Master Nutrition Labels in 20 Seconds (Or Less)

Your hunger reaches a fever pitch, as you return from your evening workout. It commands your attention and loudly. Some combo of the day, your workout and an exhaustive stress leave you ravenous. So, you cave to guttural trolls within, slide into and eat burgers made by a King.

Your belly now full and bloated, those former hunger pangs now turn into remorseful reminders that your diet is controlling you.

This is a biweekly routine, you notice. And by the time you step up from the cold tiles onto that innocuous and ominous post-modern glass-top bathroom scale, you grimace at the addition of a few menacing digits to your weight. The number flashes only briefly, but somehow stays with you for a few regretful days.

You resign to regain control of your hunger.

We can all control the beats of ravenous and instant hunger with a little forethought. Learning to eat healthier foods and pick up the right supplements starts with a speedy but all-important scan of the Nutrition (facts) Labels, on every food item in the nutrition shop or the supermarket.

In less than 20 seconds, anyone can read and process all the info on a nutrition label, pick up quality food and step to the confidently to the checkout counter without missing a beat.

nutrition label

Go! 3 seconds….

(1) Look at SERVING SIZE. This is the number you’ll start reducing everything down to starting with the calories.

Next, 7 seconds…

(2) Dart down to (2) TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE; this, for you, indicates the purpose of your food, classifying it as pre-workout, post-workout, or something else in between. Check the grams (#g), then, look at the SUGARS and subtract from TOTAL CARBOHYDRATE: this number represents the amount complex carbs.

Now, look at DIETARY FIBER and subtract again: higher the difference, the higher in useable complex carbs, making it post-workout worthy, especially after a long run or endurance workout, a great carbo load, or a solid breakfast choice.

Zero or small difference, mean more simple sugars. Around 20 grams or less, make it decent pre-workout fuel to prime fat burning workouts or lifts.

Next, 7 seconds…

Fat and Protein indicate, for your purposes, the about of junk and type of recovery you’ll expect.
(3) Go to PROTEIN: multiply this number by 4. Quickly compare that number to CALORIES. Does it approach Fifty percent or more (!) of CALORIES? If so, you have a very high protein recovery food or drink in your mitts. Post-workout-on.

(4) Watch saturated fat under TOTAL FAT and if the number is “6g” or higher, consider you might be drinking drawn butter and skip it altogether.

Last glance… 3 seconds

Go to the electrolytes (SODIUM, POTASSIUM) and notice if they’re any in the food, then, glance at SODIUM. Make sure you are well below “50%” under % DAILY VALUE.

(5) Under INGREDIENTS, if the first three words appear as hieroglyphs at first glance, simply open your palm and move on. Otherwise you can take a few more seconds and scan for compounds that are simply unidentifiable,

(6) But note this: xanthan gum, citric acid, soybean anything, xylitol and the other innumerable names for “sugar” are all ORGANIC ingredients, as is HFCS, so don’t be alarmed but consider your options, and consider something more natural next time. But this is, as Bear Grylls intones before noshing some still-wriggling feral reptile, good to eat.

Extra Time?

Watch out for hidden ingredients that are not reported on the front label of the food, especially if it is labeled “organic” or “natural”. All-natural and natural are different, and sometimes, like I’ve noticed in a popular protein drink, the new organic formula contained an inorganic additive. Basically, aside from the sugar derivatives, consider being able to pronounce everything in your cheese, yogurt, milk, sports drinks, dressings, sauces and tins of bony fish alike.

Look at SERVINGS PER CONTAINER (BOTTLE/BOX/ ETC.) Consider if you will be eating half portions (serving size) or whole thing (container), and multiply everything if you are eating halves.

Johann Francis, CSCS, CPT is an athlete, nutrition nerd and owner of a fitness studio in San Jose, the city where he acquired his Bachelors in Nutrition. Ask him questions at, and visit for more blogs and videos about nutrition, training technique and motivation.


Grab your smartphone and cue the stopwatch or the alarm and set for 25 seconds. Inhale, tap the start button, and go! Scan the label and then after the beep, put it down and see if you can relate the important info to your friends or a nutrition coach. This is the realist approach to shopping and buying good food, you should be able to determine a food’s purpose in your life within 30 seconds, if you can’t and you haven’t reduced it down to guilty pleasure, move on.

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