There’s lots of conflicting information out there about what to eat, what to avoid and which nutrients to focus on. So, how do you decide which foods are healthiest for you and your family? Learning how to read nutrition labels properly is a great start! Using the standardized information displayed on food and drinks’ packaging, you can educate yourself about the contents of your food and make consistently healthier choices!
Wondering where to start? Below we’ll explain the 10 pieces of information you should evaluate while reading any nutrition label.
How to Read Nutrition Labels
Most of us choose foods based on the colorful packaging, catchy advertising or some highlighted health claim (“30% less fat!”) on the box or bag. The food industry spends billions of dollars appealing to our capricious natures, but choosing food based on these spur-of-the-moment impulses doesn’t usually lead to the healthiest choices.
Thankfully, the government requires that all packaged foods and drinks use a standardized nutrition label to help you avoid these traps. Next time you grab something off the shelves, take an extra couple of moments to flip the product over and skim through the nutrition label.
Not sure how to read the label or what to look for?
Here are the 10 most important things you should look for on any nutrition label!
1. Serving Size
First and foremost, look for the designated serving size. This is usually the first piece of information on the label (above the black line) and indicates how much you should eat of that food in one sitting.
Keep in mind that all of the information on the label pertains to just one serving of that food or drink.
For example, if you’re eating a chocolate bar and it says one serving is 4 squares but you eat the whole bar (12 squares), you’ll need to multiply all of the information on the label by three to know how much you ate. That means three times the calories, fat, carbs, protein, etc.
Next, move down to calories. Evaluate how this item (in its designated serving size) fits into your overall dietary plan.
Foods with less than 40 calories per serving are considered very low calorie, while those with over 400 calories per serving are designated as high calories options. In general, aim for snacks that contain less than 200 calories and balanced meals that allow you to meet your overall nutritional needs.
3. Total Fat (and breakdown of fats)
Fat is the next line to evaluate. Most experts agree that less than 30% of your total daily calories should come from fat. If you eat 1500 calories per day this would translate to about 50g of fat from all meals & snacks, while someone eating 2000 calories per day could aim for closer to 65g of fat.
Good and Bad Fats
Not all fats are created equal. When possible, limit trans and saturated fats in favor of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Consumption of trans fats is linked to increased risk of heart disease, so you should aim to eliminate trans fats from your diet. These harmful fats are contained primarily in processed baked goods (e.g. packaged cakes or cookies), but have been largely removed from the food supply in recent years.
Saturated fat comes from animal fats like butter, lard and the fatty parts on meat. This type of fat should also be minimized, but does not need to be entirely avoided.
Unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are beneficial for heart, joint and overall health, so they should act as your main source of dietary fat. These helpful fats are found in plant-based sources like avocado, walnuts (and other nuts), seeds and some fish.
Sodium is next. Eating less salt, or sodium, can help control (or reduce) blood pressure and water retention, both of which improve overall health.
It’s recommended that adults consume less that 2400mg of sodium per day, and less if you’re already at-risk for high blood pressure. Therefore, items with more than 500mg of sodium are considered “high sodium” and should be minimized.
It’s most important to check for sodium content on canned items (soup, beans, broth, veggies, etc.) and other savory, packaged items.
5. Total Carbohydrates
Carbs get a lot of attention for their role in weight gain and loss. However, they’re also important biologically to give you the quick energy you need and help regulate blood sugar.
In a typical, balanced diet, anywhere from 50-60% of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. Still, like fats, not all sources of carbs are created equal. Favor whole-grains, fruits and vegetables over white bread/pasta/rice and sweets when it comes to meeting that need for carbs.
Not sure whether your food is a good or bad source of carbohydrates? Check out the fiber content! The more fiber the better.
Aim for 25-30g of fiber per day. Fiber helps regulate digestion & blood sugar, reduce cholesterol and prolong satiety. For all of those reasons, eating more fiber is a great way to lose (or maintain) weight and improve overall health!
7. Added Sugars
Sometimes people mistakenly fixate on the sugar content in foods to decide whether an item is healthy. The sugar line isn’t very relevant, but if your label contains an Added Sugars line, this matter.
The quantity of added sugars indicates how much sweetener (sugar, corn syrup, honey, etc.) was added to the food or drink. This amount does not include the naturally-occurring sugars, such as those contained in dairy and fruits.
Added sugars contribute little nutritional value apart from calories, so aim to limit them to no more than 100-200 calories per day.
Protein is the last macronutrient on the label. It’s important to get enough protein to support the proper functioning of muscles, hormones and immunity in your body. Protein also helps keep you full, so it’s beneficial to eat higher protein meals and snacks if you’re trying to mind your figure.
In general, aim for 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you weigh 75kg (165 pounds), for example, you should eat at least about 60g of protein per day. This amount increases if you’re highly active, pregnant/nursing or recovering from a major illness or surgery.
Go for lean protein when you can. Lower fat sources of protein include fish, chicken, turkey, beans and tofu.
On most products, there’s a small box under the primary nutrition information that contains a few vitamins and percentages.
The percentages to the right of the micronutrients denote how much of the given nutrient is contained within one serving of the food, related to the recommended daily intake for adults. So, if your label says, “Vitamin C 29%,” that means that one serving of the food or drink contains 29% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin C.
Use this information to guide your food choices and ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake throughout the day.
10. Ingredients List
Last but not least, glance over the ingredients list.
All of the ingredients included in the product are listed (in order of descending weight) at the bottom of the nutrition label. If you or anyone in your family has any allergies or intolerances, or you’re avoiding any specific food for a special diet, scan the entire list to make sure you’re steering clear of that ingredient.
Hopefully you now understand a little more about how to read nutrition labels. Using this information, you’ll be making healthier choices for you & your family in no time!
The best part: if you glance at the labels while you’re still shopping, it’s easy to swap a less healthy item for a more nutritious option. Whether your aim is healthy living, weight loss, heart health or to follow a special diet, knowing how to read nutrition labels makes your dietary goals achievable.
If you have any lingering questions or comments about nutrition labels, please share them with us in the comments section below!