by Craig Pollard, AFitter.Me

Hello team! I hope the fall is going well and you made it through Hallowe’en without too many challenges to your commitment to eating better! As we have moved through the year, we’ve been working on our understanding foods. We are:

  • eating 5-6 times a day;
  • drinking 1-2 litres of water throughout day;
  • making sure we get good protein, carbohydrates (both vegetables and grains) and good fats (EFAs) with each meal; and
  • keeping track of our caloric intake.

All of these skills are essential when you dealing with whole foods, or foods that haven’t been processed or had anything added to them. When you are faced with processed foods (and very few of us can get through a day without interacting with processed foods), you need to master another useful skill – label reading.

Labels are tricky and can make it a challenge to understand what is really in the foods you buy. I find there are two places to look for information: the first is the Nutrition Facts label on the back and the second is the Ingredients List. Let’s tackle the Nutrition Facts label first.

The federal government has regulated what appears on the Nutrition Facts label, but there is a great deal of debate about how the information is calculated.

The first place to look at is the top of the label where the portion size is indicated. This is very important as sometimes the amount is not even close to what you would normally consume (who eats only 5 crackers?) and can be even more problematic when it comes to sauces, salad dressing, and beverages. The portion size listed is almost always less than the actual contents of the package so you’ll need to do some math to know how many calories and nutrients you’re consuming. Now that you know how big a single portion is, let’s see what’s in it.

All Nutrition Facts labels are designed the same – portion size at the top, total calories, fats, sodium, carbohydrates and then proteins at the bottom. There may be some variations about sub listings. Fats will sometimes be broken down into saturated, trans fats, and mono or poly-unsaturated fats, and carbs will also be usually broken down into fibre and sugar. Protein will just be listed as protein.

Another particularly annoying aspect of the Nutrition Facts label is that the food processors list the total caloric value of a single portion in calories but everything else is listed in grams. Fortunately, with some simple math, you can make sure that the products that make it into your shopping cart are of the best quality for you and your family.

You just have to remember two numbers: 4 and 9. When converting proteins or carbs from grams to calories, you simply multiply them by 4. For example, 7 grams of proteins converted to calories is: 7g x 4 = 28 calories.

Converting carbs from grams to calories is very important if you’re concerned about how much sugar is in your diet (and we should all be concerned). For example, a product that has 27g of carbs and 19g of sugar (sugar will be listed as a sub-category in the carbs category) would be converted to calories as follows:

  • 27g x 4 = 108 calories from carbs
  • 19g x 4 = 76 calories of sugar

In this example, more than 70% of the carbohydrate calories come from sugar!

In order to convert fats from grams to calories, they are multiplied by 9. For example, 7g of fat converts to calories as follows: 7g x 9 = 63 calories.

You can do these simple calculations at the store when you’re doing your shopping. Look at a few similar products from different manufacturers and you will see that different companies use different amounts of carbs, fats, proteins, sugars, and sodium to manipulate taste and cost. With this new knowledge, you can choose products that have less sugar and sodium.

Once you are able to sort out the amount of calories in your foods, you can move to the ingredients list. While it is typically in such small print that you’ll need to get out your magnifying glass to read it, the ingredient list tells you exactly what was used to make the food product. Ingredients are listed in order of largest to smallest amounts, so the first item listed will be the largest amount the next will be a smaller amount and so on. Keep in mind that if sugar is listed as one of the first three items, the product is really not a good choice.

While doing some investigation and a little bit of math will take a bit time, this is a really interesting process to go through and it will pay off in the end. The beauty of this process is that once you’ve done it, you really don’t need to do it again. You will be familiar with the food you enjoy and eat and when you want to look at a new food or moving to a new brand of food you will be armed with the information to make a decision based on more than just the products cost and taste.

Craig is a Certified Personal Trainer and is certified in Nutrition for Sport and Performance. Craig operates www.AFitter.Me, an independent gym in Kemptville and works with iNSiDE Out STUDiO barre for Nutrition.