I’ve recently started to eat healthier in hopes of losing weight. There are so many foods that say low-fat, high fiber, no sugar added, etc., and I’ve bought those foods in hopes that will help me take off a few pounds. I know that I should be reading the nutrition label too, but I’m just not sure that I understand it all that well. Can you give me a quick breakdown of what everything means, so that I can make better choices? What should I look out for?
Thanks, Nutrition Label Novice
Dear Nutrition Label Novice,
Congratulations on deciding to eat healthier! Navigating a nutrition label looks hard, but once you know the basics it’s actually pretty easy. Take a look at this nutrition label:
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Now let’s break it down:
Serving Size: This means that the label information is based on 2 tortillas. If you were to have 4 tortillas you would have to double all the information on the label. So, before you buy anything check the serving size to see if it is a reasonable amount. Sometimes you might see a small amount of calories, but if you look at the serving you will see that it might also be a small amount of food. Calories can add up fast when you’re doubling and tripling serving sizes, so watch out for this.
Servings Per Container: This lets you know that there are 6 servings in the entire container. Which means, if the serving size is 2 tortillas and there are 6 servings in the container, then 12 tortillas come in the package. Sometimes you need to know how many servings are in the container, because as I mentioned above you might not always eat just one serving. For example, if these tortillas were really small and wouldn’t be enough to fill you up, you might need to have more than just 2, which means that you would have to double the calories, fat, carbs, protein, etc. to calculate how much you’ve really had.
Calories: This is the mount of calories in a food. To lose weight you’re going to want to cut back on your calories a bit, but make sure to never dip below 1200 per day, otherwise your metabolism will slow down, because your body will go into starvation mode to conserve itself. What’s more important though is where those calories are coming from, so let’s go a bit deeper…
Calories From Fat: This is how many of the calories in a given serving come from fat. The bigger the difference between the number of calories and the number of calories from fat, the better the food choice.
Total Fat: This is the amount of fat grams in a serving. Make sure that you are getting enough good fats into your diet, but still being careful about how much of it you’re consuming. If you’re trying to lose weight then aim for 30-45g of fat per day in your diet.
Saturated Fat and Trans Fats: Limit saturated fat as much as possible. They are the key culprits of high cholesterol heart disease. Trans fats are what’s produced when food manufacturers add hydrogen to an unsaturated fat to turn into a solid saturated fat, in order to increase a food’s shelf life (think of the words “partially hydrogenated” that you’ve seen on some ingredient labels). They’re even worse, so keep those to 0.
Cholesterol: I think we’ve all heard that high cholesterol is bad for you, so keep these to under 300mg a day.
Sodium: AKA salt. If you have high blood pressure or a tendency for high blood pressure then you definitely want to limit this. So, keep it low – 2400-3000mg or less per day.
Carbs: Ready for this… Eat these often! (Oh, how Dr. Atkins would be rolling around in his grave now.) They are the most important nutrient for things like cognition and energy. Without them your body cannot produce energy for your brain or muscles to function properly and instead will go to sources such as protein (aka muscle) to get it, which means that you might lose weight, but you will lose muscle too, which doesn’t make for a very pretty sight. And the loss of muscle will slow down your metabolism to boot. So eat your potatoes, bread, and pasta, but just make sure that they are the right carbs. Look for complex carbs, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain and high fiber sources.
Fiber: This is important and will guide you in the right types of carbs to eat. There’s soluble fiber and insoluble fiber and both are good for you.
Protein: Most people get more protein than they need, thinking that low-carb, high protein is the way to go if you want to lose weight. That’s not the case though. To figure out how much protein you need per day multiply your weight by .4536 and then multiply that by .5. For example, a 135lb. woman’s calculation would look like this: 135 x .4536 x .5 = 30.61. This means that a 135lb. woman should be getting 31g (I’m rounding up 30.61) of protein per day. Choose lean meats, such as fish and poultry, or beans, cheese, and nuts.
Vitamins and Minerals: Your goal is to get 100% of each for the day. In order to do this, you’ll likely need to eat a variety of foods.
Daily Values: For fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, and sodium choose foods with a low daily value %. For carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, your goal is to get 100% of the daily value. Be aware that daily values are based on a person who needs 2,000 calories per day, so if you’re a woman and trying to lose weight, the food label won’t accurately predict how much of each nutrient you need.
So, there you have it, a food label deciphered. It’s good that you’re trying to be more mindful, because you mentioned before that you’re eating lots of low-fat, no sugar added, high fiber food (“diet” food). Just because it says “low-fat” on it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily the best choice for you. You have to take into account where all the calories are coming from and what the serving size is. It’s great that a Snackwells cookie may only have 75 calories in it, but are you really going to stop at just one? Most of the time these snacks have so much filler and added sugars, that you’re not really doing yourself a service by eating them. So be mindful of the nutrition label and where the calories are coming from so that you can make the best possible decision. Good luck!