A Young Athlete's Guide to Reading & Understanding Food Labels
You're in the cereal isle of the supermarket and as you scan through the hundreds of cheerfully packaged boxes phrases such as 'high fibre', 'B vitamins for energy', and 'protein for growth' jump out at you. Oh man, this is exhausting! Do I want my cereal to "snap, crackle and pop" or do I need Iron Man food?
The modern-day supermarket offers an overwhelming array of food choices. And an understanding of food labels offers an objective way for athletes to cut through marketing hype and choose foods best suited to their nutritional needs & goals
How do I use food labels?
There are two key aspects of food labels:
- Nutrition Information Panel (NIP): nutritional contents of the product
- Ingredients list: listed in descending order of weight i.e. the first ingredient is the largest contributor to the product
The nutrition information panel (NIP) and ingredients list complement one another such that we can determine the nutrition provided by the product but also have further information about the ingredients contributing to the nutrients
The NIP will typically be set up with nutrients down the left-hand side and columns for the nutrient content 'per serve' and 'per 100g'. However, we are interested in the 'per 100g' column – Why? All products are required to display their nutrients per 100g creating a fair comparison between products
Secondly, the serving size for the 'per serve' column is determined by the manufacturer and is by no means an indication of the amount of product that "should" be eaten. For instance, the measly 30g serve size suggested by some cereals is well out of touch with the actual amount of product used and is definitely not enough to fuel any young person, let alone a growing young athlete
Once the 'per 100g' column has been identified, we need to appreciate the nutrients usually displayed on the product
Once digested, carbohydrates, protein and fat provide the energy needed to fuel exercise, as well as day to day activities, growth and the processes required to keep our bodies operating
Protein is needed to build various body tissues as well as compounds such as hormones, enzymes and transport vehicles required to coordinate the chemical reactions that keep our body operating. As a result, protein is essential for growth, including muscle growth and repair –moreso in this demographic due to developmental stages and even more so in young athletes due to the increased demands of recovery from training. Proteins are “building blocks” of amino acids linked together in various sequences. There are 20 different amino acids of which 8 are essential and must be obtained from the diet. Animal and soy products are referred to as high-quality protein sources because they contain all essential amino acids, whilst plant proteins are generally lacking in one or more. For more information about proteins, please see THIS article
Fat tends to get a bit of a bad wrap, however, fats are essential nutrients required by the body to compose cells and hormones, as well as for the absorption of some vitamins. Once digested and metabolised, fat provides the greatest amount of energy of the macronutrients on a per gram basis. This is why foods that are high in fat are generally also high in energy (kilojoules) and can be incredibly beneficial for athletes struggling to meet high energy requirements or looking to gain weight
Saturated fats are generally found in animal products, and are associated with cardiovascular disease. These should be limited with a focus instead on the unsaturated fats found in plant oils (except coconut and palm oils). Saturated fats are displayed on the nutrition information panel as a proportion of total fat. Therefore, if a product is high in total fat but not saturated fats, the majority of the fat content will be coming from unsaturated sources such as monounsaturated & polyunsaturated fats
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for muscles during exercise. Our muscles & liver can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate as glycogen, however, and therefore, refuelling with carbohydrate-based foods is an important strategy in preparing for the next bout of exercise
Just as amino acids are the building block of proteins, sugars are the building block of more complex carbohydrates called starches. Sugars can be added to foods in the form of refined sugars, syrups or concentrates, but also occur naturally in fruit, vegetables and dairy. Whether found in a food as starch or sugar, all carbohydrates must ultimately be digested and broken down into sugars and used by the body in much the same way. As with total and saturated fats, sugars are presented on the nutrition information panel as a proportion of total carbohydrate
Sodium is found naturally in some foods in small amounts but can be found in high amounts in processed foods due to the addition of salt. Athletes who sweat large amounts through participation in long duration activity may require additional sodium before, during or after exercise to replace sweat losses (this is one of the electrolytes in sports drinks). However, generally speaking, most athletes have more than adequate sodium intakes and should seek out lower sodium options where possible
Fibre is crucial for bowel health and higher fibre diets have been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Good sources of fibre are wholemeal/grain foods, fruits, vegetables and nuts/seeds. High fibre foods are digested more slowly, contributing to feelings of fullness, and providing a slow, sustained energy release from food
As young athletes, to make the most of food labelling we encourage you to go one step further and ask yourself...
How do I intend to use this food?
Athletes must also consider manipulating nutrient intakes for pre-exercise fueling and post-exercise recovery. This in itself will oftentimes be quite different from the principles of healthy eating applied at main meals and the dietary advice given the general population.
Healthy Meals and Snack
At The Academy, we prefer not to overcomplicate nutrition and like to use the guide of composing a plate with ¼ lean meat, ¼ grain/cereal/starchy vegetable and ½ non-starchy vegetables to create a well-balanced meal. If using food labelling, healthier choices are those low in saturated fat, sodium and added sugars but high in fibre.
Food eaten prior to exercise is only of use if the body has had enough time to digest and absorb its nutrients. Foods high in protein, fat and fibre are slower digesting and may contribute to gut issues, and should, therefore, be limited prior to exercise. Consequently, it is best to avoid wholemeal/grain products, meats and cheese, and fatty/oily foods e.g. avocado, nuts/seeds, margarine or butter, and chips, chocolate and pastries. Instead, focus on a high carbohydrate snack to top up glycogen stores in the 1-2hrs prior to exercise. 'White' varieties of breads/cereals and foods with added sugars such as cereals, cereal bars and flavoured dairy products can be an effective snack these are quickly digested and absorbed
The general principles of recovery nutrition are to consume carbohydrate to replenish glycogen stores, fluid and electrolytes to replace losses in sweat, and approximately 20g protein to repair muscles and maximise physical adaptation to the exercise. The reason we love flavoured milk and yoghurt as a post-exercise snack is because it ticks all these boxes. However, a well-balanced meal as described above alongside adequate fluids is also an effective means of meeting these goals when exercise is undertaken in close proximity to the next meal.
At The Academy, we believe a basic understanding of food labelling can be an effective tool in comparing packaged products and guiding food choices. Nonetheless, we encourage our athletes to not dwell too heavily on the numbers and instead focus on a balanced diet centred on the core food groups