How to Read a Nutrition Label — and Finally Get Your Macros Right

The new nutrition label highlights added sugars so that you can reduce your intake and make healthier food choices. (Image: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/GettyImages)

If you've ever used a calorie-tracking app or looked into going low-carb or trying the keto diet, you're likely familiar with the term "macros." But learning what macros are and how to properly count them requires you to, first and foremost, understand a nutrition label.

What Are Macros?

First off, all foods provide energy for your body to function as well as nutrients to support the thousands of reactions necessary for your cells, tissues and organs to grow and maintain health. All whole foods provide a mixture of macronutrients (also known as macros) and micronutrients — which you'll see on a nutrition label.

As their respective names state, macronutrients are the nutrients that our bodies need in large amounts and are made up of:

  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates (including fiber and sugar)
  • Proteins

Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts — these are vitamins and minerals that are equally important for optimal health. Macros provide energy in the form of calories whereas micronutrients do not provide energy or calories. Most foods provide both macro and micronutrients to varying degrees.

So, What Should My Macros Be?

Now that you understand what macros are, how do you know how much of each macro you need? While there is no one-size-fits-all with regard to nutrition recommendations, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend following the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR), which is a percentage range of each macro that makes up the total diet. These ranges can be individualized based on age, gender and health status as well as your health and fitness goals.

Both male and female adults ages 19 and up should aim to get 20 to 35 percent of their total calories from fats (with no more than 10 percent of those calories coming from saturated fats and little no none coming from trans fats), 45 to 65 percent of their total calories from carbs and 10 to 35 percent of their total calories from proteins. As you've likely noticed, there is a great degree of fine-tuning involved to determine the right macro distribution range for each person!

When it comes to crushing your health and fitness goals, individualization is key — so a macro combination that works for one person may not be generalized for all. That's where understanding your foods' nutrition label comes into play.

Understanding The New Nutrition Label

Learning to read and understand the nutrition label on packaged goods is the cornerstone of being an informed consumer. A nutrition label is required on all packaged goods and lists all the ingredients in that food along with detailed nutrient information.

By 2021, all nutrition labels will be updated to a consumer-friendly format that's easier to follow and decode than the label you see on packages now. However, many companies got a headstart and have begun using the new nutrition label, so you've likely already spotted it!

Like the old version, the new nutrition label will still denote serving sizes but will be updated to reflect the portion that people are more likely to eat. Calories will still be listed as well as headings for each macronutrient with their respective grams.

In addition to noting dietary fiber and sugar contents, the carb category gets a helpful makeover: It will note added sugars as well. The addition of calling out added sugars is welcomed as many Americans exceed the daily recommended intake for added sugars. Vitamin D and potassium will replace vitamins A and C.

How to Read a Nutrition Label

The new nutrition label denotes more realistic serving sizes, helping you exercise portion control without feeling deprived (Image: cyano66/iStock/GettyImages)

Step 1: Check the serving size

Find the nutrition facts label on the back of your package. Look at the serving size as well as the number of servings per package. It's important to note that packaged foods and drinks often contain more than one serving. If a snack contains two servings and you eat the entire package, that means your portion size is made up of two servings and that you're consuming double the calories, macros and micronutrients listed on the label.

Step 2: Look at the calorie count

Look at the calories listed per single serving. Calories are not the determining factor in a given food's healthfulness but can be taken into consideration in the context of your overall day.

Step 3: Check for fats, sodium and added sugar

Look for the saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugar contents. Saturated fats affect people differently, and for some, may increase the risk of heart disease. Diets high in trans fats have been linked to increased inflammation, heart disease and obesity. Excessive sodium intake may increase the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart issues. And diets that are high in added sugars have been linked to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and weight gain.

Step 4: Understand Daily Values

Look for the percent of Daily Value (DV). This is the average amount of the nutrient listed in relation to the 100 percent total that should be consumed over the course of an entire day — so keep in mind that this percentage is for the entire day, not just for a single meal or snack.

However, DVs are based on a 2000-calorie diet, so if you're eating less than 2,000 calories per day, the your intake would actually be higher than the DV that reads on the nutrition label. Any nutrient at or near five percent of the daily value is considered a low content and any item listed at or near 20 percent would be considered a high content.

Aim for packaged foods with low DVs for saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and added sugars. Aim for foods with high DVs for fiber, vitamins and minerals. As a rule of thumb, any vitamin, mineral or nutrient that provides 10 to 19 percent of the DV is considered to be a good source.

Step 5: Check the ingredient list

Read the ingredient list. Ingredients are listed from in order according to the highest to lowest amount. If a package's front label claims it's a whole-grain product, then you should look at the ingredient list for further investigation. If you see that whole grains are further down the ingredient list and wheat flour is the first ingredient, that's an indication that the majority of the product is wheat flour rather than whole grain.

Using the nutrition label as a roadmap to making informed choices allows you to purchase and use products that meet your individual needs.

Step 7: Differentiate between nutrition terms and marketing claims

Companies often write attention-grabbing terms on their labels to reel buyers in, but oftentimes, these claims aren't based in science. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the FDA recommend looking out for the following legitimate nutrition terms when shopping for a packaged product:

  • Low-Calorie: The product contains 40 calories or less per serving.
  • Low-Cholesterol: The product contains 20 milligrams or less and two grams or less of saturated fat per serving.
  • Reduced: The product contains at least 25 percent less of the specified nutrient or calories than the traditional product. (So a reduced-sodium canned chicken noodle soup would have at least 25 percent less sodium than the traditional canned chicken noodle soup.)
  • Low-Sodium: The product contains 140 milligrams or less of sodium per serving.
  • Calorie-Free: The product contains fewer than five calories per serving.
  • Fat-Free and Sugar-Free: The product contains less than a half gram of fat or sugar per serving.
  • High in/Rich in/Excellent Source of: The product contains 20 percent or more of the Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) of a specified nutrient per serving.
  • High Potency: The product contains 100 percent or more of the RDI for certain specified vitamins or minerals.
  • Antioxidants: The product contains scientifically proven antioxidants that protect against free radicals. The names of the antioxidants must be included in the claim or denoted by an asterisk leading to more details.

Macros For Weight Loss

There are a number of factors that affect weight loss and body composition including individual genetic variations, environment, learned food-related behaviors and physical activity. Some people respond to a primarily plant-based diet while others benefit from adding more animal-based proteins. Adjusting your macro intakes based on your age, gender and physical activity should also be taken into consideration. But when you're trying to lose weight, the key is making sure that your diet is sustainable and remaining consistent with it.

Fats

It's no secret that healthy fats are needed for good health. There are, however, instances where a low-fat diet may be medically indicated. A person who has a significant lipid metabolism disorder or a genetic predisposition for heart disease may want to follow a low-fat diet.

In general, all people should consume little to no trans fats while being mindful of their saturated fat intake. The American Heart Association currently recommends consuming no more than five to six percent of total calories from saturated fats. Opt for heart-healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocado and fatty fish like salmon and herring.

Carbs

Shunning carbs usually won't result in long-term, sustainable weight loss. However, low-carb diets hold promising results for short-term, quick weight loss. A September 2014 randomized clinical trial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine compared the effects of a low-carb diet (less than 40 grams of carbs per day) and low-fat diet (less than 30 percent of calories coming from total fat and less than seven percent from saturated fat) on weight loss over a year. While the low-carb group lost more weight than the low-fat group, it's worth noting that there was no follow-up data to determine whether the participants were able to maintain their weight loss.

Low-carb diets can take on many forms and can range from very low-carb, where you're eating less than 50 grams of carbs per day, to a pattern where you take in between 50 to 150 grams of carbs per day. For reference, one medium apple contains about 25 grams of carbohydrates.

When it comes to weight management, choosing the right carbs is key. Since carbs are your body's main source of energy, you'll want to get the majority of the macro from fiber-packed vegetables, legumes and whole grains rather than from refined grains and added sugars.

Replacement foods are incredibly important too. If you're (commendably!) transitioning from the standard American diet — that's rich in refined grains and added sugars — always check a nutrition label to find a food replacement that better fits your goals. Exchanging refined grains for whole grains along with minimally processed whole foods such as fruits and vegetables should result in weight loss and overall improved health.

Protein

Losing weight sometimes comes with a caveat: In addition to burning fat, you may also lose a bit of lean muscle mass, which is responsible for strength and giving you that coveted toned look. However, increasing protein along with physical activity can help preserve lean muscle mass, a March 2016 report in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states.

The report recommends 1.2 to two daily grams of protein per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight. So if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to get 82 to 136 grams of protein from your meals and snacks per day. Aim to get your protein from both plant and animal sources that are low in saturated fat and shun trans fats.

Lean muscle mass is more metabolically active at rest and therefore requires more energy (calories) to be maintained. For many people, losing lean muscle mass slows down the rate of overall weight loss. That's why adjusting your macro intake to burn fat rather than muscle needs to be individualized and is best done in tandem with physical activity that provides a mix of cardio, cross-training and resistance or strength work.

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