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How to Read Food Labels As an Athlete

By Jiri Kaloc

Are you one of those cyclists that looks at every food label before buying to see if it’s healthy and the right fit for the training plan? If yes, then maybe you should know that food labels are not really designed for athletes. There are a few things you should keep in mind so you don’t get fooled by them.

Intended for a sedentary person

Food label guidelines vary from country to country but most of the time they are required to list the total number of calories, carbohydrate, fat and protein amounts as well as a few other key nutrients. These numbers can be expressed per 100 g of a product, per serving or as a percentage of recommended daily intake. The problem with this is that most countries are assuming an average person, mostly sedentary, that has an average expenditure of 2,000 kcal per day.

Algarve cycling
As an active athlete you are burning more than a sedentary person. © Profimedia

As an active person who rides a bicycle several times per week, you’re likely burning much more than that. On training days, you could easily get above 4,000 kcal. Some of the suggested portions or percentages on food labels might be very misleading for you. Let’s take a look at a few specific nutrients.

Salt and sodium

The average person is thought to eat too much salt. That’s why it’s a nutrient of concern and food producers have to declare how much salt they are adding to their products. This can be useful to someone who is dealing with high blood pressure and is sedentary. An active cyclist on the other hand can lose a lot of sodium through sweat when training. This means cyclists need to replenish this essential electrolyte after training and their requirements can exceed those of average sedentary people severalfold.

Added sugar

It’s a similar story when it comes to sugar. Excess sugar intake can be quite unhealthy and potentially lead to diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. But what constitutes an excess of sugar for an average sedentary person might not be an excess for an active cyclist that regularly burns a lot of sugar on rides.

Information about sugar can be problematic even on labels of sports nutrition products. Even though an energy gel tells you how many grams of sugar it contains, it doesn’t differentiate between the different types of sugar molecules. For example, fructose and galactose are simple sugars that produce a smaller insulin response and deliver sugar into the bloodstream slower than glucose. This could be valuable info to know when making a specific plan for race nutrition.

Portion sizes

Energy gels also often suffer from poor portion recommendations. Gel manufacturers often tell athletes to consume 2 gels per hour on the label. Unfortunately, this can be very poor advice in many scenarios. For shorter races lasting under an hour, you might not need any gels to maintain performance. And for long multi-hour races, you might need 3 or even more as you’re trying to get the maximum number of carbs into your system.

Make your own conclusions

Physical activity such as cycling changes the requirements for calories, carbohydrates, salt and likely several other essential nutrients. It’s good to know what the manufacturer puts on the label but always keep in mind that most of the info won’t be tailored to your needs. If you live an active lifestyle, and especially if you train hard, you have to go beyond reading food labels. You have to test and see how much of a certain food you need to cover your needs on a given day.