Nutrition Label Know-How | by
Here’s how to read the nutrition facts label so you choose the best foods for your family.
In an ideal world, we’d follow the advice about only shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, picking up lean proteins, fruits, and veggies (and keeping packaged snacks out of the pantry). “The reality is that most of us rely on at least some processed foods—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” says Dr. Mark Christensen, MD, a board-certified Family and Sports Physician at Castle Pines Urgent Care and Family Practice. “The key is learning how to read a food label so you can make healthy choices.” Here’s what to keep in mind the next time you’re strolling through the supermarket.
Here’s where to start, since the rest of the info on the label is based on this number. Also crucial: the “servings per container” line. Since many snacks—like a 16-ounce bottle of juice or 1-ounce bag of chips—actually have two servings per container, you’ll have to double all the nutrition info if you plan on finishing the whole thing. “If the numbers look good but you see there’s three servings per box—and you’re planning on eating the whole box—you may need to reconsider,” says Christensen.
It’s important to watch calories if you’re trying to lose some weight (you’ll drop pounds if you take in fewer calories than you burn). However, it’s also important to keep in mind that most of the info you see on a nutrition label is based on a 2,000-calorie-per day diet, says Christensen, which may be more or less than your target. “A 110-pound female shouldn’t have the same diet as a 200-pound male, but both are looking at the same nutrition label,” says Christensen. “Just keep that in mind as you’re shopping and trying to figure out what to buy to meet your nutrition goals.”
Calories from fat
Experts agree this number is often overlooked but very important. Both kids and adults should get no more than 35 percent of daily calories from fat. To figure out if a food is low in fat calories, divide the calories from fat by the total calories. (Even easier, just look for a low “calories from fat” number, which you’ll find on most nutrition labels.)
% Daily Value
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends getting a certain amount of nutrients each day, and this is the percent of that recommendation. But keep in mind the recommendations are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, meaning you’re going to have to do a little more math to figure out exactly what you (or your child) is getting if you don’t eat 2,000 calories a day. This can get complicated, so use the percentage to give you a clue as to whether or not the food is high or low in certain nutrients,” says Christensen. A food with 5 percent or less of the % daily value is considered to be low in that nutrient; if it’s between 10 and 19 percent, it’s a good source; 20 percent or higher means it’s a great source.
We all need some fat to absorb vitamins, help our internal organs work efficiently, and keep us feeling satisfied after meals—and it’s especially important for the development of kids’ brains. But it’s the type of fat to pay close attention to here: You want a food to be low in saturated fat, and have little or no trans fat, says Christensen. “It’s important to remember that not all fats are created equal,” he adds. “Saturated fat that comes from avocados and nuts is a lot different than what you’ll find in packaged sweets. Opt for fats from healthier sources when possible.” A good aim is to get less than 10 percent of your calories from saturated fat.
Similar to fat, the breakdown is what matters. Even more important than total carbohydrate is the amount of dietary fiber and sugars in a food. As a general rule, a food that’s higher in fiber than sugars is a good choice. But here’s where a healthy dose of common sense comes in handy. Consider milk, for example, which has no fiber and 12 grams of sugar because lactose is a naturally occurring sugar in milk. To get a good idea of the type of fiber and sugar in a food, look at the ingredients list—and choose foods with “whole grain” high on the ingredients list, says Christensen. Also, try to avoid sugars (a.k.a. maltose, dextrose, sucrose, and high-fructose corn syrup) or make sure they are lower down on the ingredients list or not there at all.
While some cholesterol is important—it’s used to make the myelin sheath that surrounds and protects the body’s nerves—the recommendation for both kids and adults is less than 300 mg per day (and less than 200 mg per day if you’re at high risk of heart disease). But while dietary cholesterol is somewhat tied to raising blood fat, the bigger culprits are actually saturated fat and trans fats. The bottom line: Shoot for foods low in cholesterol, but don’t cut it completely.
For adults, the recommendation is 2,300 mg or less sodium per day, which is just about one teaspoon of salt. “Most of us are consuming far above this level,” says Christensen. One reason is because it’s an excellent food preservative. “Sodium transforms foods that should have a shelf life of about two to three days to two to three months—even two to three years,” he says. What’s more, food that’s served when eating out is also typically sky-high in sodium. “Start tracking how much sodium is in your food and there’s a good chance you’ll be shocked,” says Christensen, “and inspired to cut back significantly.”
While getting enough vitamins and minerals is essential, you’re likely getting all that you need if you eat a varied diet rich in plant-based foods, says Christensen. “It’s pretty tough to overdo it on these vitamins if you’re eating a range of foods,” she says. (See % Daily Value to figure out if a food is a good source of the vitamins and minerals listed on the label.)
The most important thing to remember is that ingredients are always listed from the greatest to smallest quantity. “The first three to five ingredients will give you a good sense of how healthy a food is,” says Christensen. “In general, you want to look for ingredients that are recognizable, like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, and steer clear of anything that’s hydrogenated, which signifies that it’s a trans fat.” What about those ingredients that you can’t pronounce? Take out your smart phone and look them up. “Sometimes unrecognizable ingredients are loaded with unhealthy chemicals and preservatives, but that’s not always the case,” says Christensen. “The more info you have, the better choices you can make.”
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