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How to Interpret the Nutrition Facts Panel to Fuel Your Training

As an athlete you need to fuel your body differently than the average person. Misleading marketing claims found on food packages can lead you to believe food products are healthy, but are not. The key is to tune out the hype and focus just on the facts.

The Nutrition Facts and ingredient list found on food labels can give you the tools to make informed decisions on what you are putting into your body. Here are guidelines on how to interpret the label.

1. The serving size is the standard portion size for the food. The nutrition facts listed below the servings size are for ONE serving. Servings per container is the number of servings for the entire package. The label below lists the serving size is 1 cup (227 g- the weight of the food, not carbohydrate grams), and there are 4 servings or 4 cups in the entire package.

2. Calories listed are based on ONE serving. 1 cup = 280 calories, so 2 cups = 560 calories. Be mindful of how many calories you are eating if you are managing your weight.

3. The % Daily Value (DV) is a quick guide to help determine if a food is healthy. It shows the degree to which a serving of the food or drink meets daily needs. For example, if you are trying to eat more iron rich foods, choose foods with at least 10% of the DV or more. In general, a food with a 5% DV is low, while a food with a 20% DV or more is high in that nutrient. This label identifies that this food is an excellent source of calcium but also high in saturated fat.

Breaking Down the Nutrients

  • Total fat: You need about 20 to 35 percent of your total calories from fat, that’s about 55 to 97 grams of total fat a day if you are eating 2,500 calories daily; however, it’s more important to choose foods with less saturated fat (less than 2 grams per serving) for heart health. Eating too much fat before training can cause GI upset while exercising; as well as, right after training fat can slow digestion and delay absorption of carbs and protein into your muscles to help with recovery. Instead choose foods with less than 10% total fat, 2 to 3 hours before, during, and right after training to speed up your recovery and to avoid any GI issues.

  • Total Carbohydrate: Carbs are your main source of energy as an athlete and should comprise of about 45 to 65 percent of your total calories depending on your training plan. This is about 280 to 400 grams of total carb per day if you are eating a 2,500 calorie diet. It’s recommended to eat healthy carbs from fruit, milk, yogurt, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day so your muscles are fully stocked with glycogen for training. You also need about 30 to 60 grams of carb per hour when training longer than 60 to 90 minutes continuously. Reading the food label to identify the amount of carbs per serving can be helpful so you are fueling your muscles for those harder workouts or longer training sessions to prevent bonking.

  • Dietary Fiber: Dietary fiber is found in complex carbs, like whole grains, vegetables and fruit. Most athletes need about 25 to 30 grams of dietary fiber daily to control body weight, improve gut health, and for heart health; but around training it’s important to reduce dietary fiber to avoid any GI issues. Throughout the day choose foods with whole grains containing 3 grams or more of dietary fiber per serving, but before training and during reduce dietary fiber to less than 2 grams per serving.

  • Added Sugars: Instead of focusing on the total amount of sugar, focus on the amount of added sugars instead. You need to eat foods containing carbs to maintain energy, but choosing foods with less added sugar is important to reduce inflammation and for heart health. Throughout the day eat foods rich in natural sugar such as fruit, milk and yogurt and choose more processed foods with less than 8 grams of added sugars per serving, except when training. During training the simple carbs from sports nutrition products have their place to fuel your body, so don’t stress about the added sugars during training, just not during the rest of your 22-24 hours of the day when you’re not training.

  • Sodium: The average person should try to reduce the amount of sodium in their diet to less than 2,000 mg daily, but you spend a lot of time of your day sweating out salt and need to replace the sodium lost. Throughout the day choose less processed foods low in sodium (less than 20% of DV per serving), but around training focus on getting enough sodium to replace the losses in sweat by eating a salty snack, meal, or from an electrolyte beverage.

  • Protein: It’s recommended to eat about 20 to 30 grams of protein-rich foods every 3 to 4 hours during the day to maximize your muscle recovery and building. However, eating too much protein right before or during training is not a preferred fuel choice for your muscles. Choose more carb-rich foods, lower in protein (and fat) around training to avoid any GI issues and to optimize your fueling during your training. Protein should be focused after training, with carbs, to help muscle tissue recovery.

  • Ingredient List: Choose less processed foods with fewer ingredients that you can understand. When eating grains, choose foods with the first ingredient listed as whole grain, not multi-grain or wheat, so you are eating less processed grains. Be cautious of hidden trans fats found in foods containing partially hydrogenated oils and added sugars listed as high fructose corn syrup, malt sugar, dextrose, fructose, cane sugar, maltose, glucose, and inert sugar, to name a few.

You can use the food label Nutrition Facts and ingredient list to make more informed decisions on what you are eating. Remember to use them as a guide, but to eat more whole foods without food labels that are less processed so you’re fueling your body healthier to train your best.

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