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How to Read a Nutrition Label

Author: Cara Walsh

September 15, 2017

How to Read a Nutrition Label

Author: Cara Walsh

September 15, 2017

Learning how to correctly read a nutrition label is an imperative part of weight loss and weight maintenance. Information such as serving sizes, calories and fat are just some of the important components that can help you determine which foods are healthy.

In addition to providing information about the nutrition content of the foods you eat, a nutrition label gives you very important information about how to eat those foods. For example, it can be easy to dive into your favorite jar of peanut butter, but with 2 tablespoons per serving, taking a spoon to the jar isn’t a great idea.

1. A calorie is a unit of energy.

  • Know what sources your calories come from.
  • Carbohydrate: 4 calories/gram Protein: 4 calories/gram Alcohol: 7 calories/gram Fat: 9 calories/gram
  • It’s important to cut back on calories when you are trying to lose weight.

2. What is a serving size?

  • A serving size is the amount of food the nutrition label is based on.
  • Compare the serving size with how much you usually eat. For example, if the serving size is 1 tablespoon, but you have 3 tablespoons, you’ll need to adjust the amount of calories and nutrients you think you are consuming.
  • Double the portion means double the calories, double the fat, and double the sugar.
  • It also tells you the number of servings per package, which can be helpful if you’re trying to figure out a serving size. When you’re on the go, it can be easier to just split something in half rather than trying to measure out a portion.

3. Limit Fat Calories.

  • Calories from fat should be no more than 30% of total calories per serving. Keep Saturated fats as minimal as possible. Unsaturated fats are a healthy source of fat. All Medifast products and condiment have 5 grams of fat or less.

4. Avoid items high in sugar and fructose syrup.

  • Foods that are high in sugar and fructose corn syrup are typically not the best products to choose from. They can raise your blood sugar quickly and provide a ‘crashing’ feeling later. Try to get most of your sugar intake from natural sources such as fruits or low-fat/fat free dairy products.
  • New labels include information on “Added Sugars,” which helps to distinguish between naturally occurring sugars, such as in dairy products, and added sugars.

5. Avoid Trans Fats

  • Trans fats are a type of fat that is found in margarines and other processed foods. There is no health benefit to eating trans fats
  • Hydrogenated oils are those that may use trans fats. These fats cause an increase in your LDL (bad cholesterol) and a decrease in your HDL (good cholesterol). If you see a nutrition label with partially hydrogenated oils, it is best to stay away.
  • Sometimes you may see a label with 0g of trans fats, but the ingredients include “Partially hydrogenated oils.” This means that there is less than 0.5 g of trans fats in the food item. If you eat multiple servings, the amount of trans fats will add up.

6. Protein and fiber keep you full and satisfied.

  • Aim for 4-5 grams of fiber per serving, for a total of 25-30 g of fiber per day. Most people should get 50-75 grams of protein daily. Strive for snacks that are higher in protein content than fat content.

7. Monitor your sodium intake

  • It is recommended to consume less than 2, 300 mg per day or 1,400 mg for individuals with special health or dietary concerns.

8. How to read the numbers.

  • The Percent Daily Values (DV) gives you information about the amount of nutrients that are found in that food.
  • Percentages show whether the nutrients in one serving contribute a small or large amount of your total daily intake. If a label says 5% or less it is considered “a little” and 20% or more is “a lot”. For example, if a dinner meal has 100% of your daily value of saturated fat that is not a good choice. However, if a dinner meal has 100% daily value of calcium, that would be a good choice.
  • Aim to limit Total Fat, Saturated Fat, Trans Fat, Cholesterol and Sodium
  • Make sure you eat enough Dietary fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium and Iron each day.

9. Beware of Footnotes

  • Footnotes are not specific to the food itself and they are not required on the package. The percent daily values are usually based on a 2,000 or 2,500 calorie diet and should be adjusted for your caloric needs. Most children, women and older adults need less calories while active teens and adults may need more calories.
  • This footnote is the same for every food that you eat and won’t change from food product to food product because it gives general nutrition advice.

10. Read the ingredients!

  • What is the first item? All ingredients must be listed in descending order by weight, including added water. The ingredient listed first is present in the largest amount and the ingredient listed last is present in the least amount. Trace amounts of food may net be listed on the label. However, all major food allergens, regardless of whether they are present only in trace amounts must be declared.

11. What if you are not sure if a certain food is a healthy choice?

  • Look at the ingredients list. Are the first 3 ingredients whole foods? Examples include, wheat, milk, or chicken. If the label says sugar, fat or another high calorie ingredient, it may not be the best choice.

Whether you are looking to cut back on fat, calories or sugar, reading a nutrition label will give you the information you need to make informed choices, or the information you need about allergic ingredients. Even if you are not looking to lose weight, reading and understanding a nutrition label is an essential skill. Grab some food off your pantry shelves and give it a try!

About the Author:

Cara Walsh
Counselor at The Carmel Mountain Ranch Medifast Weight Control Center
Cara Walsh is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Weight Control Counselor. Cara received her bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Science from San Diego State University and completed her dietetic internship to become a registered dietitian through the Utah State University. Cara is currently completing her Masters in Dietetic Administration through Utah State University. Cara has always had a passion for healthy eating and cooking. She loves to focus on how food can heal and provide nutrition-while tasting delicious. Cara thrives on helping others reach their full potential nutritionally. In her spare time she enjoys reading, going to Pilates and running the boardwalk on the Pacific Ocean with her son and husband.

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