Written by Jen Van Allen
If you're looking to run fast and maintain your feel-great weight, you've got to watch what you eat. That means paying close attention to the labels on packaged foods.
Reading food labels will benefit you beyond the waistline. It will help you get more nutrition bang out of your food dollars. "I want to get the most for my money," registered dietitian Jenna Bell, Ph.D., co-author of Energy to Burn. "I look to see if a private label offers the same ingredients as a premium brand." What's more, when you're training, food should be evaluated according to how it helps fuel your workouts and your recovery. "I base my label judgment on what I'm using the food for," she adds. For instance, for a pre-workout meal, she will judge a product based on its carb and protein content. For a recovery meal, she will make sure it has 10 to 20 grams of protein and carbohydrates to replenish spent glycogen stores and repair strained muscle tissue.
But it's not always easy to decipher what those labels mean, and whether they will help or hurt your running and weight-loss goals. Below are some helpful hints.
Get the Facts
Just because a label says"natural" or "gluten free," "light," or "Non-GMO" doesn't mean that it will help you run well or stay healthy. Though a term like "light" often means that an item is lower in fat and calories than similar products, the term actually has no standard definition. Before you put an item in your cart, look beyond the claims on the front of the package, and scrutinize the ingredient list and nutrition facts panel on the backside. You can find the FDA's complete list of definitions for nutrients here.
Get Some Perspective
One of the biggest mistakes people make is judging a food based on a single nutrient, says Bell, Ph.D. For example, some are always looking at just the sugar content and deciding if a food is worthy based solely on this. While it may not seem like a bad idea—sugar has been linked to a variety of chronic health problems—a food that may be higher in sugar, may be rich in a nutrient you need, she points out. Take cranberry juice cocktail; it high in unique polyphenols that have proven health benefits! The list goes on. "Don't be a 'single issue voter' when it comes to food," she says.
Check the Ingredients
Ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. So if the ingredient is toward the beginning of the list, the product contains a large amount of it. If the ingredient is toward the end, the product contains only a small amount. That means you want to look for ingredients you can recognize and pronounce early in the list. If the list starts with an ingredient like, say, sugar, or a host of other ingredients you can't identify, it's best to pick another product.
Know Your Servings
Check out the serving size listed. Many foods that look like a single serving actually are two or three. Does the serving size realistically reflect what you will likely consume in one sitting? If you know that you can easily empty a bag no matter how big it is, or how many servings it technically contains, measure out the serving sizes with measuring cups and spoons and store them in smaller plastic bags. That will take away the guesswork and the temptation to go overboard when you reach for a snack.
Know Your Fats
Total fat should be no more than 30 percent of total calories. Low-fat items have less than 3 grams of fat per serving. But not all fats are bad. Unsaturated fats help lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol. Saturated fat, while not as bad as once thought, should be limited to less than 10 percent of calories. Try to avoid Trans Fats completely; in 2013 the FDA determined that trans fats were a "significant public health concern," and were not "generally recognized as safe," as they raise the risk of stroke, heart disease, and Type 2 Diabetes.
Watch the Sugar
You want to aim as low as possible; try for no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. Overloading on sugar can lead to lots of unwanted pounds and a wide range of health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. In addition to making your energy spike then plummet, overdosing on sugar sends your hunger hormones into overdrive, and triggers cravings. The naturally occurring fructose in whole fruits (like apples and bananas) and lactose in dairy products isn't as much of a problem as it is packaged with other essential nutrients, like calcium. It is added sugars—like high-fructose corn syrup—that can be so hazardous to your health. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 25g of added sugar per day for women and 37g per day for men. But it's not so easy to divine how much sugar a product contains. There is no standard definition for "low sugar." The term "no added sugars" means that the product contains no table sugar. But it still may contain other added sugars or sweeteners like corn syrup, dextrose, glucose, maltose, and sucrose. You can't go wrong with something that is sugar free—to carry that label a product must contain 0.5g of sugar per serving.
Get Your Timing Right
While some nutrients are unequivocally healthier than others, when consumed at the wrong time of day, even a wholesome ingredient, like fiber, can cause trouble. Fiber helps prevent heart disease and helps with weight maintenance. Plus it helps you feel fuller longer, which can prevent overeating. So you should aim to include as much as possible in your overall diet. (On packaged foods, Bell looks for two to three grams of fiber per serving.) Protein helps repair strained muscle tissue so you can bounce back strong for your next workout. But because fiber, protein and fat take longer to digest than carbs, consuming too much of any of these nutrients right before a run could cause a lot of unwanted pit stops. For your pre-run meal or snack, aim for less than 10 grams per serving each of fiber, fat, and protein. But at other meals and snacks, aim higher. You can also use the timing of your run to your advantage. If you're craving a freshly-baked bagel or even a sweet treat, it's best to consume the food right before a workout, when your body can use it for energy, or within 20 minutes of finishing a tough workout, when your body needs carbs to restock your glycogen stores.
Get Your Vitamins
The best foods are nutrient dense, which means that in addition to having a good blend of carbs, fats, and protein, they also contain a smattering of vitamins, and minerals you need to stay healthy, like calcium, vitamin C, iron, and B vitamins. Look at the "recommended daily allowance" (RDA) column to see how high the product is in these essentials.
Look For the Whole Grain Stamp
Whole grains include the endosperm, germ, and bran, just as they were harvested from the earth. Rich in antioxidants and nutrients, whole grains have been shown to lower blood pressure, cholesterol; reduce risk of cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes and obesity. And there's evidence that whole grains can help you reach your weight-loss goals. A study published in the January 2008 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that individuals who consumed a diet rich in whole grains had less belly fat and a smaller waist circumference than individuals who reached for the refined grains like white bread. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that most adults eat at least 3 to 5 servings of whole grains every day. At least half the grains you consume should be whole grains. Many, but not all, products carry a Whole Grains stamp on the food label. If you don't see the stamp, scan the ingredient list. If the ingredient list includes the word "whole" as the first ingredient, then you can safely assume that it's a whole grain. Other terms, like unbleached and stone ground, typically mean that the grain is refined.