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How to Read a Nutrition Label

Learning how to read a nutrition label is a crucial step in eating better. Below you will find specific recommendations on how to interpret and understand nutrition labels based on the latest research. Understanding food labels, and healthy cooking are very important parts of learning how to eat better. Once you understand how to read food labels, you can start to use a nutritional value calculator to learn the nutrition values of different foods you’re eating.

The numbers below are for people who are looking to get healthier and/or lose weight without going on one of the many fad diets out there. Here is a guide on how to read a nutrition label:

Serving Size:
This is the size of each serving, usually based on the amount that the average person will eat. If you are eating 4-6 smaller meals per day, then your serving sizes should generally be smaller. Keep in mind that if there are 10 servings in a package and you eat the whole package, then you have to multiply all the calories, carbs, fat, etc. by 10.

Calories:
The amount of calories in one serving. Divide “calories from fat” by total calories to get the percentage of that food from fat (remember, this number should not be more than 20-30% per day). Be sure you understand how many calories you should be eating each day and check out this sample menu for a days worth of healthy foods (based on a 2000 calorie diet).

% Daily Value:
Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, these numbers listed on the nutrition label show percentages of total daily values that this serving of food is accounting for.

Total Fat:
The amount of fat (in grams) per serving. If you see any amount of trans fat listed on the label, choose another option. There is a lot of controversy around whether saturated fat is bad for you or not. There haven’t been any conclusive studies to show whether it’s good or bad, but you should eat saturated fat in moderation and look for “healthy fats” such as monounsaturated fats listed on the label.

Cholesterol:
Cholesterol = not good. Too much can lead to heart disease and stroke. Limit your cholesterol intake as much as possible. If you eat a lot of eggs, try eating a 4:1 ratio of egg whites to egg yolks instead. The yolks are loaded with cholesterol.

Sodium:
Watch for foods with high sodium (salt) content. If the Daily Value percentage is above 20%, consider a healthier option with less salt. Also, be very wary of showering your food with the salt shaker. Be sure to measure how much salt you are actually using – this will help you monitor your salt intake. You shouldn’t be eating more than 1 teaspoon total per day.

Total Carbohydrates:
Keep on eye on foods and drinks with high sugar content. Sugars are basically empty calories (lots of calories and little nutritional value) so they often lead to weight gain. Aim to keep your sugar intake under 32 grams or 6% of your total calories per day.

You will also see Fiber content listed on the nutrition label under Carbohydrates. Fiber is good…the more, the better. Fiber has a ton of health benefits, which include lowering cholesterol, preventing cancer, preventing constipation, and helping weight loss. Fiber also makes you feel more full so you often end up eating less.

Protein:
Protein is good, as long as you’re getting it from lean, healthy food sources such as poultry, fish, and other lean meats, low-fat dairy products, beans, nuts, etc.

Vitamins and Minerals:
Try and eat a wide variety of foods that are high in different types of vitamins and minerals. I also recommend taking a multi-vitamin supplement (such as One-a-Day) with close to 100% of the RDA for each vitamin listed.

Ingredients:
People often overlook the ingredients list on the bottom of a nutrition label. Take a close look at the ingredients listed. Look for natural ingredient names that you understand. The first ingredient listed on the ingredient list of a nutrition label composes the largest percentage of the food and so on. Make sure you avoid the following terms whenever possible:

1. High fructose corn syrup, fructose, glucose, dextrose – these are synthetic sugars derived from corn. They are a reason for many major health problems and many experts agree that they’re one of the major contributors to today’s obesity epidemic.

2. White Flour, Enriched Flour, Bleached White Flour, Wheat Flour* – eating too many refined carbohydrates raises blood sugar levels and increases blood fats called triglycerides, which puts you at much higher risk for heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

*Note that “Wheat Flour” is on the list above. This a deceptive way food companies get you to think you’re eating healthy…a product could have 1% “wheat” and they can call it wheat flour. Look for whole wheat or whole grain listed as the first ingredient.

3. Aspartame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Phenylalkaline – these are artificial sweeteners that we don’t know much about. Some early reports have said that they cause cancer but the bottom line is that there’s not enough research to know either way…so avoid them.

4. Partially Hydrogenated or Hydrogenated Oil – these are trans fats and are terrible for you.

As a general rule, also stay away from any ingredients that sound like a chemistry experiment. Do you know what sodium nitrate is? Neither do I, so I prefer not to eat it. A shorter ingredient list with names you actually understand is what you’re looking for here.

Recap – How to Read a Nutrition Label
Calories/Calories From Fat: Calories from fat – no more than 20-30% of per day of total fat consumption
Total Fat: Small amounts of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (“good fats”) are good for your heart
Saturated Fat: Eat in moderation. Try and keep your total under 20 grams total per day
Trans fat: 0 grams – these are horrible for you…stay away from them.
Sodium: Less than 2,300mg of sodium per day (equivalent of 1 tsp.) per day
Fiber: 25 grams or more per day
Sugar: Less than 32 grams or 6% of total calories per day of added sugar (sugar from natural sources like fruit is okay)
Protein: .36 grams per pound of body weight per day for the average person but largely dependent upon your fitness goals (i.e., for someone who is looking to gain lean muscle it is recommended to eat between .75 and 1 gram per pound of body weight)
Ingredients: Look for all natural ingredients and avoid ones that sound like a chemical equation. Avoid “high fructose corn syrup,” “refined flour,” artificial sweeteners, and hydrogenated oils. The less ingredients listed, the better

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