Deciphering Food Labels and On-Line Calorie Counters


Over the past 7 months whilst I have been obsessing over my food, macronutrient and caloric intake I have come to learn how absolutely ambiguous the food labeling system is.  Yeah, the government and the many quango’s are doing their ‘best’ to educate the us all.  However, it is really unfortunate that they need the education themselves!  This really is a case of the nutters are running the nut house!

Firstly, they know squat about what really is good for you, all this eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, and the crap about 11 portions of carbohydrates and don’t eat much red meat or dairy or eggs, or butter and hell girl, keep well away from fat and now bacon – it’s gonna kill ya!!!  How idiotic can a bunch of so-called professionals be? 

Secondly – they need to go back to the research and read it properly and I mean the real research that’s moves from lower animals such as mice and actually gets tested on humans (I’m not a damned mouse, my physiology and biochemistry is completely different)  and not read the Janet and John book of Nutrition written by Col. Saunders et al…

So, this blog was conceptualised to explore what is really on a food label and help us all to understand what we are really eating.  I do need to point out that it was difficult to actually find food labels in my house 🙂 almost all the food I buy is either fresh or the labels are so small, it was impossible to photograph them.  I have downloaded a label from a website that I will discuss later in this blog but I am still awaiting permission to use this due to copy write (can’t afford infringement), so in the meantime I have borrowed the pics from http://www.fortiusfitness.com/blog/how-to-read-food-labels-reading-food-labels/ basically, another one of those – why reinvent the wheel eh…   These labels are pretty similar to the ones on NutrtionalData.com

The top section of the label gives you all the information about serving sizes and the average amount of servings per pack.  This information is important because it will give you guidance as to how many kcals, PRO, FAT and CHO you are likely to consume.

The second part of the labels show how many calories and calories from fat you may consume per portion.   Of course, this does depend on you actually sticking to the portions in the pack and not eating more than one.

The third section shows the nutrients that should be limited.  Be aware that total fat includes saturated fat and trans fats.   Usually this is limited to around 30% or less of energy from your daily calories however, this is dependant on your individual nutritional plan.   Whilst sat fats are not the enemy you believe them to be, you will only find trans fats in processed foods that contain hydrogenated vegetable oil – something to be avoided at all costs, so if you see this in the ingredients – put it back immediately – and move away, there’s nothing for YOU in there.  The misconception with salt is that it is bad for you – this may be correct if you have a coronary condition or are prone to strokes or have really high blood pressure, if not, ‘you would need to consume a bucket of salt a day for it really injure you’.  There are far too many studies on Pubmed (something like 21,000) to cite one in particular and I can’t find the one I wanted by one of the Professors at Edinburgh University where this quote came from.

The fourth section shows the nutrients that you need to consume enough of – protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre.  The important thing in this section is that the total carbs DO NOT CONTAIN THE SUGAR unless stated.  Generally they are omitted from the totals.  If you are not aware of this, you will dramatically over consume carbs and blow your nutritional plan. 

 The fifth and final area on this style of food label shows the % of daily values, this is generally based on 2000 kcals a day, sometimes the labels may give the % for both men 2,500 kcals and women 2,000 kcals.

So, that’s the food labels dealt with, now on to the on-line calorie counters

I have examined three although there are literally hundreds out there.  The reason I have stopped at three is because out of 10, I only received answers from three, therefore, the rest don’t deserve a mention here.  I will assume here that they are ALL without exception pretty much the same in the way the calculate the calories from the macro nutrients.  They all work the same as the food labels.  Therefore, they do not calculate the calories accurately.

The fats are separated out and not added together although the food labels often hide the trans fats and omit them completely, if this is the case, then if the information has been passed to the on-line calorie counters, they will also contain the same ambiguities.  This is the same for carbs, where sugar is carbohydrate, they are separated out and not counted in with the total carbs – more ambiguity, that makes the carbs look better than perhaps they actually are.

So the three on-line calorie counters that deserve a mention are

www.MyNetDiary.com – I have settled down with this site, whilst it is as bad as the rest for the way the macros are calculated, at least it’s really easy to add your own foods or to copy and modify existing food items.  The iPhone / iPad apps are excellent and allow you to scan bar codes to add your food into your daily menu.  You can also create your own recipe from a list of ingredients, this is something I do quite often.  However, you will need to be aware that it really does get a tad confused with the total kcals when you have a long list of ingredients, therefore I always go back to good old excel to check the accuracy of my daily foods.  I do find this one to be the most flexible to use and it’s free.  You can however upgrade to get extra functionality and I did for a mere £15 for the whole year.  I download all my reports into excel and send them over to Martin for his approval every so often.  This saves him time logging in when I need him to check stuff out for me.  That’s not to say that he doesn’t log in from time to time to see how I’m going though.

Should you wish to use www.MyNetDairy.com I have recalculated many of the foods I use and created custom foods prefixed with Lian’s, so for example red peppers are Lian’s Red Peppers, like wise for green and orange peppers, onions, asparagus, sirloin steak and lots of others.  I have left the sugars in the separate column, but I have also added the total sugar into the carbs.  I have not done the same with the fats, which I believe are also putting the kcals out, but I can’t guarantee this because it depends on the orignal food label and there is a lack of information as to whether it would be appropriate to assume to arbitrarily add them together.  I did get a definitive answer on the carbs, so that was an easy decision.  I have also added all recipes you will find on the site based on the ingredients in the recipes.  I have added them in as a total so something like 3500 kcals, but you just add in the total grams or ounces in your portion and you will get the correct macros, you will need to check the addition though in the calculation of the kcals, this is definitely out for the Vietnamese Chicken Curry, but pretty accurate for the full on Seafood Chowder.  

www.MyFitnessPal.com – this calculates macros in the same way as mynetdiary, but I didn’t find it as flexible when adding the food items.  More often than not I could not add my food value in grams and I weigh everything in grams not ounces.  They also have the ability to scan the bar codes, but they don’t have the ability to send new bar code information to the developers for them to add the data as MND does.  Whilst this one is one of the most popular sites, I didn’t find it as functionally rich as MND on the reporting side and the ability to download all the reports to excel.

www.Livestrong.com – This site is good for motivational stuff, you can add your weight, daily calories and macros consumed onto the website and it acts like an on-line weight watchers site.  I did start to do this thinking that I may move away from MND, but to enter the food was really difficult.  There also weren’t that many verified foods on the site and the weights and measures are not at all flexible.  I am not the most patient of people, so if I can’t get it in a few attempts I lose interest, and to be fair, I did just give up quite quickly.

If you have any comment and especially if you know of a website that it is accurate please share by leaving a comment.  Also, if you found this of interest or helpful, please use the like buttons or share.

If you would like a copy of the spreadsheet I use with all the calculations built-in with a sample of 7 days menu, please drop me a note via the comments or directly by email via the contacts page and I will email it directly back to you.  I can provide this in excel formats for 2003 / 2007  and 2010 please let me know which you prefer.

Note, the menu is based on my Macronutrients and 1300 kcals, this is not appropriate for everyone  and certainly not appropriate for men – apparently – Word according to Martin MacDonald – www.Mac-Nutrition.com

About Lian Munday

My journey from having a gastric band to actually losing weight in a healthy controlled way with the help and support of Martin MacDonald, Mac-Nutrition, my Nutritionist and Andy Angell, my Personal Trainer. Please join us on our journey.
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10 Responses to Deciphering Food Labels and On-Line Calorie Counters

  1. Christine says:

    Not too up on this macro-nutrients bit so would love a copy of your spreadsheet 🙂

    • Lian Munday says:

      Hi Christine,

      Only too happy to oblige. If you can contact me via email lianmunday@gmail.com, I will be able to send you the excel spreadsheet. I can’t attach a file to the replies. The spreadsheet is really simple to use and all the calculations have been added to it, including a line for alcohol (1g = 7 kcals) ouch.. Also, if you use any of the online calorie counters, (especially MyNetDiary) they already have many of the most imbibed alcohols in their food items list with the nutrients already calculated. I believe the alcohol is also counted in the same way other carbs, i.e. it shows carbs and sugars separately, so you will need to add them together to get the right number of kcals and carbs, unless you use my wicked excel spreadsheet, modified from a spreadsheet that Martin provided :-).

      I’ll write something later today (when I get home from Cornwall) to explain how to calculate your correct macronutrients and what calories you should be eating, this will however just be a rule of thumb and it can’t be completely accurate for any individual because we are all different. It will be information obtained directly from Martin plus some other on-line content I have found in the last few days.

      • Christine says:

        Can’t wait! Haven’t a clue what macronutrients I should be eating but I’m sure it isn’t what myfitnesspal is telling me. Thanks for the spreadsheet, I can already see what you mean about it not calculating the correct calories, although for my part it has gone down which is even better 🙂

      • Lian Munday says:

        Hi Christine,

        Just got home from my epic drive from Cornwall 🙂 Shattered, really foggy all the way until I passed Bristol!! Anyway, just about to start working on the blog for macros, whilst my dinner is cooking. I’ll be sure to post it tonight before sleep gets me… Glad you are happy with the spreadsheet, I hope it works for you.

  2. todays date says:

    ¨on a calorie count diet ppl may lose more weight than the macronutrient ratio dieters..but their FAT loss is higher *

    • Lian Munday says:

      Well, I’m doing both, counting the calories and working the macronutrients – therefore, I should have both good weight loss and higher fat loss – Go Martin eh… Here’s working towards both 🙂

      Thanks for your comment

  3. Dana Imme says:

    Interesting website you have here, keep up the great work.

  4. Eli Hillyard says:

    Amazing website, I really enjoyed your post.

  5. Pingback: Servings and Portions « mytopweightloss

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