Weight loss never used to be this complicated. We didn’t worry about what we ate because we didn’t have that much food available and whatever we ate, whether it was high in fat or simple sugars, was worked off as we went through our daily tasks involving manual labour. If you went for a jog through town a hundred years ago people would be looking behind you to see what you were running from!

Nothing tastes as good as a home-cooked meal. When you first moved away from home, what did you look forward to? The next big family function because you knew you’d get some good eats there! The food industry has tried really hard to get their food tasting as good as a home-cooked without the inconvenience of spending hours in the kitchen. As a result, there are a whole lot of changes that have to be made to the food. Dietary trends have also contributed to these changes and we’ll be exploring them in the next few weeks.

All of these changes mean that we need to keep track of what we are eating with far more rigor than we used to. I am a label reader. I wasn’t always. I gained 20 lbs when I first moved away from home because I didn’t know what I was eating and my energy intake far exceeded the energy I was expending while sitting in the library and studying. Even now, as I write this, I am cognizant of the fact that I am putting off my run…

But I digress…Let’s look at the first five things you need to read and understand on your food label.

Top Panel of a Nutrition Facts box - General Mills Oatmeal Crisp Maple NutServing Size: This is the amount of the food that the label information is based on. It is usually far smaller than any of us want it to be and is almost always less than what is in the package/bottle. For example, a box of Kraft Dinner actually contains 4 servings. That means that if you ate the whole box (and who hasn’t at some point in their lives?) you would have to multiply all of the numbers in the Nutrition Facts box by 4 to get the actual amounts consumed. Scary, hey?

In the label provided, the serving size is 1 cup (250 mL) and that amount weighs 58g. All of the amounts we cover from here on in are based on that serving size.

  • Energy/Daily Value: What a lot of people don’t realize is that Calories are just another form of energy. And, as we learned in school, the Law of Conservation of Energy states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Therefore, the food energy that goes into your body has to be used or it gets stored. And guess where it gets stored? Yep – adipocytes (fat cells)!

So, based on the label we see here, 1 cup of this food (it is cold cereal) provides you with 220 Calories (kcals). However, because you so rarely eat cereal on its own, the manufacturer has kindly provided you with the numbers for the cereal plus a half cup of skim milk. Why skim milk and not 2%? Because then the numbers wouldn’t look so appealing.

The %Daily Value is the based on a 2000 Calorie (kcal) daily intake. Your intake may be more or less than this so, while it’s a nice guideline, you don’t have to stress over keeping your numbers in line with it. What are more important are your absolute numbers – the ones that end in g or mg. By using these you can do some simple math to figure out how you are doing.

  • Fat: For now, don’t worry about the types of fat. We will go over that in the next blog post. Just look at the total amount. It is 2.5 g. Each gram of fat provides 9 Calories (kcal) of energy. That means that in a 1 cup serving of this cereal (without adding milk) we get 2.5g * 9 Calories/g = 22.5 Calories from fat. Unfortunately, Calories aren’t represented in decimals on these labels so we round it up to 23 Calories.

That’s not too bad. In contrast to the popular diets saying that you need to eat as low and no-fat as possible, that actually has some serious health implications. We need fat in our diets and it makes the food taste better while making us feel fuller. Fat has several functions in the body, not the least of which is to promote nervous system health!

  • Carbohydrate/Fibre & Sugars: Looking further down the label we see that there are 47 grams of carbohydrate. Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 Calories (kcal) of energy. That means that in a 1 cup serving of this cereal (without adding milk) we get 47 g * 4 Calories/g = 188 Calories from carbohydrate.

Now everything that we have been told about carbohydrates (bad, bad carbs!) tells us to stay away from this cereal because it will likely kill us. Let’s look a little closer at those carbs.

1 cup of this cereal provides us with 5 g of fibre. Fibre helps move things along in the GI tract, slows the absorption of glucose into the blood stream and lowers cholesterol levels. Hey, that’s not bad. To be considered a high fibre food, 3-4 g per serving must be present. So in terms of fibre, this cereal rocks!

However, then we go a little further and find that there are 13 g of added sugar. Added. As in, not naturally present. Added sugars are simple sugars and simple sugars (glucose) are absorbed very quickly into the blood stream where they affect our hormone levels (one of which is insulin). Because of this, they also get stored as fat very quickly because we just can’t use them as quickly as they are absorbed.

So maybe this isn’t the best morning food choice for you. Let’s keep looking.

  • Protein: Here we see that there are 6 grams of protein. Each gram of protein provides up with 4 Calories of energy. That means that in 1 cup of cereal (without adding milk) we get 6g * 4 Calories/g = 24 Calories from protein.

Again, not too bad. Protein makes you feel full so that might help your weight loss goal.

Also, as far as we can see, there are no animal sources of protein in this cereal so it is probably cholesterol free. Based on the protein content, this might be a good choice for your breakfast.

In contrast, here is a picture of the label for the ‘cereal’ I had for breakfast:

Nutrition Facts panel for Steel Cut Oats

Because these are steel-cut quick oats and not actually prepared cereal, the serving size is for the dry weight. Once you add water to them, they swell to a serving size of just under a cup. Things to note:

-the Calories are lower

-the fibre is slightly lower

-the added sugars are lower (there aren’t any)

-the protein is slightly lower

Things I added to the oatmeal:

-1 tsp of brown sugar (3 g sugars)

-2 tsp golden raisins (2 g sugars)

-2 tsp coconut flakes (1.5 g sugars)

So, I did consume added sugars but with those sugars came protein, healthy fats and vitamins and minerals. How do I know that? Well, you’ll have to check out my blog for the next couple of weeks. Next week we’ll look at the next 5 things you need to understand about your food labels.

By the way, I am by no means a paragon of virtue in my eating & grocery shopping decisions. Even when you have the knowledge, it is sometimes difficult to apply it. But I’m constantly working on it. I already mentioned that when I grocery shop, I read labels. When I sit down to eat, I scan the plate the figure out what is missing so I can make up for it in my snacks and other meals. My problem is portion control. I don’t want to eat from a side plate but the dinner plates are all too large!

Can someone please make a realistic sized dinner plate?

Leah Esplen, MSc (Biomedical Physiology and Kinesiology) enjoys moving and eating well but is aware of the challenges that people (including her) face to do so. Her mission is to take the b.s. out of nutrition and fitness information to make it more ‘palatable.’ She believes anyone can make changes to improve their health, as long as they know the right changes to make. When not teaching in the BPK department at SFU, Leah can usually be found presenting at fitness conferences, teaching fitness instructors or teaching MommyMoves® PreNatal and Mom & Baby fitness classes. Amazingly, Leah is not perfect. She wrestles with chronic injury and finding the right combination of nutrition and physical activity to maintain her own health.

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