How to Simplify Nutrition Labels


Hey, everybody. Jonathan Bailor back with another awesome course. Today we’re going to talk about two — well, one of my least favorite topics and one of my favorite topics. One of my least favorite topics is math — and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there that doesn’t really like talking about math or thinking about math. And one of my favorite topics is food. Specifically, how we can do less math and eat more food.

And there’s so much — actually recently, there’s just been a new nutrition label issue. So there’s always nutrition labels and ingredient lists and all this — just math. Math at the dinner table. You got your fork, your knife, and your calculator. Right? That’s what makes a good meal nowadays. Sadly, no. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.

Two of those three things are applicable to dinner tables — the fork and the knife certainly, but not the calculator. And I know that sounds a little silly but seriously, think about the way the nutrition conversation takes place today. It’s really a numbers game, right? I mean, we’re talking about calories; we’re talking about percentages of various vitamins and minerals; and, frankly, we’ve turned this into a math problem during the exact same time period when we, as a culture, have seen just horrific results. And the irony there, of course, is that this precision — this precise calculation of nutrition — is accompanied by worse results, which is just something to think about.

So what I wanted to — let’s say, maybe do a little mental reset, a little system reboot. Today is on nutrition labels in general; meaning, instead of making the calorie font bigger — which is what is currently happening — maybe there’s a more holistic approach we could take. So let’s break this down. If you are going to look at nutrition levels, I’ll ruin the session here and give you the — avoid burying the lead and give you the gist right now, which is, of course, real, whole, the most nutrient-dense SANE food in the world doesn’t even have a nutrition label on it.

Fresh fish, fresh meat, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fresh nuts, fresh seeds — no numbers are involved. None. Easy. They kept everyone healthy for the entirety of human evolutionary history and they continue to keep us healthy now. But if you’re going to read nutrition labels, let’s talk about it because, chances are, we got to go to people where they’re at. It’s very difficult to just say, “I’m never going to look at a nutrition label again.” So what can we do to actually make that as productive as possible?

So, first and foremost, there are these percentages on nutrition labels — and this is very, very important to keep in mind because there are very loose rules around what a food manufacturer — which in and of itself is an oxymoron; how do you manufacture food? But I digress — what a food manufacturer can say. So I picked up a fruit twist product thing and it says it “has ten percent vitamin A. That’s a good source of vitamin A.” Good source according to who? Good source according to the company trying to sell it to you? So let’s take a step back and let’s talk about what that ten percent means? And ten percent for who? A child could pick up that package and it says ten percent; a bodybuilder could pick up that package and it says ten percent; a 75-year-old woman could pick up that package and it says ten percent. So really, ten percent? What does that even mean? What does it even mean?

So let’s break this down. Ten key questions we’ve got to ask if we’re going to look at nutrition labels. And, frankly, if you really want to simplify your life, which we’re all a fan of, don’t even eat food which has nutrition labels on it. Simplify things. But nutrition labels nonetheless. First and foremost — and this is going to sound a little silly coming from the guy who wrote the book called The Calorie Myth — but first thing you want to think about are how many calories I’m getting along with this nutrition. This is really, really, really important. And you know I’m not about calorie counting, but once we go down this rabbit hole of looking at nutrition labels, the calorie data is there so we might as well use it.

So you look at, for example, cereal boxes. They’re a great example of this. They’re a great way to start your day. False. They’re actually a terrible way to start your day and one of the reasons for that is if you look on the side of the box, they’ll say things like, “Provides you with ten percent of the vitamin D you need for a day.” But what you’ll notice, for example, is that that serving size in which that ten percent vitamin D is found contains 200 calories, ninety percent of which are coming from sugar. So again, that’s 200 calories to get ten percent of your daily recommended value of vitamin D — and we don’t even know what that ten percent means — but just think about that math for a second.

So 200 calories to get ten percent vitamin D. That means, to get 100 percent vitamin D, you would need to consume 1,000 calories’ worth of that cereal. Now, you know me. I’m not a calorie fan but if you’ve got to consume 1,000 calories of something to get your 100 percent allowance of any vitamin, that’s probably not a very actually good source of that vitamin. For example, if you look at non-starchy vegetables, we get 100 percents of myriad vitamins and minerals in 20 calories, 30 calories, 50 calories. Those are good sources. So just, non-starchy vegetables, if you do a little math, if you’re interested in math — which you shouldn’t be at the dinner table — but if you’re a geek like me, you might be.

In the book The Calorie Myth, we actually do this. We compare various foods, we divide the amount of nutrition by the number of calories it takes to get that nutrition, and you start to see some really, really shocking conclusions about what the grocery store says is a good source of vitamin X and what actually is a good source of vitamin X. So point number one is, you can’t just look at the percentage; you’ve got to look at the percentage relative to the number of calories. Cool?

All right, so the other thing you want to keep in mind — and this has to do with what does that ten percent even mean. When you look at the label, it’s like, ten percent. Yay, double digits. What are you trying to do? These daily values, which is what that is a percentage of, were developed during World War II — so back in the time when computers were the size of our houses. Right? So, not necessarily the most cutting-edge science. And they were what the military formulated to prevent soldiers from dying of malnutrition. So, 100 percent, according to the daily value, is what the average person — and I don’t know what the “average person” is — but what the average person needs to not die from malnutrition.

Now, if you’re watching this class, chances are your goal is a little bit more ambitious than just not dying of malnutrition. So in and of itself – so, remember that cereal that said ten percent vitamin D and you needed 1,000 calories of it to get that ten percent? Well, in reality, if you’re trying to be the optimal version of yourself, it’s probably more like three percent or two percent because, again, what you need to avoid malnutrition, what you need to avoid not dying is going to be very different from what you need to live your optimal life. So, really keep those goals in mind. It’s really, really, really important.

And what’s cool is you’ll start to see that when you do keep those goals in mind, things like cereal, you will naturally not eat them because if you are going to do math, if you are going to look at nutrition labels, and you start to see, Oh my gosh, this has this paltry amount of vitamins and minerals and all of these calories and I’m going to divide all of those percentages by five because I want to live my optimal life, I’m not just trying to avoid malnutrition, then I can’t eat this. Like, this is just empty calories.

And we’ve all heard that term “empty calories” but when we start to widen that which we consider to be empty calories, we start to see that really most any starch and sweet-based product is empty calories despite all these label claims when we consider the number of calories it’s taking to get that nutrition and our goal for success, which is way higher than just avoiding malnutrition.

So the third thing to keep in mind is — we talked about this a little bit earlier but — do you really need a nutrition label to understand if something’s healthy or not? This gets back to my mother, who’s a very, very wise lady and she once told me, “Jonathan, if you have to think about it, chances are, you shouldn’t do it.” Meaning, if you have this moral quandary, “should I” — I’m at the grocery store and there’s this jar of peanuts and it’s like, Oh, I could just take one. In your mind, you’re going to be like, Should I take one? The fact that you had to think about it means you probably shouldn’t do it.

So, same kind of thing here. If you’re looking at something at the grocery store and you’re like, I don’t know if that’s healthy or not; let me read the nutrition label. Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s not healthy for you. Maybe even higher than that. And this is especially true with foods — I like to call them edible products — that are marketed at children. You do not need to think about what is good for your child.

And in fact the more a product tries to appear like it’s good for your child, the less likely it is to be good for your child. These Go-Gurts and these crazy, again, Dino Bites. Kids can eat chicken without them looking like dinosaurs. I mean, come on. Kids have enjoyed chicken for a really, really long time without them having to be shaped like dinosaurs and then making all these ridiculous health claims which– again, if the box needs to make health claims, it’s not healthy.

And what’s crazy about this — there’s actually a study done recently which showed that people who are most concerned about their health — so the savviest of consumers — are ironically those who are most influenced by health claims because if you don’t care about your health, your purchase decisions will not be affected by health claims. Here’s a great example for this because you might be thinking there’s no way. There’s no way. Supplements. Go into a supplements store. You’ll see these bottles and boxes with just all these amazing fat loss, gain muscle — oh my god, it’s incredible.

And you and I all know that eating vegetables will do more for you than any sports supplement ever could. But when you go down the produce aisle, spinach is just sitting there. It’s not like, I’m going to help you burn fat and I’m going to — oh my gosh. But these health claims — they appeal to us at almost a subliminal level. So again, just watch out for that. If you need to look at a nutrition label to know if it’s healthy or not, right then, it’s a good sign it’s not healthy.

All right, so let’s keep going here. So if you are, again, going to look at nutrition labels and you’ve gone down that path and it’s not end of days to look at nutrition labels — if you want to geek out and it’s fun for you, go ahead. But my caution to you is that nutrition labels are just easily manipulated. It’s a human constructed system and it’s a system that was designed with many things in mind other than your health and it’s easily manipulated. So just, buyer beware. Buyer beware.

But if you are going to look at a nutrition label — and a time when this may be useful — let’s say, you are going to buy cereal. I would not recommend that but let’s say you are. You’re going to buy some cereal. And let’s say you’ve got cereal A and cereal B and you’ve already decided to buy cereal. Okay, now looking at the nutrition label may become useful. So if you’re going to do that, then here’s some things you should do.

First — the more fiber, the better. So the more fiber — and again, you have to hold that relative to calories. Be very, very careful. If you’re trying to compare, for example, broccoli with breakfast cereal, if you don’t look at calories, you might say that breakfast cereal has more fiber in it than the broccoli. But what you’ll realize is that, let’s say, the breakfast cereal claims it has 6 grams of fiber per serving. Again, that serving has 200 calories whereas a serving of broccoli has 20 calories. So while the fiber and the broccoli might — I’m making up numbers — say it only has 3 grams of fiber and you’re like, Oh my gosh, the cereal has twice as much fiber in it. Clearly, I should buy that. Well, no. Actually, in 200 calories of the broccoli, you would get — whatever number I’d use — you would get 30 grams of fiber, so five times more when you compare calorie for calorie. So if you have two things to choose from and you hold everything else constant, the more fiber, the better. Always. Fiber is universally good, so more fiber is better.

Second — or number five on our list — the more protein, the better. So if you have two options, let’s say again, two cereals. Let’s say they both have 200 calories per serving and a serving is one cup for both of them. The more protein, the better. The reason for this is that protein is universally recognized in the research community as being the most satisfying of all the macronutrients. And when I say macronutrients, I mean protein, fat, carbohydrate — where we get our calories from — rather than micronutrients – things that provide essential vitamins and minerals. The reason this is so important is, if we eat unsatisfying calories, we have to over-eat to not be hungry.

And we know this. There are potato chips — for example, Pringles — that tell us once we pop, we cannot stop. They’re advertising the fact that these calories not only don’t fill us up, they actually make us hungrier. Or think about light beer. The point of light beer is to put calories into your body without feeling full. That is why it was created — so you can eat the entire pizza and drink a six-pack of beer. There you go. Talk about optimizing your health. So you want to maximize the amount of protein you’re getting because, again, 100 calories of protein will unequivocally make you fuller longer than 100 calories of carbohydrate or 100 calories of fat. So it’s really important.

It’s also not easy to eat protein. It’s easy to eat fat. It’s delicious and it’s very, very — it has a neurological response that, when it’s combined with starch or sweet, can make it very easy to over-eat. Again, that doesn’t mean fat is bad. Fat is fabulous for you but fat, when combined with sugar or starch, can quickly take you off the rails. Think about eating butter by itself versus butter on a baked potato. You could probably eat an entire stick of butter if you combine it with a baked potato but you can never eat a stick of butter by itself. Protein — not the case. Try to eat –

This is actually a fun experiment. Eating 50 grams of fat is relatively easy. If you’ve ever eaten pizza or French fries or any kind of fast food, you can crank through 50 grams of fat really easily. Fifty grams of carbohydrate — ridiculously easy. Right? If you take a normal-sized serving of cereal — not the serving they claim, which is usually three-fourths of a cup, which, if you put three-fourths of a cup of cereal in a bowl, it’s a joke. So most people are eating four to five servings of cereal when they eat cereal in the morning. You’re easily surpassing 50 grams of carbohydrate. Easily. It’s super easy. Heck, a soda — drink two cans of soda. That’s 60 grams of carbohydrate right there and you’re not full at all. At all. That’s part of the problem with soda. To eat 50 grams of protein, you’re talking just sitting down and eating a can and a half of tuna. Try to just eat a can and a half of tuna — not easy. Or just a giant luscious steak — it’s very difficult to over-eat protein. So, all things considered equal, you want to go with the option that has more protein.

Of course, moving on. One of my least favorite things in the world, probably second only to calories, is sugar. So the less sugar, the better. It’s toxic, it’s addictive, it’s just absolute nonsense. This is the one case in which I would say, looking at, if the food has a label on it, looking on the ingredients list and seeing if there’s any form of added sugar is something we should all do. And in fact, the new nutrition label — one of the good things about it is it is calling out added sugar as distinct from naturally occurring sugar within foods. So in general, the less sugar, the better.

So, for example, fruit juice — which I would not recommend you drink because it is fruit with all the fiber taken out of it and just concentrated sugar. And, yes, it has more vitamins and minerals in it but we all know that putting a vitamin pill in a can of Coca-Cola doesn’t make the Coca-Cola healthy for you or the 30 grams of sugar in it healthy for you. Similarly, the 45 grams of sugar you would find in the equivalent amount of grape juice — yes, that’s right, there’s about fifty percent more sugar per ounce in grape juice than there is in Coca-Cola — doesn’t make that sugar somehow good for you. So the less sugar, the better.

So if you are going to drink juice — which again, I wouldn’t recommend it – but if you look at two containers of juice — let’s say, you looked at grape juice and you looked at orange juice. You would see that the orange juice would have dramatically less sugar in it than the grape juice. So again, wouldn’t recommend you drink juice, but if you were going to drink juice, looking at the label for which has less sugar based on the number of calories in the serving is going to be your better option. So again, more fiber, more protein, less sugar.

Now, we move on to the ingredients list. So we’re moving away from the numbers and we’re actually looking at the list of things which were used as the raw materials to engineer this thing you’re going to put in your mouth — ugh! This is why we got to move away from nutrition labels. The fewer things on that list, the better. And if there’s anything on that list that sounds like non-food, at least think about this. If you look on the label for — let’s say, you’re out of the food aisle in your grocery store and you move to the pharmacy and you start to look on that shelf and you look at the ingredients. You’re going to see lots of long confusing words like acetaminophen and dada dada da. The more the food you buy that looks like it has a label that came from the pharmacy rather than from maybe the produce section, the more it is like something you find in the pharmacy.

I’m saying that very, very seriously. Diet soda has no calories in it. The ingredients look like something you find in a pharmacy and that’s because it is like something you find in a pharmacy. It’s a series of chemicals mixed with water to cause you to feel good. That’s a drug like the drugs they sell in the grocery store which — again, we live in a free country. We’re not going to ban soda just like we haven’t banned cigarettes. But much like we wouldn’t have our child trick-or-treat in the pharmacy, having our child trick-or-treat with equally chemically based addictive and toxic chemically engineered products might be part of the reason that we have the first generation of children alive today who are expected to die at a younger age than their parents.

So we live in a world where one in three children are overweight or obese and where seventy to eighty percent of those children are going to struggle with that for the rest of their life. So it’s not, “Oh, they’re kids. They can handle it.” Just the opposite is true. Once you’ve got a fat cell, you’ve got a fat cell. Let’s not turn this into a downer of a class here but smoking is bad for us from a health perspective. But no child that I’ve met has ever not been able to get a date to the prom because they smoke or not been picked for a team at recess because they smoked.

What I’m alluding to here is that these other toxic addictive chemicals that are being given to our children and, in some cases, sold in their schools not only destroy them physiologically, much like cigarettes and other pharmaceuticals do, but they destroy them psychologically. And these are scars which anyone who’s watching this who struggled with overweight as a child can absolutely empathize with; that stick with us just like the physical scars for the rest of our life. So a little bit of a digression there, but again — the fewer ingredients, the better. And if any of them sound like they’re coming from the pharmacy, they are. And treat them accordingly.

Next — the more vitamins and minerals per serving relative to calories, the better. So, this sounds obvious but vitamins and minerals are essential. What we mean when we say an essential vitamin or mineral and an essential fatty acid or amino acid, for that matter, is that the absence of them in our diet means we get sick. That’s why it’s essential. It is essential to put gasoline in your car’s gas tank if you want your car to run. It is not optional. It’s the difference between optional and essential. And it continues to amaze me — and this happens even with me — I do this for a living, I write books on this — where every day I hear about people who start to eat more food that has more essential vitamins and minerals in it — non-starchy vegetables, nutritious protein, whole food fats, low fructose fruits — and disease vanishes. Like, all sorts of disease. Disease –

If you do not eat essential things, you will get a disease. That is the definition of an essential thing. It is essential because if you don’t consume it, you will get a disease. So if you do consume it and you haven’t been, you will likely no longer have that disease. And I continue to have to remind myself of this because I hear these amazing stories of healing and restoration and optimal living when people get their diet right and I’m like, “This is a miracle.” And it is a miracle but it’s also not a miracle. It’s “of course”. Right?

My car wouldn’t run. It had no gas in its gas tank. Then I put gasoline in it and it ran. It’s a miracle. Not really a miracle. It’s what’s supposed to happen. Our bodies aren’t supposed to become diseased when we give them what they need. So, more vitamins and minerals relative to calories, the better. This ties back to our earlier points where once you start again, holding these vitamins and minerals relative to calories, which is important — really, really important — things that traditionally may seem healthy become very unhealthy very quickly because we see again the number of calories it takes to get those essential vitamins and minerals, the ratio isn’t there.

Now, ingredients list. Again, moving on. If the ingredients contain — there are certain substances. We gave a general rule earlier about if it sounds like a pharmaceutical, it is a pharmaceutical so avoid it. But there are things which don’t necessarily sound like pharmaceuticals that we know have equally negative effects. And I say “know” for a reason. For example, we know that smoking causes lung cancer. And to be very clear, from a scientific perspective, we actually don’t know that. It is impossible to prove that causal relationship. We’ve done a lot of studies, we’ve seen very tight correlations, we have strong biological and neurological explanations for why it could be true. So when all of those things line up, we say, “You know what? Smoking causes lung cancer.”

The same thing can now be said about sugar, added sugar, and diabetes. There was a study done last year which showed as strong of a correlation which — again, you’re not going to be able to study 1,000 people for their entire lifetime, controlling for every other variable. So sometimes we have to use correlation as well as other factors to triangulate and say, boom, now we know that added sugar causes diabetes as robustly as we know that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer. There are similar substances like that. So if you see the word “hydrogenated”, just no. That is not — read that as “don’t eat this.” So, “hydrogenated” means “don’t eat it.”

If you see a lot of starch — and again, we’re talking about empty calories — starch is just hormonally chaos-causing calories and if you have any problems regulating your weight, you do not need to be eating starch. So flour, corn, rice, barley — if you look on labels, they are some of the cheapest ingredients these edible product manufacturers can buy so they put them in everything. Just be on the lookout for those.

And then again, sugar by any name — any name — this is the hardest one and this is why I just say, “Man, we just got to stick with food that doesn’t have labels on it” because every single day — for example, fruit juice concentrate. Well, fruit juice just sounds healthy. We can talk about that separately. But fruit juice concentrate — like, Oh, this has no added sugar in it. Fruit juice concentrate is — they take the sugar from fruits and they concentrate it down and it’s sugar. So there’s a giant list here of, like, fifty-something sugars and they’re all sugar. It’s just sugar. Your body isn’t saying, Oh, honey, it came from bees. That’s okay. It’s just sugar. There’s different kinds of sugars — glucose, fructose, lactose, blah blah blah.

Point being, added sugar in any form — and we’ve got a list here for you — is bad news. So you want to stay away from that. So hydrogenated — and so that makes sense — hydrogenated is generally going to be associated with fats. So hydrogenated fats — terrible for us. Starch is a concentrated nutrient-deficient source of carbohydrate that we don’t need; low quality. Same thing with sugar. So what I really just said is, “Stay away from the lowest quality sources of fat and carbohydrate,” which makes a lot of sense. You want a high-quality life, eat high-quality stuff.

All right, and last but not least, said it before and I’ll say it again. Simplify. Simplify. I can’t tell you how often I go to the grocery store and I see people — I don’t have food with me right now; I’ll use these books — they’re just sitting there and they rub their head with the package. They’re just like, Oh. Like, if you find yourself doing this right here at the grocery store, the answer is this. Take them both, put them down, go to the produce section, buy more vegetables, and then go to the deli and buy some more meat and seafood, and leave that complicated stuff for someone else.

You’ve got enough things to worry about. You’ve got enough of other things going on in your life. Nutrition can’t be complicated. If it was, we would’ve died out as a species a really long time ago. Remember, the harder we’ve tried to be healthy, the less healthy we’ve become. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be healthy; it just means that this isn’t an effort problem. Our problem is not that we aren’t studying nutrition labels hard enough. Our problem is that we live in a world where we’ve been led to believe that we need to eat things that have nutrition labels on them and that those are healthier than things that don’t have nutrition labels on them because there’s no marketing associated with actual food. That’s garbage. That’s the marketing myth. Maybe that’s my next book. Calorie Myth first, Marketing Myth second.

But really, just simplify. If you cannot find it directly in nature, steer clear of it. And if you do that, you will do what every other person who’s ever done that, which is frankly, every person that ever lived prior to modern food processing — that’s how they ate and they had radically lower rates of obesity and disease than we do now. And then people are like, “Oh, well, they were more active.” Think about this. Even when — so I’m not super old; I’m in my early 30s — but I remember even when I was a child, I used to hear of someone passing away and their cause of death was natural causes. How often do you hear that term today?

Cause of death being “natural causes”, meaning that they didn’t die of any disease; they just peacefully signed off in their sleep. Nobody — not nobody — very few people die of natural causes today. People die of diseases. That is not the natural state. The natural state is that someday, you go to sleep in old age after living a wonderful healthy, happy life and you just don’t wake up. That is what happens when we eat whole foods found in nature. That’s what happens when we simplify our lives. And that’s what happens when we eat more food and do less math. So that’s what I like to do and that’s the end of my time. Boom.