Chapter 3: Nutrition Basics

What are you planning to eat today?

How do you decide what food you will eat today?

Do you think about what your food is made up of?

Have you considered how your food choices impact your health?

The information in this chapter comes primarily from these key research and evidence based reports:

  • The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition[1].
  • The MyPlate website.  MyPlate is the current nutrition guide published by the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Chapter 3 Learning Outcomes

By the end of this chapter you will be able to:

  • Describe what food is made up of, including macronutrients and micronutrients
  • Utilize food labels to determine the nutrition of foods.
  • Explain what calories are and how foods provide calories
  • Describe the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

STOP:  Choose a Food

STOP!  Before you go any further in this chapter, think about something you want to eat today.

Maybe you want to eat a burrito, or a burger, a salad, some soup, or maybe spaghetti?

  1. Choose something you want to eat.
  2. Find the Nutrition label for the food you chose.
    • If the food you chose is something you bought at the grocery store it likely has a food label, or you may be able to view the food label through the grocery stores website.  For example, Ralph’s grocery store provides images of the product including the food label (check out the Top Ramen label on the Ralphs website).
    • If you would like to get something from a restaurant you can usually find the food label online by either going to the restaurants website or searching for the item using online databases like CalorieKing, MyFitnessPal,, or try Food Data Central.
    • You might not be able to find the exact food item, do your best to find something close.
  3. Take a moment to review the Interactive Nutrition Facts Label website to familiarize yourself with the information on the label.
  4. Keep the nutrition information with you as you read this chapter!

What’s in the food you eat?

Understanding Food Labels

Figure 3.1: Check Food Labels

Food labels are a tool to help us understand more about the foods we choose to eat.  By understanding the nutrition of our food we can make better informed choices that contribute to our wellness.  Nutrition labels have changed over time based on updated scientific information, new nutrition research, and input from the public.  The most recent Food Label requirements were launched in 2016. Interested in seeing how the food label changed in 2016?  Check out this comparison of the old and new label.

Ultimately, by having a standard way to show nutrition facts we are able to easily and quickly compare food choices to make informed decisions about the fuel we put into our body. Just like a car needs fuel to run, our bodies need food to provide us with energy.

Try this Nutrition Facts Pre-Test to see how much you already know about nutrition.


At the top of the food label you should see information about the number of servings and the size of the servings.  The data provided on the food label is based on the serving size listed on the label.  It is important to first identify how many servings you are consuming.  If you are consuming two servings then you will need to multiple the data on the nutrition label by two.

The serving size on a nutrition label is based on the amount of food that is typically eaten at one time and is not a recommendation of how much to eat.  Many people found that that servings sizes on the old Food Labels, prior to 2016, were unrealistic.  For example, a 12 ounce can of coke used to be 1.5 servings and has now been adjusted to being 1 serving.

Your food label: Servings

Evaluate the serving size and number of servings on your food label.   How many servings do you eat?  Did the serving size surprise you?


The next item on the food label is the amount of calories in the food.  Calories refer to how much energy the food provides. Our bodies need energy (Calories) to keep us alive and our organs functioning normally.  When we eat and drink, we put energy (Calories) into our bodies, and we use that energy in many ways, for example to keep our heart beating, to breathe, to digest food, to move throughout the day, to exercise, or to participate in sports.

Although the term Calorie is the term commonly used, it actually refers to a kilocalorie. One (1) kilocalorie is the same as one (1) Calorie (upper case C). In technical terms, a kilocalorie is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

When looking at the amount of calories on your food label, it is important to recognize the amount of calories in the food you are eating compared to how many calories you should consume each day.  Look at the very bottom of the food label and you should see an asterisk with a statement  similar to “2,000 calories a day is used as a general guide for nutrition advice.”  Although 2,000 calories is used, the total number of calories you need each day varies depending on a number of factors including your age, sex, height, weight, level of physical activity, and pregnancy or lactation status.  The total number of calories you should consume may also be determined by whether would like to lose, maintain, or gain weight affects how many calories should be consumed.

Use the MyPlate Plan to calculate how many Calories you should consume each day.

As you look at the Calories on your food label compared to your recommended daily caloric intake, be mindful of your energy balance.   Energy balance refers to the balance of calories consumed through eating and drinking compared to calories burned through daily activities and physical activity.  If we consume more Calories (energy) than we use throughout the day, we store that energy for use at a later time as body fat. If we consume less Calories (energy) than we use throughout the day, we utilize our stored body fat for energy.

Your Food Label: Calories

Evaluate the Calories on your food label.   How many Calories does it contain?  Is this considered a low or high Calorie food?  How much does this foot item contribute to the total amount of Calories you should consumer each day?

Use the MyPlate Plan to calculate how many Calories you should consume each day and remember, if you are eating more than one serving you need to multiply the number of Calories on the food label to see the total amount of Calories consumed!


It is now time to learn about what your food is made up of, meaning what are the nutrients provided to your body when you consume the food.  Nutrients are commonly divided into two categories, macronutrients and micronutrients.  On the food label, the macronutrients are listed first followed by the micronutrients.

Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and water.

Micronutrients:  Vitamins and minerals

When reviewing your food labels, you might notice some variation in the nutrients listed. The label must include total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, total sugars, added sugars, protein, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.  The label might also include monounsaturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, sugar alcohols, vitamins (biotin, choline, folate, niacin, pantothenic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, E, and K) and minerals (chloride, chromium, copper, iodine, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc).

Some nutrients are essential and some are considered nonessential. Essential nutrients are nutrients that must be consumed through the foods we eat, the body cannot synthesize the nutrients.  Nonessential nutrients are nutrients that the body can synthesize, so they do not need to be consumed from food.

Three essential nutrients provide energy (Calories), these are fats, carbohydrates, proteins.  Alcohol also provides energy (Calories), but is not considered an essential nutrient.  The other nutrients do not directly provide Calories, but they do aid in the production and utilization of energy by the body.

%Daily Value

For each nutrient, you will see the % Daily Value.  This percentage is very helpful for understanding how the food contributes to the recommended total amount you should consume.  it is important to note that the % Daily Value does not add up to 100%, it is not telling you the breakdown of the item, but rather how much the food item contributes to what you should consume each day.  For example if you notice that the %DV for sodium is 50% this would mean the food you are eating contributes to half of your daily total for sodium.  %DV makes it easy for you to compare foods.

An easy way to use %DV is to determine if a serving of the food is high or low in an individual nutrient. As a general guide:

  • 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is considered low.
  • 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is considered high.

The %DV for each nutrient is calculated by comparing the nutrient to the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs).  The DRIs represent the most current scientific knowledge on nutrient needs of healthy populations.  Some DRI’s are listed as a specific amounts, such as number of grams, and others are based on the energy they provide in relation to your entire diet.  The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs) helps you to determine the amount of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates you should consume based on a percentage of your total calories.

Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDRs)

  • Carbohydrates:  Consume 45-65% of your calories from Carbohydrates
  • Fats:  Consume 20-35% of your calories from Fats
  • Protein:  Consume 10-35% of your calories from Protein

Fat (lipids) and Cholesterol

The first nutrients on the food label are fats and cholesterol.  Fats are also called Lipids.  We need both fats and cholesterol, however too much of both can negatively impact health.

We need fats in our diet for many reasons.  First, fats provide us with energy.  For every gram of Fat you consume, you are provided with 9 Calories of energy.  Fat is considered a high energy nutrient.   Fat also provides us with long term energy storage, so if we do not consume enough energy our body can burn out stored body fat.  Our body needs fat for other basic bodily function such as the synthesis of cell membranes, for growth and development, healthy skin and hair, blood clotting, nervous system function, reproduction, immune response, and to absorb important fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K).  Fats also make food taste really good and help you feel full. Fat is found in foods from both plants and animals.

Types of Fats

As you can see on the food label, there are a few different kinds of fats.  The foods you eat might have saturated fats, unsaturated fats, or trans fats.

  • Saturated fat
    • Found in higher proportions in animal products.
    • Usually solid at room temperature.
    • Commonly found in:  animal fats, baked goods, condiments, gravies, dairy products (whole and 2% reduced-fat), desserts, meats and poultry and processed meats and poultry products, pizza, salad dressings, sandwiches, snack foods, spreads, sweets, tropical plant oils, and vegetable shortening.
  • Trans fat
    • Trans fats can be either natural or artificial.
      • Small amounts of trans fats are found in dairy products, beef, and lamb.
      • Artificial trans fats are typically found in products that have hydrogenated oils.  If you see hydrogenated vegetable oil in the ingredients list, this means there are trans fats. Although originally deemed safe, it was found that trans fats have detrimental effects on health and as of 2018 most trans fats have been removed from foods.  Artificial trans fats were primarily found in a variety of foods, such as baked goods, coffee creamer, ready-to use frostings, snack foods, and stick margarine.
  • Unsaturated fat
    • On the food label you will see unsaturated fats in two categories: Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
    • Found in higher proportions in plants
    • Usually liquid at room temperature, such as oils.
    • Commonly found in:  avocados, fish, mayonnaise and oil-based salad dressings, nuts, olives, seeds, soft margarines, and vegetable oils.
Good and Bad Fats:  Impact to Cholesterol

To understand whether a fat is considered good or bad we have to first understand what Cholesterol is.  Although Cholesterol is commonly referred to negatively, it is not always bad for you.  Our body, specifically our liver, produces cholesterol because we need it for cell membranes and to aid in the synthesis of substances that are vital for  our health including steroid hormones, bile acids, and vitamin D.

If you go to the doctor and get your cholesterol tested your doctor will give you three different numbers:  Total Cholesterol, high density lipoprotein (HDL), and low density lipoprotein (LDL).  Lipoproteins transport cholesterol in the body.  The difference between HDL and LDL is the action of the lipoprotein.  LDL’s take cholesterol from the liver and transport it to tissues. HDL’s do the opposite by transporting cholesterol from tissues to the liver, they are sometimes referred to as “reverse cholesterol transport”.  When you have a lot of LDLs taking cholesterol to tissues it can cause a build up of cholesterol on the walls of your blood vessels, which is bad, and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

  • Total cholesterol:  A measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. It includes both low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol:  The main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol: HDL helps remove cholesterol from your arteries

There is evidence that diets higher in saturated fat and trans fat are associated with increased levels of total cholesterol and/or low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “bad”) cholesterol—which, in turn, are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the U.S.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, many foods that are higher in dietary cholesterol are generally higher in saturated fat—and diets higher in saturated fat are associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, thus it is recommend to keep the intake of dietary cholesterol as low as possible while maintaining a healthy diet.

Because of the relationship of saturated fats and high LDL, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fat.

Tips for Consuming fat

  • Pay attention to the %DV of fats on the food label, especially for saturated and trans fats.
    • Note the total %DV for Fats which will help you meet the AMDR for fats which is to consume between 20-35% of your calories from Fats.
  • Look for ways to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fats when possible and try to avoid artificial trans fat.
  • Choose lean cuts of meats and poultry. Trim or drain fat from meats before or after cooking and remove poultry skin before eating.
  • Try seafood and plant sources of protein (such as soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds) in place of some meats and poultry.
  • Substitute fat-free or 1% low-fat dairy products and fortified plant-based beverages (such as soy, rice, and almond) for whole and 2% reduced-fat dairy products.
  • Cook and bake with liquid oils (such as canola and olive oil) instead of solid fats (such as butter, lard, and shortening).
  • Try baking, broiling, grilling, and steaming. These cooking methods do not add extra fat.
  • Limit baked goods, desserts, fried fast foods, and snack foods.
  • When eating out, ask which fats are being used to prepare your meal. You can also ask if nutrition information is available to help you make informed choices.
Figure 3.2: Avoid Trans Fats

Your Food Label: Fats

Evaluate the Fats on your food label.   What does the food label tell you about the fats you are consuming?  Is this a high or low fat food?  What types of fats are in the food item?  Would you consider this to be a good source of fat?  How much does this food item contribute to the AMDR for fat?


Although Sodium and salt are often used interchangeably, sodium is a mineral found in salt.  Sodium is an essential nutrient that the human body needs for many body processes, such as fluid balance, muscle contraction, and nervous system function. However, too much sodium increases your risk of developing high blood pressure, which can raise the risk of heart attacks, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.

Sodium comes from the foods we eat.  It is estimated that most of the sodium a person consumes comes from packaged or prepared meals (i.e. restaurants and fast food).  Sodium enhances the flavor of food and can also be used to cure meat or preserve food.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day—that’s equal to about 1 teaspoon of salt! Most Americans eat about 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, well exceeding the recommended limits for sodium in the diet.

Look at your food label and see whether the food you are eating is a high contributor (>20%DV) to your recommended daily limit or a low contributor (<5%DV).

Tips for Consuming Sodium

  • Look for light, low sodium, reduced sodium, or no-salt-added versions of packaged foods.
  • Prepare your own food when you can and limit packaged sauces and flavored products (such as rice and pasta mixes and instant noodles).
  • Flavor foods with herbs and spices and no-salt seasoning blends instead of adding salt to foods when cooking, baking, and eating.
  • Choose fresh meats, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties. Also, check the package on fresh meats and poultry to see if salt water or saline has been added.
  • Buy fresh, frozen (no sauce or seasoning), low sodium, or no-salt-added canned vegetables.
  • Rinse sodium-containing canned foods, such as beans, tuna, and vegetables before eating.
  • Try light or reduced sodium condiments, add oil and vinegar to salads rather than bottled dressings, and use only a small amount of seasoning from flavoring packets instead of the entire packet.
  • Choose low sodium or no-salt-added nuts, seeds, and snack foods (such as chips and pretzels)—or have carrot or celery sticks instead.
  • Consume smaller portions of foods and beverages that are higher in sodium or consume them less often.
  • When eating out, ask that your meal be prepared without salt and request that sauces and salad dressings be served “on the side,” then use less of them. You can also ask if nutrition information is available and then choose options that are lower in sodium.

Your Food Label: Sodium

Evaluate the Sodium on your food label.   What does the food label tell you about the sodium you are consuming?  Is this a high or low sodium food?

Carbohydrates (Starch, Fiber, and Sugar)

Next on your food label is carbohydrates, commonly referred to as Carbs. Carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients and they are the most important source of energy for your body.

For each gram of carbohydrate we consume we are provided with 4 calories (this is less than half of the Calories provided by one gram of fat!).  Carbs are the primary energy source for the body’s cells, tissues, and organs (such as the brain and muscles).

When we eat carbohydrates our body breaks them down into glucose. Glucose then enters our blood stream and is readily available to provide energy to the body both to fuel the brain and nervous system and provide quick energy for exercising.  If glucose in the blood (often called blood sugar)  it is not immediately used it is stored in the liver and muscles for later use.

On your food label, you will see the total carbohydrate intake, which is further broken down into fiber and sugar intake.  Carbohydrates are made up of three components: Fiber, Starch, and Sugars.  Fiber and starch are considered complex carbs and sugar is a simple carb.  Complex carbs have more nutrients than simple carbs and are better for your health. Complex carbs are higher in fiber, so they digest more slowly, and keep is feeling fuller longer.

Examples of Types of Carbohydrates in Foods[2]

  • Simple Carbohydrates: Candy, carbonated beverages, corn syrup, fruit juice, honey, table sugar
  • Complex Carbohydrates: Apples, broccoli, lentils, spinach, unrefined whole grains, brown rice
  • Starches:  Potatoes, chickpeas, pasta, and wheat.
  • Fiber:
    • Insoluble: Brans, seeds, vegetables, brown rice, potato skins.
    • Soluble: Fleshy fruit, oats, broccoli, and dried beans.

The Role of Fiber in Your Health

We need fiber in our diet!  Dietary fiber supports our bowel movements, lowers blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and reduces calorie intake. Unfortunately, more than 90 percent of women and 97 percent of men do not meet recommended intakes for dietary fiber.  More than 85 percent of adults do not meet the recommended intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which would provide them with fiber, and they eat a high amount of processed (refined) carbohydrates which reduce the natural fiber content.

Fiber supports your digestive system: Stomach, small intestine, large intenstine
Figure 3.3: Importance of Fiber

Refined (processed) vs. Unrefined Carbohydrates

Refined grains are foods that have been processed to remove parts of the grains, which then also removes some of the nutrients that are good for your health.  For example, do you choose to eat white rice or brown rice?  White rice begins as brown rice and then it gets processed (refined) to remove the rice’s husk, bran, and germ.  When this happens, it removes important nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, people sometimes refer to the refined carb as empty carbs or empty calories.  The body processes refined carbs quickly, so they do not provide lasting energy, and they can cause a person’s blood sugar to spike.  Sometime the white rice is “enriched” whereby fiber, vitamins, and minerals are added back into the rice.

To increase your fiber intake, choose whole grains that have not been refined (processed).  To figure out whether a product has a lot of whole grain, check the ingredients list on the package and see if a whole grain is one of the first few items listed.

Food Sources of Dietary Fiber

Soluble and Insoluble Fiber

Fiber is commonly classified as soluble, which dissolves in water, or insoluble, which doesn’t dissolve.  Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like material. It can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Soluble fiber is found in oats, barley, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas, and some fruits and vegetables.  Insoluble fiber promotes the movement of material through your digestive system and adds bulk to the stool, so it can be of benefit to those who struggle with constipation or irregular stools. Insoluble fiber is found in foods such as wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains.

The Role of Sugar in Your Health

When looking at the food label you will notice data for total sugar and added sugars.  Including added sugars was a part of the update to the new Food labels, previous to this update only total sugar was included.  The difference in the two numbers is the source of the sugar, whether it is a naturally occurring sugar or sugar that has been added.  Most Americans exceed the recommended limits for added sugars in the diet. There is evidence that diets low in sugar are associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diets higher in all sugars can increase the risk of developing cavities.

Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar

Sugars naturally present in food include:
  • Dairy products (such as milk and yogurt)
  • Fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, and canned in 100% fruit juice)
  • 100% fruit and vegetable juice
  • Vegetables
Added sugars include:
  • Baked goods (such as cakes, cookies, pastries, and pies)
  • Desserts (such as ice cream and puddings)
  • Salad dressings, sauces, spreads, condiments, and gravies
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages (such as energy drinks, fruit drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea)
  • Sweets (such as candies, jams, sweet toppings, and syrups)
  • Single-ingredient sugars (such as table sugar, maple syrup, or honey)

Reflection: How much sugar do you consume?

How many teaspoons of sugar would you need to scoop into a glass to equal the amount of sugar in a Frappuccino?

  • A grande Caramel Frappuccino® Blended Beverage has 54 grams of sugar.
  • To help you solve this challenge, you first need to know that one teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams of sugar.
  • You would need to scoop 13.5 teaspoons of sugar into a glass to equal the amount of sugar in a grande Starbucks Frappuccino.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting calories from added sugars to less than 10% of total calories per day.  If you are on a 2,000 calorie diet this would mean less than 50 grams per day of added sugars per day, which is less than one Caramel Frappuccino from Starbucks.

Tips for Consuming Carbohydrates

  • Use the food label to understand whether the food you are consuming is considered high or low based on %DV.
    • Note the total %DV for Carbohydrates which will help you meet the AMDR for carbs which is to consume between 45-65% of your calories from Fats.
  • Eat more whole grains (such as brown rice, bulgur, couscous, and quinoa) and choose whole grain versions of common carbohydrates such as breads, cereals, pasta, and rice.
  • Look for options that are lower in added sugars, saturated fats, and/or sodium, such as: bread instead of croissants; English muffins instead of biscuits; and plain popcorn instead of buttered.
  • Choose whole fruit (fresh, frozen, dried, and canned in 100% fruit juice) as snacks and desserts and use fruit to top foods like cereal, yogurt, oatmeal, and pancakes.
  • Keep raw, cut-up vegetables handy for quick snacks—choose colorful dark green, orange, and red vegetables (such as broccoli florets, carrots, and red peppers).
  • Add beans and peas or unsalted nuts and seeds to salads, soups, and side dishes. These are also great sources of dietary fiber and protein.
  • Try unsweetened or no-sugar added versions of fruit sauces (such as applesauce) and plain, fat-free or 1% low-fat yogurt.
  • More often, choose beverages such as water and fat-free or 1% low-fat milk. Less often, choose beverages that are high in calories but have few or no beneficial nutrients, such as energy drinks, fruit drinks, soft drinks, and sports drinks.
  • Consume smaller portions of foods and beverages that are higher in added sugars or consume them less often.

Your Food Label: Carbohydrates

Evaluate the Carbohydrates on your food label.   What does the food label tell you about the carbs you are consuming?  Is this a high or low carb food?  What types of carbs are in the food item and are they processed/refined?  Would you consider this to be a good source of carbs?  How much does this food item contribute to the AMDR for carbs?

Proteins (Amino Acids)

Our bodies need protein from the foods we eat to provide us with energy (Calories) and to build, maintain, and repair, bones, muscles and skin. Protein is a component of every cell in the human body, found in almost all body fluids, and is important for many body processes, such as blood clotting, fluid balance, immune response, vision, and production of hormones, antibodies, and enzymes.  Most Americans get the recommended amounts of protein to meet their needs.

Like Carbohydrates, proteins provide us with 4 Calories of energy per gram consumed.  Protein is found in both plant and animals foods.  We commonly get proteins in our diet from meat, dairy products, nuts, and certain grains and beans.

Proteins are made up of Amino Acids.  There are 20 different amino acids that that can be combined to make every type of protein in the body.  Imagine each Amino Acid was a Lego piece and by combining various amino acids together you make different proteins.  Of the 20 amino acids, 9 of them are considered essential, meaning we need to bring them into our body through the food we eat.  The other 11 amino acids are called non-essential because our body can produce them, so we don’t need to consume them in our diet.  A protein that contains all 9 essential amino acids is called a Complete Protein.  Most complete proteins come from animal sources, such as dairy products, eggs, meats, poultry, seafood, and soy is a plant-based complete protein source.  Incomplete proteins are either missing one or more of the 9 essential proteins or do not contain enough of one of them. Most plant foods such as beans, grains, nuts, peas, seeds, and vegetables are incomplete protein sources.  Foods can be combined together to provide all 9 essential amino acides, this is called complementary proteins.  For example, grains are low in the amino acid lysine, while beans and nuts (legumes) are low in the amino acid methionine. When grains and legumes are eaten together (such as rice and beans or peanut butter on whole wheat bread), they form a complete protein.

Tips for Consuming Protein

  • The Daily Value for protein is 50 g per day. This is based on a 2,000 calorie daily diet—your Daily Value may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.  Look at your food label to see whether the food you are eating is high or low in protein by looking at the %DV.
    • Note the total %DV for proteins which will help you meet the AMDR for proteins which is to consume between 10-35% of your calories from proteins.
  • Choose a variety of protein foods, such as beans and peas, eggs, fat-free or 1% low-fat dairy products, lean meats and poultry, seafood, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.
  • Choose seafood and plant sources of protein (such as beans and peas, tofu and other soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds) in place of some meats and poultry.
  • Add beans and peas to salads, soups, and side dishes—or serve them as a main dish.
  • Substitute fat-free or 1% low-fat dairy products and fortified plant-based beverages (such as soy, rice, and almond) for whole and 2% reduced-fat dairy products.
  • Select fresh meats, poultry, and seafood, rather than processed varieties.
  • Trim or drain fat from meats before or after cooking and remove poultry skin before eating.
  • Try baking, broiling, grilling, or steaming. These cooking methods do not add extra fat

Your Food Label: Protein

Evaluate the Proteins on your food label.   What does the food label tell you about the protein you are consuming?  Is this a high or low protein food?  What types of protein are in the food item, plant or animal sources?  Would you consider this to be a good source of protein?  How much does this food item contribute to the AMDR for protein?

Vitamins and Minerals

At the bottom of the food label you will see select vitamins and minerals.  Both vitamins and minerals are important for your health.  The human body needs the right “mix” of nutrients for good health, each one has a different role in the health of the body.  The majority of Americans get the recommended amounts of most vitamins and minerals to meet their needs. However, many people do not get the recommended amounts of vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium. These nutrients are considered “nutrients of public health concern” because low intakes are associated with potential health risks.

Vitamins are organic substances that are naturally present in many plant and animal products. Minerals are inorganic substances that are found naturally in soil and water. People obtain vitamins and minerals from both the plant and animal products they eat.

There are 14 vitamins and 14 minerals that may be included in the food label.  These include:

  • Vitamins
    • Vitamins C, A, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, B6, B12, and folate)
      • Vitamin C and the B Vitamins are called water-soluble vitamins
      • Vitamins A, D, E, and K are called fat-soluble vitamins.
      • Most vitamins are essential and must be acquired through the foods we eat.  The body can make a few vitamins such as Vitamins D, Choline, and Biotin.
  • Minerals
    • Calcium, chloride, chromium, copper, iodine, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, sodium, and zinc.

Many people do not consume enough vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium.  Review the common sources of food to help you increase your daily intake:

Tips for Consuming Vitamins and Minerals

  • Look at your food label to understand how the food you are eating are providing you with vitamins and minerals, especially focusing on Vitamin D, Iron, Calcium, and Potassium.  What percentage of your Daily Value does the food provide?
  • Eat a variety of colorful vegetables (such as fresh, frozen, canned, and dried) and 100% vegetable juices. Buy frozen (without butter or sauce) and low sodium or no-salt-added canned vegetables. Try vegetables as snacks, salads, side dishes, and as part of main dishes.
  • Focus on whole fruits (such as fresh, frozen, dried, and canned in 100% fruit juice). Try fruits as snacks and desserts and add fruits to salads, side dishes, and to top foods like cereal, pancakes, and yogurt.
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains. Look for foods with a whole grain listed as the first or second grain ingredient after water. Try whole grains (such as brown rice, couscous, and quinoa) as side dishes and switch from refined to whole grain versions of commonly consumed foods (such as breads, cereals, pasta, and rice).
  • Vary your protein routine. Try beans and peas, fat-free or 1% low-fat dairy products, eggs, lean meats and poultry, seafood, soy products, nuts, and seeds. Choose seafood and plant sources of protein (such as beans and soy products) in place of some meats and poultry. Add beans or peas to salads, soups, and side dishes and try unsalted nuts or seeds as snacks.
  • Substitute fat-free or 1% low-fat dairy products and fortified plant-based beverages (such as soy, rice, and almond) for whole and 2% reduced-fat dairy products.

Your Food Label: Vitamins and Minerals

Evaluate the Vitamins and Minerals on your food label.   What does the food label tell you about the Vitamins and Minerals you are consuming?  Does this food item contribute a lot or a little of the essential Vitamins and Minerals?  What types of Vitamins and Minerals are in the food item?  Would you consider this to be a good source of Vitamins and Minerals ?

Ingredient list

The last item on the food label is the ingredient list.  Looking at the ingredients is a helpful tool for understanding what is in the food you are eating.  It is important to know that the ingredients are listed in descending order, so the first items on the ingredient list are the ones in the highest amount in the food.  For example, if you see sugar listed as one of the first items it likely means that it is a high sugar food.  If you are looking to consume more whole grains, look for whole grain, whole wheat, whole oat, etc as one of the first ingredients.  If the first ingredients include refined grains, a type of sugar, or hydrogenated oils, you can assume that the product is unhealthy.  Become familiar with the different names or terms used for common ingredients. For example, you will know an item has sugar if you see any of the following terms:

  • Types of sugar: beet sugar, brown sugar, buttered sugar, cane sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, golden sugar, invert sugar, muscovado sugar, organic raw sugar, raspadura sugar, evaporated cane juice, and confectioner’s sugar.
  • Types of syrup: carob syrup, golden syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, agave nectar, malt syrup, maple syrup, oat syrup, rice bran syrup, and rice syrup.
  • Other added sugars: barley malt, molasses, cane juice crystals, lactose, corn sweetener, crystalline fructose, dextran, malt powder, ethyl maltol, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, galactose, glucose, disaccharides, maltodextrin, and maltose.

Your Food Label: Ingredient List

Evaluate the Ingredient List on your food label.   What are the first five ingredients listed?  Knowing that the ingredients are listed in order from most to least, what do the ingredients tell you about the food item?  Are there ingredients listed that you are not familiar with?  If so, take a few minutes to look up the ingredient to identify what it is.


Water is not on the food label, but it is essential for your health.  During 2015–2018, US children and adolescents drank an average of 23 ounces of plain water daily, and US adults drank an average of 44 ounces. Although there is no recommendation for how much plain water everyone should drink daily, there are recommendations for how much daily total water intake should come from a variety of beverages and foods. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendations for total water intake from all foods and liquids are 3.7 liters for men, that equates to 125 ounces or approximately 13 cups, and 2.7 liters  for women, which equates to  91 ounces or 9 cups.

Water is your body’s principal chemical component and makes up about 60 percent of your body weight. Every system in your body depends on water. For example, water flushes toxins out of vital organs, carries nutrients to your cells, and provides a moist environment for ear, nose and throat tissues. Lack of water can lead to dehydration, a condition that occurs when you don’t have enough water in your body to carry out normal functions. Even mild dehydration can drain your energy and make you tired.

Every day you lose water through your breath, perspiration, urine and bowel movements. For your body to function properly, you must replenish its water supply by consuming beverages and foods that contain water.  It is important to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and aid in the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.


Another element to consider that is not directly noted on your food label is your intake of Antioxidants[3].  Antioxidants are substances we consume that may help to reduce cell damage.  Antioxidants may come from the foods we eat or from dietary supplements.  Examples of antioxidants include vitamins C and E, selenium, and carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.  Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of antioxidants.

Antioxidants may help to reduce cell damage caused by free radicals.  Free radicals are highly unstable molecules that are naturally formed when you exercise and when your body converts food into energy.  Your body can also be exposed to free radicals from a variety of environmental sources, such as cigarette smoke, air pollution, and sunlight.  Free radicals have been shown to cause “oxidative stress” in the body thus damaging healthy cells. Although not conclusive, research shows that antioxidants work to reduce the chances of cellular damage.  Because antioxidants help to reduce cell damage, it has been theorized that they in turn help to reduce chances of many diseases, including cancer.

Organic and GMO (bioengineered)

Along with reviewing the food label on packages, you might also see statements such as “Organic” or “Non-GMO”  It is helpful to understand what these statements mean.

Organic Labeling[4]

Organic products must be produced using agricultural production practices that foster resource cycling, promote ecological balance, maintain and improve soil and water quality, minimize the use of synthetic materials, and conserve biodiversity.

There are four organic labels:

“100 Percent Organic”

  • Used to label any product that contains 100 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water, which are considered natural)
  • Most raw, unprocessed or minimally processed farm crops can be labeled “100 percent organic”


  • Any product that contains a minimum of 95 percent organic ingredients (excluding salt and water)
  • Up to 5 percent of ingredients may be nonorganic agricultural products and/or nonagricultural products on the National List (nonorganic agricultural products and several nonagricultural products on the National List may only be used if they are not commercially available as organic)

“Made with Organic ______”

  • Product contains at least 70 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding salt and water), with a number of detailed constraints regarding ingredients that comprise the nonorganic portion

Specific Organic Ingredient Listings

  • Specific organic ingredients may be listed in the ingredient statement of products containing less than 70 percent organic contents—for example, “Ingredients: water, barley, beans, organic tomatoes, salt.”

Genetically Modified Foods (bioenginered)

The terms “Bioengineering,” “Genetically Modified Organism,” “GMO,” and “Genetic Engineering,” are often used interchangeably for marketing purposes, but “Bioengineered” is the appropriate term under the law.  The National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Law, passed by Congress in July of 2016, directed USDA to establish a national mandatory standard for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered.    The Standard defines bioengineered foods as those that contain detectable genetic material that has been modified through certain lab techniques and cannot be created through conventional breeding or found in nature.

Curious what types of food are genetically modified or bioengineered? Check out this List of bioengineered Foods

The Dietary Guidelines For Americans

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines provides four overarching Guidelines that encourage healthy eating patterns at each stage of life and recognize that individuals will need to make shifts in their food and beverage choices to achieve a healthy pattern.  The four goals discuss dietary patterns and nutrient density, which refer to:

  • A Dietary pattern is the combination of foods and beverages that constitutes an individual’s complete dietary intake over time. This may be a description of a customary way of eating or a description of a combination of foods recommended for consumption.
  • Nutrient-dense foods and beverages provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, and lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry—when prepared with no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium— are nutrient-dense foods.

Here are the four overarching goals of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  1. Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage, it is never too early or too late to eat healthfully.
  2. Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
    • A healthy dietary pattern can benefit all individuals regardless of age, race, or ethnicity, or current health status. The Dietary Guidelines provides a framework intended to be customized to individual needs and preferences, as well as the foodways of the diverse cultures in the United States.
  3. Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages, and stay within calorie limits.
    • An underlying premise of the Dietary Guidelines is that nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods and beverages—specifically, nutrient-dense foods and beverages. Nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting components and have no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups, in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits. The core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:
      • Vegetables of all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
      • Fruits, especially whole fruit
      • Grains, at least half of which are whole grain
      • Dairy, including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
      • Protein foods, including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
      • Oils, including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts
  4. Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.
    • At every life stage, meeting food group recommendations—even with nutrient-dense choices—requires most of a person’s daily calorie needs and sodium limits. A healthy dietary pattern doesn’t have much room for extra added sugars, saturated fat, or sodium—or for alcoholic beverages. A small amount of added sugars, saturated fat, or sodium can be added to nutrient-dense foods and beverages to help meet food group recommendations, but foods and beverages high in these components should be limited. Limits are:
      • Added sugars—Less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than age 2.
      • Saturated fat—Less than 10 percent of calories per day starting at age 2.
      • Sodium—Less than 2,300 milligrams per day—and even less for children younger than age 14.
      • Alcoholic beverages—Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more. There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant.

MyPlate: Implementation of the Dietary Guidelines

Have you ever heard of the Food Wheel, or the Food Guide Pyramid, or MyPyramid?  Each of these were guides created by the USDA to help Americans eat a healthy diet.  Since 1916, there have been iterations of the guides based on new learning and evidence.  The most recent guide for eating a healthy diet is called MyPlate.  Interested in learning more about the different guides?  Check out the History of the USDA Food Guides.

Healthy eating is important at every stage of life and is unique to you as an individual.  MyPlate  was created to be used in various settings and adaptable to meet personal preferences, cultural foodways, traditions and budget needs.  MyPlate works best when it is customized for the individual consumer to include eating style, food likes and dislikes, cultural foodways, and family favorites.  The simplicity of MyPlate makes it a versatile and flexible tool for any audience.

My plate includes: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein. Garbage plate includes ground beef, hot dogs, friend potatos, mac salad
Figure 3.4: MyPlate versus Garbage Plate

Activity:  MyPlate

The MyPlate website is filled with tools, tips, and resources to help you create a healthier eating routine.

To get started, take the MyPlate Quiz which will help you assess your current eating routine and identify your healthy eating interests.

Upon completion of the quiz, you will receive a snapshot of how you’re doing on the food groups, along with personalized resources and tip sheets.

You can also sync your quiz results in the free Start Simple with MyPlate app and set food group goals based on those results.

Key Takeaways for Chapter 3

Type your key takeaways here.

  • Energy from food:
    • Carbohydrates: 4 Calories/gr
      • 45-65% of total Calories should come from Carbs
    • Fats (lipids): 9 Calories/gr
      • 20-35% of total Calories should come from Fats
    • Protein: 4 Calories/gr
      • 10-35% of total Calories should come from Protein
    • Water: contains 0 Calories/gr
    • Alcohol: 7 Calories/gr
  • Macronutrients: Carbohydrates, fats, proteins
  • Micronutrients: Vitamins and minerals
  • General healthy eating tips
    • Eat nutrient dense foods
      • Avoid refined/processed foods
    • Increase your Fiber intake
    • Reduce sugar intake
    • Reduce saturated fats


Media Attributions

  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at
  2. Holesh JE, Aslam S, Martin A. Physiology, Carbohydrates. [Updated 2021 Jul 26]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from:
  3. Antioxidants: In Depth. (n.d.). NCCIH.
  4. Labeling Organic Products | Agricultural Marketing Service. (n.d.). USDA.


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