Knowing how to read a nutrition facts label is important for everyone, especially for bodybuilders and athletes who want to gain a competitive edge by fueling their bodies with the best foods possible. You can learn so many things about the contents of a food or drink by looking at the nutrition facts label. The label describes the details of the item including the breakdown of macronutrients and micronutrients. In this article we’ll take a closer look at the parts of the nutrition facts label and break it all down.

The main components of the nutrition facts label

The nutrition facts panel typically consists of the following components usually in this order:

  • Serving size information
  • Calorie information
  • Amounts and percent daily values of specific nutrients
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Ingredients list and information for avoiding allergies
nutrition facts label example

Most people think they understand what’s important on the nutrition labels (e.g., the number of calories and maybe even the amount of carbohydrate, fat, and protein in the food or supplement). But they’re wrong—labels just aren’t that easy to understand and use without some guidance.

Interpreting nutrition labels

Reading a nutritional label can be easy to understand if you know what information you’re interested in. In terms of tracking macros, you’re mainly interested in the amount of total fat, total carbohydrates, and protein in each serving. These three macronutrients are the breakdown of calories.

interpreting nutrition facts label

Serving size and servings per container

The nutrients and calories you see on the label are the amounts for the “serving size” stated at the top. The amount shown in the parenthesis is a more accurate way of measuring the same serving size. For example, you can measure the serving size on this nutrition label by either “1/4 cup” or “113 grams”.

The “servings per container” tell you how many servings there are in the entire product. In this case, there are 8 servings in the container.

Be sure to compare the serving size with how much you eat. For example, the serving size may be one cup, and you may eat two cups. In that case, you’re eating double the serving size, so you need to double the calories and other nutrient numbers, including the percent daily value.

Calorie information

Calories and calories from fat – the number of calories, which can come from fat, protein, or carbohydrates, in a single serving. More calories that are regularly consumed without a balance of exercise can lead to weight gain. This information allows you to compare whether the product is worth eating because you may be able to find an alternative to a product that is high in calories and low in nutrients (e.g., a small bran muffin of 150 calories, low in fat and high in fiber, can be healthier substitute for a 325-calorie cupcake high in fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium and with no fiber or vitamins).

Amounts and percent daily values of specific nutrients

You can use this section to support your personal dietary needs – look for foods that contain more of the nutrients you want to get more of (protein, dietary fiber, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium for example) and less of the nutrients you may want to limit (saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars, for example).

Percentage daily value – the amount that contributes to what should be consumed in one day. It is based on 2.000- and 2.500-calorie diets (for adults) and varies according to age and size. This percentage helps consumers determine how much of the food contributes to the daily requirements and indicates whether the serving has high or low amounts of nutrients.

Foods with figures lower than 5% daily value are considered low amounts of nutrients, and figures higher than 20% daily value are considered high. Consider percentage of daily value as a gauge for what is being consumed relative to what is required for each day.

Vitamins and minerals

Towards the bottom of the label you’ll find the daily percentage of vitamins and minerals in one serving size. Vitamins and minerals are nutrients to get more of. Diets rich in vitamins and minerals promote growth, development, and normal body functioning.

The amounts of vitamins and minerals are listed as a percent daily value on the nutrition label. The percent daily value for vitamins and minerals gives a general idea of how much of a vitamin or mineral 1 serving of the food contributes to the total daily requirement.

As an example, if an orange beverage provides 10% daily value vitamin C, then consumption of the drink has contributed 10% vitamin C required for the day.

Ingredients list and information for avoiding allergies

Ingredients are listed by quantity – from highest to lowest. Try looking for products that list whole foods as the first three ingredients and be skeptical of foods with long lists of ingredients.

Calculating calories manually

If you are keeping track of fat, protein, and carbs then you are also
tracking calories at the same time. Here’s how many calories are in one gram of each macronutrient:

  • 1g of fat — 9 calories;
  • 1g of carbs — 4 calories;
  • 1g of protein — 4 calories;

By knowing the amount of grams in each macronutrient you can calculate the total calories. You can do this by multiplying the number of grams in each macronutrient by the number of calories per gram of that macronutrient. Then add the calories from the three macronutrients for the total amount of calories. Using this nutrition label for example:

  • Fat: 2 g x 9 = 18 calories
  • Carbs: 4 g x 4= 16 calories
  • Protein: 16 g x 4= 64 calories

Total = 16 + 64 + 18 = 98 calories. As you see, the 98 calories calculated is a
close estimate of the 100 calories shown on the label. Due to rounded numbers, converting grams to calories may not always be exact.

A brief overview of each component

  • Total fat. The total amount of all the different fats (in grams). Limit these because an excessive consumption of fat can lead to weight gain and increases the risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers.
  • Saturated fat. The amount of saturated fat. While some saturated fats are beneficial, consumption of these should be kept to a minimum because they too contribute to heart disease.
  • Trans fat. The amount of trans fat. Choose foods that have lower amounts of trans fat because excess consumption increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Cholesterol, sodium, and potassium. Measured in milligrams, these reveal the amount of cholesterol, sodium (salt), and potassium.
  • Total carbohydrate. The amount of carbohydrates (measured in grams). Two types of carbohydrates are listed – fiber and sugar.
  • Dietary fiber. The amount of fiber.
  • Sugar. The amount of sugar (measured in grams). There is no corresponding percentage daily value, but the amounts can be used to compare the amount of sugar in one food product with another.
  • Protein. The amount of protein (measured in grams).
  • Vitamin A and vitamin C. The percentage amounts of these vitamins provided in percent of the daily value. Nutrients such as calcium, iron, and vitamin D may be listed here as well. Consumers should strive to reach 100% of the daily value for fiber, vitamins, calcium, iron, and other key nutrients.
recommended values for each component from nutrition facts label

Closing thoughts 

When people think of bodybuilding, they consider weight training the key component, but nutrition is almost as important in achieving the physique you want. Just as you need to understand your muscles and how they work, you need to be aware of the basics of nutrition: protein, carbohydrates (“carbs”), and fat. Each plays a critical role in your diet. The ability to read and evaluate food labels is not just a matter of choosing to eat healthy. To those of us trying to gain muscle mass choosing the right mix of foods can be critical.

For bodybuilders, the key components of the nutrition facts label to focus on are: serving size; servings per container; calories; quantity in grams (g) for total fat, types of fat, carbohydrate, and protein; quantity in milligrams (mg) for sodium; and percent daily value (%DV) for vitamins and other minerals of interest. The bodybuilder must know his or her unique needs in order to select the right foods.

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