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Nutrition facts: your guide to reading the label


All of us want to eat healthy, but knowing which foods to choose is hard. A package may say “reduced sodium,” “cholesterol-free” or even “natural,” but these words can make a food seem better for you than it really is.

The Nutrition Facts label and Ingredients List will tell you the truth about what is in your food and how much is there. The label is made by the Food & Drug Administration and was changed in 2016 to help make it easier to read and understand.1

Here’s what to look for:


Serving Size

This number shows how much people usually eat or drink (and not what is healthy). All of the numbers are based on eating this much. You can change your serving size when you make your own meals, but remember that will change everything else too.


Calories

Calories are what our bodies use for energy. People think they are bad because eating more than what your body uses may lead to weight gain. Finding foods that balance calories with other nutrients is a good way to use these numbers.


Total Fat

The kind of fat is more important than how many calories it has. Fat has more calories than carbs or protein, so choosing healthy (or unsaturated) fats can keep your diet balanced.

The different fat types can be thought of as good fats and bad fats. Unsaturated fats are good, because they help to protect your heart, are anti-inflammatory and help you absorb vitamins. They are found in nuts, seeds, avocado, fatty fish, olives and olive oil.

Saturated and trans fats are considered bad fats. When you eat too much of them, they can hurt your cardiovascular system. They are found in fatty meats, tropical oils like palm and coconut oil, and dairy products. Saturated fat should not be more than 10% of your total calories.

Skip eating trans fats as much as you can. Most trans fats come from partially hydrogenated oils. These fats can be found in processed baked goods, shortening, non-dairy creamers and fried foods. These oils were created in order to increase shelf life, but they have negative health effects including increased risk of heart disease and stroke.


Cholesterol

Cholesterol is made by your body naturally. When you get it from other places, it is considered ”dietary cholesterol.” It’s best to limit this as much as possible (while still eating enough food). Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products or foods that use them. You can swap cow’s milk for a non-dairy drink like almond, soy or oat milk. Try beans, tofu and nuts to add protein to your meals.


Sodium

Salt or sodium adds flavor and helps foods last longer on the shelf. A diet with too much salt may lead to a higher risk of hypertension, kidney disease, heart failure or stroke.

Most people should have less than 1 teaspoon of salt per day (or 2,300 mg).

Eat less salt by watching out for processed foods, canned foods, frozen meals and deli meats. A good rule when looking at the Nutrition Facts label is if the sodium is less than 140 mg per serving, it is considered a good choice. If a food has more than 300 mg sodium per serving, try to find a lower-sodium option.


Carbohydrates

Carbs are not the enemy, but they are not all the same! Choosing complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts) over refined carbohydrates like (white bread and sugary juice) can help reduce the risk of chronic illness.

Under Carbohydrates you’ll see “Dietary Fiber” and “Added Sugar,” which will help you know if the food is a good option. Dietary Fiber is a carbohydrate that passes through your body that keeps other food moving and helps control your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Added Sugar tells you how much sugar does not occur naturally but is added into this food. Try to keep Added Sugar to less than 10% of your total calories to help prevent conditions like diabetes.


Protein

Almost every part of your body is made from protein. Those proteins are made of amino acids. These are what your body uses to build muscle and make repairs. Protein comes from both animal and plant sources. Choosing lean animal proteins (poultry or fish) and a variety of plant proteins (beans, nuts or soy) can help you feel strong and full throughout the day.


Vitamins and Minerals

At the bottom of the Nutrition Facts label you can find a list of vitamins and minerals. On the right side of each item, you can see the % daily value (%DV). If a serving provides 20% or more of the %DV it is considered a good source, but if the %DV is 5% or less this is considered low.


Ingredients List

The Ingredients List is just below the Nutrition Facts label. It shows you each ingredient that is used to make the food. The ingredients are listed by weight, so the first ingredient is the biggest. For example, you can see if a bread is whole grain by looking at the Ingredient List and checking if whole grain flour and not unbleached enriched flour is listed first.

Getting comfortable with these labels and lists can help you learn to choose good foods and keep working towards your health goals. Remember that building a skill does not always feel easy at first but with practice you’ll be reading labels like a pro!


References:

1. FDA: Changes to Nutrition Facts Label



The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.