Tips for Identifying Healthy Foods

Tips for Identifying Healthy Foods

The goal of a nutrition facts label is to conveniently reveal what’s in your food so you can pick the best items. This helps you not only fuel your rides, but also your everyday life. The catch: Sometimes all the numbers and information on the label can seem confusing or overwhelming. This is why it’s important you understand exactly how to read nutrition labels, so you can cruise down the grocery aisles, picking up the healthiest snacks, cereals, drinks, and more.

Nutrition labels contain a list of calories, carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that are in any given food or beverage based on the serving size, as well as an ingredient list and percentages of daily values you need of certain nutrients.

Periodically, manufactures are required by the FDA to update these labels with the most relevant information based on research and trends among consumers, Caroline Passerrello, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics tells Bicycling. Manufacturers must list the daily value percentage for all nutrients, plus the amount of added sugars in each product—more recent additions to the label.


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To help you understand what all of this info means for your health, we explain exactly how to read nutrition labels, so you can make informed decisions about which products you’re consuming every day—and pick the ones that will best fuel your active lifestyle.

How to Read a Nutrition Label

There are many ways to approach reading a nutrition label. Some experts recommend you start by reading the ingredients list; others suggest you start by reading the serving size information. No matter how you read a nutrition label, though, it’s not right or wrong, especially as a cyclist who needs higher amounts of calories and nutrients to perform at your best. The key is keeping in mind if you’ll be using the product to fuel a workout.

Overall, there are six important sections (serving size information, calories, nutrients, daily values, footnotes, and ingredients) you will need to pay attention to while you’re reading the back of any given food or beverage. Here’s the breakdown:

Serving Size Information

“The serving size is what you should look at first,” Passerrello says. This information can be located on the second line of the first section in the nutrition facts box. It’s important to look at the serving size information first because it describes how much of the product is in one serving (¼ cup for a single serving of almonds, for example), as well as exactly how many servings are in the entire package (¼ cup might be the single-serving size, but there are 6 servings total in the package), Passerrello says.

Keep in mind, the serving size is just a suggestion—it’s not exactly how much you, as an individual with varying needs, should consume. In some cases, you may need to eat more than what is listed and in other cases, less. “Serving sizes are based on what tends to be consumed and then the government standardizes [those sizes], so all oatmeal [for example] has the same serving size. The manufacturers don’t get to pick what serving size they want to put on their label,” says Passerrello.

Reading the serving size first can be helpful to endurance athletes, like cyclists, who often need more of specific nutrients to fuel workouts. Also, it can provide you with a better understanding of how many calories, protein, or carbs you will consume if you plan to eat more than one serving of a product.

For example, if you need 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates to fuel every hour of your ride after the first hour, and you pack one serving of trail mix (about ¼ cup) that only contains 20 grams carbs, then you’re probably not going to have enough food to energize your multi-hour ride. This can lead to bonking and heading home early. Adding another serving or two, however, could help you meet your goals.

Proteins and Carbs

Up next, look at the macronutrients, with more of a focus on protein. “Endurance athletes usually don’t consume enough protein and that’s why I like to bring that out first. So mindfully, they [can become] more aware of how much protein [they’re getting from a specific food], and where the protein can be found [on the label] because carbohydrates are everywhere,” says Bob Seebohar, RDN, CSSD, a cycling sports-based dietician and exercise physiologist.

Our guide to macronutrients helps you figure out the best timing and amounts of protein and carbs you need to fuel the specific type of training you’re doing. But, generally, you need carbs before a workout to offer up energy for your muscles and protein (along with carbs) after to help your muscles rebuild and recover.

Proteins and carbohydrates also play a vital role in maintaining steady energy levels while you’re out of the saddle. “Controlling blood sugar means that we control energy throughout the day, so we have steady energy. We don’t have any of those afternoon slumps where we feel like we’re very vulnerable, or we need sugar or we need caffeine,” says Seebohar. To help control blood sugar, you need regular intake of these macronutrients.

A general rule of thumb is to re-fuel with a 3:1 carb-to-protein ratio if you’re training at a high intensity, says Seebohar, though this can be modified if you plan to train at a lower intensity. Check the carb and protein on labels to see if you get this ideal balance or you need additional foods to help you meet your goals.


Fiber is a key nutrient many Americans don’t eat enough of. In fact, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men don’t consume enough dietary fiber. (The recommended daily intake is about 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men.) So take the time to read this line listed under carbohydrates.

Aim for about two to three grams of fiber per serving in products you consume for meals or snacks. “If it’s before or during a ride, we want to have a little bit less fiber because we don’t want that interrupting any gut motility or gut things going on while we’re riding,” says Seebohar. Just remember, “we want to accumulate good sources of fiber,” he adds.

Added Sugars

You’ll find added sugars listed under the total amount of carbohydrates—a recent addition to the label to help Americans better understand exactly which types of sugars are found in foods, says Passerrello.

Added sugars, she explains, are sugars that don’t naturally occur in the product and are added in by manufactures. You’ll find the source of these sugars on the ingredient list, listed as items like sucrose or dextrose, or even maple syrup or monk fruit.

Remember to monitor your intake of added sugars throughout the day. If you’re eating 3,000 calories in a day, then the USDA recommends limiting your consumption of added sugars to 10 percent of your total calorie intake, but if you eat fewer calories per day, then you should have even less.

As a cyclist, monitoring your sugar intake is key while training because you’re constantly burning carbohydrates, Seebohar says. So while you should watch your added sugar intake, you still want to make sure you’re getting other forms of the sweet stuff to maintain your energy.

Total Fats

Total fats, trans-fats, and saturated fats hold the top spots for this macronutrient.

“Some saturated fat is fine, but it’s the one that we want to limit. And then the unsaturated fats are things in like nuts, nut butters, and oils. Those are better for us—fats that are not going to clog our arteries as much,” says Passerrello. The USDA suggests limiting your saturated fat intake to about 10 percent of the total calories you consume in a day.

Furthermore, although unsaturated fats are not listed on the label, you can calculate those by subtracting saturated fats from total fats, unless trans-fats are also listed.

“Trans fat is kind of the biggest offender [in terms of fats] and actually, most labels should say zero on that now because that’s something that has been banned [in processed foods],” Passerrello says. These fats cause both our good cholesterol to go down and our bad cholesterol to go up, she explains, and previously, were found in animal products or hydrogenated products.


“They’ve [recently] taken away requiring vitamins A and C to be listed. And instead, vitamin D and potassium must be listed because those are what we know to be nutrients of concern that folks aren’t getting enough,” Passerrello says. The recommended minimum daily intake of potassium for adults is about 2,600 milligrams and most people should consume 600 international units of vitamin D, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Iron and calcium are also important micronutrients to pay attention to when reading this section of the label because Americans also don’t consume enough of these nutrients, says Passerrello. The USDA recommends adults ages 19 to 50 consume about 1,000 milligrams of calcium and 18 milligrams of iron each day for women (those pregnant or lactating need more) and 8 milligrams for men. To help you reach these goals, manufacturers list exactly how much of these nutrients can be found per serving in each package.

If you’re interested in consuming the product outside of training, perhaps on a rest day or as a meal, then you may want to take this time to pay closer attention to nutrients like cholesterol or sodium listed in the product, too, Passerrello says. This is especially true for those with health issues who are watching their intake of these items.


Seebohar says cyclists may want to look at the ingredient list first, in some cases, instead of the serving size because it is the portion of the label that explains exactly what ingredients are in the product. If you’re someone who has allergies to certain foods or can’t have foods with gluten in them, for example, then you can save time by reading this section first.

“Ingredients are listed by weight, so the very first ingredient is what is most in that product, and then it goes by [down in] weight from there. Anything that’s listed last means there’s just a little bit in the product,” says Passerrello.

As for which ingredients to pay attention to, Passerrello says this will depend on your specific training needs, and how your gastrointestinal system reacts to different foods. However, it’s smart to go for products that list fruits and vegetables higher on the ingredient list rather than sugars, fats, and high fructose corn syrup.

Daily Nutrition Values and Footnotes

Daily nutrition values are usually listed as a percentage and represent the amount of a specific nutrient in a product based on the daily amount of calories specified in the footnote.

For example, if you eat an energy bar that contains about 157 milligrams of potassium, then you will have consumed 4 percent of the daily recommendation for this nutrient if you eat 2,000 calories a day. In short, you’ll have to do some math if you eat more or less calories.

While daily nutrition values seem like a simple way to monitor nutrient intake, reading these numbers can be a bit tricky. So you should always consider consulting with a registered dietitian if you need help mapping out your nutrition needs.

If you’re specifically trying to eat more of a nutrient then, Passerrello says, that nutrient should have a daily value of at least 20 percent, and if you want to have less of something than aim for that nutrient’s daily value to be around 5 percent.

For example, fiber and fats are two nutrients cyclists tend to monitor, which is how these daily values prove useful. “A lot of folks avoid fats and fibers right before a race or training, and just go for more of the simple carbohydrates, so that would help them to determine which ones are lower in those nutrients,” Passerrello explains.

On the other hand, after a race when cyclists need to replenish key nutrients, they’re going to want to consume products that are higher in nutrients, like carbs and protein.

The Bottom Line on How to Read a Nutrition Label

Understanding what’s on a nutrition label—and therefore, what exactly is in the food product you’re buying—is super important to eating a healthy, nourishing diet. Take time to look at labels as you walk the grocery store and buy your food. One more thing to note, though: Fresh vegetables and fruits, often lining the outside of the grocery store, won’t have a nutrition facts panel, but should definitely have a place in your cart.

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