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A food's nutrition label might seem like a maze of information. "Total fat," "serving size" and "dietary fiber"—what exactly do these terms mean? And how do they affect you as an athlete? Here's how to decode the label.
Ingredients: Listed in order of weight, from highest to lowest. The first few ingredients make up the majority of the food. Top ingredients to look for: whole or 100-percent grain, a protein source [e.g., milk, whey, soy] and a vegetable or fruit. Ingredients to avoid as much as possible: “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” oils, and sugars like high-fructose corn syrup.
Serving size: A label’s information is based on one serving—and many packages contain more than a single serving.
Total calories: The amount of energy per serving, measured from the combination of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Total fat: Aim for three grams or less per 100 calories, meaning that 30 percent or less of the food’s calories come from fat.
Protein: This nutrient is made up of 22 amino acids, and eight of them need to be consumed through food, because your body can’t produce them. If a label lists “complete protein,” it means that food has all eight. Milk, cheese and yogurt offer complete protein.
Sodium: The average daily recommendation is 2,300 milligrams. Athletes need this major electrolyte, because it influences muscle contraction and fluid balance in the body. Foods high in sodium include canned soups, frozen dinners, pizza, salty snacks, crackers, processed meats, cheeses and pickles.
Dietary fiber: Aim for at least 25 grams a day of this nutrient, which contributes to feeling full. Insoluble fiber, found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, is referred to as “nature’s scrub brush,” because it absorbs water and stimulates your large intestine to move solid materials through to keep you regular.
Sugars: The total of naturally-occurring sugar and added simple sugars. Dairy foods and fruits contain natural sugars. Added simple sugars include high-fructose corn syrup, honey and fructose. Sugar is a simple carb, best consumed post-training, because it restores energy your body burns during intense activity. Four grams equate to a teaspoon of sugar. As noted on livestrong.com, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that sugar should comprise between 16 and 20 percent of total calories.
Vitamins/minerals: Two to watch for are calcium and iron. Athletes need 1,300 mg of calcium daily. For iron, males require 11 mg a day, and females need 15 mg. These two nutrients play important roles in the bone-building and oxygen-carrying capacity of blood, respectively.