Nutritional Information

The fourth in a series of posts on my Weight Loss Arsenal, the tips and tricks I have used to shed fat and keep it at bay.

Before you can fine tune your eating habits, you have to know what you’re eating and how it is affecting your weight loss goals.

That’s why I have, in the previous posts in this series, recommended that you (1) use a good scale to weigh yourself regularly, (2) keep a food journal in which you record everything that you eat, and (3) practice weighing and measuring your food until (and well after) you can accurately estimate quantities.

If you do those three things, you are almost certain to increase your awareness of your eating behaviors, and their effects on your body. Hopefully, that awareness will lead to better dietary choices, and hopefully, those better dietary choices will lead to weight loss.

But really, if you want to take full advantage of this new-found dietary awareness, you’ll have to do more. What good is it if you know exactly what food you’re eating, but don’t really know much about what is in your food?

Nutritional information is important. Yes, we’re talking calories. We’re talking grams of protein, grams of fat, and grams of carbohydrate. This kind of information can help you assess whether your diet is balanced. It can help you meet specific goals related to whatever diet system you are following. It can help you figure out the real reasons that what you eat and how much you eat has the particular effects on your body that it has.

There are a million ways to get good nutritional information. There are books and encyclopedias and websites galore. I could just recommend that you get yourself a favorite one of these and stick with it. But I have something else in mind. There is one particular source of nutritional information that I think EVERYONE should know about and use. After all, if you’re a U.S. taxpayer, you’ve already paid for the creation and upkeep of this source. And, the bottom line is, it’s actually the best and most authoritative source for information, the one that is actually used by most other available sources. It not only provides information about calories and macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrates), but also about amino acids, vitamins and minerals, sugars and carbohydrate compositions, and many other potentially useful (or, I guess, potentially obfuscating) pieces of data.

The source in question is the:
USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, an on-line database containing information on the nutrient content of commonly eaten foods (both natural and processed, both generic and branded). It doesn’t have everything, but it comes darn close. If Americans eat it regularly, it’s in there.

Using the database is pretty simple, but, in case you’re feeling intimidated, I am going to provide this handy guide to its features.

Using the USDA Nutrient Database

First, you pull up the main screen.

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page

USDA Nutrient Database Front Page (click to enlarge)

There’s a search field on the main page that lets you enter any number of words that might be associated with the food you’re interested in. For instance, if you wanted to know about Corn Chips, you would type, “Corn Chips.” It’s that simple.

When you hit return, or the search button, the next screen gives you the search results.

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results

USDA Nutrient Database Search Results (click to enlarge)

Some things in the are more difficult to find, but once you learn about how things tend to be listed in the database, you figure out how to use it well. So, you might come to expect that most veggies are given listings in either raw or cooked form, so you could type “Broccoli, raw” or “Broccoli, cooked” and find what you’re looking for more quickly. In this example, there are seven results. I want the simple, yellow corn chips we eat at a restaurant, so I select that feature, and then hit the “submit” button.

The next screen lets you specify what quantity of the food you are dealing with. After all, the specific nutrient content of what you eat is dependent upon the total amount of food! Usually, the database provides nutrient data in a variety of formats: by weight in grams or ounces, by volume, or by units of various sizes. In this example, I am interested in the nutritional information associated with 28.35 grams, or 1 ounce, of Corn Chips.

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Amounts Screen (click to enlarge)

(The example assumes that I weighed or will weigh the Corn Chips, or am estimating their quantity, perhaps based on the number of chips I ate; as it happens, most Corn Chips have about 10-12 chips per ounce). Note that you can change the values however you want. You can put in any multiple (including fractions) of the specified units, and the database will return data for that multiple of units. If I knew I ate 5 oz. of chips, I could get the data for 5 oz. of chips instead of one.

Finally, after hitting that submit button again, I get my results.

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen

USDA Nutrient Database Results Screen (click to enlarge)

The top of the results page contains the most basic information. The information gets more complicated as you scroll down the screen.

If you’re just counting calories, the most useful information will be right near the top. Calories are known in the nutritional sciences by the term “Energy.” The standard “calorie” unit that we are all familiar with is the “kcal” or kilo-calories of energy, the second item in the table (after water… did you know that all food contains some water?). The next few lines cover the basics including: Protein, Lipid (fat), Ash (which has no nutritional value, but is present in food), and Carbohydrates (starches and sugars). (This information would be useful mainly if you’re following a diet like “the Zone,” or if you are trying, as an athlete might, to meet certain targets for different macronutrient amounts in your daily food intake). In this example, we find the shocking information that one ounce of corn chips contains a whopping 139 calories, with 2g of PRO, 6g of FAT, and 19g of CHO, give or take. The lesson here is: lay off those Corn Chips! Or only allow yourself one ounce.

If you keep scrolling down the screen, you can find out MORE really detailed, often fascinating, occasionally useful information; for instance, the database contains information about the types of amino-acids in the proteins found in meats and other protein sources, or about the types of fats found in oils, or about the types of carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, and grains.

The point of using this (and other sources of) information is to help you with your weight loss. It’s intended to help you get realistic about the contents of the foods you eat, so that you neither over-estimate nor under-estimate what’s actually in things.

One last thing: if you’re a bit of a compulsive food diarist, as I am, you’ll probably want to keep a list of the foods you commonly eat and would often look up in this database in your food journal. That’s just a little tip to make it a bit easier to gain a master’s level understanding of the nutrient content of your favorite food items.

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