I’d like to begin this article by saying that nearly everywhere you go, you can request nutrition panel information for the food that you are eating. In the United States, fast food locations (by law) must include nutritional information with all of their menu items. With that being said…
When you see a nutrition panel, there is a lot to understand.
Starting at the top is the serving size. This is the amount that is being listed on the nutrition panel under ‘amount per serving’. Serving per container is the quantity of servings in the item of food you are looking at.
The calories are listed with ‘calories from fat’ and then you will see total fat content, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, fiber, sugar, protein, followed by vitamins and minerals.
We are going to focus on the calorie count first, followed by the protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Then we will look at cholesterol and sodium. Finally, we will look into the vitamins and minerals and get a better understanding of those.
The total amount of calories (per serving) will be listed on the nutrition panel at the top. ‘Calories from fat’ is sometimes listed below. The calories come from fat, protein, and carbohydrate content. These three macro-nutrients are broken down into energy (calorie) and are listed in the unit of grams.
Every gram of fat is equal to 9 calories, every gram of protein and carbohydrates are worth 4 calories. The calorie count per serving is usually a rounded number based off of the total calories in the macro-nutrient content of each serving.
When you see ‘calories from fat’, that will equate to total fat (in grams) multiplied by 9 calories to get the total amount of calories from fat. Fat can be divided into different categories, such as saturated fat, or unsaturated fats (Polyunsaturated/Monounsaturated fats). Rather than going into a complex breakdown of each type of fat, I will simply say that unsaturated fats raise good cholesterol levels and saturated fats raise bad cholesterol levels. No matter what type of fat, the calorie content is still the same at 9 calories per gram. The consumption of fat is extremely important because fat is an essential ingredient for many chemical functions in the human body, such as keeping your skin and hair healthy, transporting fat-soluble vitamins throughout the body, and providing essential fatty acids to the body (The human body does not produce essential fatty acids, therefore they must be consumed through the foods we eat).
Carbohydrates are the main source of energy in most people’s diet. They regulate blood sugar levels and account for 4 calories per gram for energy content. Carbohydrates are ‘sugars’, but when you see the label ‘sugar’ on a nutrition panel, it is referring to monosaccharides and disaccharides, which are simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are usually quick sources for energy (The Purest form on the glycemic index and will provide instant energy to the body). Complex carbohydrates are starches and fiber, which burn slower throughout the body, providing stable blood sugar levels long term, rather than a quick burst of energy.
Dietary fiber is unable to be processed by the body and its only purpose is to aid in digestion. These calories from fiber are never converted to energy. Fiber is a very important component in a human diet because of its’ clearing of the gastrointestinal track from waste. Fiber is considered a carbohydrate.
Protein consists of amino acids and is the building block for building muscle. Protein also accounts for 4 calories per gram, just as carbohydrates do. Protein plays a very important role for the human body outside of muscle synthesis. It makes biochemical reactions and allows for immunity from diseases. Protein is a very complex compound and will be discussed in more elaborate articles in the future. Just know that it’s essential to consume the right amount of protein.
On the right of each column across from protein, fat, carbohydrates, fiber etc, you will see a value in a percentage. That is the percentage towards your daily intake that is recommended, based on a 2000 calorie diet. This is not an efficient tool to follow because every individual needs a different amount of calories and a different macro-nutrient breakdown depending on their lifestyle and goals.
Too much or too little nutrients
An excess or surplus of anything can be counterproductive, especially with macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients.
A protein deficiency can lead to a loss of muscle, fatigue, skin problems, and soreness, to name a few. Too much protein can lead to an increase in body fat and can take a toll on your liver (when protein is consumed in excess amounts, the body has nothing it can do with it and the protein will constantly be converted into glucose and later stored as fat through a process called gluconeogenesis. The liver converts the protein into glucose so it can be used as energy, or stored as fat).
A fat deficiency can alter mood, brain function, and effect metabolism (Your brain is made up of over 60% fats). An excess amount of fat can lead to additional body fat, or can lead to serious illness depending on the type of fat being consumed. If you were to consume large amounts of saturated fats, you could essentially be prepping yourself for a heart attack.
A carbohydrate deficiency can alter your blood sugar levels and put you into a hypoglycemic state (low blood sugar). A surplus of carbohydrates usually leads to excess body fat gains, because the body has no use for the carbohydrates other than to store it as body fat.