Calories: Uncoding the label

Shifty serving sizes

Welcome to installment two of our nutrition labels uncoded.  Last segment we learned that the biggest active factor we can have on our health is to heed serving sizes.  Now, not all serving sizes are equal.  Something Americans in particular are poor at doing no thanks to restaurants which almost always give you more than one serving.  However serving size is by far only one of a handful of ingredients to check when determining if a product is worth your time.

I recently took a course through Vanderbilt University online for nutrition.  Throughout the 8 weeks we learned a lot about the state of the world when it comes to health.  We spent a good chunk of time weeding through labels and really getting to learn what a term means, why it’s there, how it’s there and most importantly how it impacts us.  Using the priceless knowledge I gained from that class i hope to provide great information to you to help you make better choices in the food aisles.  After all, they can be quite daunting.

This week is all about calories, a topic I could go on and on about because there’s so many added layers of complexity to it.  Calories fall at the top of the nutrition label and sitting right next to them are “calories from fat”.   Too high daily intake of calories from fat is what can lead to weight gain and up your chances for cancers/heart issues.   But if you are eating the right types of calories chances are the calories from fat will also reflect that.

We all need calories, aka energy, to make our bodies run.  A lot of people think that “calories are bad” or “calories make you fat”.  But that’s not true.  Yes they can definitely make you fat, however if you’re getting your calories from the right types of foods,  we won’t be in that type of situation right?  It’s really large amounts over time of garbage calories that get us in trouble (fries, bacon, cheese, white bread, candy, pizza, butter, fatty meats, etc.)

So how many calories do we need a day?  The basis for the daily values is out of 2,000 calories.  However for less active people that’s just too much and for really active folks too little.  There are many calculators out there that help estimate how many calories you need a day, but the reality is none of them are going to nail it to a tee.  There are way too many factors like height, sex, age, body type, exercise, amount of exercise, type of exercise, condition of body (more muscular will burn more than someone the same age and size that carries more fat).  So you’re going to have to be realistic and estimate.  However DO NOT, I repeat do not put yourself below 1200 calories a day  unless it is doctors orders.  Your body needs calories to keep your metabolism kicking.  If you eat too little calories your body freaks out and thinks it’s starving.  In turn even the right calories can be used against you.  Your body starts to go into “starvation” mode and clings to the calories you are giving it for dear life.  So not only are you storing fat at this point your squashing your metabolism.  Not good.

Here’s a good starting place to help you figure out your needs.  Ask yourself if you are happy with your current weight, looking to lose weight or looking to gain.  From there spend about a week eating as you do but writing down the calories (yes factor in serving sizes!) that you are eating daily.  This will give you a baseline to see how many calories you’ve been at.  Now let’s look at the goal.  Stay the same weight?  Great! you know how much to eat now see if you can tweak how you are allocating those calories and squeeze in a few healthier choices overall.  Trying to lose weight?  Roughly 3500 calories make up a pound, so drop 300-500 calories daily from what you eat (not going below 1,200)  or start adding in additional forms of exercise daily and you should start seeing results.  Looking to gain weight?  Add 200-500 calories to your diet and load up on good stuff like protein, the right fats, etc.

To give you an example, here’s what I’ve found works best for me at this point in my early 30’s.  I’m 5’4″ and eat approximately 1500-1800 calories a day depending on the day/mood/hunger level.   I also live a fairly active lifestyle with hitting around 10,000 steps a day everyday.  One thing I’ve found has helped me reduce my weight post baby and stay at that new weight for a 4 years now was sticking to that routine.  I also literally eat all day long: breakfast, mid morning snack, lunch, mid afternoon snack, dinner and yes I squeeze in dessert!  Also, 90-95% of my day is really healthy foods like oatmeal, greek yogurt, fruit, lots of veggies.   I do cave 1-2 meals out of the week and indulge in pizza or something worth it.   And this works for me.

So I hope I’ve helped educate you on calories in this article and using this information I suggest you try to map out your target daily calories.  let me know if you have any questions, need more information or have any advice for me?  I don’t believe anyone has a 100% fool-proof plan and can always take additional tips and tricks.

Have a great plan in place already?  Great!  Tell us about it so we can learn from you too.


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