Nutrition: Food Labels, Grams, Calories, & Metabolism
Confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming are just a few of the words I would use to describe the difficulties we face when making healthy choices about the food we eat.
Unless we chose whole foods we are dealing with manufactured foods with labels and packaging that can defy logic. Grocery shopping inevitably involves buying food that requires us to “read” and understand the various messages we are being given by the manufacturer.
The idea of translating grams into calories and making decisions about portion sizes and nutritional value of the product are all a part of healthy eating in the 21st century.
This article will hopefully give you information that will help you make better choices and remain connected to a healthy lifestyle.
Food Labels, Grams, Calories, & Metabolism
Total fat: Listed in grams. 1 gram of fat is equal to 9 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrate and protein is equal to 4 calories. If the label lists total fat at 6 grams it means the total calories from fat is 54. The total calories per serving are listed at the top of the label and shows 140. The percentage of fat to total calories is 38% (140 divided by 54).
The percentages matter because total fat, sugar, and salt can be high in processed foods. If I see total fat exceeding 6 grams I figure it will not be good for me. I always counseled my clients to balance their calorie intake among carbohydrate, fats, and protein using the 60/20/20 rule (60% ‘healthy’ carbohydrate, 20% protein, 20% fat – including saturated/ unsaturated fats).
Paying attention to the list of ingredients is important as well. The first ingredient listed is the most prominent ingredient and should be REAL food – like whole wheat –NOT sugar or salt. The list of ingredients also contains additives – if there are any – and other oils and support ingredients.
Fiber is important so I always look for fiber content – both soluble and insoluble fibers are important to digestion so in bread for example I look for TOTAL fiber, protein, and carbohydrate from healthy WHOLE sources. Cleaning out your intestinal track is important so look for “clean” products that enhance your body’s ability to manage and process the foods you consume. Obviously fruits and vegetables already have water, high nutrient, and fiber content so no label reading or understanding is required!
Basal metabolic rate is the rate at which the body burns calories at rest. We burn approximately ten times our body weight in terms of calories just to stay alive. Calories burned during exercise or other activities related to daily living are in excess of what we require to continue living. Food is the critical link to a healthy lifestyle – as is water of course – so it behooves us to remain conscious of our calorie intake throughout the day (especially if we are trying to lose weight).
The ways we affect our metabolism are by creating additional lean mass (muscle) and also through cardiovascular training which demands the greatest amount of energy because we use all of the major muscle groups in the body (especially if the activity is “load bearing” such as running or walking). From our 30’s on we start to lose 1-2% of our muscle every year if we don’t engage in some form of resistance training. This loss of lean mass translates into higher blood sugar levels because muscle burns sugar and we all know the consequences of higher sugar levels in the blood – it is diabetes and other chronic, preventable diseases.
As we evaluate the balance of food intake we want to maintain with our current activity levels, we have to remember that 1 pound is equivalent to 3500 calories. If our bodies are 10 pounds over their ideal weight that translates into 35,000 calories of “stored energy”! If I see people who are significantly overweight – 30-50 pounds or more – I KNOW that burning that much stored energy WILL take more than a couple of years.
It always comes down to how aggressively we want to schedule our time to include activity that will enhance our metabolic rate and help us lose weight. “If it took years to put on the pounds, it will take months – or years – to get rid of it”. Patience is the key to planning your workload and nutritional intake that supports your goals because it is essential to your eventual success. I burn approximately 1020 calories for my 7 mile runs and as I run 6 days a week (42 miles), the total calories I burn through just my running is over 6000 which is NOT even equal to 2 pounds of body weight (normally we recommend not losing more that 1-2 pounds per week in a weight loss program).
My point is I am conscious of my calorie intake and output each day. I know I will NOT be perfect in making all my food choices but since I CAN burn a significant number of calories every day (if I am not sick or injured of course), I allow myself that leeway. Most people don’t have the luxury I do from all my training BUT they CAN get there over time. It takes persistence, desire, and vision to achieve long term and worthwhile results. I saw this every year in my clients and of course in myself as well. It IS well worth the effort to inform and educate yourself about your own body and how it works.
The Bottom Line
There are many excellent sources for this information on exercise and nutrition such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Council on Sports Medicine, the National Strength & Conditioning Association, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association – and many others. My favorite source of sound nutritional information comes from the Nutrition Action Health Letter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Make it your business to examine your health and fitness goals every year and make changes to your program that will enhance your quality of life and help you be happy with yourself. Next year I will be revising my own goals to include more diverse activities such as yoga and group exercise classes now that I am completing my “two year” plan of setting mileage records. It is time for me to move into a new phase of my own fitness programming. Doing the same thing every year can become very repetitive and boring – even if you love what you are doing- so be open to all your possibilities and go for it!