Learning how to read a nutrition label took some time and it’s still a work in progress. I credit my wife who is a nurse and JD (i.e. smarter than me) who has educated me over the years about nutrition, ingredients and how the body converts food into energy and stores fat. Another great source is The South Beach Diet Book. I don’t follow the diet to the letter but have adapted it’s fundamentals into our cooking and the book does a great job teaching you how the body processes food.
How to Read a Nutrition Label
This is the FDA reccomended serving size and it’s just that. A recommendation but this is what you need to gauge how much you’re consuming. Be aware of how many servings are in a container or package. A pizza slice might be 350 calories per serving but the whole box is 4 servings!
Percent of Daily Value (%DV):
Notice there is always an asterix next to this stating, “Percent Daily Values (DV) are based on a 2,000 calorie diet”. This is based on a moderately active women or a sedentary man. Certain individuals might require more or less calories per day based on their lifestyle, dietary goals and age.
What’s more important than the total amount of fat is the type of fat. You want to see little to none Saturated and Trans Fat. And in the US any food containing less than 0.5 grams of trans fat may state it contains 0 trans fat. This becomes an issue if you are eating several servings. Trans fat is also hidden as “Partially Hydrogenated Oil” so read the ingredients.
Good fats are monounsaturated such as olive, peanut, canola, and coconut oil.
Remember that “fat-free” is not calorie free. We are looking for a balance here. Compare the fat-free versions to the regular and make a decision based on all the other factors I list here.
Only animal products contain cholesterol and you should limit your daily intake to 300 milligrams. Cholesterol raises your risk for heart disease. Think your eating healthy at McDonald’s? The Premium Bacon and Ranch Salad contains 70 grams of Cholesterol. 23% of the recommended DV. On the other hand eggs contain approximately 180 mg of cholesterol which is mostly contained in the yolk. While this is high for a single food the other benefits of eggs such as zero carbohydrates and high protein outweigh the negatives. However if you are at risk or have cardiovascular disease then limit your daily cholesterol intake to 200mg or you can always omit the yolk in eggs and just eat the white. It’s all about a balance.
Once you start reading the nutrition labels on your food you will be surprised at the amount of sodium processed food contains. The recommended daily amount is 2,300 milligrams. Too much sodium causes high blood pressure, osteoporosis and a host of other ailments. If you are making your food at home from scratch then seasoning with salt is ok. Once again it’s all about a balance. Stay away from processed foods! Love Chipotle? They make amazing burritos and I have to give them credit for their simple to use nutritional calculator. Eat one burrito there and you pretty much have met your quota for the day!
This summarizes the amount of health and unhealthy carbs. I find it’s best to look at this number but concentrate on the amount of fiber and sugar.
- Dietary Fiber
Adults should consume between 21-35 grams per day which is actually quite difficult. I have resorted to using supplements such as flax or wheat germ to reach the daily requirements. When comparing breads or wraps go with one higher is dietary fiber even if it contains more calories. The payoff is worth it.
Considered simple carbs. Sugars consist of glucose, dextrose, fructose, and galactose and provide little to no nutritional value but are usually added to enhance flavor. Be careful of low fat brands where the sugar content is higher to enhance flavor. Once again compare the low fat with the traditional version and sometimes it might be better to go with the original.
The recommended amount is .45 grams per pound of body weight. Typically this is not difficult to reach on a daily basis eating a normal diet.
Vitamins and Minerals:
Here is a list of naturally occurring vitamins and minerals as well as any added artificially.
Ingredients are listed in order of quantity so the first ingredient is what makes up a majority of the food.
At a glance
- What is the serving size?
- How many servings are in the container?
- Are there any saturated or trans fats? If so look for another option or sparingly eat this food.
- What is the % of sodium? Is it a large %DV compared to the other percentages?
- Out of the total carbohydrates how many grams are from dietary fiber and sugar? Is there another option on the shelf which has fewer sugars and or more dietary fiber?
- How much protein does it contain? Is there another option which has more fiber, protein and fewer sugars even if there are more calories?
- What are the top 3 ingredients? Stay away from high fructose corn syrup and limit the amount of enriched wheat flour.
Nutrition label courtesy of hadleyfarms