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The “Dark Side” of Nutrition Labels

Scrolling through Facebook recently, I saw someone had posted this photo with the included caption:

“Could someone please help me understand this?

9g fat = 81 calories


55g carb = 210 calories


19g protein = 76 calories,

which adds up to 367 calories??

Not 300 calories as it states?

My response to this question is:

The “Calories In & Calories Out” mindset is super common for those of us who want to lose weight. This leads to the popularity of diets and nutrition programs that utilize calories counting or other counting methods (WW’s points, macro counting, etc.) as a way to guide clients to weight loss goals. While, the Calories In vs. Calories Out system works exceptionally well on paper and is an easy sell to clients, in practice it can become tricky.

Being able to read food labels is a wonderful skill that can help people whether they plan to track their calories, macronutrients, or micronutrients. However, the “dark side” of nutrition labels is that the FDA allows inaccuracies up to 20%! So, when looking at the Halo Top Chocolate Ice Cream label shared, we have to acknowledge that the calories for the Halo Top Ice Cream in question could actually be somewhere between 240 to 360 calories. That is why the example shared shows that when we get granular with the label, we can see that the calorie amounts for each macronutrient, as it is listed on the label, actually adds up to 367 calories versus the 300 calories that are listed on the label.

The FDA allowed inaccuracies do not simply stop at the calories though. They are permitted, up to 20%, for every nutrient listed on the label. Therefore, the macronutrients in question could also, in reality, be different than what the label says. This means the total fat could be between 7.2g and 10.8g, total carbohydrates could be between 44g and 66g, and protein could be between 15.2g and 22.8g. With a change in any or all of these numbers, up or down, the actual calories in the Halo Top Ice Cream would change.

Beyond what consumers are being told what they put in their bodies, counting calories can become even more complicated. I personally found success counting calories for my weight loss; however, I wouldn’t advise every client to do it. The reason being consistency in tracking. At square one, if you aren’t going to count every calorie you consume, this system isn’t going to work for you. The “dark side” to counting every calorie consumed is that one can begin to perseverate on the calories being tracked and easily develop an unhealthy relationship with food, which opens the door for guilt, shame, and a lot of negative self-talk to join what was supposed to be our getting healthy party. And, truthfully, that’s the absolute last thing I want for anyone, regardless of whether they are a client of mine or not.

However, if you did feel like you might want to count your calories for a period of time, just like I did, use that tool from a mindset of curiosity to learn more about yourself and how you’re currently interacting with food. Be your own nutrition investigator by collecting calorie-driven data to learn more about how much you’re eating overall, the impact of your portion sizes, chart patterns around calories from processed foods vs. more homemade dishes, and take note of what might change from a work day to a weekend. Most importantly, don’t judge yourself harshly when reviewing your data! With kindness, notice what the data might be telling you about yourself and your relationship with food. Once you’ve collected enough feedback from calorie counting to understand your own personal nutrition trends, see if you can transition back to focusing on building healthy and sustainable, long-term eating habits, instead of trying to solve a calorie-based math equation every day. And, if you’re a little confused about what to focus on next after collecting this personal data about yourself, that’s where a nutrition coach with an outsider’s perspective might be able to really help!

Looking past tracking with consistency, science isn’t always working in our favor when it comes to calorie counting either. At the bottom level, we have to recognize that everyone absorbs calories differently. Some may absorb more of the total calories in the ice cream while others absorb less. Then how we individually burn calories varies from person to person too, making the Calories In vs. Calories Out more complicated and convoluted too.

These wrinkles, and others, are why I invite clients to worry less about the calorie counts on food labels and, instead, focus on developing and maintaining sustainable healthy habits and behaviors. For most of us, calorie counting is just going to add to the noise in our heads we experience when we eat. Instead of adding to that, I’d rather have an exchange along these lines:

Client: David, I ate a whole pint of ice cream! And, I just don’t know how to feel about that. I won’t lose this weight if I do that!
Coach David: You can totally lose weight and still eat ice cream. Let’s talk about it, though. Can you tell me more about eating the ice cream?
Client: Well, I had a super stressful work day. Working from home makes it harder to do things, and my boss got mad at me. It would have been easier to accomplish the task I had to do if I could have been in the office. But, you know, COVID! So, I made a mistake, and it got bad.
Coach David: I hear you. Working from home can be really hard, and upsetting our bosses can be rough. Especially, when we know we wouldn’t have made the mistake if we had been in the office. With that said, it’s okay to eat something to make us feel better as long as we recognize that that’s what we’re doing and we can adjust our eating and/or exercise accordingly. I’m a fan of letting ice cream help me cope too. What kind did you eat?
Client: When I got to the store I went straight for the Ben & Jerry’s. I thought, ‘I can eat just a serving and save the rest.’ But, then I knew if I took the pint home, I’d eat the whole pint in one sitting. So, I put the Ben & Jerry’s back and grabbed Chocolate Halo Top instead.
Coach David: That’s great! You were kinder to your future self by 1.) acknowledging that you’d eat the whole pint which gave yourself you to eat the whole pint, and 2.) opting for a lighter ice cream choice to hopefully feel less guilty or shame about giving yourself permission to eat the whole pint. Now, for the important part. Did the ice cream taste good?
Client: It was soooooooooooo good.
Coach David: Did you eat it slowly, taking some time to enjoy its flavor and texture? Or did you throw on some TV and eat it without really paying attention to it?
Client: I thought about watching a rerun of a show while eating it, but I thought about what we’ve talked about with mindful eating. So, I ate it without the TV on, taking the time to savor the ice cream.
Coach David: That’s awesome. I’m glad to hear that. How did you feel after you ate it?
Client: I felt better. Happier.
Coach David: Then, the ice cream did what you needed it to. You recognize that it may hinder your progress toward your weight loss goal, but, emotionally, you needed the ice cream. There’s nothing wrong with that. Hopefully, you woke up the next morning feeling recharged and allowed your boss and yourself to reset and move beyond the mistake you made.
Client: I did, and I had a good day at work and a great work out that following day too.

I know the above hypothetical exchange may read cheesy, but it reflects the goal mindset of how we should approach eating. In a perfect world, every meal and snack will leave us feeling satisfied and balanced, both physically and emotionally.

If you’re tired of counting your calories and not seeing success, reach out to Coach David at david@crossfitjerseycity.com to book a complimentary “No Snack” Intro and see if Nutrition Coaching can help you reach your health goals.

Written by JCFit Nutrition Coach David Clarke

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