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Tips for Reading Nutrition Labels

More than ever before, there’s been an uptick in curiosities surrounding the foods we are eating.

The average consumer is spending more time scouring the Internet and aisles for the best and healthiest options. You have probably noticed or heck, may be part of this trend when it comes to researching healthier alternatives in an effort to improve your health, make changes and see results.

And, it’s no surprise how daunting this can feel because there’s almost too much information. Plus, nutrition labels feel like long lists of stuff we don’t necessarily understand and seldom pay attention to.

So, how can you quickly read a nutrition label and decide whether or not it’s a “good for you” option?

How can you truly know the product you are purchasing for yourself and / or your family is the better option?

Food products and nutrition labels are full of information. While some of this information is mandated, beware as some of the labels contain more buzz words (gluten free, all natural, organic, made with real cheese/fruit, etc.) to lure you in and make you believe what you’re buying is healthier and better when that’s NOT necessarily the case.

If you want to improve your diet and health, reading and understanding the nutritional contents of what you’re eating / drinking is very important!

While weight loss comes down to how much you’re eating calorie wise, quality of food is equally as important. In the U.S., nutrition labels and a list of ingredients on all packaged foods are required by the FDA. As always, real, nutrient-dense foods are always your best option for optimal health but, sometimes you just need convenience.

Today’s blog breaks down each component of a nutrition label to help you:

  • Become a more informed consumer

  • Take charge and make better choices

  • Get BETTER, long-lasting results!


BEGINNERS GUIDE TO NURITION LABELS

#1. SERVING SIZE

When reading a nutrition label, this is the first stop. Now, when interpreting this part be mindful because depending on the product/ package size, there can be anywhere from one to several servings per package. Along with the number of servings, the weight, volume or number of items per serving (i.e. 9 tortilla chips) is often listed as well.

  • What this means to you: Serving sizes are important when controlling and managing portions. IF you are monitoring caloric intake, this is especially true! Sometimes there is a big difference between the serving size on the label compared to recommended portions/how much you want to eat plus how much of the other stuff you eating (i.e. sodium, cholesterol, etc.).

  • For example: the nutrition label for almonds may be 1 oz, the equivalent of 24 almonds. However, the recommended serving of a healthy fat like almonds is 1 tablespoon for women (appox. 9 almonds) and two tablespoons for men (approx. 18 almonds). See how easily serving size can lead to over-eating?

#2. CALORIES PER SERVING

The total number of calories per serving will be a combination of the 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates). Once again, being mindful of calories will have a major impact when looking to make changes to your body composition.

  • What does this mean to you: At its very core, weight/fat loss depends on calories in and calories out. In order to achieve weight/fat loss, it is necessary to consume fewer calories than you are burning in a day on a consistent basis. To achieve weight gain, you need to be eating more calories than you are burning.

**Not sure what an appropriate amount of calories are for your personal goals? This is where a nutrition coach can help (wink wink).

#3. TOTAL FAT

Dietary fats are essential for important body systems such as protecting your organs, keeping your body warm, allowing your body to absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, plus brain and nerve function. However, not all fats are created equal:

Saturated fats and trans are fats that lead to disease states such as high cholesterol, heart disease, and stroke. Examples include fried foods, baked goods, snack foods such as potato chips, and fast food. These types of fats should be avoided in order to maintain optimal health.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the heart-healthy fats required by your body to function at its best. Heart-healthy fats include items such as nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil, and fish.

  • What this means to you: Circling back to calories, fats are the most calorie dense of all 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, carbs): one gram of fat contains 9 calories. Because fats contain more calories in smaller packages compared to proteins and carbohydrates, it’s very easy to overconsume calories (go back to the almond example above). For reference, proteins and carbohydrates each contain 4 calories per gram.

  • When focusing on serving sizes of heart-healthy dietary fats, use your thumb as a guide. One “thumb” of dietary fat is approximately equal to 1 tablespoon. When creating a meal, females should aim for 1 thumb of fat per meal and males should aim for 1-2 thumbs of fat per meal.

#4. CHOLESTEROL 

Did you know cholesterol is naturally produced in your body primarily by the liver? Therefore, it is not necessary to obtain cholesterol from food. However, dietary cholesterol is often found in many of the foods eat like processed meats, dairy products, and animal products.

  • What does this mean for you: The USDA recommends no more than 300mg of cholesterol/ day. To put this in perspective, one hot dog contains 50mg.

  • Just like dietary fats, not all cholesterol is created equal. Eating too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure and puts you at higher risk for needing daily medication to control the issue. If you want to improve your overall health, start reading labels and avoid cholesterol sources such as processed meats, hot dogs, and fried foods. When choosing animal products, aim for leaner cuts of unprocessed meats to reduce your cholesterol intake.

#5. SODIUM

Sodium can be a sneaky culprit, especially in packaged foods. Have you ever felt extra puffy and bloated after eating canned or pre-packaged foods? To preserve these products and extend their shelf life so you can store it in your pantry requires a LOT of sodium! Another common source of high sodium foods? Restaurants!

  • What does this mean to you: The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than 2,300 milligrams/day.

  • If you are suffering from high blood pressure, sodium should be paid special attention to. While this should always be on your radar, it is especially true for maintaining healthy blood pressure levels. Like high cholesterol, if you have chronically high blood pressure, you will likely require daily medication to control the issue. However, making changes to what you’re eating and opting for healthier foods can help reduce blood pressure and keep you off meds (while saving money!).

#6. CARBOHYDRATES

Just like dietary fats, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Just because a product is high in carbohydrates does NOT mean it is not good for you.

  • What this means for you: If it is a nutrient-dense, smart carbohydrate such as whole grains, it is a great choice when consumed in the proper amounts. An appropriate serving size for females is 1 cupped handful per meal (1/2 cup) for ladies and 1-2 cupped handfuls (~1/2-1 cup) per meal for males.

  • Now, this is much different if it’s a simple carbohydrate found in sugary snack foods such as cookies, cake, soda, etc. These types of carbs should be limited and enjoyed in moderation. If you are unsure, check the ingredients. If it contains items such as high fructose corn syrup, sugar, etc. it is a simple carbohydrate. If it contains items such as whole grains, brown rice, beans, etc. it is likely a smart carbohydrate.

#7. FIBER

Dietary fiber aids in digestion and keeps you fuller and satisfied for longer.

  • What this means for you: The recommended daily amount of fiber for females is 21-25 grams per day and 30-38 grams for males. Foods with a higher fiber content include whole-wheat pasta, oats, and beans.

 

#8. SUGAR

If the item contains a high amount of sugar, it is likely a simple carbohydrate; the carbs you want to eat only in moderation.

  • What this means for you: Beware when reading this part of any nutrition label because sugar is disguised in 50+ different names such as high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, evaporated cane juice and dextrin. The American Heart Association recommends females eat no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day and for males, no more than 36 grams of added sugar per day.

  • You will also notice sugar is often listed twice on nutrition labels: total sugars and added sugars. Added sugars are added during the processing of foods – think sweeteners, sugars from items like syrup and honey, and sugars from concentrated items like fruit juices. Total sugars include both added sugars and the sugars naturally present in foods when combined.

 

#9. PROTEIN

Protein is the most satiating of the macronutrients and often what most do not eat enough.

  • What this means to you: To hit the daily recommend amount, always include a serving of protein with each meal: for females, this is 1 palm-sized serving for each meal and 1-2 palm-sized servings with each meal or males.

  • Along with keeping your appetite satisfied, protein is also necessary for body functions such as muscle repair and growth, proper immune function and nerve function. Items such as animal products, beans, tofu, eggs, and Greek yogurt are examples of high protein foods.

 

#10. INGREDIENTS LIST

Following the nutrition facts on a label is the ingredients list. This list provides each ingredient in a food by its common name. Ingredients are listed in descending order by quantity.

  • What this means to you: The ingredient listed first is the main ingredient- what the product contains the most of. Beware of products listing sugars and simple carbohydrates first- examples include cereals, bars, snack packs, chips, crackers, etc.

 

#11. PERCENT DAILY VALUES

On the right side of a nutrition label is the % Daily Value (%DV) is the percentage of the daily value for each nutrient in a serving of food. This percentage shows how much one serving of that particular food will contribute to your total daily diet.

  • What this means for you: By providing the %DV, you can then determine if a food is high or low in a specific nutrient. As a general rule of thumb, a percent daily value of 5% or less is considered low and a percent daily value of 20% or more is considered high. When choosing foods based on their nutrient content, aim for higher daily values of items such as protein, fiber, and vitamins. When it comes to nutrients such as saturated fat, sodium, and sugar, aim for lower daily values for optimal health.


Dissecting nutrition labels can feel overwhelming, especially when you are on the go and trying to get in/out of the grocery store. The 5 most important parts of the nutrition label you want to be paying attention to include:

  1. Serving Size

  2. Calories Per Serving

  3. Saturated Fats

  4. Sodium

  5. Sugar

Always focus first on eating real foods – the stuff found around the perimeter of the grocery store- and for those items you are grabbing in the aisles or on the go, use these tips as a starting point for making more informed choices about what you’re eating. Nutrition labels provide a plethora of information to utilize for making better nutritional choices and improvements to your health.


Stay Fueled!

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