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How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label

nutrition facts labelThe nutrition facts label is required for most packaged and processed foods. It helps consumers like you and me understand what goes into the foods we eat. Learning how to read a nutrition facts label is a crucial step in eating better.

Here are some simple guidelines on how to read a nutrition label:

Serving Size:

This is the size of each serving, usually based on the amount that the average person will eat. If you are eating 4-6 smaller meals per day, then your serving sizes should generally be smaller. Keep in mind that if there are 10 servings in a package and you eat the whole package, then you have to multiply all the calories, carbs, fat, etc. by 10. Paying attention to the serving size will help you control your portions.

Calories:

The amount of calories in one serving. Divide “calories from fat” by total calories to get the percentage of that food from fat (remember, this number should not be more than 20-30% per day).

% Daily Value:

Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, these percentages you see on the nutrition facts label show how much of the daily recommended value this serving of food is accounting for.

Total Fat:

The amount of fat (in grams) per serving. If you see any amount of trans fat listed on the nutrition facts label, choose another option. There is a lot of controversy around whether saturated fat is bad for you or not. The general consensus among health experts is to eat saturated fat in moderation and get most of your fat from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources. See my article, “What are Good Fats and Why Are They Important? to learn more.

Cholesterol:

Having too much of certain types of cholesterol in your blood can lead to increased risk of heart disease and stroke. However, the link between dietary (found in the foods you eat) and blood (occurs naturally within your body) cholesterol is inconclusive. Nevertheless, most health organizations recommend consuming 300 mg or less of dietary cholesterol.

For me personally, if the research says there’s no proven link, and my medical exams continue to show my cholesterol levels are excellent, I’m going to continue to eat my three eggs a day. They’re a great source of other nutrients.

Sodium:

Watch for foods with high sodium (salt) content. Food companies often add hidden salt to flavor their processed and packaged foods. If the Daily Value percentage is above 20% for a single serving of a particular food, consider a healthier option with less salt. Also, be very wary of showering your food with the salt shaker. Measure how much salt you are actually using, which will help you monitor your salt intake. Most people shouldn’t eat more than 2,300 mg, or 1 teaspoon total per day. And if you have hypertension, are 40 or older, or are an African-American between the ages of 20 and 39, you shouldn’t eat more than 1,500 mg per day.

See my article, “Eating These Low Sodium Foods May Save Your Life” to learn more.

Total Carbohydrates:

There are several things to keep in mind about carbs on a nutrition facts label. First, the type of carbohydrate is extremely important (see the Ingredients section below for more information). Second, keep an eye on foods and drinks with high sugar content. Sugars are basically empty calories (lots of calories and little nutritional value) so they often lead to weight gain. Aim to keep your sugar intake under 32 grams or 6% of your total calories per day.

You will also see fiber content listed on the nutrition label under Carbohydrates. Fiber helps promote digestive health. Aim for between 25 and 35 grams each day.

See my article, “Healthy Carbs vs. Unhealthy Carbs” to learn more about carbs.

Protein:

The majority of your protein intake should come from lean, healthy food sources such as poultry, fish, and other lean meats, low-fat dairy products, beans, nuts, etc.

Most adults need 0.3 – 0.34 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.

For an in-depth look at protein, check out my article, “Best Healthy Sources of Protein.”

Vitamins and Minerals:

Eat a wide variety of foods that are high in different types of vitamins and minerals. Multivitamins and supplements simply don’t work for most people, unless you have a serious nutrient deficiency. Get your vitamins by eating more fruits and vegetables.

Ingredients:

People often overlook the ingredients list on the bottom of a nutrition facts label. But, it’s one of the most important parts.

Take a close look at the ingredients listed. Look for natural-sounding ingredient names. The first ingredient listed on the ingredient list of a nutrition facts label composes the largest percentage of the food and so on.

Avoid the following terms whenever possible:

1. High fructose corn syrup, fructose, glucose, dextrose – these are synthetic sugars derived from corn. They can lead to a variety of major health problems and many experts agree that they’re one of the major contributors to today’s obesity epidemic.

2. White Flour, Enriched Flour, Bleached White Flour, Wheat Flour* – eating too many refined carbohydrates raises blood sugar levels and increases blood fats called triglycerides, which puts you at much higher risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. Look for the words “whole wheat” or “whole grain” as the first ingredient on the nutrition facts label for any foods you buy in the grain family (bread, crackers, etc.). This is how you know the food is made with mostly whole grains.

*Note that “Wheat Flour” is on the list above. This a deceptive way food companies get you to think you’re eating healthy…a product could have 1% “wheat” and they can call it wheat flour. Don’t pay attention to claims on the front of the package. It’s just marketing (trust me, I worked in the industry). Look for whole wheat or whole grain listed as the first ingredient.

3. Aspartame, Saccharin, Phenylalkaline – these are artificial sweeteners that we don’t know much about. Some early reports have said that they cause cancer in animals but the bottom line is that there’s not enough research to know either way…so avoid them. Splenda (sucralose) has also been under scrutiny so it’s best to avoid that. Truvia (stevia) appears to be okay.

4. Partially Hydrogenated or Hydrogenated Oil – a.k.a., trans fats. They’re terrible for you. Avoid them at all costs.

The ingredients list is your best bet for determining what goes into the foods you eat. As a general rule, stay away from any ingredients that sound like a chemistry experiment. A shorter ingredient list with names you actually understand is what you’re looking for here. My general rule of thumb is five ingredients or less for most of the packaged foods I buy.


Recap – How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label
Calories/Calories From Fat: Calories from fat – no more than 20-30% of per day of total fat consumption
Total Fat: Small amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (“good fats”) are good for your heart
Saturated Fat: Eat in moderation. Choose polyunsaturated and monounsaturated sources instead.
Trans fat: 0 grams – these are horrible for you…stay away from them.
Sodium: Less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day (equivalent of 1 tsp.) per day
Fiber: 25 grams or more per day
Sugar: Less than 32 grams or 6% of total calories per day of added sugar (sugar from natural sources like fruit is okay)
Protein: .30 – .34 grams per pound of body weight per day for the average person but largely dependent upon your fitness goals
Ingredients: Look for all natural ingredients and avoid ones that sound like a chemical equation. Avoid “high fructose corn syrup,” “refined flour,” artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated oils. The less ingredients listed, the better

This article is #1 in my 9-part Healthy Eating 101 series. To go to the next article about healthy carbohydrates, click here.