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How to Read Food Labels Like a Nutrition Pro

Silvia Carli

09/10/2020
By Silvia Carli

Ever found yourself squinting at the fine print of a food label, trying to figure out if the product is a healthy option for you? This can be fairly challenging, due to a lot of confusing information presented on these labels. You are what you eat, and knowing what you’re eating helps you make better decisions about the kind of foods you consume. Whether you are trying to lose weight or maintain healthy eating habits, knowing how to read food labels is crucial to making healthier choices when grocery shopping.

Decrypting Food Labels, the Easy Way

The following is a simplified guide on how to decipher food labels.

Illustration of a nutrition food label isolated on a white background.
It Is Important That You Compare The Recommended Serving Size To Your Portion Size (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Check the Serving Size

The serving size refers to the information about a single serving. How big one serving is and how many servings there are in the package will be mentioned at the top of the food label.

It is important that you compare the recommended serving size to your portion size. Don’t be disappointed if it is much less than the portions you usually consume. For example, one serving of Oreos is only two cookies! The calories and nutrients you intake will depend on how much bigger your portion size is than the serving size.

There’s More to Nutrition Than Counting Calories

Calories represent the amount of energy in a product, measured in kcal or kilojoules (kJ). Many people tend to restrict their diets by limiting the calorie number only. Even though it’s important nutritional information, and it’s a good thing to be aware of high-calorie and lower-calorie foods, you don’t need to be counting calories all the time. This is because the individual calorie requirements vary from person to person and with age. So, if you are looking to lose or maintain body weight, counting calories will only serve as a part of the whole picture.

Look at the Ingredients List on Food Labels

It is just as important to read the list of ingredients as it is to know the other nutrition facts. The ingredients are listed on labels in descending order by weight, starting with the ones in the largest amounts. This is important information for people who are allergic to certain foods or those following specific diet plans.

Here’s the deal: Generally, if the ingredients list of a product has more than five ingredients, it means the product has undergone unnecessary processing methods. This makes it a highly processed food. Also, If you can’t pronounce the names of ingredients on the list, chances are they are chemical derivatives of substances that do not occur naturally. Stay away from such ingredients!

What are Carbs, What is Protein, and Does Fat Have Any Place in Your Diet?

Carbs, protein, and fat are macronutrients. Macronutrients are the main energy-providing components of food that can be classified into three main categories: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Your body requires large daily doses of macronutrients in order to perform its normal functions and activities.

What are Carbs?

Carbs are the macronutrients required by the body to burn fat and release energy. Food labels mention the total number of carbs as well as the amounts of their constituents: fiber and sugar.

Fiber is an important dietary nutrient that helps maintain gastrointestinal health and body weight, in turn, lowering the risk of certain chronic diseases. You should look for one gram of fiber for every ten grams of carbs in your food.

Here is a short five-minute video explaining the impact of carbohydrates on your health.

How do carbohydrates impact your health? | Richard J. Wood – TED-Ed

What is Protein?

Protein’s main function is to build, restore, and preserve the lean body mass, in addition to several other important functions to keep the body healthy, like being a component of enzymes and antibodies. This makes it essential for you to have enough of it in your diet throughout the day, depending on your daily requirements.

Overhead view of female doing abs workout at the gym.
Protein’s Main Function Is To Build, Restore, And Preserve The Lean Body Muscle Mass (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Fats in Foods

In addition to being important for the functions and protection of our cells and vital organs, fat is a significant source of energy when our bodies are low on calories. Fat is also responsible for providing flavor to foods and enhancing their taste.

Selection of healthy fat sources.
Fat Is A Significant Source Of Energy When Our Bodies Are Low On Calories (Image Source: Shutterstock)

Choosing the right kind of fat is pertinent to maintaining a healthy diet, as too much fat and some types of it can lead to health problems like obesity and heart disease. This makes it necessary for you to limit the quantity of fat in your meals.

Dietary fats can be saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature; these fats have a high shelf-stability. The sources of these fats include meat and dairy. Unsaturated fats are mostly liquid, even when kept in the refrigerator; these fats have a shorter shelf-stability. Unsaturated fats are beneficial for the body in many ways and originate from plant-based sources.

Important Considerations When Choosing Low-Calorie Foods

It’s important to know that the information given on labels is based on a 2000-calorie-per-day diet. Your gender, age, level of activity, and your diet goals determine how many calories you require in a day.

Man buying vegetables in grocery section at supermarket.
Watch Out For High Level Of Salt, Artificial Trans Fat And Added Sugars (Image Source: Shutterstock)

If foods are high in naturally occurring sugars, such as those obtained from fruit or dairy products, you shouldn’t worry too much since natural sugars come with other nutrients. What you should look out for, however, is added sugar as it is more harmful and is addictive in nature.

Watch out for high levels of salt, as an excess of it can elevate your blood pressure and increase your chances of getting heart disease or a stroke. The recommended amount of salt is not more than six-grams per day for an adult, almost equal to a teaspoon. Another important factor to consider is that several everyday foods contain salt as a flavor enhancer. So don’t forget to check the label next time you buy cookies, bread, or cakes, and count the salts in them toward your daily salt intake.

According to various studies, you should also avoid artificial trans fat content in your diet. These are from plant-based sources and are modified chemically to increase their shelf-life.

Your body has a daily requirement of certain nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. Be sure to include sufficient amounts of these by choosing foods that fulfill these requirements.

Stay away from foods that have additives in their lists with names starting with the letter E and containing a number. These E-number ingredients may represent toxic additives like aspartame, aluminum, or MSG.

Lastly, keep an eye on changes in formulas, as many food manufacturing companies keep innovating their products or changing processing methods, which may translate to an undesirable product.

Reading Food Labels is a Choice, But a Necessary One!

The bottom line is: You should become comfortable with reading labels every time you go out to buy food in order to make informed decisions and better food choices.

Your safest bet, however, would still be to use natural ingredients sourced from local markets and prepare wholesome and nourishing meals yourself, whenever time allows it.

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