Human Nutrition: Label Reading & Determining Your Calorie Needs

If you’re new to the series, you can start here

So many of you were concerned about label reading and guessing at your calorie needs in the questionnaire, that I decided to rearrange the lessons and address some of your (and my) concerns first. We will cover understanding labels and claims, what’s allowable by law, and what those claims really mean. Then, I will briefly touch on determining your calorie needs. First things first, let’s learn how to read a label and interpret package claims.

Reading Labels

Nearly everything you can buy for consumption must have a label that lists its contents, nutrition information, the name and address of the manufacturer, and how much product is inside the package. The exceptions to this rule are fresh fish, vegetables, and fruits. They are not required to have labels, though sometimes they do. The FDA monitors the labeling here in The States, and there are some components that must always be listed on the nutrition label: total calories, fat calories, total fat, trans fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, total carbohydrate, sugar, protein, fiber, vitamins A & C, iron, and calcium. Manufacturers can choose to list optional information, like potassium, and poly- and monounsaturated fats. If the food is fortified, or if the packaging makes a specific health claim, it becomes mandatory to list those optional items.

Similar items must use the same serving size. So, all brands of soda pop must use the same serving size on their label, even if the container holds more (or less) product. Everything on a label is based on a 2,000 kcal diet, and are useless pertaining to carbohydrates and fats for people who have calorie needs that are considerably less-or-greater than 2,000 per day. 

A Spork In The Road Human Nutrition Label Diagram

Nutrient Claims

Sugar Free doesn’t always mean there is literally no sugar in the product. Sugar free applies if there is less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. Similarly, this is true of calories (<5kcal), fats (<0.5 g/serving), sodium (<5 mg/serving), and cholesterol (<2 mg cholesterol AND <2 g saturated fat/serving). 

  • Low Cholesterol – <20 mg cholesterol AND <2 g fat/serving, if the serving size is 30 g or 2 tbsp. or less per 50 g of the product
  • Low Sodium – <140 mg/serving, if the serving size is 30 g or 2 tbsp. or less per 50 g of the product
  • Low Fat – <3 g/serving, if the serving size is 30 g or 2 tbsp. or less per 50 g of the product. 2% milk is no longer “low fat” because it exceeds 3g/serving.
  • Low Calorie – <40 kcal/serving, if the serving size is 30 g or 2 tbsp. or less per 50 g of the product

No Added Sugar is a little tricky. It means that the product it resembles/substitutes for normally contains added sugar, no sugar was added during processing or packaging, processing didn’t increase the sugar content, and it has to note that it is not a low-cal or reduced-cal food, if it isn’t.

Some other terms can be misleading and/or open to interpretation, like “healthy”. An item labeled healthy must be low in fat and saturated fat, have no more than 60 mg cholesterol or 360-480 mg sodium, as long as it provides at least 10% DV of iron, calcium, fiber, protein, or vitamins A or C.

  • Lite/Light – has 1/2 the fat or 1/3-less calories OR 50% less sodium than the “normal” product. The exception is when the word light refers to the texture or color of the product.
  • Enriched/Fortified – minerals and/or vitamins have been added in excess of 10% of what is usually in the product. Fortified usually means adding nutrients not usually in the food, and enriched usually means replacing what was lost during processing.

There are many more claims that can be made and misleading on a product label. If you have questions about your labels, ask your registered dietitian or primary care physician.

Determining Your Calorie Needs

I received so many varied responses on the questionnaire that I think it is paramount that you learn right now how to do the math and determine your current calorie requirements. First, it’s probably not 2,000 kcal. Second, 1,400 is probably way too low, unless you’ve been given that number by a qualified person who did the math based on the information we’ll go over below. Your body uses more calories than you think, even when you’re sedentary, for basic functions that allow you to continue
to breathe. For the purposes of this exercise, we’ll use my numbers. Feel free to pull out a pencil and calculator and follow along with your numbers.

A Spork in the Road - Physical Activity EstimatesEER = Estimated Energy Requirement
AGE = in years
PA = Physical Activity Estimate (see chart)
WT = Weight in kilograms (pounds ÷ 2.2)
HT = Height in meters (inches ÷ 39.4)


The Math

Women 19+ years: EER = 354 – (6.91 x AGE) + PA × { (9.36 x WT) + (726 x HT) }

Men 19+ years: EER = 662 – (9.53 x AGE) + PA × { (15.91 x WT) + (539.6 x HT) }

EER = 354 – (6.91 × 40) + 1.12 × { (9.36 x 54.54) + (726 x 1.62) }
EER = 354 – (276) + 1.12 × { (510.49) + (1176.12) }
EER = 354 – (276) + 1.12 × { 1,686.61}
EER = 354 – (276) + 1,889
EER = 78 + 1,889
EER = 1,967

As you can see, my daily calorie requirement is 1,967 kcal because I walk regularly and intentionally, just not far. If I was sedentary, my calorie requirements would only be 1,686 kcal, so my fat and carbohydrate requirements would be less than those of the general 2,000 kcal diet. 

We will go over weight loss, metabolism, and energy balance in a few weeks. Until then, pay attention to those labels, and maybe track your intake for a normal day to compare your intake with what you SHOULD  be having.

If you have any questions, email me or drop them in the comments.


Human Nutrition: Label Reading & Determining Your Calorie Needs

About Terra Walker

Terra loves creating recipes, imparting wisdom, searching for an amazing cider, owning this website, and traveling the globe. You can catch up with Terra on the channels above, where she never uses third person, because she hates writing about herself that way.


  1. This is such a helpful post! Thank you so much! I never knew that “sugar free” doesn’t always mean no sugar. What? Who knew? I appreciate you sharing this fabulous post!

  2. Wow thanks for explaining all these in details and showing the maths! I learn something in this post!

  3. Thanks for pointing out some of those tricky food label terms. There are so many words that can be used on a food label that are completed unregulated and often misleading. And those “no refined sugar” claims are, to me, often the most misleading. Because those foods can sometimes still be filled with unhealthy amounts of sugar. Thanks for breaking this down like you did.

  4. a much needed calorie chart

  5. I am an engineer by profession. Hence, I pay attention to details and the science behind the label and nutrition. There are plenty of BS in the market place these days about diet and nutrition. I like how you did the math about caloric consumption. Well done!

What do you think?