If you feel like you need a translator when it comes to reading food labels, we hear you. All that information listed on packaged foods can feel like a foreign language. The fact is, reading and understanding Nutrition Facts Panels (NFPs) not only helps you make more nutritious food choices, it may even help you hit your fat-loss goals. A study published in the journal Agricultural Economics found that women who took the time to check out NFPs weighed almost nine pounds less than those who just tossed items in their carts. So Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LDN, author of The Essential Guide to Healing Foods is providing you with a top-to-bottom guide to really help you understand all those numbers and percentages, and make you a savvier, slimmer shopper.
Knowing how to decipher that little black-and-white block of nutritional information is vital to making the healthiest food choices at the supermarket. According to Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It, the first step is sleuthing out the ingredients list. “If you can’t pronounce the ingredients listed, it’s a good sign you should avoid consuming that food on a regular basis.”
This nutrient comes jam-packed with intestinal benefits. It also makes you feel full on fewer calories, helping you fend off obesity as well as health complications such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Aim for 25 to 28 grams per day. If a product contains three to five grams of fiber (or more) per serving, go for it!
The building block of muscle, you want to aim for at least 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight. A good protein rule of thumb: there are about seven grams of protein in one ounce of meat, chicken or fish (so a three-ounce serving contains about 21 grams). Research shows that we can’t use more than 30 grams of protein at a time, so don’t protein-load all at once; instead, get the maximum benefit by spacing out your intake throughout the day.
A product may say “only 50 calories per serving,” but that can mean a half cup when you’re used to eating one or two cups. Double check your portions before you dig in. Tip: Measure out one serving into a bowl, plate or cup to see what it looks like. That way, you can eyeball it later, when there are no measuring cups or spoons on hand.
Calories Per Serving
This is how many calories (energy) you are getting in the serving you’ve just measured out. You may think you’re only getting 110 calories in your morning cereal, but if you’re eating two or three servings, that’s double or triple the calories!
Stick with foods in the single digits when it comes to added sugar, and avoid foods with more than 10 grams of added sugar. Remember, sugar is sugar regardless of whether it comes from the cane, a beet or a honeybee — your body processes it in the same way — and it clocks in at about 15 to 20 calories per teaspoon.
Look for products with less than 500 milligrams of sodium per serving. Sure, salt makes food taste good, but too much of it can elevate blood pressure, lead to heart problems and cause you to retain water, leaving you feeling heavy and bloated. Sodium can be hidden in many foods like breads, cereals, salad dressings and even ice cream. The maximum daily limit: 2,300 milligrams (one teaspoon), but your health will benefit the most from sticking to 1,500 milligrams or less.
Necessary for optimal brain and muscle function, the amount typically recommended for the average woman is between 45 and 65 percent of total calories, assuming an adequate total caloric intake. Here’s a simpler way to look at daily carb intake: if you’re engaging in low-intensity exercise a few days a week, aim for three to five grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight; but if you’re exercising daily at a moderate intensity, boost your intake to five to seven grams per kilogram of body weight.
“Look for products with at least 20 percent of your Daily Value to support bone health,” says Taub-Dix. You’ll find this number under the “% Daily Value” (DV) section. Foods high in calcium include low-fat dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt, tofu (made with calcium sulfate) and fortified soy, as well as rice or nut milks.
See AlsoFiguring Out Food Labels
Since fat is the most calorie-dense nutrient with nine calories per gram (versus carbs and proteins with four calories per gram), calories from fat can add up fast. Remember, fats in food are not a bad thing, particularly if they’re the unsaturated, “good” kind – like those found in avocados, nuts, seeds, olive and canola oils.
Although your body needs some fat, experts advise that you limit your fat intake to the following ranges*:
Total fats: 65 grams or less per day
Saturated fat: 20 grams or less per day
Trans fat: 0 grams per day
Cholesterol: 300 milligrams or less per day
*Based on a 1,800- to 2,000-calorie diet.
See AlsoControl Your Cholesterol
Look for food products with more than 20 percent of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of this energizing nutrient. Foods naturally high in iron include red meat, fish and leafy greens like spinach.
Beware of Buzzwords
Don’t be fooled by claims on the front of the package. Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, reveals some of the sneaky words that carry the potential to wreck your waistline.
“Natural” has no government-regulated definition, so it could just mean that a product contains no artificial ingredients, but it may still have sugar, fat and preservatives.
“Fat-free” creates the illusion that the food is low in calories, but often, these products are loaded with sugar to add flavor. For fat-loss, eating less overall is what really counts.
“Sugar-free” doesn’t mean “calorie-free.” A sugar-free candy bar can be laden with fat (and calories!). Plus, many of the artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols used in sugar-free foods can cause your digestive system to talk back.
“Light” can mean different things for different foods. For bread, it can mean fewer calories than a regular slice; a “light” soy sauce contains less sodium; while “light” olive oil means it has a lighter color and flavor.