Nutritional facts are placed upon food products to inform us of their contents, which could theoretically help us make healthy choices. But if we don’t understand what all the terms and percentages mean for us and our bodies, it is difficult to know what to eat and what to avoid. We turned to Sarah Wistreich, DO, a family medicine specialist at Capital Health, to help us break down food and weight concepts into digestible pieces to clarify what we should eat for long-term health and fitness.
What it is: Calories are units of heat energy that fuel our bodies.
What you need to know: The average recommended calorie count is 2,000 calories per day. Of course, if you’re trying to lose weight, Dr. Wistreich recommends cutting down to 1,500 calories per day. She cautions to pay close attention to what you’re consuming, as different foods vary in the number of calories per gram. “Carbohydrates and fats have a different amount of calories per gram, with fats being more calorie-dense,” says Dr. Wistreich.
What it is: Carbohydrates get converted into glucose, also known as basic sugar. There are two primary types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
What you need to know: Carbohydrates have about 4 calories per gram, so Dr. Wistreich suggests shooting for roughly 100 to 150 grams per day in your diet, based on a 2,000-calorie per day diet. Simple sugars—found in white foods such as white bread or cake—should be avoided in favor of complex carbs, such as whole grains and vegetables.
What it is: Fats can be broken into four main groups: saturated fats, which are animal based; trans fats, which start in liquid form and convert into solid form in items such as margarine and shortenings; mild saturated fats, found in olive oils and avocados; and polyunsaturated fats, which are in fish and soy-based foods.
What you need to know: Mild saturated fats, high in Omega-6 and Omega-3 for heart protection and brain development, and polyunsaturated fats are healthiest, according to Dr. Wistreich. “I always recommend eating lots of them and working hard to make sure that you’re getting them in your diet,” she says. While you want to stay away from trans fats, saturated fats are fine—in small doses. “You want less than 5 percent of your total consumption of fats to come from saturated fats—a maximum of about 22 grams per day,” Dr. Wistreich says.
What it is: Protein builds and replaces tissue in your body. It works to help you sustain a sense of fullness and remain energized.
What you need to know: “Any time you’re having a meal or a snack, you need some kind of protein,” says Dr. Wistreich. Women should shoot for roughly 50 grams of protein per day, but may eat even more if exercising.
What it is: Cholesterol is a waxy fat substance found mainly in animal products. There is good cholesterol, called high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and bad cholesterol, called low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL collects the cholesterol in the body and brings it to the liver, and the liver then gets rid of it. LDL, on the other hand, can clog arteries and ultimately lead to heart disease.
What you need to know: Heart-protective HDL can only be enhanced through exercise. However, LDL levels may be reduced through diet, says Dr. Wistreich. “Over time, avoiding fried foods and fatty foods will make a difference in your cholesterol,” she says.
What it is: Your Body Mass Index (BMI) is a measurement that calculates grams per meters squared and provides a number that accounts for how healthy your weight is relative to your height.
What you need to know: Try to maintain a BMI between 18 and 25, as this is considered the normal range. Anything from 25 to 30 is considered overweight, and anything over 30 is considered obese.
What it is: Portion control is not just how much you should be eating, but what you should be eating, too.
What you need to know: Dr. Wistreich says half of your plate should be made up of vegetables. A quarter of your plate should be complex carbohydrates, and the other quarter of your plate should be protein. If you’re looking at your total intake of portions per day, she says, women should typically be consuming 1½ to 2 cups of fruit, 2 to 2½ cups of vegetables, 5 to 6 ounces of grains, half of which need to be whole grains, 5 to 5½ ounces of proteins, and 3 cups of dairy.
What it is: Fiber is a carbohydrate usually found in plants. It is the indigestible part of plant foods that pushes through our digestive system, absorbing water along the way and easing bowel movements.
What you need to know: Fiber helps with the absorption of other carbohydrates you’re eating. Dr. Wistreich says you should always look to increase the fiber in your diet. “The best way to do that is with your fruit and vegetable intake,” she suggests.