How to Read the Nutrition Facts Label

One of the biggest complaints I hear from people who are trying to make healthier changes to their diet is that reading a nutrition label is daunting. There is so much information, they often don’t know where to begin. Yet, understanding this very simple task could be tremendously helpful in helping you make better decisions about the food you buy and prepare.

The Nutrition Facts label provides you with detailed nutritional information about the food or product you are considering. Here you will understand how different foods and products stack up against one another so that you can choose healthier options.

1. Serving Size: The serving size tells you what is a recommended serving size of the food.  Here are some tips to consider:

  • Measure portions until you become comfortable with standard portion sizes.
  • If you eat more or less than the recommended serving size, the rest of the information on the label needs to be adjusted to reflect the amount you are consuming. (E.g., if you have 2 times the serving, all nutritional values must be multiplied by 2)
  • When comparing foods, ensure you are comparing based on equal portion sizes

2. Calories: Provides a measure of how much energy comes from a serving of the food. The number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat.  For instance, if you have two servings of a food, you will have to double the calories listed per serving size to know how many you have consumed.  A good gauge to understand if something is highly caloric:

  • 40 Calories is low
  • 100 Calories is moderate
  • 400 Calories or more is high

3. Calories from Fat: These tell you how many calories of the food are specifically fat. Each gram of fat is worth 9 calories. You should aim to get 10% – 30% of your calories from fat. A good rule of thumb is to eat no more than 3 grams of fat per 100 calories of food.

4a. Total Fat: Total fat explains how much of both good fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats) are in the food.

4b. Saturated Fat: Saturated fat (a bad fat) is found in foods including butter, margarine, fats from meat and pork, full-fat dairy products, eggs, palm and coconut oils and many fast foods. It is best to avoid or limit foods that have saturated fats, especially those that come from animals. Your daily intake should be no more than 10% of your daily caloric intake (less than 1 gram per 100 calories).

4c. Trans Fat: Also a “bad fat,” Trans Fats are created during cooking and/or processing. These fats are often found in commercially baked products. These fats should be eliminated from your diet.

5a. Cholesterol: A combined number telling you how much of both good (HDLs) and bad cholesterol (LDLs) are in the serving. It is best to eat no more than 300mg per day.

5b. Sodium: The amount of sodium in the serving. It is best to eat no more than 2,400mg per day.

6a. Carbohydrates: The total amount of carbohydrates in the food. It includes simple carbs and sugars, complex carbs and fiber. When foods contain carbohydrates, it is best if those carbohydrates contain some amount of fiber (see dietary fiber).

6b. Dietary Fiber: How much fiber is in a serving of the food. It is found mostly in complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Try to eat between 20 and 35 grams per day.The higher the fiber content of a product, the lower the sugar content in the food

6c. Sugars: The number of grams of carbohydrates per serving specifically made up of sugar. It is best to eat packaged foods that are low in sugars. When looking at total carbohydrates, it is preferable that sugars are much lower than the total carbohydrates in grams.

7. Protein: How many grams of protein are in a serving. It is always good to maintain a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats in a meal. If a food doesn’t contain protein, try to combine it with another food that has protein.

8. % Daily Values: Tells you what percentage of your recommended daily allowance is provided by the serving of food. Note however, It is based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Generally, a value of 5% is considered low and a value of 20% is considered high. If you consume other than 2,000 calories a day to maintain a healthy body weight understand that these percentages may be different. Regardless, it is a good way to compare other products.

9. Vitamins and Minerals: How much of recommended vitamins and minerals are in the serving. You should aim to reach 100% for all required vitamins and minerals. To ensure you are getting your required daily intake, take a multivitamin.

10. Recommended Amounts: The recommended daily amount for each nutrient for both a 2,000 calorie diet and a 2,500 calorie diet. If you need to consume more or less calories than 2,000 or 2,500 day to maintain a healthy body weight, the recommended amounts for fat, carbohydrates and protein will change.

11. Calories per Gram: This shows the caloric weight of each macronutrient – Fats, Carbohydrates and Protein. It is best to choose foods that are well balanced, containing all nutrients.

SUMMARY: In short, I tend to look most at calories, fiber, saturated fat and sugars. I look for foods that are 100 to 200 in calories per serving(for a snack), high in fiber, low in saturated fat and low in added sugars.

Does this explanation help?

52 Small ChangesAdapted from 52 Small Changes: One Year to a Happier, Healthier You. Make real, lasting change with this easy to follow, week-by-week guide to healthy change. Get it now at Amazon.com.

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