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Decoding Nutrition Facts Labels

woman reading nutrition label

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In this Article:

  • Learn how to make informed food choices by reading the nutrition facts label.
  • One package may have more than one serving.
  • Low in calories or sugar doesn’t always equal healthy.

Do you know what you’re feeding your body? Taking just two seconds to read the nutrition facts on food labels will help you know if you’re eating healthy.

Most food products are required to have a nutrition facts label. These labels list calories, nutrients, and other food facts. Here are quick and easy tips for each section of the label to help you make informed food choices.

Serving Size

A serving size tells you how many servings are in the package. Each serving contains a certain amount of calories, nutrients, and other ingredients listed on the nutrition facts label. Check how many servings are in your food so you know how much you are actually consuming. Rarely does one package equal one serving.

Calories

Calories measure the energy you get from food and are fuel for your body. On average, you should eat between 1,200 and 2,000 calories per day depending on your age, gender, and other factors. Don’t let one or two food items use up your entire daily allowance.

For example, a 20-oz bottle of soda has 140 calories per serving. If you drink the whole bottle, you consume 350 calories.

Total Fats

There are three types to look for: unsaturated, saturated, and trans fat.

  • Unsaturated fat (listed as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated), found in fish, avocados, walnuts, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, olives, and lean meats like turkey or chicken breasts, is good for your heart.
  • Consuming too much saturated fat can cause heart disease. Foods high in saturated fat include beef, pork, chicken with skin, cheese, butter, and creams such as sour cream and cream cheese. It’s best to consume only 11-13g per day, which equals a steak the size of your palm or one spoonful of sour cream.
  • Avoid trans fat (partially hydrogenated oil) completely if you can. It’s man-made and linked to diabetes and heart disease. Common items made with trans fats are margarine spreads, salad dressings, fried foods, candy, donuts, and salty snacks, including chips and crackers. These foods are often called “junk food” for a reason.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is fat found in the blood. Your body naturally makes this substance; but eating foods high in cholesterol, such as meat and dairy products, can hurt your heart. Excessive cholesterol forms plaque in the arteries of your heart. This makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to your body and brain.

Limit cholesterol intake to less than 300mg a day. Try to fill your plate with foods that have good fat (unsaturated) rather than bad fat (saturated or trans fat). This means more fish or chicken and vegetables and less hamburgers and fries.

Sodium

Also known as salt, sodium regulates blood pressure and blood volume. Limit intake to 2,300mg or less a day. That’s less than one teaspoon of salt per day.

Total Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (carbs) are nutrients that help your body’s cells function and fuel your energy. Total carbohydrates are made up of dietary fiber and sugars.

Dietary fiber helps your digestive system. If a food is high in fiber, it will help you to feel full longer and stabilize your blood sugar. These types of carbs include rice, pasta, oatmeal, and vegetables. Stick to whole wheat and oats instead of enriched (processed) carbs.

There are two types of sugar: natural sugar and added sugar. Natural sugar is found in fruits, milk, and some whole grains. Added sugar, such as fructose, sucrose, or dextrose, is sugar that is added to processed foods such as cookies, cereals, and soda.

Limit added sugar intake to less than 150 calories per day. Every gram of sugar contains four calories, so if there is 25g of sugar in one serving, that’s 100 calories. Learn more about how sugar affects your body with this infographic.

Protein

Proteins are nutrients that build muscle, repair tissue in the body, and fight infection. The best natural sources of protein are fish, poultry, such as chicken or turkey, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Aim to eat 50g of protein per day.

For example, eat one grilled chicken breast for lunch and one piece of baked fish for dinner to get your protein needs for the day.

Vitamins and Minerals

Essential nutrients help build strong bones, heal wounds, and keep your body at optimal performance. Common key nutrients often seen on the label include:

  • Vitamin A—helps vision and cell growth
  • Vitamin C—maintains blood vessels, cartilage, and muscles
  • Calcium—builds strong bones
  • Potassium—helps regulate blood pressure
  • Iron—carries oxygen through body and maintains healthy skin, hair, and nails

Ingredients

Inspect the ingredient list. Just because a food is low in calories or low in sugar doesn’t mean it is healthy! Things to know when reading the ingredient list:

  • The first ingredients listed are what make up most of the food item.
  • Avoid partially hydrogenated oil, artificial colorings, and added sugars.
  • Whole wheat flour is healthier than enriched flour.

Reading nutrition facts on food labels doesn’t have to be hard. Here is an example to help you test your new skills.

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