Nutrition Label Guide for Getting a Ripped Physique

by | Nutrition

Do you get really confused looking at nutrition labels? Well, you should be!

They make little sense even to certified nutritionists. The information is poorly organized. Nutrients are not explained properly. There’s too much focus on irrelevant facts, while important info is pushed further down.

Yet, food labels are still damn useful when trying to lose weight. Knowing how to read nutrition facts is key to getting lean.  You can't simply rely on intuition. Our food preferences were shaped in times of food scarcity. We’re not suited to handle today’s abundance of highly palatable and caloric choices.

It’s like trying to use a compass on the Moon. Such devices are calibrated to work using Earth’s magnetic field. The Moon’s own field is largely gone. Any remnant magnetism will just serve to “confuse” your compass this is where north is.

Your food intuition in today’s environment is similarly useless.

How to Understand and Use the Nutrition Facts

Most food labels are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Department of Agriculture (USDA). Below you can see an example of a typical label. Pay attention to what’s highlighted. The remaining information is largely irrelevant. At least not in terms of fat loss.

Important: Nothing on the label is 100% accurate. The law allows for a ~20% margin of error for stated versus actual values. This means a label that says “100 kcal per serving” can be off by 20 kcal in both directions. The actual caloric content can be anywhere from 80 to 120 kcal.

The FDA does provide manufacturers with a guide to standard deviations. No conspiracy here. Nutrient differences across similar products are normal and cannot be avoided. Just be aware of this.

Why Are Calories So Important?

When it comes to managing your weight calories are king. They measure the total amount of energy in food.

If you paid attention in school you may remember that energy and matter are the same things. One can be transformed into the other and vice versa.

This means energy (calories) coming from food can be stored as matter (fat). When you're dieting you get the opposite effect. You break down fat and use it as energy to fuel daily activities.

Calories and Weight Loss

If you over-consume on calories you gain weight. But if you eat less caloric foods you don’t get enough energy to support daily activities. Then your body starts breaking down body fat so you remain functional.

Total calories have a top priority when losing weight. If caloric intake doesn't go down you'll struggle to lose weight, regardless of the diet's composition. For example, there's little difference between high fat or high carb diets. At least in terms of weight loss.

Bottom line: research shows that when calories are equated different diet compositions lead to the same results. Total calories matter more than meal choices or composition.

Note that exercise does play a huge role in getting lean. But it takes 20 seconds to eat a piece of pizza, and 20 mins to burn those calories on the treadmill.

Never Ignore Serving and Portion Sizes!

Calories displayed on the label refer to the serving size. In the US serving sizes are standardized to make it easier to compare similar foods. For example, peanut butter vs almond butter.

Note: European food labels always display calories per 100 grams (~3.5oz).

Labels May Be Deceiving

Serving sizes and portions can often be very misleading. It may look like the caloric content of a certain product is low. But it’s usually because the serving size is too small.

For example:

  • a serving of Oreos (3 cookies) – 160 kcals
  • a realistic number of cookies consumed (all of them!!) – 3,150 kcals

Jokes aside, even if you don’t leave the package empty you’ll likely eat more than 3 cookies. Probably at least 6 or 7 in one sitting.

Comparing different kinds of products is also challenging. Consider the following examples:

  • a serving of apple (1 medium) – 95 kcals / 6 oz
  • a serving of rice cakes (1 rice cake) – 50 kcals / 0.5 oz

Looking at the calories per serving you may conclude rice cakes are the better deal. But you may consume 5-6 servings of rice cakes (~300 kcals total) and still be hungry. While a single apple (~100 kcals) is enough to curb hunger.

Bottom line: when looking at the calories, always consider how many servings you plan to consume in one sitting. If needed calculate the total amount of calories in a package.

Recommended Daily Values

Recommended daily values are not displayed as absolute numbers but as percentages. RDI (Reference Daily Intake) is used to calculate the Percent Daily Value (%DV) of nutrients you see on food labels.

On the right side of the label you can find the %DV for each nutrient. But there’s also a footnote on the bottom with some additional information.

Should You Trust the Health Tips on the Back of Cereal Box?

All recommendations are based on a caloric intake of 2,000 kcal day. This creates a bit of a problem. A person’s optimum intake can range from 1,500 to 4,000+ kcals. Vitamin and mineral requirements can also vary even when caloric needs don’t change.

There are a few other things to consider. The nutrient content of the final product or its ingredients can fluctuate based on:

  • proximity to expiration
  • sun and heat exposure
  • levels of ripeness or freshness
  • quality of soil and environmental factors
  • levels of bacteria contamination or pollutants

You can pick 2 apples at the grocery aisle that have drastically different levels of vitamin C. That's because they came from 2 different farms.

The Right Way to Look at RDI

Trying to hit your nutrient targets is next to impossible. Not if you rely on nutrition fact labels.

Your best option is to get blood work done. Then based on the results focus on foods high in the nutrients you’re lacking. Repeat the process. Gradually improve your diet based on each new test’s results.

As for %DV portion on food labels, use it only to compare different foods. The absolute numbers displayed may not be accurate. But they still represent an overall trend.

As an experiment, let’s compare the vitamin C content of oranges and broccoli:

  • Orange – 88% of Recommended Daily Value (2,000 kcal diet)
  • Broccoli – 148% of Recommended Daily Value (2,000 kcal diet)

As you see broccoli is on average a better source of vitamin C. The particular bag of frozen broccoli you picked up may have 20% less vitamin C. But it’s still probably more than if went for oranges instead.

Bottom line: recommended daily values are mostly irrelevant or inaccurate. They may be useful when comparing different types of food. An easy way to see which option has more or less of a certain nutrient.

Macronutrients (Protein, Fat, & Carbs): Can They Help Weight Loss?

As we already explained calories are king when it comes to getting leaner. Macronutrients determine where exactly the calories come from.

  • 1g of protein = 4 kcals
  • 1g of carbs = 4 kcals
  • 1g of fat = 9 kcals

If you’re following a generic weight loss plan you can focus on total calories and don’t bother with macros. Just avoid having most of your calories coming from one macronutrient.

Foods high in a certain macro may also be high in specific vitamins and minerals. By limiting carbs for example you may also reduce vitamin C and fiber intake. Those 2 nutrients are usually not present in foods that contain mostly fats or protein.

One-sided diets (e.g. very high protein) can make the diet unsustainable as they limit food choices. Also, there are minimum health requirements for each macro. Hence the need for a more balanced approach.

Macronutrient Recommendations:

Requirements are usually determined by:

  • body fat levels and total body weight
  • intolerances and health conditions
  • sport and activity requirements
  • specific weight loss goals
  • past dieting experience
  • food preferences

If you don’t have much dieting experience start with a balanced approach. Then increase one or another nutrient to see which approach works best for you. Just be sure to avoid extremes.

Since there’s a huge individual component we’re not going to cover macronutrient requirements in detail. This is beyond the scope of this article. But we have great macro-based recommendations in our article – The Perfect Grocery List for Ripped Abs.

If you’re a serious athlete, suffer from a medical condition, or follow a certain diet you may need to pay extra attention to this part. You can ask your coach or a nutritionist to help you find the optimum macro split for you.

Check out this video where Alan Aragon and Mario talk about different macro splits:

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