6 Important Things On Food Labels That Mean A Whole Lot More Than The Calorie Count

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As someone who works in health and wellness, it’s my job (and yes, my hobby) to keep an eye on the latest and greatest foodie trends, but it's also my job to balance that knowledge with the factual stuff, too, like nutrition labels. Sure, it's fun to spill the tea about the behind-the-scenes of what’s really in your food, but it's also important to familiarize yourself with the nutrients your body needs to thrive, and the foods that can offer exactly what you need. There are so many important things on food labels that often get overlooked, and that's because our society is so focused on counting and tracking calories that now, calorie counts (and calorie counts alone) are mandatory on restaurant menus.

According to Business Insider, as of Monday, May 7, the 2010 Affordable Care Act requires all chain restaurants to include calorie counts on their menus. To some degree, this is all well and good, considering calories are regarded as one of the most prominent parts of a nutrition label, but there's a lot more to a meal than how it will factor into your daily caloric intake.

For the record, it is helpful to know what your caloric intake is in general, so just in case your memory's a little fuzzy when it comes to what a calorie actually is, Elite Daily spoke with Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD, and Allison J Stowell, MS, RD, of Guiding Stars, who are here to give you guys the 411 on all things food labels. In short, Broihier and Stowell explain, "a calorie is simply a unit to measure energy." It seems like such a basic definition for something humans make so complicated, right? But really, when you see a "large" number in a food label's row of calorie stats, Broihier and Stowell tell Elite Daily, all that means is the food contains a lot of energy. Ergo, calories are necessary, because everything your body does — breathe, digest, grow, pump blood, metabolize, etc. — requires energy.

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However, Broihier and Stowell note, you really don't need to track your calories in order to maintain a healthy, well-balanced diet. Though, if you're personally interested in those details, "it can be helpful to have calorie information on food labels," the dietitians tell Elite Daily. Although, as far as restaurant menus go, Nichola Whitehead, a registered dietitian and nutritionist, isn't totally convinced calorie counts are necessary to include. She told Business Insider,

It's what kinds of foods you eat that matters when it comes to how healthy your body is, how satiated you're feeling, and how much energy you've got. Calories are just a tool.

So, if calories aren't the end-all-be-all of proper nutrition, what part of your food labels should be printed on those restaurant menus in a perfect world? Here's a breakdown of some of the nutrition facts that are actually worth paying attention to in your diet.

1Protein

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Generally speaking, there are three micronutrients to look out for in the foods you’re eating: protein, carbohydrates, and fats. According to Medical News Today, the first, protein, is essential for muscle recovery, growth, and repairing your body's cells.

Most foods have some amount of protein in them, (yes, even vegetables), but general go-tos include things like animal meat (beef, pork, etc.), poultry, fish, dairy products, and earthy goods like lentils, beans, and soy.

As for how much protein you should eat to stay healthy, that'll ultimately depend on your individual body. For reference, Harvard Health reports the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilometer of body weight. So, if you're a woman who weighs 140 pounds, if you multiply that by 0.36, like Harvard suggests, that means your body needs about 50 grams of protein per day.

2Carbohydrates

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The second macronutrient to note is carbohydrates. Carbs often get a bad rap because consuming an abundance of the stuff can cause health issues, but keep in mind, friends, that too much of anything is almost never a good thing. For carbs, you just have to know which ones to gravitate toward in your diet. Whole carbs, like legumes and potatoes, contain all their natural fibers, Everyday Health reports, while treats like donuts, cakes, and cereals, are considered “refined” carbs, because their natural fibers have been stripped out.

According to Healthline's breakdown, carbohydrates are absorbed into the body and are broken down into glucose, which is then either used for energy, or stored as fat. In other words, carbs are more essential than you might think, and despite the bad vibes surrounding carbs such as pasta and bread, there’s more to this nutrient than the slightly more indulgent options. And honestly, they’re still a really important part of a well-balanced diet. Per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbs should make up anywhere between 45 and 65 percent of your overall diet.

3Fats

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Last, but certainly not least, fats complete your trifecta of macronutrients. Like carbs, fats aren’t super favorable as far as fad diets go, but according to the American Heart Association (AHA), your body needs fat as an energy resource to support cell growth, help nutrients absorb properly, produce hormones, and keep your body temperature regulated.

There are four types of fats to know about: trans (found in fried and processed foods), saturated (found in animal meat), monounsaturated (found in plant-based oils, like olive, peanut, and sesame oils), and polyunsaturated (also found in plant-based oils like corn, sunflower, and soybean). So, despite the umbrella of stigma that hangs over fatty foods, this breakdown clearly shows that not all fats are created equal, and not all of them are automatically "bad" for you.

The trick is to keep in mind what kind of fats you’re eating. It’s totally fine to have a doughnut or some chocolate cake from time to time, but for your usual diet, you want to try to opt for healthier fats like avocado and peanut butter. The Mayo Clinic reports only about 20 to 35 percent of your diet should be made up of fats, so just keep that in mind when you're shopping in the grocery store and preparing your meals at home.

4Fiber

Take it from the girl with tummy issues: Fiber is your best friend. Not only does fiber make you poop, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains it also plays a role in how your body breaks down sugars, how it keeps hunger in check, and how it helps you maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Apparently, fiber's also one of those nutrients that Americans often don't get enough of: According to Harvard's information on fiber, both children and adults should be eating about 20 to 30 grams of fiber per day, but normally, they're only getting about 15 grams each day. It’s pretty easy to up your fiber intake, though, by eating things such as oatmeal, beans, fruits, and veggies on the reg.

5Sugars

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When you think about sugar, do boxes of Oreos and the sweetener packets you tear open to pour into your Dunkin' Donuts coffee come to mind? Once upon a time, the packaged pastries and candy bars at grocery checkout lines were the only things I really associated with sugar, but in reality, there’s the processed stuff, and then there’s the natural stuff.

According to SFGate, natural sugars (like the ones found in fruits and dairy) are very beneficial to your diet. Sugars are broken down into energy molecules, and what isn’t used in that moment is stored for later. Added sugars, on the other hand, like the refined stuff you sprinkle in the batter of baked goods, have little to no nutritional value, SFGate reports, and can also mess with your blood sugar levels in a big way.

To make sure you aren't overdoing it, the AHA recommends consuming only six to nine teaspoons of sugar per day.

6Sodium

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If you’re anything like me, then you probably haven’t been paying much (or any) attention to sodium your whole life, but you really should. It’s tricky because, according to the AHA, sodium is an essential part of your diet, as it’s a mineral that balances out your body’s fluids, and it helps “send nerve impulses and affects muscle function.” But, as with anything else, too much of a good thing is usually a bad thing.

According to Everyday Health, consuming too much sodium (an excess, for reference, would be anything over the FDA recommendation of 2,300 milligrams per day) in your bloodstream can potentially cause some health complications, like high blood pressure. Luckily, you can easily keep tabs of how much sodium you consume by making simple tweaks in your diet, like scaling back on how much salt you add to your recipes (try swapping for herbs, instead), preparing your own meals so you know the exact ingredients and nutrients included, and rinsing canned foods like beans and tuna to flush out some of the sodium.

So, calories seem pretty irrelevant when you consider all of that information, right?