Food Labels Explained: 3 Tips on “Calories” vs. “Calories From Fat”

In the process of writing a previous post, I got to thinking about food labels and the ways in which they can be misleading. I’m an attorney by profession, so I’m big on the fine print, but even I get confused sometimes by the writing on the back of a can of tomato sauce or bag of popcorn. So I thought I’d read up on the subject & do a few quick posts in a series called “Food Labels Explained” so you can be more food label savvy! First up? “Calories” vs. “Calories from Fat”. Here are three quick tips on how to understand this part of your food label!

1. A Calorie is a Calorie, Regardless of Its Source

So the first, and perhaps most important, thing to remember when you’re looking at a food label is that a calorie is a calorie. What’s so tricky about food labels that place “Calories” and “Calories from Fat” next to each other, is that we’re inclined (or maybe it’s just me?) to only look at the “Calories from Fat” number when making decisions about the healthiness of that food. But don’t be duped!

Take, for example, my beloved WCP label above. If you only look at the “Calories from Fat” here, you’re only really paying attention to the 50 calorie number, which doesn’t seem that bad for a snack. But remember: a calorie is a calorie! So while it’s nice to know that 50 out of the 130 calories come from fat, that doesn’t mean that those other 80 calories have disappeared. You’ve got to take the total into account when you’re buying food!

2. Understand How Calories Impact Weight Gain/Loss

To go a bit deeper, let’s talk about where calories come from. Fats are not the only source of calories! We focus so much on fat (for reasons that I’ll discuss in a future post) that we often ignore the other 2 calorie sources: proteins and carbs. Now, some foods are more “calorie expensive” than others. Carbs and protein have ~4 calories per gram while fats have ~9 calories per gram. (Alcohol has ~7 calories/gram fyi.) [1] The “Calories from Fat” number is just the number that the food distributor came up with by determining the total grams of fat in the food then multiplying that number by ~9.  This should yield an estimate of the calories that are just coming from the fat content. So, what’s the problem with this?

Well first off, it’s not entirely accurate all the time and this can be a big problem if you’re counting calories to lose weight. Again, check out my WCP label above. According to the bag, there are 6 grams of fat in each serving of WCP, but: 6 grams of fat x 9 calories per gram of fat =54 calories (not 50 calories!) (Those 4 calories might not seem like a lot, but just wait until we start talking about serving size in a future post). So remember that these labels are just estimates.

But what’s really wrong here? Like I said, fats aren’t the only source of calories in the food! Studies show that where your calories come from isn’t as important to weight loss/gain as how many calories you actually consume. [2][3] So while “Calories from Fat” can be helpful in giving you a sense of how fatty something is, it’s not the whole picture when it comes to determining calorie content and, ultimately, a healthy diet.

3. Use “Calories from Fat” for Good Not Evil

So how can “Calories from Fat” be helpful? Well, as mentioned above, the “Calories from Fat” number does give you a sense of what proportion of the calories you are getting are coming from fat. So you can use this number as a general guidepost for how you’re spending your calories. While a calorie is a calorie, there are other health benefits to lowering your fat intake (lowers cholesterol, reduces risks of heart disease, etc) which are also important to eating a healthy diet. So “Calories from Fat” isn’t totally meaningless information, it just needs to be used in the best way!

Does the “Calories From Fat” number confuse you? How do you interpret it? Do you think food labels could be improved?

Stay tuned for the next “Food Labels Explained” on Serving Size!



About ChicFitChef

My "deserted island" checklist: a BCBG dress, a healthy & diabetic-friendly meal and a few workout DVDs. ;-)
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7 Responses to Food Labels Explained: 3 Tips on “Calories” vs. “Calories From Fat”

  1. jfgemini says:

    I’m glad you posted this . Last week, a friend called me asking about the purpose of that number and I couldn’t answer, because I never really paid attention to it. I always looked at the overall number of calories.
    As usual, thanks for posting.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Thanks for your comment! I hope you can forward this post to your friend; there are lot of numbers of the “Nutrition Facts” food labels that are confusing, so hopefully this series helps!

  2. I think they should have “calories from sugar” since it seems these days more often than not, the sugar is the one hidden in packaged foods not fat.

    • ChicFitChef says:

      Like x 1,000,000!! Such a great comment- I couldn’t agree more. I was watching this great documentary on the rise of “sugar” as the new additive in packaged foods and one of the speakers said that part of the reason why companies started adding sugar was because consumers had become so focused on “low-fat” and “non-fat” products that sugar was needed to make fat-free foods taste good! So basically they replaced calories from fat with calories from carbs…Again GREAT COMMENT! -CFC

  3. Zenith says:

    Great post! I just try to avoid packaged, canned or bottled food at all cost. These labels are too confusing. I figure, if I keep things really simple, I can’t go wrong. So, very little of what I eat comes from a package. The very few things I do need that are in a package are routine staples- lentils, grains.

  4. Pingback: Food Labels Explained: The Importance of Serving Size | ChicFitChef™

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