbohydrates, think energy. While carbs tend to get a negative rep, they are valuable for our performance. If you are ever preparing for exercise or need a spike in energy, you need carbohydrates more than anything. For those that have taken a biology class, you know far too much about how glucose gets broken down into ATP (think: the body's currency for energy). We get this magical glucose from the carbohydrates we eat. If you didn’t take biology or it’s been a long time, just know that we break down carbohydrates to sugars, and these are the magical coins we insert into the slot machine to get our body running.

When you read about protein, think of this as the amount of time you will feel full. If you have ever shoveled in handfuls of chips and crackers into your mouth, yet still returned to the kitchen 5 minutes later, you know the repercussions of eating without protein. Not only does protein help you feel full and satisfied for longer, but it also is essential for recovery after exercise. In short, when you work out, your muscles are basically ripping themselves apart. This is where a lot of the burning feeling comes from. After the workout is when your body goes into “repair mode” where it works to build those muscles back up, and protein is critical for faster recoveries as well as stronger muscles. And finally, you need protein to make the critical enzymes, hormones, and chemicals that the internal system relies on for daily functioning.

After protein and carbohydrates, the next thing you want to look at is fiber. I cannot stress enough how overlooked, yet critical fiber is to your diet. The main role that fiber plays in our everyday life is the one least talked about – your bowel habits. I will save everyone the details here, but the most common constipation is due to a lack of sufficient fiber in your diet. In fact, the majority of people do not meet their daily value. Just like protein, fiber can also make you feel full for longer, and it can also improve things like cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

Now we bring ourselves to everyone’s least favorite: fat. Believe it or not, we need fat in our diets, as long as it is the right kind. On any nutrition label, you will see that there are multiple types of fats listed: you want the unsaturated and you do not want saturated or trans fats! Unsaturated fats are the good kind (found in salmon, olive oil, avocados, etc), while saturated and trans fats are things you want to stay away from (think: Twinkies). Of course, everything in moderation is the best route, so there is no need to completely avoid all foods with unwanted fats – a little never hurts. A couple of years back, there was this big phase where everything was made “fat-free,” and these products started flying off the shelves. Everyone thought if they could buy something without fat, then maybe they wouldn’t get fat themselves. Let me make this clear: “fat-free” was a big myth produced by the advertising companies to make us think we wanted foods without fat. In fact, the exact opposite is true and you want fats in your diet – you actually need healthy fats to be able to burn off unwanted fat in your body. Not only this, but fats are what allow you to absorb the vitamins and minerals you get from vegetables so your body can run smoothly from the inside (organs working together systematically) to the outside (healthy skin and energy levels). So lesson learned – don’t take the short cut and buy fat-free, it only hurts!

The final thing you can look at on a nutrition label are the vitamins and minerals listed at the bottom. You can get really deep into all of these, but for females, I recommend paying the most attention to iron and calcium because these are both essential, yet commonly missed in a regular diet. If you don’t get the right amount of calcium, you risk low bone density later on in life (and no one wants to be the grandmother that always falls and breaks a bone). And without iron, your body doesn’t produce enough red blood cells and you lack energy.

Of course, reading all of this at once can be overwhelming. The point of today’s article is to make everyone realize that there are more factors to consider than just calories when we think about food. Without the proper nutrients, our bodies and thus our brains cannot perform the way we want them to. Feel free to come back to this article as often as you need to remind yourself the value of each nutrient listed on a food label. We all need to steer our trained eye away from the big number of calories at the top, and instead think about the value of what we are putting into our bodies. To be successful, we need a constant supply of the right nutrients, and with all that we ask our bodies to do on a regular day, the least we can do is fuel ourselves correctly.

Betsy Blitch, 4/27/2020

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