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How to read a nutrition label

Many people turn to “counting calories” when they want to lose weight. But how many of us really know what they’re reading when they scroll through a nutrition label? Here are a few things you should know before tossing any item into your grocery cart.

“Serving size” is the first line of the nutrition label and the single most important thing to understand. A product that is being marketed as a “low calorie snack” is only talking about one serving.  So if you are eating the whole box, rest assured you are getting more calories than you bargained for.

Frequently, when buying a bag of chips or a drink many consumers think, “this looks like one serving.” But cute, individually wrapped items can be deceiving. Many snack-sized items often have 2.5 servings. That means that you can take the calories per serving, let’s say they are 150, and multiply them by the amount of servings.  Eat that cute, individual bag of personal chips and voila, those personal chips just gave your body 375 calories. Doesn’t sound like such a healthy snack anymore, does it? Before you pick up an item that you plan on devouring solo, make sure that it’s just meant just for one.

The same advice applies when considering what bread to buy in the grocery store. When you look at the nutrition label, you’ll see that most brands consider just one slice of bread to be one serving. But it’s not easy to make a sandwich with just one slice! Look for bread that offers two slices for less than 150 calories with a good helping of fiber (more on that later).

Fat Matters

Immediately under calories on the nutrition label you’ll find that foods sometimes offer “calories from fat.” Generally, you should try to keep fat in your food at an absolute minimum unless the product contains healthy fats from nuts, grains, seeds or avocado. And before you even go there, let me I assure you, Oreos and Doritos do not.

Most people know by now that not all fats are created equal. Companies in the US are now required to list trans fat since they have been directly linked to clogged arteries (which can lead to heart attacks and strokes).  In general, make sure you see a big fat zero next to the words “trans fat” on the nutrition label.  Polyunsaturated fats are the healthy fats, while saturated fats should be consumed in limited quantities. The combination of saturated fat and cholesterol is actually what leads to higher levels of cholesterol in the blood. So it’s not just cholesterol (which is the next item on the label) that you should be looking at.

Watch Out for Sodium

Sodium is another hot ticket item since it is essential for proper cell function, but overwhelmingly, Americans are consuming way too much of this mineral since it is over-used as a preservative for packaged products. This is where knowing how much is okay is important. The RDA suggests that healthy individuals under the age of 51 limit sodium intake to 2,300 mg per day. Check out the label of your favorite frozen meal, most have close to 1,000 mg, while some even surpass 2,000 mg -- and that’s just for one meal.

Carbs Are NOT the Enemy

It should be pretty obvious by now that the next line on the nutrition label, carbohydrates, is not where all your healthy endeavors end. In fact, just knowing how to read carbohydrates on the label is half the battle. Carbs are usually broken down into dietary fiber and sugar. Can you guess which is healthier? Most Americans do not consume enough fiber, which can lead to problems like constipation and even weight gain. For optimal digestive health, adults want to aim for at least 35 grams of fiber per day. Sugar, of course, should be kept at a minimum.

Muscle Building Protein

The last item on the label is protein. The recommended daily intake for protein ranges from 40 to 60 grams per day depending on a person’s weight, gender and age. Most dietary protein comes from dairy, meat, eggs and beans. Due to the range of protein requirements among individuals, you will notice that protein is one of the only macronutrients that doesn’t have a percent value.
The percent daily value (the column on the right) calculates the percentage of your daily value that an item contains based on a 2,000 calorie diet, but if anything this number just confuses people since not everyone follows a 2,000 calorie diet, so it may be easier to stick to the numbers on the left.  

The Stuff Food is Made From

If you want to make even more educated decisions about what you eat and what you feed your family, check out the list of ingredients. Look for names of ingredients that you have heard of, or at the very least, you can pronounce. And know that these things are listed in descending order by what is most prevalent in the product. Look for products that have whole grains, vegetables and fruits at the top of that list, and sugar and additives should appear closer to the bottom.
Bottom line: make sure to watch your servings, types of fats and carbohydrates, and always, always, opt for real ingredients over overly processed junk food.

Karen Berg is a former health editor who is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Nutrition.

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