Most packaged or processed foods sold in North America come with a nutrition facts label. Learning to read that label is an important step in being proactive about your health, and especially in controlling your weight.
I’m not suggesting that you should become a nutrition expert, and while I do go into some detail on specific numbers below, I’m not asking you to walk through the grocery store with a calculator. Just a general awareness of what is nurturing your body, and what is destroying it, can add healthy years to your life. Take the time to learn a bit about reading nutrition labels and act on what you learn, and you’ll see improvement fast.
A Tasty Example
As we go through this lesson, use the Nutrition Facts Label from Mary’s Organic Crackers in this article as an example. These are a delicious, nutritious and extremely healthy cracker choice – organic, whole-grain, gluten-free, non-GMO, with healthy fats.
The first information you’ll encounter on a nutrition facts label is typically the serving size. It will tell you, by both volume and weight, what is considered a “serving”. Serving sizes are often manipulated, in that the amount on the nutrition facts label may not be the amount the average person eats.
For example, on a bag of cookies, the serving size is often one cookie. Obviously, if you’re going to eat three cookies, you need to multiply all of the rest of the information on the nutrition facts label by a factor of three.
The next piece of data you’ll encounter is the calories in a serving. You’ll be given the total calories, and often the calories from fat. So if your “one cookie” is 260 calories, then three of them would be 780 calories. That’s about half the calories you’ll want to take in during a full day of eating if you’re trying to lose weight.
If “calories from fat” is given, you can divide it by total calories to get the percentage of food from fat. A good target to aim for is 20 to 30% per day. If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s best to stay on the low end of that range.
% Daily Value
The percent of daily value that you see on the nutrition facts label can be a useful guideline, but it may not be exactly right for you. First, it’s based on a 2000 calorie diet, which may not be appropriate for your body weight and level of physical activity. Second, you may be attempting to limit certain nutrients below the typical level because of a medical condition. For example, some patients with high blood pressure will be attempting to avoid sodium. Others may need more than the typical amount because of their lifestyle and physical activity choices.
Total Fat and Type of Fat
In this section of the nutrition facts label, you’ll be given the total amount fat in grams per serving. You will also see a breakdown of trans fat, saturated fat, and possibly other fats. This is to help you distinguish “good fats” from “bad fats”. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, “trans fat” is always bad and can have serious health consequences. Avoid it. Saturated fat should be limited and most of your fat should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources.
The relationship between dietary cholesterol and cholesterol in your blood is unclear, but certainly if your doctor suggests limiting cholesterol, you should pay particular attention to this part of the nutrition facts label. Most health organizations recommend consuming 300 mg or less of cholesterol in your food each day.
Watch out for foods with high sodium (salt) content, particularly low-fat foods. It’s commonplace to find significant sodium and/or sugar in low-fat foods, as they are added to restore flavor when the tasty fat is removed. Manufacturers know that many consumers read “low-fat” on the label and equate it with “healthy”.
Too much salt leads to high blood pressure, heart attack, kidney disease, and stroke.
A good rule of thumb is that if the daily value percentage is above 20% for single serving (the amount you will actually eat), look for healthier option. Most people are best to limit themselves to about 2300 mg (1 teaspoon) total per day. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control released a report advising 70% of Americans to reduce their sodium intake even further; If you are over 50, have high blood pressure, diabetes or are an African-American adult, they recommend you limit yourself to about 1500 mg per day.
When it comes to carbohydrates you need to know not only the total, but the type of carbohydrate. Luckily, our nutrition facts label breaks down:
- Dietary fiber
What’s left after this break down is complex carbohydrates. Which are looking for here is to avoid refined carbohydrates as much as possible, choosing less processed, more natural and unrefined sources. Don’t try to avoid carbs completely – choose good ones: high fiber, low sugar, unrefined. The best sources of healthy carbs are, in order: vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains.
Sugars are empty calories that significantly contribute to weight gain, so limiting yourself to about 32 g per day is a reasonable limit.
Dietary fiber is good for you, particularly if you dieting. When trying to lose weight, fiber helps you feel fuller, without adding calories. Fiber is non-digestible – it passes through your body, aiding in digestion and absorbing fat. Try to get 25 g or more per day.
The average adult needs 30 to 60 grams of protein per day. That’s a pretty wide range, so the Institute of Medicine suggests you’re probably better off calculating 0.3 to 0.34 g of protein per pound of your body weight per day. However, those numbers are based on a sedentary lifestyle. If you factor in exercise, the Academy of nutrition and Dietetics says that a person routinely getting light to moderate exercise should consume 0.55 to 0.8 g of protein per pound, daily. They recommend even more, 0.7 to 0.9 g per pound for high-intensity athletes. In other words, protein feeds healthy muscle. The more you have, and the more you’re working on building it, the more protein you need.
Vitamins and Minerals
Variety is good here. Getting many different types of vitamins and minerals in your diet by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is your best choice.
Always, always read the ingredients. If there are more than five, or if you can’t understand or pronounce the names of many of them, there is probably a healthier choice. Look for all-natural ingredients.
In particular AVOID:
- High fructose corn syrup
- White flour, enriched flour, bleached white flour, or wheat flour (whole wheat flour is fine in moderation unless you are glucose – intolerant)
- Partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oil (= trans fats!)
Remember, you don’ have to be perfect at this. Small improvements and better choices will add up to a real improvement in your weight, health, and vitality. If you’re in Hawaii and want to know more about our comprehensive medical weight loss program, just fill out the free consultation form or call my office at (808) 551-4348. We’ll make sure you lose weight fast and then keep it off, and we’ll be there if you have questions about your specific health issues as you learn to read the nutrition facts label.