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Understanding Food Labels: Decoding Nutrition Facts
Understanding food labels and healthy eating go hand in hand. Of course, learning how to read nutrition labels takes some time and practice.
Even though it becomes overwhelming, reading and understanding food labels is essential to living a healthy lifestyle. They provide vital information on your food’s composition, such as the amount of carbohydrates, fiber, protein, added sugars, vitamins, and minerals you’re about to eat. This information is especially important if you’re living with a certain health condition — like diabetes — that comes with certain dietary limitations.
So, whether you’re looking to fuel your body for successful workouts or trying to maintain your overall health, you’re going to want to learn how to properly decode your food. Below, we’ll demystify food nutrition labels and then some.
How to Read Nutrition Labels Like a Pro
The first thing you need to know about food nutrition labels is that they list the key nutrients and ingredients as governed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The second thing you need to know is that nutrition labels are designed to be read from top to bottom.
It should be noted that in 2016, the FDA made critical updates to its nutrition facts guidelines. This was to ensure that consumers could better understand the information on the labels and make more informed food choices in efforts to combat chronic conditions, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
So, from top to bottom, here is what you’ll see and how to decode it:
Serving Size and Servings Per Container
One of the most important updates mandated by the FDA has to do with serving size and how many servings exist per container. This information is meant to reflect what you’re actually eating rather than what you should be eating.
Therefore, the key takeaways are:
● The serving size equates to the quantity of food in one serving (usually denoted in cups or grams)
● The nutrients below reflect the amount found in one serving of food
● The serving size is not a recommendation
Once again, the serving size is meant to reflect the average amount consumed — NOT how much you should eat. Therefore, you’ll need to either cut the amount in half or multiply it depending on how much you plan to eat according to your dietary needs or restrictions.
The calories on a nutrition label are listed on a per-serving basis. This means a food label that reads 120 calories per serving and a serving size of one cup will contain 120 calories of carbohydrates, protein, fats, sugar, and so on.
Keep in mind that achieving a healthy lifestyle means creating a healthy relationship with food. Calories are units of energy, and there are many factors that will determine your body’s caloric needs. Therefore, you want to focus on quality versus quantity when it comes to your food intake.
Next up on the food label will be the total fat content. Total fat equates to the total amount of monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, trans, and saturated fats.
There are two essential factors to know here:
● Fat is a macronutrient, meaning that it’s a nutrient that our bodies require in larger amounts to convert into energy
● All fats contain nine calories per gram
Many food labels will provide the exact breakdown of each type of fat, but this is not a requirement. Therefore, it’s essential to learn the difference between healthy fats and unhealthy fats and where they come from.
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance with a waxy texture. It’s responsible for maintaining certain parts of our cells in addition to certain hormones. While cholesterol is naturally created in the liver, it’s also found in dairy products, meats, fried foods, tropical oils, and baked goods.
Nutrition labels reveal cholesterol in milligrams. The rule of thumb is that you should limit your intake to 300 milligrams per day — 200 milligrams if you have any risk factors associated with heart disease.
It’s also important to understand that saturated fats can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or bad cholesterol. So, when reading your food label, remember that the higher it is in saturated fats, the more bad cholesterol your food contains.
Sodium is a naturally occurring electrolyte that aids in hydration, nerve regulation, muscle function, and more. However, in larger quantities over a long period of time, it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
While the ideal limit for daily sodium intake is less than 1,500 milligrams, the average person consumes over 3,400 milligrams per day. Packaged foods are usually latent with sodium as it’s added in high amounts to enhance flavor and shelf-life.
Carbohydrates, Fiber, and Added Sugar
Carbohydrates are macronutrients that naturally occur in all foods, both healthy and unhealthy. When reading nutrition labels, carbohydrates will be listed as grams in a total number. This total number includes the amount of carbohydrates that come from fiber, natural sugar, and added sugar — all of which will also be measured in grams.
The total carbohydrate count in relation to the fiber, natural sugars, and added sugar will give you an idea of the type of carbohydrates in your food. Ideally, you want a 1:1:10 gram ratio of sugar to fiber to carbohydrates.
You’ll want to be wary of added sugars, as they are not the same as sugar that comes from a natural source, such as fruit.
Percent Daily Values
The percent daily values (DVs) given on a nutrition label are based on a typical 2,000-calorie diet.
Here’s a quick explanation of DVs:
● DVs are expressed as percentages and are located in the right-hand column next to each serving component
● The DV tells you how much of a specific nutrient contributes to the needs governed by a 2,000-calorie (per day) diet
● Anything listed as 5% or below is considered to be low in those specific nutrients
● Anything listed as 20% or higher is considered to be high in those specific nutrients
This often creates confusion because:
● Not all nutrients have a generalized percentage, which means not all nutrients will be included in the DV
● DVs will also change based on your individual nutritional needs, as you may require a different amount of calories
So, what does that mean for you and your commitment to healthy eating?
● Focus on the foods that show a higher DV for beneficial nutrients, such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals
● Try to avoid foods that have a high DV in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar (or limit them as much as possible)
The nutrients section most notably includes the vitamins and minerals found in your food. The most common you’ll see on food labels are vitamin D, potassium, iron, and calcium, as they are the nutrients that our bodies require the most.
Nutrients are always expressed in percentages and, therefore, should be determined based on the above 5% and 20% thresholds.
Learning how to read the ingredient list at the bottom of food nutrition labels is a whole other beast — but it’s crucial to learning how to live a healthy lifestyle. The ingredient list is especially important if you have food allergies or particular nutrition goals.
When it comes to reading the ingredient list, the most important thing to remember is that the ingredients are always listed in order (from top to bottom) based on quantity. Therefore, if the first or second ingredient on the food label is sugar or another type of sweetener, it means that the food in question contains more sugar than anything else.
The ingredient list will also make you aware of how wholesome a food advertised as “healthy” really is. Plenty of packaged foods out there make certain health claims, such as “low fat,” “no sugar,” “heart healthy,” and so on. However, this doesn’t mean the rest of the ingredients will do you any favors when it comes to your ultimate health goals.
Understanding Food Nutrition Labels Is the First Step
It takes time to fully understand how to break down your food’s nutrition labels in relation to your personal healthy eating goals. It becomes especially frustrating when you start learning about the individual ingredients listed at the bottom as you begin to realize that a lot of your favorite foods and snacks aren’t doing you any favors.
Of course, you shouldn’t let nutrition labels take away from your enjoyment of certain treats or sully your relationship with food. They simply exist to help you make a more informed decision when choosing your meals and snacks based on your overall health and fitness goals.