A guide to understanding nutrition labels that help you get the most out of what you eat. I get a lot of requests from people who train regularly to give them a ‘diet’. Now, unless they have a contest coming up in about 3-5 five months time I refuse to give them a ‘diet’. That might sound a bit strange at first, but from my experience of having prepared numerous diets for people in the past, the only time most of us have the will power to stick to a rigid, structured diet is when cutting up for a competition (and even then it’s not a walk in the park).
So if you’re not planning on doing a competition, but you want to be sure what you eat will maximise your ability to grow or lean up, what do you do? The answer is simple; READ BEFORE YOU EAT!
The perfect diet
The perfect diet for you is the one which meets all your nutritional requirements. That means ALL nutrients; Protein, Carbohydrate, Fats, Vitamins, Minerals and water. Remember, your body distinguishes different nutrients, not foods so it can’t tell if you have eaten low fat ice-cream or an energy shake. Since all food is made up of these nutrients in different amounts, potentially any food can fit into your daily diet. It’s up to you how you put them together.
How do i know what’s in a food?
Most people are aware that many commercial food products now have nutritional panels on them and yet there is still a lot of confusion as to what the information means. The most basic nutritional panel gives information on Energy (kJ or Cal), Protein, Fat, Carbohydrate (total, sugars and sometimes dietary fibre), Calcium, Sodium and Potassium. These are the nutrients of most interest to weight trainers. If there isn’t a nutritional panel on the label, ring the company or write to them and request the information.
Working out what you want
So far so good, but how do you know where this product can fit into your diet? Will it give you the nutrients you want? Does it need to be eaten with something else in order to make a meal and if so, what? It is essential that you have a good idea of exactly what your daily intake of food should be and how you’re going to work it out.
There are two ways of doing this.
The first way is to know what you want your total daily intake to be for each nutrient worked out in grams, ie you may want about 160g protein, 230g carbohydrate and 30g of fat a day. Using this method you just keep a rough tally of what you’ve eaten for each meal. Depending on what your tally is, you can decide whether or not this food is appropriate by simply adding the nutrients in it to your tally and see where it comes out. Just remember that if you are going to eat the 200g serve, use these figures and not the ones from the 100g column.
This is a simple method, and you can use the same approach on a meal by meal basis or on an overall daily basis. I like to keep my meals with a similar nutrient profile so I tend to work out what nutrients I need for each meal and then make my selections.
Once you are familiar with the general nutritional profile of certain foods it is easy to pick what and how much to put together, ie 2 slices of bread with 100g lean meat and salad, or 200g tub low fat yoghurt, 185g tin of tuna and an apple. If you are trying to gain weight make sure you take care of your minimum requirements and then let the rest fall into place. If you’re trying to lose weight you will have to be a lot more accurate with your maths.
The second method is to work out the PERCENTAGE OF CALORIES that you want to come from each nutrient, ie 30% protein, 40% carbohydrate, 30% fat. This method is more complicated and requires more calculations. Again, you can work it out on an overall daily basis or a meal by meal basis. In order to calculate the percentage of calories from each nutrient you first need to get the percentage of that nutrient, ie protein 3.6%.
Multiply this number by the number of kJ or Calories in 1g of protein (16kJ/4Cal) and then divide this number by the kJ/Cal in 100g of product and then multiply by 100 to get %.
3.6 x 16 = 57.6
57.6/341 = 0.1689
0.1689 x 100 = 16.9% of calories come from protein in this product.
Note: Carbohydrate (including sugars) have 17kJ/g
Some modified carbohydrates like lactitol have lower kJ contents than regular carbohydrates.
As you can see, if you are aiming for 30% of your calories to come from protein, you will need to eat another food that is high in protein with the product used in this example. You can also see that it is possible to combine a very low fat food with one higher in fat to obtain your desired ratio while still giving your body the nutrients it needs.
So far I have concentrated on the macronutrients and not mentioned the micronutrients. The main ones of interest in bodybuilding are sodium, potassium and calcium. Unless you are very close to competition, there generally isn’t a need to restrict sodium intake. Try to keep your potassium intake high at all times and make sure you are getting at least 800mg of calcium a day. Use the information on the nutritional panel to work out how much of these nutrients you are taking in.
Putting it in context
If this all sounds like a lot of work compare it to the amount of time and effort you put in at the gym and you’ll find that a bit of time spend paying attention to your diet can make all the difference to the results you get.
Food labels hold a lot more information than just the nutritional profile of a food. As we know, not all proteins are equal, and neither are all fats and carbohydrates.