Chew on this: 06/30

Back-of-the-envelope nutrition

By Jayne Powers


From picking quality carbohydrates to protein powders and dietary supplements, there are scores of back-of-the-envelope tips to optimize your health and eating habits.

I’ll share a few that I rely on when I shop for food and supplements. But before I do, I’d like to emphasize that these tips are guidelines—starting points, if you will. They are intended to help you make more informed and educated decisions about what you put in your mouth.

If there is something going on with your health and nutrition, partner with your doctor or dietician to ensure that you’re not making a decision that is counterproductive to the positive trajectory of your health in the long term.

One of my favorite tips is how to pick a quality carb—that is, one made of whole grains and with enough fiber. Carbs are essential for life; they give us energy, not only for life but recreational and elite sports performance.

Often, front-of-the-package marketing hype makes it difficult to tease out a quality carb from something that will fill you up without a lot of nutrient value.

With this back-of-the-envelope calculation, you’ll feel more confident that you’ve chosen a healthy product. It is called the 10:1 ratio of total carbohydrate to fiber.

To understand this ratio, forget about front-of-the-package marketing hype, and zoom in on the nutrition facts label. Write down the number of total carbohydrates, expressed in grams, per serving. Do the same thing for the amount of fiber. Multiply the number of grams of fiber by 10. If that number is greater than the total carbs per serving, you’ve got a product worth buying.

Put the product back on the shelf if the total number of grams of fiber is less than the total carbs per serving. Also watch out for fiber overload. You should be spreading out your fiber consumption throughout the day.

You can also look for a yellow-and-black stamp by the nonprofit Whole Grains Council. This special packaging symbol indicates a product has at least eight grams of whole grains per serving. Whole grains contain more fiber than refined grains.

But remember that manufacturers need to pay for the privilege of having their product tested by the Whole Grains Council in order to receive and display the stamp.

So, a product that doesn’t have the stamp isn’t necessarily a bad choice. That’s why the 10:1 ratio is a great calculation.

When it comes to buying protein, I have one calculation and one rule of thumb. Think of a fish, a chicken and cow. Now, fill in the blank: The fewer [blank] the better.

Answer: legs. Yes, the fewer legs the better because you’ll be eating less saturated fat and more omega fatty acids.

Another calculation has to do with whether a protein powder meets its label claims.

The calculation isn’t that hard once you know how many calories are in a gram of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Protein and carbohydrates both contain 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram.

Again, look at the nutrition facts label. Multiply the number of grams of protein by 4; the number of grams of carbs by 4, and the number of grams of fat by 9. Add up those three separate numbers. Take that number, and compare it to the total number of calories per serving.

If there is less than a 10 percent difference between the two numbers (the total calories per serving and the three numbers you just added up), you can rest assured that the manufacturer isn’t trying to hide something in the product.

The two numbers, however, won’t always match up perfectly because manufacturers are allowed to round up.

My next tip is what to look for when buying a multivitamin. I chose multivitamins because they are popular, especially among adult populations.

When you pick up a bottle, turn it around to look at the Daily Values.

If you see words on the front such as “high-potency,” “natural,” “senior formula,” “starch-free” or “slow release,” understand that this is marketing hype and doesn’t serve any purpose other than to jack up the price.

On the back, make sure that the Daily Value of vitamins D, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B2 and folic acid represents a 100 percent for each one. You’ll also want to see that the product contains at least 20 micrograms of vitamin K.

Also, avoid high doses of folic acid, and look for lower levels of vitamin A—no more than 3,000 IU. If you’re getting more than 6,000 IU of vitamin A from food and supplements, you increase your risk of fractures.
Just one more tip, look for packaged or canned food that contains no more than 450 milligrams of sodium per serving. Pasta sauces, frozen pizzas and soup often contain much more than that. By reading the nutrition facts label, you’ll be able to pick a better choice—and lead a healthier life.

Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at, or email your fitness questions to

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Jayne Powers, MA, is a certified nutritionist and personal fitness trainer based in Washington, DC. Her column, Chew on This, speaks from the science of the current state of knowledge about all facets of nutrition. Find her online at

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