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Nutritional Content: Understanding Food

Find out how registered dietitians determine if a food is good for you or not. Learn how these experts in nutrition navigate the grey area that is "healthy food."


Dietitians often get asked, "What are the healthiest foods?"

But there really is no concrete or direct answer. The concept of "healthy" is shaded in a gray area, without a clear-cut black and white division.

Fortunately, there are ways dietitians determine what foods should be consumed more than others. The bistroMD dietitians reveal how to understand food, and tips to choose which might be best in a healthy meal plan!

Nutritional Content: Understanding Food

Food gives life, as supplying the body with food gives the body the energy it needs to function. While all food provides energy, or calories, not all supplies it with adequate nutrients.

Nutrients are divided into macro and micronutrients, dependent on their size:

• Macronutrients are the large dietary components required to supply the body with energy in the form of calories. The three macronutrients are recognized as carbohydrate, protein, and fat.

Both carbohydrate and protein provide 4 calories per gram. Fats are more calorically-dense and supply 9 calories per gram.

• Micronutrients, on the other hand, do not supply calories. They are extremely small nutrients within macronutrients, including vitamins, minerals, trace elements, phytochemicals, and antioxidants.

Notwithstanding their size, micronutrients are absolutely critical for total body function. They act as facilitators to chemical processes for proper growth and development.

Food products even within the same macronutrient group offer variable nutrient contents, including carb-containing whole grains and refined products. However, one takes precedence over the other.

Whole grains offer essential nutrients and fiber, whereas refined products are largely stripped away from them. Wheat and white breads are a prime example of this, as well as whole piece of fruit versus fruit juice.

Interestingly, too, foods from different macronutrient groups can both offer the same micronutrient. Beef, a source of protein, is ample in iron. But spinach, a carbohydrate, also supplies the essential mineral.

Nutrient content may be determined by the color. And generally, the more color, the more nutrients. For instance, naturally vibrant fruits and vegetables burst with vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial plant compounds.

Most nutritious foods tend to be in their raw form. However, packaging should not dictate their nutritional value. Take full advantage of the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients labels, as they are valuable tools in aiding in food choices.

Understanding Nutrition Facts

The Nutrition Facts label may seem overwhelming, though it is loaded with helpful nutrition information. It essentially serves as a roadmap for determining nutritional value on packaged foods. What's more, the new and improved Nutrition Facts label helps consumers decide which foods support a healthy diet.

Core principles of a Nutrition Facts label include the following:

• Serving Size: The serving size should always be checked first, as all indicated information is based on this number. It is extremely important to remember several food products contain more than one serving. Likewise compare portion sizes (the amount actually consumed) to the serving size listed.

• Calories: The indicated calorie quantity indicates how many calories are in one serving. For instance, a bag of chips may show two servings. If there are 120 calories per serving, the whole bag would supply 240 calories. Although calories should not be obsessed over, it is important to understand and keep them in check.

• Macronutrients: Nutrition facts labels include the three core macronutrients, comprising carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Carbohydrate is broken down into dietary fiber, total sugars and added sugars, with added sugars discouraged while high fiber is encouraged. Fat is often divided into saturated and trans fats, with cholesterol also indicated.

• Percent Daily Values: Percent Daily Values (% Daily Values or % DV) offers insight on how food fits into al 2,000-calorie daily diet. Percent Daily Values are provided for all macronutrients and nutrients included on the Nutrition Facts label. An item with 10 percent DV of sodium provides 10 percent total sodium for a person eating 2,000 calories per day.

Aim for low intakes (less than 5 percent) of saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium. High intakes (20 percent or greater) of fiber, vitamins, and minerals help reduce overall disease risk and optimize health.

The Ingredient label is just as essential as the Nutrition Facts label. It also tends to be simpler to decipher, especially with a couple pointers.

When choosing foods, go for products with recognizable ingredients. Likewise look for items with the smallest ingredient list, or five items as general reference.

The largest amount of the ingredients will be listed first with the smallest amount towards the bottom. This helps consumers know what packaged food products mostly consist of. As an example, a product is claimed as a whole grain cereal and perceived as "healthy." However, the Ingredients label may reveal sugar as the first ingredient.

The Ingredients label is especially useful in identifying ingredients one may be sensitive, allergic, or intolerant to. These often nuts, shellfish, sugar substitutes, and wheat.

Maintain a Balanced Diet

Truly, the most importance of food is balancing it appropriately within the diet. Incorporate more whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fat sources. Limit or avoid products laden in refined flour, oil, and added sugar that lack nutritional value.

Consuming proper portion and serving sizes is important to moderating calories and maximizing nutrient intake, too. Follow these rules to ensure a balanced meal plate:

• Fill half the meal plate with non-starchy veggies, including grilled asparagus, roasted cauliflower, or bed of raw leafy greens.

• A quarter of the meal should consist of a lean protein source, such as beef sirloin or grilled chicken.

• Allot the remaining quarter for a complex veggie or whole grain. This may include a small sweet potato, brown rice, or couscous.

• Complement the meal plate with a healthy fat source, including a drizzle of olive oil or sliced avocado.

• Add a serving of fruit or dairy product as desired.

Ultimately, though, enjoy food! Start appreciating food regarding its origin and preparation. Also value fresh ingredients and how their intake nourishes the body.

Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on March 22, 2016. Updated on May 02, 2019.


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