A recent study published in The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, proves once again, how important it is to read food labels and be an educated consumer when it comes to the food we eat. The study analyzed the diets of over 1,000 college students and gathered information regarding the frequency the students either read or did not read nutrition labels. The data revealed that those who frequently read nutrition labels were more likely to value healthy eating and engage in healthy dietary practices then those who read labels infrequently. Study participants who read labels consumed less fast food, less added sugar and consumed more dietary fiber, fruits and vegetables; all habits that are part of a balanced diet making it easier to control a healthy and desirable weight.
Reading food labels may seem complicated, so for newcomers to the concept, here is an easy guide to the basics:
Serving size: Begin by looking at the serving size under the nutrition facts. Make sure that if you are choosing to eat this food, that the serving size matches up to a realistic portion of what you are going to consume. For example, a 1oz serving of hard pretzels may fit the bill for your caloric intake of a snack at around 100 calories, but if you gobble up four handfuls, you most likely ate at least three servings. Remember that if you are eating double the serving size, you must double all the nutrition facts. In turn, if you are eating only half a serving size, you can cut the nutrition facts panel in half.
Calories: A calorie is a unit of energy. Everyone requires calories on a daily basis for the bodies basic function, and you require even more for daily activities and exercise. Caloric balance is a term used when the calories you are consuming is equal to calories you output each day. Caloric balance is an ideal goal for those trying to maintain their current weight. Simply put, if you are trying to lose weight, cutting back on calories can help you achieve a calorie deficit, aka eating less calories then you are consuming. If you are trying to gain weight, you can achieve caloric excess by eating more calories than you are using daily. Everyone requires a different amount of calories each day according to their goals, so keep your daily goals in mind when reading food labels.
Total Fat: According to The American Heart Association, total fat should be limited to between 56-78g/day. These recommendations are for 25-35% of total calories from fat based on a 2.000 calorie diet. Depending on what your calorie needs are, your fat intake may be higher or lower. As a Registered Dietitian, I usually recommend a total fat daily percentage to not exceed 30% of total calories. To find your needs, multiply your daily calorie needs by .30 and then divide this number by 9. For example, a person on a 1500 calorie/day diet should not consume more than 50g of fat/day (1500 x .30 = 450/9 = 50)
Saturated Fat: Saturated fat, aka bad fats, can be found primarily in animal and animal byproducts, as well as processed foods and sweets. Since these fats contribute to heart disease, limit them! This number is a subdivision of your total fats, not in addition to. Like the above equation, aim for saturated fats to be <7% of your daily caloric intake. To find your needs, multiply your daily calorie needs by .07 and then divide this number by 9. The same person eating 1500 calories/day should consume no more than 12g/saturated fat/day. (1500 x .07 = 105/9 = 11.6).
To learn more about dietary fat, read my article Dietary Fat: Eat, drink, and be fit and happy.
Sodium: Recommendations for daily sodium intake were recently lowered to just 1,500 mg/day. Keep in mind that processed foods tend to contain high amounts of sodium to add flavor and help preserve shelf-life. If you are eating a food that is high in sodium, try to eat fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables, for the rest of the day. Also remember that even foods that contain no calories, like diet soda, may still contain sodium.
Sugar: Although there are no set recommendations for daily intake of sugar by the FDA, try to keep daily intake on the lower end to help prevent weight gain, heart disease, and Type 2 Diabetes. When reading nutrition facts, keep in mind that for every 4 grams of added sugar on the label, it is equivalent to one tsp on added sugar in that food.
To learn more about sugar in the diet, read my article Brush Up on Your Basics: Sugar in the Diet
Get Enough of These:
Protein: Although the average American diet is not lacking protein, I feel it important to make sure there is healthy protein in the foods I am eating when reading food labels. The reason for this is that foods that contain protein help you stay full longer, since they take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates and sugar, as well as provide the body with essential amino acids for muscle recovery and maintenance. If total calories and saturated fat are being monitored and within the recommended limits,and other food groups are not being neglected, I recommend protein be eaten without further boundaries.
Dietary Fiber: The average adult should eat somewhere between 25-35grams of dietary fiber/day. When looking at food labels, soluble and insoluble fiber may be distinguished. Both are good for health, helping to lower cholesterol, slow the absorption of food, and aid in digestion, but just focus on getting your total numbers within a healthy range to meet basic fiber needs.
Vitamins/Minerals: Both naturally occurring and added vitamins and minerals are listed in percentage form on the nutrition label of foods. Remember that the percentage is based on a 2.000 calorie diet, which is not suited for everyone. The FDA requires that Vitamins A, C, calcium and iron be listed on every food label, so keep these vitamins and minerals in mind when reading. For example, if you consistently notice that foods you are eating do not contain any calcium, a supplement may be a good option for you.
So now that you know how to decipher a food label, keep this information in mind to become a more educated consumer. Take advantage of your knowledge to choose foods that fit into the right diet for you!
Graham, Dan J., and Melssa N. Laska. “Nutrition Label Use Partially Mediates the Relationship between Attitude toward Healthy Eating and Overall Dietary Quality among College Students.” Www.andjrnl.org. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 14 Nov. 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S0002-8223%2811%2901540- 9/abstract?elsca1=etoc&elsca2=email&elsca3=2212 2672_201203_112_3&elsca4=nutrition_dietetics>.
“What Choices Are You Making?” Ibx.com. Independence Blue Cross. Web. Apr. 2011.