Nutrition 101 + 3 key things you may not know about fat, calories & nutrition labels

Nutrition facts, added sugar, healthy lifestyle, balance of ingredients in daily ration, food product label, groceries

Reading a nutrition label can be tricky.

Serving size, percent daily value, all the different fats — breaking it down takes time and expertise.

WellTuned created a guide for that, as well as some other key nutritional resources.

What is it? How does it work? Food guides

An essential nutrient

A superfood


An antioxidant

An amino acid

A dietary supplement

The glycemic index


Plant-based eating

Nutrition labels

Nutrient absorption

Sugary beverages

Food and our brain



Whole grains

Root vegetables

Protein-packed vegetables

Even with all those resources, there are still some facts we’ve yet to explore when it comes to labels — especially with regard to fat and calories.

“In general, labeling foods ‘good,’ ‘clean,’ ‘bad’ or ‘junk’ food can set you up to fail,” says Leslie Cornett, registered dietitian-nutritionist at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “While we want to be mindful of the amount of fat and calories we’re eating — especially if we’re working to get weight under control for health reasons — I never want to encourage someone to give up a food they love for good, or to cut out whole food groups. Moderation is the key to lifelong results.”

3 key things to know about fat and calories on nutrition labels

1. “Healthy” is a relative term, especially as it relates to fat

In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) shifted their dietary fat recommendations:

Now, foods that use the term “healthy” on their labels must either be
Low in total fat OR Have a fat makeup that’s mostly “good” fats
They must also be low in sodium and cholesterol while being significant sources of Vitamins A & C, calcium, iron, protein OR dietary fiber

Today’s recommendations

Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, the FDA recommends a max of 78g of fat per day.

High-fat foods Low-fat foods
20% of total fat per serving 5% of total fat per serving

“Low,” “reduced” and “free”

While the new recommendations take a more holistic approach to health, many brands still use the old designations when it comes to fat and calories. Here are some terms you may see on nutrition labels and what they mean.

Synonyms Objective or relative Definition
Low fat Light


Objective 3 grams of fat or less per serving
Low calorie Objective Fewer than 40 calories
Reduced fat Less



Relative 50% or less of the fat found in the original product
Reduced calorie Relative 25% fewer calories per serving
Fat free Zero


Objective Less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving AND

No added fat or oil

Calorie-free Objective Fewer than 5 calories per serving

As you can see, “fat free” is tricky because brands can round down if the product is a “negligible” or “dietarily insignificant” source of fat.

The issue is further confused because “light” or “lite” versions of foods must:

  • Meet the reduced-calorie mark of having 25% fewer calories/serving than the “regular version” (which is subjective), AND
  • Be lower in fat, although they don’t designate how much lower.

Tips for tackling this

Cornett: Even though labeling claims are not 100%, most of the provided data is within a range that’s reliable enough to use for general nutrition. Try not to feel overwhelmed with the complexities of labels. Instead, use the data as an estimate of the nutrients you’re consuming.   

2. Not all calories and fat are “bad,” but empty calories are

Calories and fat aren’t all created equal. A food that’s high in calories or fat may also be high in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins or minerals. And when it comes to fat specifically, “good fats” such as avocados, nuts and fish are healthy even if they contribute to a calorie-dense meal.

You do want to avoid, however, empty calories: food that comes with little nutritional value in exchange for their calories and fat. Think soda, cookies, snack foods and many baked goods.

Tips for tackling this

Cornett: To evaluate whether a calorie is empty, ask:

  • Does this food or drink satisfy my hunger?
  • Does it have nutritional value?

If the answer is “no” to either or both, you’re probably consuming empty calories.

3. The optimal amount of fat and calories varies person to person

When determining whether a food is a good or bad choice, assess the health benefits of that food as a whole, and consider how it can be worked into your daily meal plan.

Tips for tackling this 

Cornett: For example, if the item has health benefits — nutrients, vitamins and minerals, omega-3 fatty acids — but contains a higher amount of fat and calories, it can still be part of a healthy diet. By measuring the correct portion size, you can still enjoy the food or beverage while remaining within your overall calorie and fat intake.

More from WellTuned: The truth about food trends

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

More Posts - LinkedIn

Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.