Making Sense of Nutrition Labels

Do you need help making sense of nutrition labels?

Making sense of nutrition labels can be overwhelming. However, having basic knowledge of nutrition labels can help you to understand what elements matter when making healthier choices, and what to filter out.

If you’re in Australia, it’s mandated by law that all manufactured foods include a nutrition information panel and ingredients list [1]. This panel is a useful tool for taking control of your health. But it can sometimes get overshadowed by everything else on the label.

A product may include other terms and information used to market the product which can be easily misinterpreted. In fact, research shows that simply adding health claims on packaging can lead people to think they’re healthier than the same product without the claims [2]. Remember, just because a product makes certain nutrition claims doesn’t mean it is healthy [3].

When reading nutritional labels, it’s important to relate them to your individual nutritional needs. Some labels will list the nutrients as a percentage of daily nutrient intake as “daily value” or RDI (Recommended Daily Intake). The Recommended Daily Intake is based on what an average adult needs (at an 8700 kJ or 2,080 calories)[4]. Treat the percentage values as general advice only as they are not specific to your own individual dietary requirements or goals.

When making decisions about processed foods, there are 5 key points you should prioritise.

1. Serving Size

The serving size is listed in a standardised unit, such as grams, and tells you how much the food business has determined a serving of a product should be [5]. Your own serving size may be more or less to what is recommended on the packaging. It is also very easy to assume that one packet equals one serve, but this is not always the case. This is particularly the case with items that are individually packaged.

2. Energy

The unit of energy will either be listed in Kilojoules (kJ) and/or Calories (kcal) per serve and usually per 100g. You can use the “per 100g” column to compare the nutritional profile of different products. The amount of energy from a product is calculated from its macronutrient content listed further down the label.

3. Macronutrients

Macronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in larger amounts in order to function properly. These are protein, carbohydrates and fat and each is important as it is used by the body for a different purpose [6]. Daily requirements of these nutrients will vary between individuals and will be dependent on a number of factors. These factors include gender, age, weight, activity level and current body composition goal.

4. Fibre

Fibre is a central component of a healthy diet. It is important for keeping your intestinal tract healthy. A diet that is high in fibre has been linked with a reduced risk of chronic disease and longer life. Despite this, as much as two-thirds of Australians don’t hit their RDI of fibre [7]. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) advises an adequate intake of 30g for adult males and 25g for adult females. This adequate intake is just that – adequate. It should be considered as your minimum target. While NHMRC has no set upper level of intake of fibre, if too much is consumed without enough water, it can cause abdominal discomfort or constipation [8]. We recommend capping your fibre intake at around 50-60g per day.

5. Ingredients

As far as body composition goes, the list of ingredients isn’t as important as you may think. All ingredients in a food product must be listed in order from largest to smallest. This can be used to spot foods that might be high in saturated fat, added salt or added sugars. The ingredients list is particularly useful for people with food intolerances or allergies. 

If you pay attention to the above five areas when making food choices, you will be well on your way to making healthier choices. It is also useful to be aware of other elements of your food packaging to avoid them being misinterpreted.

What about the Health Star Rating?

The Health Star Rating system is designed to provide nutritional information at a glance. It rates packaged foods between 0.5 and 5 stars, based on ingredients that increase the risk of obesity and contribute to other chronic diseases [9]. The system is voluntary, and is not without its critics. 

The Health Star Rating allows for negative nutritional attributes to be cancelled out, or balanced, by a positive attribute. For example, a product that receives a high score despite being rich in sugar because a healthy ingredient such as fibre as been added. The rating is also calculated on an “as prepared” basis, which means it takes into account the nutritional value of what it is eaten with. For example, Milo came under fire after it displayed a 4.5-star rating. This rating was based on consuming 3 teaspoons of powder with skim milk, not just on the Milo alone, which would have only earned a 1.5 star rating [10].

Other terms you will find on food labels

It is helpful to keep an eye out for terms which are associated with improved health, but could mislead you into thinking unhealthy, or processed foods are good for you. Some such terms are [11]:

Light: it has been processed to reduce either calories or fat, but some products may have only been watered down.

Natural: this simply means the manufacturer worked with a natural source at some point, like apples or rice.

No added sugar: some products might have no added sugar because they are naturally high in sugar.

Low fat: this could mean fat has been reduced, but another ingredient, such as sugar, has been added to compensate.

Fruit-flavoured: many processed foods refer to a natural flavour, such as a fruit, but might not actually contain any fruit.

Feeling overwhelmed by nutrition labels?

If taking in all this labelling information still seems like a lot for your weekly grocery shop, there is a way around it – eat more whole foods! To conclude, the key to a healthy diet is consuming a balanced diet with a variety of nutrient-rich foods, and the easiest way to do this is by eating mainly unprocessed foods.

If you would like nutritional advice tailored to your personal requirements and goals, book in a consultation today.

How To Understand Nutrition Labels

References

[1] www.healthdirect.gov.au/how-to-read-food-labels

[2] www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#look-on-the-back

[3] www.healthdirect.gov.au/how-to-read-food-labels

[4] www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/userguide/Documents/Userguide_Prescribed%20Nutrition%20Information%20Nov%2013%20Dec%202013.pdf

[5] www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/labelling/panels/pages/default.aspx

[6] www.avitahealth.org/health-library/macronutrients-a-simple-guide-to-macros/

[7] www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5986479/

[8] www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/fibre-in-food#:~:text=Benefits%20of%20fibre,-Dietary%20fibre%20is&text=Most%20Australians%20do%20not%20consume,g%20of%20fibre%20each%20day

[9] www.healthdirect.gov.au/how-to-read-food-labels

[10] www.theconversation.com/why-the-australasian-health-star-rating-needs-major-changes-to-make-it-work-114581

[11] www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-read-food-labels#misleading-claims

Grill’d Low Carb SuperBun

What’s all the fuss about Grilld’s Low Carb SuperBun?

It’s no secret that I am in a long-term relationship with Grill’d Healthy Burgers. You will find me there on a weekly basis after a training session, ordering either a Sweet Chilli Chicken or Simon Says Burger. Delicious!

There’s a number of things that I love about Grill’d. Their burgers are 100% natural, they source their ingredients from local Australian suppliers, they publish their nutritional information, and each burger is made to order. They also cater to everyone. Whether you have a gluten intolerance, an allergy, or prefer to eat vegan – there is something on the menu for you. However, I’ve noticed on my weekly ventures to Grill’d Burgers that more people are ordering the “Low Carb SuperBun”. According to Grill’d Burgers, the Low Carb SuperBun is “…made from all natural quality ingredients including almond meal, free range eggs, coconut cream, tapioca and honey. [The Low Carb SuperBun has] less carbs than a single sushi roll!” [1] Whilst the ingredient list for the Low Carb SuperBun makes it lower in carbohydrates than a sushi roll, it also makes it higher in fat than a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. [2]

Let’s look at a comparison of the nutrition data between the Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger on a Traditional Bun versus the Low Carb SuperBun. [3]

Sweet Chilli Chicken on Traditional Bun

Sweet Chilli Chicken on Traditional Bun

Sweet Chilli Chicken on Low Carb SuperBun

Sweet Chilli Chicken on Low Carb SuperBun

What’s the difference?

A Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger on a Low Carb SuperBun contains 37.4g of fat. To put this number into context, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend that total dietary fat intake should be between 20-35% of a person’s total energy intake to reduce the risk of chronic disease. [4] The average adult needs  8700 kilojoules (or the equivalent to 2000 calories) a day to maintain a healthy weight. [5] If we take the NHMRC’s dietary fat recommendation, and base it on a 2000 calorie diet, the average adult should be consuming between 55-78g of fat each day.

If you’re ordering a Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger on the Low Carb SuperBun, you are eating you way well into your dietary fat recommendation for the day… and that’s if you’re not ordering any chips on the side! We also haven’t mentioned that the Sweet Chilli Chicken Burger is one of Grilld’s lower fat options. If you order the Almighty on the Low Carb SuperBun, that will put you at 63.3g for the burger alone.

It’s likely that consumers are ordering the Low Carb SuperBun because they believe that it’s the healthier alternative. It’s also likely that the same consumers that are ordering the Low Carb SuperBun are unaware that it is more calorie dense than all other bread varieties available at Grill’d Burgers, and choosing the Low Carb SuperBun adds an extra 21.6g of fat in comparison to the Traditional Bun. What’s our take on it? We prefer to stick to the Traditional Bun, Panini Bun or Gluten Free Bun varieties. Unless you’re on a low carbohydrate and high fat diet for medical reasons, we suggest that you choose the same.

Want to make better food choices?

If you want to make better food choices when you’re out and about, check out our Macro-Friendly Takeaway Guide. It’s free to download.

References

 [1] www.grilld.com.au/about-old/be-good/love-our-buns

[2] www.mcdonalds.com.au/menu/quarter-pounder®

[3] www.grilld.com.au/nutrition

[4] www.nrv.gov.au/chronic-disease/summary

[5] www.healthdirect.gov.au/kilojoules

Flexible Dieting Explained

What is flexible dieting?

“Diet” can almost seem like a dirty word. It can conjure up images of giving up eating out, getting takeaway or indulging in your favourite foods. But what if that wasn’t the case? Welcome to the world of flexible dieting.

Flexible dieting is a method of tracking your dietary intake which can be used to lose fat, gain muscle, or simply make sure you are meeting your nutritional needs. 

In a nutshell, it sees your nutritional needs broken down into macronutrient targets for each day. From there, you are free to eat whatever you want, provided it fits those goals. It includes a calorie goal but provides a more targeted approach than simply counting calories. It is also advisable to track other micronutrients such as fibre, water, and other vitamins and minerals to ensure your body is getting what it needs for optimal function.

What are the benefits?

Flexible dieting is just that – flexible.

Unlike other diets which may limit you to certain foods (regardless of whether you enjoy them or not), flexible dieting gives you the freedom to make your own decisions and allows for the occasional treat. It allows you to still go out and socialise, without bringing along your pre-prepped meal. This means that you can have your pizza (or at least a portion of it) and eat it, too.

It is adjustable. You have the ability to adjust your macronutrient targets (thus controlling your calorie intake) when your progress stalls or when your goal changes. You can take control of your diet and results.

The combination of the above benefits make flexible dieting more sustainable. Unlike overly restrictive fad diets, flexible dieting can be maintained for the long-term and adjusted when certain goals are met. Research also shows that those who follow programs that allow greater flexibility in food choices are more successful at keeping weight off over time. The translation? Sustainable lifestyle changes for lasting results.

What are macronutrients?

Macronutrients are the nutritional component that are required in a large amount (hence the prefix, “macro”). Each macronutrient has a caloric value, and plays an important role in energy levels, metabolism and body functioning. Having a balanced macronutrient intake is essential for maintaining good health. 

Macronutrients provide your body with energy which is measured in the form of calories. Knowing how energy dense each is can help you understand how to use them to achieve your goals:

1. Protein – 4 calories per gram

2. Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram

3. Fat – 9 calories per gram

4. Alcohol – 7 calories per gram

Alcohol is sometimes referred to as the fourth macronutrient because it has a calorie value, not because it is required in large amounts – contrary to popular belief. It has an energy value of 7 calories per gram (without mentioning the extra calories from mixers) but does not provide the body with any nutrients. In addition, when you consume alcohol it inhibits your ability to absorb other nutrients.  This means if you don’t account for alcohol in your calories, your daily intake (and your belly) can quickly balloon out, without you realising why. 

What is the difference between tracking macros and counting calories?

Your daily calorie intake is a calculation of how much energy your body needs to achieve your goal, whether that’s lose weight, gain muscle or maintain. However, your body needs more than just a set number of calories to function, it needs nutrients. Each macronutrient is processed and used differently in the body, which is why it is important to reach the right balance of macronutrients so your body has everything it needs to achieve your goal, and perform daily functions.

Macronutrients perform the following functions in the body:

Protein is made up of amino acids which are important for growing, building and repairing muscle and cell tissue and protecting your muscle mass. Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body but are vital for bodily function. Therefore, they must be a part of your diet. Protein also helps you feel full and satisfied.

Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose, the main source of energy for your body. Simple carbohydrates are easy to break down and provide a quick burst of energy, such as sugar and fruit. Complex carbohydrates take more time for your body to break down and will give you longer-lasting energy. Fibre is a type of carbohydrate that can’t be broken down and does not provide energy but helps to keep your intestinal tract healthy.

Fats are an essential nutrient and assist with three body processes – vitamin absorption, hormone regulation and brain function. There are different types of fat and the more beneficial kinds are found in fish such as salmon and tuna and plant sources including avocado and nuts – not pizza and cake.

How can macros help me achieve my goals?

Practically speaking, the right balance of macronutrients will allow you to achieve optimum results, whatever your goal. As each macronutrient serves a different purpose, an imbalance can leave you feeling tired, irritable and unwell, leading you to lose motivation and give up.

So how does this translate into real-life goals? Let’s break it down into a case study.

Case study:

Person A and Person B are both aiming to drop some fat. 2500 calories a day is a calorie deficit for both subjects. This means it is less calories than their body needs to maintain their current weight.

Person A consumes 2500 calories per day, in the form of 180g protein, 310g carbohydrates and 60g fat per day.
Person B consumes 2500 calories per day but doesn’t track their macronutrient intake.

Without the macronutrient breakdown of what Person B is consuming, for all we know, they could be consuming 80g protein, 275g carbohydrates and 120g fat. If this is correct, their body is going to struggle to retain muscle mass. This means they will still lose weight, but it will likely be muscle mass and they will still be left with excess fat. In addition, since protein helps with satiety, Person B will be left feeling less satisfied, and hungry.

Ideally, along with increasing their protein intake, Person B would also adopt a higher carbohydrate to fat ratio to fuel training sessions, boost recovery and improve overall performance. Remember, fat is still important (and essential) – it’s just not needed in copious amounts.

So, what’s next?

Ultimately, when figuring out what works for you, it comes down to personal preference and lifestyle. There are many variations to flexible dieting which can all achieve the same goal. Getting the best results for you will begin with implementing realistic targets which are in line with your preferences. At the end of the day, increasing dietary adherence (i.e. not making it too difficult and giving up) will be the overall winner.

The next step is to choose your goal and get tracking. If you are worried counting and tracking your macros sounds too cumbersome, there’s an app for that. MyFitnessPal allow you to track your calories and nutrients by either scanning barcodes, searching for them or manually entering them in.

At Strength Nutrition, we are all dual-certified as Personal Trainers and Nutritionists, which means we can help you set and achieve both your fitness and nutrition goals. If you would like some further guidance, we’re here to help.