If you ask any nutritionist or dietitian how you can tell if an item is part of a healthy diet or full of nutrients, they will probably tell you to “just read the label!” It may sound easy, but it’s not, especially with the latest changes to the nutritional label.
The lists of ingredients and nutritional information on packaged foods and drinks are mind-boggling jumbles of numbers and words. Trying to make sense of them is like fumbling through a college biology textbook if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.
However, that’s not how things have to be. Nutrition labels may seem overwhelming at first glance, but there are actually only a few key pieces of information you need to focus on to decide whether or not an item will contribute any nutritional value to your day. Here are the details:
How to read a nutrition label
Food labeling terminology is governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some of the signs to look for are as follows.
- Calorie-free: Less than 5 calories per serving
- Low calorie: 40 calories or less per serving
- Reduced calorie/fat: At least 25 percent fewer calories/fat than the original product
- Fat-free: Less than 0.5 grams (g) of fat per serving
- Low fat: 3 g or less of fat per serving
- Low sodium: 140 milligrams (mg) or less of sodium per serving
- Very low sodium: 35 mg or less of sodium per serving
- Low cholesterol: 20 mg or less of cholesterol per serving
- Sugar-free: Less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving
- High fiber: Contains 20 percent or more of the recommended Daily Value of fiber per serving
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1. Serving size
Right here is where you should begin. Check the serving size on the back of the bag or box before you start digging in. That way, you can calculate your calorie and nutrient intake accurately.
It’s not always easy to create multi-serving packages. Sit down in front of your favorite crime drama with a bag of chips in hand, and it won’t be long before you’ve eaten your way through the bag before you learn whodunit.
Most recipes call for cups as a common unit of measurement for serving sizes. Before heading down into the den, measure out one portion so you know exactly how much you’ll be eating.
As a matter of habit, you probably glance at the calorie count first. And while the total is important, the source of those calories may be more so. Rania Batayneh, MPH, nutritionist, and author of The One One One Diet says, “A healthy snack bar may have as many calories as a candy bar, but the sugar is lower and the fats are healthier, and it contains protein and fiber.”
Be sure to take into account the serving size (mentioned above). Consuming the entire 4-serving box because it only says 150 calories on the label is probably a bad idea.
Please heed this one caution. Do not forget about snack foods while considering your daily caloric intake. They can add up to a significant sum. Nutrition Starring YOU’s founder and certified dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus recommends checking the label to make sure each portion of your snack has less than 200 calories.
Avoid developing an eating disorder by not becoming preoccupied with calorie counting. Study the practice of mindful eating, which emphasizes listening to and responding to your body’s hunger and fullness cues.
3. Percent daily value
This is another important sum to keep an eye on. How much of your recommended daily intake of that nutrient is included in that single serving is indicated. If 20 percent of your daily fat intake can be met with just one serving of nuts, you can estimate how much additional fat your body will need throughout the day.
As a general guide:
- 5% or less is considered low. Saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar, and sodium are all within healthy limits.
- 20% is a very high percentage. Vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which you DO desire, are present in acceptable quantities.
On the nutrition facts panel, you’ll see the numbers for total fat, saturated fat, and trans fat. Just remember the last two sentences. Consuming a burger, hot dog, or a glass of whole milk will all provide you with saturated fat. The risk of developing the cardiovascular disease may increase if you consume a diet heavy in saturated fat. Because of this, the American Heart Association advises limiting the intake of this fat to no more than 5%-6% of total daily calories.
Trans fat is a type of fat that is frequently added to processed and packaged foods like chips, cookies, and crackers. Hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make this synthetic fat. Trans fat improves the flavor and shelf life of snack items, but it also increases the risk of heart disease by increasing levels of LDL cholesterol.
The FDA has prohibited trans fat because there is no safe level. Warning, though. There is a legal threshold of 0.5 grams per serving for a food to be designated trans-fat-free. Keep an eye out for “partially hydrogenated oil” and other hidden additives, and try to cut back on them as much as possible.
Meat, whole milk, seafood, butter, and egg yolks are all good sources of this sticky, fatty material. Cholesterol is necessary for the production of hormones and vitamin D, but too much of it can cause plaque to build up on artery walls, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. For this reason, it’s best to set a low bar while reading food labels.
The best method to get cholesterol is through meals like whole eggs (which also contain a ton of other nutrients).
Sodium intake should be fewer than 2,300 milligrams per day or roughly one teaspoon. You might not think much of that. Using the salt shaker too liberally might raise blood pressure.
Our typical diets contain way too much salt. Most of the sodium we eat comes from processed and packaged foods like pretzels, frozen pizza, and jarred pasta sauce.
Make sure the snack foods you buy (such as granola bars or pretzels) have fewer than 300 milligrams of sodium to help you maintain a healthy salt intake. Keep your sodium intake around 700 mg at meals (such as a frozen burrito or canned soup), In their recommendation, Batayneh and Harris-Pincus say.
Sugar, starch, and fiber are the three forms of carbohydrates that can be seen on a nutrition label. Blood sugar levels are increased by 1 and 2, but not by 3. (see below). To keep track of refined carbs if your doctor has instructed you to do so, for example, if you have diabetes, you can use the number of grams listed.
Do not join the low-carb bandwagon without first talking to your doctor or a certified dietitian, as most people benefit from eating a diet high in complex carbs and whole grains.
If it has a respectable quantity of fiber, it’s not just empty calories in a pretty package. By preventing blood sugar rises and keeping you feeling content for longer, fiber can help curb your appetite for unhealthy snacks later on.
Most nutrients have a “more is better” principle, although fiber is one exception. At least 25 grams of fiber per day is suggested by the American Heart Association. Get advice from your doctor on what you specifically require.
Rule of thumb: cereals (such as whole wheat pasta or mac and cheese) should have at least 4 grams of fiber per serving, whereas packaged snacks and bread should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving.
In general, you should limit your intake of added sugar, which is intentionally added to many foods and drinks by manufacturers. A recent update to nutritional labels makes it easier to identify the origin of added sugars. The new labels break down the amount of sugar in each serving into two categories: added sugar and total sugar.
Milk (a kind of lactose) and fruit are two examples of foods that contain naturally occurring sugars (fructose). There is a wide variety of naming conventions for added sugars. High fructose corn syrup and other sugars ending in “ose” are two examples (like glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and maltose).
It’s important to note that other forms of sugar, such as agave nectar, sucanat, molasses, maple syrup, evaporated cane juice, coconut sugar, and brown rice syrup, are also considered added sugars. These additional sugars have the same physiological effects on the body as table sugar, regardless of their source. Batayneh warns that consuming too much of it can lead to weight gain and diabetes.
What about sugar substitutes? Calorie-free items won’t be counted toward your daily allotment of sugar.
It’s unlikely that you’ll find a breakfast cereal or snack bar with zero grams of sugar, but you can reduce your sugar intake by choosing cereals and bars with less added sugar. What you want to accomplish: According to Harris-Pincus, you should prioritize finding foods that have more fiber per serving than sugar. And don’t let sugar account for more than 10% of your overall calorie intake every day.
Proteins are involved in nearly every cellular process in the body. It serves many purposes, including providing energy, promoting development, and repairing damaged cells.
Your protein intake is probably enough, as this is the case for the vast majority of Americans. It can be found in foods like meat, fish, and poultry, as well as legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Individuals have varying protein requirements. Generally speaking, bodybuilders have more requirements. And, unfortunately, it is possible to consume an excessive amount of protein.
Harris-Pincus recommends looking for snacks containing 5 to 10 grams of protein to help you feel full between meals, even if dietitians are reticent to give a specific quantity for meals in general.
Also, read How Coffee Affects Your Blood Pressure?
Finding your way through the maze of packaged goods on the supermarket shelf can make eating healthily seem like a monumental task. The nutrition label removes much of the mystery from choosing the healthiest options at the grocery store.
Healthy eating is, in many ways, a mathematical challenge. Vitamins, minerals, and fiber are some of the most important nutrients you may consume. Keep your intake low of unhealthy substances like fat, sodium, and sugar. And if you’re still confused, consult your medical professional or a dietician.
Last Updated on October 11, 2023 by anup