If you want to adopt a healthier lifestyle one of the key tools in your nutrition toolkit is a complete understanding of the nutrition facts label . You’ll then be able to make informed decisions on what foods and food products to get and be able to compare side-by-side similar foods and make the healthy choice .
Before I get into the specifics of the nutrition facts label let’s be clear about one key point. Whole foods like fruits and vegetables do not have any labels and these are the foods that make up a large portion of a healthy diet. So even though reading and understanding the nutrition facts label is a key skill to have remember that the healthiest foods have no labels at all.
OK – on to deciphering the nutrition facts label. Let’s start with identifying the main sections of the label from top to bottom:
Serving Size and Servings per package or container
Calories including total calories and calories from fat
Total Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium
Vitamin and mineral percentages
Percent Daily Values
Let’s now dive into the details and important things to look for in each section.
Serving Size and Servings per package or container – All the information on the nutrition facts label is based upon one serving and most food products contain multiple servings in one package. As an example Planters NUT-rition Heart Healthy Mix tin with a net weight of 9.75 ounces contains 10 one ounce servings. So if you plan on eating the entire container in one sitting that you need to multiply all of the nutritional values by ten. So when comparing foods side-by-side you need to first identify the serving size and number of servings per container. Just a quick side note – you may need to brush up on your basic math skills to get the most out of labels and label comparisons.
Calories including total calories and calories from fat – As the saying goes “calories count” and so do calories from fat so after you have identified the serving size and servings per container check to see how many calories per serving and how many calories from fat per serving the food product contain. Continuing with the Planters NUT-rition Heart Healthy Mix the number of calories per serving is 170. This means if you sit done and eat the entire 9.75 ounce container you will eat 1,700 calories. So if you are limiting yourself to 2,000 calories per day you don’t want to eat the whole container at once. In addition to total calories there is also listed calories from fat.
Total Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium – In order to eat healthier you will need to limit fat, cholesterol and sodium. The fat information includes what kind of fats the food contains. The four types of fat are saturated, trans, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. Avoid any food with trans fat and limit foods with saturated fat. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy fats but even these you need to consume in moderation. To reduce your risk of heart disease you’ll want to limit your cholesterol intake . Ideally look for foods with zero cholesterol. High blood pressure is a major contributor to stroke and heart disease and you need to limit your salt/sodium consumption. Most Americans consume way too much sodium and over 70% of it comes from food products so pay close attention to how much sodium each food contains. An example of a food high in sodium is most canned soups. A can of Progresso Lentil soup has 810mg of sodium or 34% of your daily recommended value – and that’s per serving so if you eat the whole can you’ll get double those amounts or 68% of the recommended daily intake.
Total Carbohydrates – The section listing total carbohydrates includes dietary fiber and sugars. Healthy carbohydrates include fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains. These are often referred to as complex carbohydrates while processed grains and sugars are simple carbohydrates. For a healthy diet you want to limit the simple carbohydrates and focus on getting more complex carbohydrates. When looking for healthy grains look for the word “whole” first in the list of food ingredients. The listing of ingredients is often just below the percent daily values. Pay close attention to sugars on the food label and choose foods with few or no added sugars .
Protein – Most Americans get plenty of protein in their diet but for a healthy diet choose your protein sources that have little or no saturated fat and little or no cholesterol.
Vitamin and mineral percentages – This may seem obvious but look for foods with more than 20% per serving of vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin A and C, potassium, calcium and iron. To get the most nutrition bang for your buck look for foods and food products that have a higher amount of vitamins and minerals per calorie. These type of foods are often referred to as nutrient dense.
Percent Daily Values – The percent daily values are a key to a balanced healthy diet. This section lists the amount by grams of the recommended daily intake for a 2,000 calorie diet and a 2,500 calorie diet. Use these recommended daily values to guide you when you choose foods so as to not eat too much of the “bad ingredients” such as saturated fat and get enough of the “good ingredients” such as potassium and dietary fiber.
As you can see a lot goes into choosing the best foods for a healthy diet. If your new to reading nutrition facts label it may seem overwhelming but just take it one step at a time. The most important items to limit or avoid all together are trans fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and sugars. If this still seems too complicated just focus on eating no trans fat and limit the foods that have added sugars.
Just like any change take it one step at a time and before you know it you will be a nutrition facts guru and be able to quickly and easily identify and choose the right foods for a healthy well balance diet.