Nutrition Label Basics: Balancing Carbohydrates and Protein

Sorting out the good carbohydrates from the bad

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

How much protein should you eat per day? What makes a good carbohydrate? Professor Ormsbee answers these questions and more as you strive towards a healthy mix of carbohydrates and proteins.

Variety of healthy foods
While planning your intake of carbohydrates and proteins, use food labels on packaging to help you calculate calories. Photo By AlexeiLogvinovich / Shutterstock

Deciphering Food Labels

Learning how to accurately read food labels can help you to make consistent good decisions about what to buy and eat. It will only help, though, if you take the time to evaluate whether the food has the nutritional makeup and quality to meet your goals. For example, carbohydrates and proteins each provide about four calories per gram (g), but fats provide more at nine calories per g.

You should also have an idea of what the recommended ranges of each nutrient are for you based on factors like your age, weight, and gender. However, keep in mind that current science continues to update the recommendations that you should follow. 

It may take some getting used to—reading nutrition labels takes time and makes grocery shopping take a lot longer when you first get started. Let’s go through a food label and consider some general rules of thumb. The first thing Professor Ormsbee recommends is making sure to get the right amount of protein in your diet.

Getting Enough Protein

Protein is vital to normal body function and improved body composition. It keeps you full and less likely to gorge at other meals. 

In order to determine the correct amount to consume, Professor Ormsbee recommends using hand sizes to estimate your needs. However, you can also count calories for a short period of time, until you develop a routine. 

You can determine your protein needs based upon numerous factors like age, gender, and goals. Most people will fall somewhere between 1–1.5 g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body mass for their protein needs. 

For a 150 pound (lb), or 68 kg, person, this would be between 70–100 g of protein per day. Then, read the label to see how much protein you are eating with each meal.

Next, add up the grams of protein and multiply by four—the conversion factor for protein grams to protein calories. Now, you have your calorie intake from protein.

“In my research showing improvements in body composition with higher protein, I ask participants to include a good protein source at each meal,” Professor Ormsbee said. “It could be eggs in the morning; a protein shake; lean meats; or combinations of vegetables, seeds, beans, and nuts.”

Evaluating Carbohydrates

Once your protein is dialed in, use the Nutrition Facts label to look at your carbohydrate intake. You may be surprised at just how many carbohydrates and sugars are in common foods that you eat. 

They may be simple sugars like fruits and juices or complex starches like whole grains and vegetables. Also, many empty calories are typically high in carbohydrates—things like candies, sodas, many juices, and white bread.

One good approach is to try and limit the amount of simple sugars you eat or drink and choose more complex starches instead. These foods like vegetables and whole grains usually have more fiber, too. 

On the food label, compare the total carbohydrate value to the amount of sugar and fiber in the product. Is there a high amount of sugar compared to the total carbohydrate value? If so, this is probably a simple carbohydrate that should be limited, the only exceptions being certain disease conditions and maybe for some very active people during exercise.

If there is a high amount of fiber and a low amount of sugar compared to the total carbohydrate in the product, this is probably the better day-to-day option. Keep in mind, though, that at some level, sugar is sugar—whether it is from added sugars, natural sugars, or refined sugars, it all counts towards your sugar or carbohydrate intake. Some recent research even shows that we may be better able to choose our carbohydrates based upon the ratio of carbohydrates to fiber in grams per serving listed on the Nutrition Label.

If the ratio is greater than 10:1 for carbohydrates to fiber, the recommendation is to avoid this food. If the ratio is less than 10:1, it is likely a good choice, and if the ratio is less than 5:1, this is a great choice. 

For example, if your drink has 25 g of sugar and only 1 g of fiber, this is a 25:1 ratio and would be classified as a food to avoid by this scale. This metric is not perfect because it doesn’t include the glycemic index, but it may lead you to better carbohydrate choices. Lastly, you should try to identify whole grains or oats as the first ingredient on the list at the bottom of the label for carbohydrate foods.

A range of 45–65% of carbohydrate intake in your total diet is typically recommended. For body composition purposes, much of the current research is indicating that you should aim toward the lower end of this spectrum. This means smart carbohydrate choices at each meal, along with a healthy balance of carbohydrates and protein. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.