Nutrition 101: How to Decode Food Labels

Posted by Robyn Whalen on Thu, Dec, 08, 2016

Sometimes you may wonder if nutrition facts are even written in English. If mathematics or data analysis were not exactly your strong suits in academics, nutrition facts can definitely look like a foreign language.

If you are trying to eat right and get in your recommended doses of nutrients a day, nutrition facts are extremely helpful tools to assist you while shopping or preparing meals. Here’s how you can master decoding those intimidating labels:Decode Food Labels

Start With the Serving Size

This is more important than you may think! When determining a food’s nutritional value, always remember to check the serving size. Some products try to trick you with serving sizes. For example, the serving size for Pop-Tarts is one Pop-Tart, even though each individual package contains two of the pastries! So if you are planning on eating both pastries, know that you are doubling the intake calories and nutrients that are listed on the label.

Check the Calories

The amount of calories you intake per day should be determined by your current weight, height, weight goals, physical activity, and age. If you are not sure of the amount of calories you should be consuming in a day, check with your physician or use one of the many online resources to help you find the right number of daily calories for you.

While calorie intake is vital for your body to function and produce energy, if you are looking to maintain your current weight, make sure to burn about as many calories as you take in. If you are looking to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you take in per day. Keep this in mind while selecting snacks and meals throughout the day.

Know the Difference between Calories and Calories from Fat

This can get a bit tricky. “Calories” represent the total calories in one serving from all sources including carbohydrates, protein, and fat. “Calories from fat” represent just the calories that are received from fat. A gram of fat contains more calories than a gram of carbohydrate or a gram of protein (one gram of fat has nine calories, compared with only four calories per gram in carbohydrates and proteins).

In general, about 20 to 35 percent of total daily calories should be from fat (fat calories). While fat intake is necessary to monitor, recent research from the FDA has found that the type of fat is more important than the amount of it; the worst of fats being trans fat. To monitor this, check the % Daily Value for trans fat and saturated fat. 

Reference the % Daily Value

The % Daily Value shows the percentage of each nutrient in a single serving. Each listed nutrient is based on 100% of the recommended daily amounts for that nutrient. A good rule of thumb for these percentage values is that 5% or less of a nutrient is considered low and 20% or more of a nutrient is considered high.

The percentages are based on:

  • 2,000 calorie diet
  • 30% calories from fat
  • 10% saturated fat
  • <300 mg cholesterol
  • <2400 mg sodium
  • 60%+ calories from carbohydrate
  • 35-30 grams of fiber

Limit Intake of These Nutrients

These are the first nutrients listed on the nutrition label under the calories: saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium, sugars, and total carbohydrate. High amounts of these nutrients, if regularly consumed, contribute to the onset of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Try to stay below 100% DV for each of these nutrients per day.

Consume Enough of These Nutrients

Make sure to pay attention to these key nutrients that are found under the nutrients mentioned above. These include dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. Be sure to consume as much of these nutrients as possible to help prevent chronic disease, heart disease and weight gain. Remember that 5% DV is considered low and 20% DV is considered high.

Make Sure the Ingredient List Is Short and Easy-to-Read

If the ingredient list is short and has recognizable and pronounceable words—that is a great sign that you are avoiding any unnatural and unhealthy additives. Also keep in mind that ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so you don’t want sugar or high-fructose corn syrup listed as one of the first ingredients. 

Nutrition facts should be utilized to make sure that you are making healthy choices and to assure that your body is getting enough of the vital nutrients it needs. Keep this guide in mind, and your next trip to the grocery store won’t be as frustrating or confusing!

What tricks do you use to make sure you’re buying healthy food?

Image: Table with vegetables and a notebook photograph by onlyyouqj- Freepik

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