How To Read Nutrition Labels
Understanding nutrition labels is the key to making better food choices, losing weight, meeting fitness goals and lowering the likelihood of nutrition-related health issues.
Serving Size and Calories
Serving Size: The serving size on food labels is not the amount that is recommended for you to eat. It’s the amount that the general American population typically eats. Serving size is displayed on food labels in common measuring units (cups, pieces, cookies, slices, tablespoons, etc.) and in the metric measuring unit (grams). Above the words “serving size,” the food label states how many of the serving sizes make up a container. This can help you be mindful while you’re eating.
- Pro-tip: Portion out the recommended servings of your food in advance to ensure you’re eating only one serving per sitting.
Calories: The calories stated are the number of calories per serving, not the number of calories in the whole container. When you have two, three, or four servings of food, you have two, three, or four times the calories listed on the food label. This applies for all nutrients listed on the food label.
Nutrients: Macros and Micros
The nutrient section is broken up into two parts, separated by a bold line: macronutrients and micronutrients. Macronutrients (nutrients required in large amounts in your diet) include fat, protein and carbohydrates. These are your body’s main energy sources. Micronutrients (nutrients required in small amounts) are vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (chemicals of plant origin).
Fat: This is the first nutrient on a food label. Fat can be broken up into three main categories: Unsaturated, saturated and trans. When it comes to fats, you want saturated and trans-fat to be as low as possible in your daily diet.
- Unsaturated fats – These are the “good” fats: monounsaturated and poly unsaturated fats. You can find these fats in avocados, nuts, peanut butter, salmon and oils.
- Saturated fat – The American Heart Association states eating foods that contain saturated fats raises the level of cholesterol in your blood. High levels of LDL cholesterol in your blood increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. It is recommended to not exceed 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
- Trans fat – According to the American Heart Association, trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol levels. Eating trans fats increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. It’s also associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Keep trans fat to as close to 0 as possible.
- Cholesterol: While there used to be a 300-milligram recommended limit on dietary cholesterol, there is currently no limit to amount of cholesterol consumed through food. What’s a dietitian's recommendation, you ask? Eat high cholesterol foods in moderation.
- Sodium: Sodium aka salt is high in processed foods. The daily recommendation for sodium is 2300 milligrams or less. One teaspoon of table salt alone is 2300 milligram of sodium.
- Carbohydrates: Despite what trendy diets may try to tell you, carbohydrates aren’t bad! Dietary fiber, soluble fiber and insoluble fiber are examples of good carbs and can be found in fruits, grains, vegetables and milk products. Carbs are also essential for brain function. Sugar is where carbohydrates get complicated. The term “total sugar” includes sugars found naturally in foods (sugar in fruits, like grapes) and “added sugars” (the white grainy stuff used to make a grape lollipop).
- Natural sugars are OK to eat! They come paired up with vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables.
- Added sugars are what we want to limit and avoid. You want to limit the calories you receive from added sugar to 10% or less of your total calories. This means less than 200 calories or 50 grams a day from added sugars, according to Dietary Guidelines of Americans.
Protein: Protein comes from foods like chicken, eggs, beef, pork, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and dairy. When eating protein, make sure you have the least amount of fat possible.
Micronutrients: There are four micronutrients required on food labels: iron, potassium, vitamin D and calcium. These specific nutrients are included because it is recommended that each American receives 100% of the daily value of the respective nutrient from food.
Daily Values and Ingredients
% Daily Value: This section tells you how much of your daily value or recommended amount of each nutrient will be met with one serving of the food. The percentages are based on a healthy, 2000 calorie diet.
General Guide to %DV
- 5% DV or less of a nutrient per serving is low.
- 20% DV or more of a nutrient per serving is high.
Ingredients: The ingredient list can be found underneath the food label and is organized in order of quantity.
- The first item listed in the ingredients list is primarily used to create the product and is followed in descending order by those in smaller amounts.
- Common names are in the ingredient list over scientific names.
Understanding food labels can help you achieve weight loss goals and kickstart or maintain a healthy lifestyle. These labels can even help you make healthy choices when you are dining out and at fast food restaurants.
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