Anatomy of a Nutrition Label

Ahhh yes, those stupid graphs on the back of packaged foods. It looks like  combo of math and some foreign language. Does anyone really look at those? And if they do, do they really know what they *should* be looking for? Luckily, foreign languages have always been my strong suit, and although the old saying goes “ignorance is bliss,” bliss does not lead you to your dream body. There is actually a lot of really useful information in these labels, so lets break it down.

Anatomy of a Nutrition Label

  1. Calories- The first thing to look at is the number of calories. Since weight loss is all about calories in vs. calories out this number is really important. I encourage all my health coaching clients to track calories as they get started to make sure they are eating the right amount. Also note that different brands of the same type of food can have vastly different calorie amounts.
  2. Servings- Next, look at the serving size and servings per container. Many a time I’ve bought something that looks like it’s packaged as a single serving (hello bag of chips) only to find out there are actually more than one servings. Not only will the “serving” section key you in to how many servings there are, but it will also enable you to see how much food makes up a serving which is essential when you are counting calories or trying to lose weight, as I mentioned before. New labels have both standard and metric measures and I usually recommend using a food scale and metric measures for accuracy as you are getting started.
  3. Macros- Macronutrient (macro) is the classification for protein, fat and carbohydrates. It’s important to look at the number of grams from each macronutrient. While this is not as important to losing weight as calories are, eating a high protein diet will help you stay fuller longer and maintain muscle mass, which will in turn stoke your metabolism. These grams of macronutrients contribute to the calories in a food. You can calculate these grams into calories by multiplying the grams of fat by 9, and grams of carbohydrates or protein by 4. This will also help give you an idea of the percentage of your diet that comes from each type of macronutrient. I recommend 45% of calories coming from carbohydrates, 35% of calories from protein and 20% of calories from fat when trying to lose weight.
  4. Fat- There are several types of fat listed: trans fat is a manufactured type of fat that is linked to heart disease and should be avoided. Although dietary cholesterol had not been shown to have much of an impact on cholesterol levels it’s still recommended that you limit cholesterol levels to 300 mg per day. Saturated fat is also linked to clogged arteries and heart disease, although new research is starting to dispute this link, its better to be on the safe side and limit consumption. It is recommended to limit saturated fat to 20g per day for a 2000 calorie diet. Unsaturated fats help lower cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fats are slightly better than polyunsaturated fats. According to the institute of Medicine, fat should make up no more than 30% of your daily calories.
  5. Sugars- Look at grams of sugar. Also listed may be grams of sugar alcohol. The World Health Organization recommends limiting sugar intake to no more than 25 grams per day. Many foods have hidden sugars and it can be really eye-opening when you start to become aware of the amount of sugar in the food you eat. That “healthy” yogurt could have as much sugar as a snickers bar! Also consider limiting sugar alcohols because although they contain fewer calories, they can cause gastrointestinal distress.
  6. Fiber- A healthy woman under the age of 50 should be getting 25 grams of fiber a day (20 grams if you are over 50). Fiber helps with satiety and healthy digestive function. On America labels, food producers can subtract the calories from fiber from the total calories. However, since fiber still contains some calories per gram this is not truly accurate. Beware of foods like “fiber one” bars and cookies, which add in manufactured fiber powder as this may not be as beneficial.
  7. Percent of daily values- This helps put things into perspective. For example, if something contains 50% or more of your daily value of fat you may want to skip it.
  8. Daily recommended values- at the bottom of the food label are the daily recommended values of fat, sodium, cholesterol, fiber and carbohydrates. These are a good reminder and also very useful for putting things in perspective.
  9. Micronutrients- Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals. These are essential for the healthy function of your body. The percent of your daily recommended value is listed. Try to get enough of these in each day.
  10. Ingredients- I could do a whole other post on ingredients, but for the sake of keeping it simple, just know that the ingredients listed first are the ones found in most abundance in the product. If the first ingredient in your “healthy” juice is some form of sugar, it may not be so healthy after all.

I hope this has helped demystify food labels for you. Once you understand the basics, food labels can be a useful tool to assist you in making healthy choices. You can also plug in the numbers from the labels into a program like My Fitness Pal to keep track of how you are eating each day.

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