You are what you eat: Food-label reading 101


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While we’re all aware that a diet of whole foods is preferable…it’s just not always practical.

Sometimes it’s a quick-fix dinner on a busy weeknight. Or maybe a hankering for something from the “comfort” food category (My vice? Boxed brownies!).

But whether you regard them as a dietary staple or a necessary evil, packaged good are a fact of life.

The only way to understand the relationship between the foods you eat and how they affect your overall health is by arming yourself with information: That means reading and interpreting the food labels around you.

Understanding food labels can also help you make better choices―that is, if you know how to use the information to your advantage.

Here’s an overview of the most important elements to keep in mind next time you make that weekly trip to the market.

First, what’s on the label, in a nutshell:

  • Serving size
  • Calorie information
  • Nutrient information
  • Percent daily values

Next, here’s how to utilize it (refer to corresponding areas of the chart below):


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  1. Check the serving size. 
    • All the information on the label is based on a standardized single serving, say one cup. So if you end up eating two servings, or two cups of food in this example, remember to multiply the numbers by two.
  2. Count your calories. 
    • This section of the label can help you manage your weight (i.e., gain, lose or maintain). Just remember: the number of servings you consume determines the number of calories you actually eat, so make sure your math is correct!
  3. Watch out for red flags.
    • Eating too much fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol or sodium may increase your risk of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, some cancers or high blood pressure.
    • Not sure how much is too much? Here are a few guidelines:
        • Total fat: Should be 25-35% of calories, or roughly 3 grams of fat per 100 calories
        • Saturated fat: Limit to less than 20 grams per day
        • Trans fat: Ideally 0 grams per day, but the maximum is 2 grams per day
        • Sodium: Aim for a range of 1,500 – 2,400 milligrams per day
        • Sugar: Avoid foods with sugar as one of the first three ingredients
  4. Load up on the good stuff. 
    • Most Americans don’t get enough dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron in their diets, which actually help reduce the risk of some diseases and conditions, such as osteoporosis, heart disease and healthy bowel function.
    • Aim or more of the following:
        • Fiber: Good sources cointain 3g or more, but try for 25-30g per day overall
        • Vitamins A & C, Calcium and Iron: Choose foods with high values of these key nutrients
  5. Look at the bigger picture.
    • Daily Values are recommended levels of intakes based on 2,000- and 2,500-calorie diets. Think of them as a frame of reference, regardless of calories, and use the information to compare similar products and brands. Just remember to make sure that the serving sizes are similar, especially the weight of each product – e.g. gram, milligram, ounces!

Approach the art of reading food labels as an act of dietary self-defense. Not only will it help you avoid unhealthy pitfalls such as excess sodium and sugar, but it will also help make you more aware of what you’re putting into your body and how it affects you on a daily basis.

To read more on understanding and using nutrition facts labels, visit the FDA’s website on the topic here.

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