By now, you should all be aware that how you feel, how you look, and essentially how you live largely depend on the foods that you choose eat.
It’s that simple.
Whether you are trying to lose weight, gain weight or simply lead a healthy lifestyle, 70% of your results will be determined by the quality and quantity of the foods you choose to consume.
But how do you know exactly what you’re consuming?
How do you know if you’re truly getting the nutrients you need to achieve the results that you’re after?
You can’t undermine the importance of understanding your food – the importance of understanding the exact value you are getting from the foods you are consuming. I’m a huge believer that each and every one of us should have a general understanding of what our foods are comprised of and what they can offer us in terms of nutritional value.
Today I want to share with you one of the most powerful online resources I have found that can help you do exactly that. I have been using this tool extensively to fully analyze, compare and track the foods that I am eating.
The tool I am referring to is called Nutrition Data and it’s going to help you make better food choices.
Let me show you how it works…
Nutrition Data is a large database that contains information on all the foods you could possibly imagine. With this tool, you can dissect any food item you choose and examine its nutritional properties.
There are literally thousands of features provided (for FREE) on this site and it would probably take me hours to explain them all. I don’t have that kind of time (and I’m guessing you don’t either). Instead, I’m going to show you the basics of how to analyze a food item so you can start using the tool right away.
When you power up Nutrition Data, you’ll see a screen like this:
Notice the search bar in the top right corner (I circled it for you). That’s where we’re going to start.
Note: As mentioned, Nutrition Data is packed with tons of features and information – it’s kind of overwhelming at first. For what I’m going to show you today, however, you don’t need to create an account (which is free anyways). I’m going to be covering the insider features in a future post.
Anyways, back to the search bar.
Type in the food you want to analyze. For the sake of this post, let’s take a look at one of my favorite snack foods – raw blueberries.
When you search for a food item, you can choose to do a broad search (leave category blank) or you can specify a category and search for something specific. For instance, if you do a broad search for blueberries, you’ll get results for cereals that have blueberries in them, blueberry smoothies and juices, raw blueberries and much more. But, if you specify the ‘Fruits and Fruit Juices’ category, you’ll get results for raw blueberries and blueberry juices only.
To make things easier, I always just type the food item and hit enter. Nutrition Data will then list out the categories for me that contain that food item. I can then expand to a specific search very quickly. It’s pretty cool.
After you type in blueberries, here are the results that come up:
We want to analyze raw blueberries.
When you click on the link, the analysis page will come up. This is the standard analysis page for every food item.
If you are having trouble finding what you are searching for, here are some great search tips provided by Nutrition Data.
Ok, it’s time to dig in a bit.
The first thing you should notice is the serving size. Always remember to check the serving size first! Many people make the mistake of thinking the nutritional value they read on a food label is for the entire serving when instead the values are only for a quarter of the serving. It’s easy to accidentally multiply your intake so be careful!
The serving size options depend on the food item you select. Obviously solids and liquids will have different measuring standards. Note that changing the serving size will update the information provided on the rest of the results (i.e. food label, etc.).
Let’s choose a 1 cup serving size – a standard 148g of blueberries. (I’m snacking on some right now)
Nutrition Facts Label
The first thing that should stand out is the nutrition facts label. If you’ve read my posts on what is so bad about sugar and what is so bad about sodium, you’ll know how important it is to learn how to accurately read a food label. The label will give you information about the nutrients the FDA has identified as the most critical in one’s diet.
The nutrition facts label is the same format as the one you would find on the packaged goods sold so you no longer need to go to the grocery store to read the food label. You can prepare everything ahead of time using Nutrition Data.
As you can see, I can examine exactly what I’m getting from one cup of raw blueberries. I’m getting 84 calories, minimum sodium, 21 g of carbohydrates (remember that fruits are high in natural sugars – simple carbohydrates). Blueberries are also packed with Vitamin C.
You can do the same analysis with any food item you choose. It’s very simple.
Right beside the nutrition facts label are two little coloured graphs.
Nutritional Target Map
The first is the patented Nutritional Target Map. This little thing maps foods based on two factors. The first is the fullness factor (FF), which signifies the satiating effect of the food (how full you feel after eating a certain quantity of it). The higher the FF, the more filling the food is per calorie. The lower the FF, the more calories you’ll have to consume before you feel full.
Think about the importance of this for a second. If your goal is to lose weight, you want to look for foods that have a high FF because you will feel fuller on fewer calories. If you’re looking to gain weight, you want to find foods that have a low FF number because you want foods that are more calorically dense.
The second factor that makes up the Nutritional Target Map is the Nutrition Data Rating. This factor simply identifies how nutritious a food item is. Nutrition Data states that
“The ND Rating takes into account the nutrient density of the food (how many nutrients per calorie), how many different essential nutrients are present, the relative importance of the nutrients present, and the amount of nutrients that are frequently over consumed.”
When I’m looking to gain weight in a healthy manner, I’ll typically choose foods that are nutritious but not very filling (so I can eat more of it for excess calories). On the contrary, if I’m trying to cut down, I’ll choose foods that are both nutritious and filling. Either way, I’m always looking for foods that are high in nutritional content.
At first this graph seems a little bit confusing, but this picture provided by Nutrition Data should clarify things up a bit. Simply look at what quadrant the food item lies in for quick reference to its nutritional value and filling effect.
Take a look at where blueberries lie on the Nutritional Target Map:
Blueberries have a fullness factor of 3.1 and a ND rating of 3.1. This means that one cup of blueberries provides a lot of nutritional value per calorie (remember that one cup of blueberries is 84 calories as shown in the nutrition facts label). It also means that one cup of blueberries is slightly filling.
You can do this for any food item you choose. Try it out!
Nutrition Data gives you it’s own summary of fullness factor and ND rating called Nutrition Data’s opinion. It simply tells you what they think the food is good for and what it’s bad for. It’s interesting to see what they have to say.
Caloric Ratio Pyramid
The second little graph is the Caloric Ratio Pyramid. This graph shows you the exact percentage of the food’s calories that are derived from the three main macronutrients—carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Check out the caloric ratio pyramid for blueberries:
This is important to know if you are aiming for a specific ratio of nutrients. Many popular diets are based on particular caloric ratios. For example, when I was on my low-carbohydrate diet when I was trying to cut down, I looked for foods that were far away from the green tip. I would just look for foods that sat near the blue point. You don’t really have to look at the graph itself – you can just look at the numbers right underneath.
Blueberries lie in the green, bottom left point of the triangle meaning it is highly composed of carbohydrates. This makes sense because if you look in the nutrition facts label you see that it’s high in sugar content (simple carbohydrates). It’s really important to understand the macronutrient composition of various foods.
Estimated Glycemic Load
Nutrition Data also provides the estimated Glycemic Load. We should all have heard of the Glycemic Load and the Glycemix index by now. If you don’t know what it is, I have a detailed explanation written in my recent post on what is so bad about sugar.
I try to aim for foods that have a low Glycemic Load. These are foods such as complex carbohydrates that take longer to get absorbed and thus don’t spike your blood sugar levels as quickly. If you are a diabetic, this can be extremely useful.
Check out the glycemic load of blueberries:
It’s at a very low glycemic load of 6 (out of 250).
Note that Nutrition Data states that the typical target total is 100/day or less. If you are eating foods that have a high estimated glycemic load (i.e. very sugary foods), you will quickly climb past that target. Be careful with foods that have a high glycemic load.
Inflammation Factor Rating
One nutrition factor I unfortunately don’t use as much as I should is the Inflammation Factor Rating. This factor is simply an estimate of the inflammatory or anti-inflammatory potential of the food item (or combination of food items).
Scientists have found that foods with a high inflammation factor lead to increased risk of variety of diseases. Thus, many nutritional experts say you should minimize your consumption of inflammatory-inducing foods.
The inflammatory rating of blueberries is -28 which means that the food is slightly inflammatory.
Don’t worry so much about this stat. Simply try to balance negative foods with positive foods so that the combined rating for all foods eaten in a single day is positive. The target is at 50/day based on Nutrition Data.
Nutrient Balance Indicator
For me, one of the most interesting pieces of information provided by Nutrition Data is the Nutrient Balance Indicator. In their own words:
The Nutrient Balance Indicator lets you see at a glance the nutritional strengths and weaknesses of a food, and can help you construct meals that are more nutritionally balanced.
If you look at the wheel below, you’ll notice that it’s composed of numerous spokes. Each spoke represents a different nutrient. The spoke for dietary fiber is colored green, protein is blue, vitamins are purple, minerals are white, and yellow represents a group of commonly overconsumed nutrients—saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Notice how far the colours extend on each spoke. They are all different. The closer they are to the outer edge, the denser that nutrient is for that particular food. Take a look at the Nutrient Balance Indicator for blueberries:
You can quickly see that blueberries are high in dietary fiber, Vitamin C & K, and Manganese (has some copper as well).
The NB Indicator also comes with what is called the Completeness Score. This score simply summarizes how complete the particular food item is with respect to the 23 essential nutrients.
Blueberries sit at a score of 42.
As you can see, this is a really easy way to visually summarize a food’s nutritional strengths and weaknesses. You can see what nutrients are abundant and what nutrients are lacking. For instance, blueberries are abundant in Vitamin C but lack lack Vitamin A, D and B. By understanding this, we can find another food item that is abundant in Vitamins A, D and B to create a complete, balanced meal. This is very powerful stuff.
Protein Quality Score
Finally, we have the Protein Quality Score. I don’t want to go into the details between complete and incomplete proteins. There are 20 amino acids that make up all proteins in the human body and they are all required for your body to function optimally. Up to 12 (9-12 actually) of these amino acids are non-essential, meaning your body can manufacture them. The remaining 8-9 amino acids need to be obtained through your diet. Regularly consuming incomplete proteins means you are not providing your body with all the amino acids it requires to repair and function properly.
The Protein Quality Score is dependent on having all the essential amino acids in the proper proportions. If it happens that one or more amino acids are not present in sufficient quantities, the protein in a food is considered incomplete.
Nutrition Data states that:
“Each spoke on the Protein Quality Indicator represents one of the nine essential amino acids. The size of each spoke is proportionate to the percentage of the optimal level for that amino acid. The amino acid with the lowest level is considered the “limiting” amino acid for that food and determines the overall Amino Acid Score.“
The beautiful thing about the Protein Quality Score is that if it is under 100, meaning the food does not provide all 9 essential amino acids, Nutrition Data will provide a list of complementary sources of protein. This is a list of foods that are higher in the limiting amino acid(s). Basically, it shows you what you need to take to get a complete source of protein.
Take a look at the protein quality score for blueberries:
Notice how it is lacking in 3 amino acids. If I click on the complementary protein sources, I am taken to a search result page that lists off all food items that are high in these 3 amino acids.
For example, one of the amino acids that blueberries lack is Lysine. If I look at the complementary results, I see one of the food items listed is turkey pastrami (the results page is huge for Lysine). Examining turkey pastrami, I see it is very high in Lysine.
The concept is simple but very powerful.
So there you have it. I apologize for the obscene length of this article, but I really wanted to explain everything in detail to make sure you can take advantage of Nutrition Data right away.
Have you used Nutrition Data before? If so, share a bit about your experience with the tool in the comments below. If you haven’t, give it a try and let me know what you think!