How to Read a Nutrition Label: A Quick Guide for Healthier Choices

Article posted in: Diet & Nutrition
nutrition label

With all the numbers, crazy names and percentages, a nutrition label can be quite daunting and even intimidating to get a handle on. But once understood, the nutrition label is full of insightful information which can guide you to make better choices while grocery shopping and eating.

Don’t be fooled by nutrition label misconceptions. We’ll break down the most important parts of the nutrition facts to focus on and what it all means for you, your health and your weight loss goals.

This guide will help you read and understand a nutrition label to make sense of all numbers and names so you can get the fast facts about the foods you eat.

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Here’s what you should consider when looking at a nutrition label:

Counting Calories

Probably the first go-to for many dieters, the calorie section of any food nutrition label can be immensely telling. If you are counting calories to stay on track with your diet, this information along with the serving size can help you figure out exactly how many calories are in what you’re eating.

There is a difference: Serving size is the general recommendation for how much we should eat and portion size is the amount we actually do eat.

The most important thing to check for is how much is in each serving, how many servings total are in the package and how many servings you will actually consume as a portion in one sitting. Serving sizes can be tricky since we tend to be eat more than our recommended share.

Make sure to check how many cups, grams, etc. are in a serving and compare that to the portion you think you will actually eat. Then, calculate your total calorie count for that food and decide if it’s worthy of your daily intake.

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Follow the (DV) Daily Value Percent

Staying on track with a well-balanced diet is a lot easier when you pay attention to the percentage daily values. Those percentages all the way to the right side of each nutrient let you know how much of your daily recommended amount you will get from eating that food.

For fiber, calcium and iron – aim high for 20% or more DV

For saturated fats, sugars and sodium – aim low for 5% or less DV

A note: Daily values are based on average levels for a person consuming around 2,000 calories a day. You may need to slightly adjust this depending on your own personal calorie consumption. These percentages are for the entire day and not just one meal.  Depending on your own diet and weight loss goals, you may need more or less than 100% DV of certain nutrients.

Fats, Sugars and Sodium, Oh My!

Say no to items high in trans fats or saturated fats since these may contribute to obesity, high cholesterol and a higher risk of heart disease. Replace foods high in trans and saturated fats with foods that contain healthier fats like mono and poly-saturated fats. Too much added sugar can make it harder for you to reach your weight loss goals and meet your nutritional needs. Stick to more natural sources of sugars from fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy foods.

Considering levels of sodium is also important. According to the American Heart Association, it is recommended that you stay at or below 2,400 mg of sodium per day. Aiming for a low level of sodium can help you avoid weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease. You can combat your salt intake by consuming higher levels of potassium which can relax blood vessels and excrete the sodium.

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Up Protein and Lower Carbs

If you are on a strict diet and exercise schedule, protein is something your body will be craving to ensure you have the energy to keep going. There is no daily percentage for protein listed on nutrition labels, but you’ll be wanting to choose foods known to be protein powerhouses like lean meats, fish, eggs and beans.

Carbs are an important part of our diet, but we need to make sure we are choosing the ideal form of carbs, complex carbs, to help sustain our energy and keep us feeling full throughout the day.

Some examples of foods with complex carbs are whole grain breads and pasta, brown rice, quinoa and beans.

Beneficial Vitamins, Minerals and Fiber

You can look back at your DVs to ensure you are hitting the target with these healthy nutrients. Calcium, iron and vitamin D are among the most common deficiencies found in American adults so, looking for foods rich in these is a good idea. Fiber and potassium can also reduce health risks and are easily found in many fruits and veggies. Aim for the highest daily percentage value for all of these healthy nutrients; anything above 20% is great.

Look at the Ingredient List

Make sure to check the ingredient list and take special note of the items that are listed first. The main ingredients of the food will be listed first and in descending order by weight on the nutrition label.

With just a glance, you can tell if the product is made with more natural ingredients as opposed to unpronounceable processed ingredients. If you have food allergies, restrictions or sensitivities, this list can also help you avoid consuming any unwanted foods in your diet.

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