Whether you're grocery shopping or meal planning, you've seen a nutrition facts label lining the packages of your favorite foods. But what is nutritional value comprised of? And how much of each nutrient should you really be eating?
Nutritional value is the information on the back of food packages that tells you the ingredients and exact number of macronutrients and nutrients within it.
The Components of Nutritional Value
While nutrition charts on the back of your favorite foods may seem fairly straightforward, there's so much more than meets the eye. For example, there are seven elements of nutrition which include carbohydrates, fats, fiber, minerals, protein, vitamins and water. The three most important elements make up the three types of nutrition, which includes carbs, fats and proteins — better known as macronutrients.
According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should account for between 45 and 65 percent of total calories consumed for adults, fats should account for 20 to 35 percent of total calories consumed and proteins should take up the remaining 10 to 35 percent.
To put this in perspective, Mayo Clinic says that, based on a 2,000 calorie diet, you should be eating between 900 and 1,300 calories a day directly from healthy carbohydrates (between 225 and 325 grams). For reference, there are four calories per gram. This means that based on a 2,000 calorie diet, you should consume between 400 and 700 calories (100 to 175 grams) from fats and between 200 and 700 calories (25 to 175 grams) from proteins.
What Macronutrients Are Unhealthy?
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats can be further broken down, introducing the good and bad sources of the nutrients.
When you read a nutrition facts label, you'll notice that sugars are a subset of carbohydrates. As delicious as sugar might be, you want to be mindful of the number of sugars that comprise the total carbs in a food item — especially if that item is processed and contains added sugars.
According to the Mayo Clinic, added sugars are sugars and syrups that make their way into food during processing. They're commonly found in sodas, desserts, candy, energy drinks and more. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines recommend dedicating no more than 10 percent of your daily calories to added sugars (which equates to 50 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet).
The American Health Association takes it a step further and recommends that adult women should eat no more than 100 calories of sugar per day (or 25 grams of sugar) and men should eat no more than 150 (or 38 grams). That's because excess added sugars contribute to weight gain and obesity, which directly correlates with reduced heart health.
Then there's dietary fats, which can be broken down into saturated fats and trans fats (the two most popular), as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. According to MedLinePlus, saturated fats should account for no more than 7 percent of your daily calories for optimal health, which means eating 16 to 22 grams or less of saturated fats per day. For trans fats, they recommend no more than 1 percent of your daily calories, or about 2 grams.
Limiting your fats is incredibly important because overeating that macronutrient can increase your risk for obesity, heart disease and more.
Read more: 5 Low-Sugar Drinks to Beat the Heat
Bad Nutrients to Monitor
Outside of the main micronutrients, you want to keep a constant eye on your cholesterol and sodium intake. That's because high cholesterol can lead to blocked arteries, heart attacks, stroke and even death; and high sodium can lead to high blood pressure.
To keep your cholesterol in check, you want to limit your cholesterol intake. This can be tricky given that, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, there isn't a set recommendation for cholesterol. However, as a general rule of thumb, the authors recommend sticking to the 2010 principle of no more than 300 milligrams per day.
According to the American Heart Association, the best ways to control your cholesterol include understanding the difference between HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol), tracking your cholesterol levels regularly at the doctor and proactively controlling them with a healthy diet of largely unprocessed foods, daily movement and avoidance of saturated fats and smoking.
As for sodium, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that 70 percent of sodium intake comes from processed and pre-packaged foods — not from the common misconception of adding salt to your meals. That said, make sure to choose foods low in sodium and aim to consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day.
Other Nutrients to Observe
While carbohydrates (including sugars), fats (namely saturated and trans), proteins, cholesterol and sodium are the most concerning variables on a nutrition facts label, you'll find plenty of other nutrients, including potassium, iron, calcium, essential vitamins and more lining the back of your food packages — all of which you want to consume enough of each day.
According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, when reading nutrition labels, 5 percent or less of a nutrient is considered low, whereas 20 percent or more is considered high. For these remaining nutrients, the higher the percentage, the better.
Just remember that when reading nutrition facts labels, food items with 400 or more calories is considered high and the serving size isn't always the full package, so do the math before adding the item to your cart — or your mouth.
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: "Appendix 7. Nutritional Goals for Age-Sex Groups Based on Dietary Reference Intakes and Dietary Guidelines Recommendations"
- Mayo Clinic: "Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet"
- Mayo Clinic: "Nutrition and Healthy Eating"
- The American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"
- MedLinePlus: "Facts About Saturated Fats"
- MedLinePlus: "Facts About Trans Fats"
- Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020: "A Closer Look Inside Healthy Eating Patterns"
- The American Heart Association: "Life's Simple 7 Manage Cholesterol Infographic"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Use the Nutrition Facts Label to Reduce Your Intake of Sodium in Your Diet"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Tips for Using the Food Label"